How One Sports Marketing Company Impacts Social Change

A sports marketing veteran of more than 20 years, Howard is the founder of Sports and Social Change, a sports marketing firm with a focus on cause marketing, corporate social responsibility and social enterprise development, working to connect brands, media properties, teams, leagues and athletes with nonprofit organizations, foundations and affiliated cause-driven businesses. His expertise includes brand positioning and activation, grassroots and experiential marketing programs, public relations and social media campaigns, as well as business plans, revenue models and corporate partnership development. A graduate of San Diego State University and former Lacrosse player, Howard currently lives in Los Angeles, CA and is an active ice hockey coach & player, skier and disc golf fanatic. We had the opportunity to interview Howard to talk more about Sports and Social Change, here are excerpts of our conversation.

1) What is Sports and Social Change and how did it get started?

We are a sports marketing company with a core focus on cause marketing, corporate social responsibility and social enterprise development. Everything we do uses the power of Sports as platform to impact social issues. There are thousands of nonprofits and NGOs around the world who use Sports to address critical social issues, and we’re connecting them with brands that see sports as a great way to market their products and services.

Our digital platform launched in 2010 with the simple goal of providing a hub for the “sport for good” community with a directory of nonprofit organizations, a news feed with press releases and announcements, an event calendar, blog, and resources. In 2014 we added a social enterprise model by offering marketing, public relations, and professional services to support brands and nonprofits in sports. Revenues from the marketing services go towards adding more resources and tools for the nonprofit organizations in the community.

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2) What makes sports one of the best ways to create social change?
Sports create a truly universal culture and vibrant community. Nothing else – other than possibly music – brings together such a vastly diverse audience. If you’re a Manchester United fan, or a snowboarder, or you play ultimate frisbee, that’s your community; it doesn’t matter where you live, what age you are, your religious beliefs, your income, your ethnic background. Sport fosters unity. And that is the root of “community.”

And the community is built around something positive, something people are passionate about, something they love. The environment to create social change couldn’t be any better.

In the photo: Special Olympics 2015

3) What was the most significant event that you have been a part of?

I just finished working on Special Olympics World Games 2015, the largest global humanitarian sporting event this year, with close to 7,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from 165 countries. What really made this event impactful was the exposure it received from the media, especially the broadcast partnership with ESPN. Veteran Special Olympics athlete Dustin Plunkett was featured as an ESPN commentator and host, and the events were featured throughout the week on the network’s flagship SportsCenter broadcasts. Seeing athletes with intellectual disabilities on the largest sports media platform was a huge step forward for people with intellectual disabilities. The relationship put the message of inclusion and acceptance in front of millions of people who might not otherwise have seen these athletes and heard their individual stories.

It also showed the sports business community what’s possible when you align your brand with a cause. It impacts all aspects of the business – internally and externally – with opportunities to create a deep library of content, align marketing partners and sponsors, engage employees and develop community relationships through volunteering, build brand awareness and affinity. And powerful relationships like this can built at any level in sports – you don’t have to be a global broadcaster and a global nonprofit to make it happen.

In the photo: Nelson Mandela

4) Is there a specific change that has had great success through the participation in sports?

The late Nelson Mandela once said “sport has the power to change the world,” and he completely lived that statement when South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup victory unified a long divided society. While social change would have happened eventually in South Africa due to Mandela’s efforts, the platform of sports was a tremendous catalyst in advancing the message of unity, reconciliation and moving forward.

In the photo: London 2012 Paralympics

I believe we’re on the cusp of another large social movement thanks to Sports. The 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil will feature athletes with physical disabilities in 20+ sports. These games will have more broadcast coverage than ever before, especially in the US. The Paralympic Games are competition at the highest level, featuring the world’s best athletes. And it will advance the message that people with disabilities are no different than anyone else – they’re athletes. They compete, they win, and they lose. And being included in the conversation around Sports fosters the broader message of inclusion in society.

5) What keeps you coming back to work everyday?

Impact is what brings me back. The nonprofit programs in the Sports community are reaching people in ways that many organizations cannot. There’s power in play, in activity, in participation. I’ve had people tell me that without Sports they would be dead, literally. It’s hard to argue there isn’t impact when you can simply say that a ball, a board, a racquet, or a glove saved a life.

The other aspect is the diversity and creativity that exists in this space. There are a myriad of ways Sports is used to address social issues. Every sport is different; every social issue is as well. The ways the two can be combined is truly limitless. Look at a key issue like homelessness – there are nonprofit organizations that use team sports like soccer as a solution, and others that use individual pursuits like running. They share the same goal of ending homelessness, but take a different approach through the sport each is built on.

6) What’s the next big event the organization has been primarily focusing on?

We’re working on a new concept to align everyone in the sports community around the platform of using sport for good. It’s a collaborative solution that will bring together the entire sports landscape – sports business, sports fans and enthusiasts, and the nonprofit organizations – to channel the amazing power of sport. There’s a big resource gap in the sports world – we have businesses with vast amounts and nonprofits with a great need. If I can close that gap and everyone benefits, that’s the biggest win I could ask for. As the great coach Vince Lombardi said, “people who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses or the problems of modern society.” Game on!


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