Can brands level the playing field?

By Suzy Christopher, Charity and Community Director, BT

suzy-christopher-bw.jpgI’d like to think that most people reading this could name at least one sporting initiative from recent years that has set out to get more people involved in sport at a grassroots level. From Sport England’s #ThisGirlCan campaign, which got 1.6 million women exercising, to the recent Sport Relief campaign, which asked the whole nation to participate in a Billion Step Challenge, it’s a widely held belief that sport has the power to change lives.

Brands understand this power. That’s why so many choose to get involved in sport through either partnership or sponsorship. But more often than not, brands who engage in sports marketing are focused at the elite level, with minimal investment in grassroots activities. However, it’s often grassroots, community sport programmes that have the potential to deliver the biggest impact. Brands just need to take a leap of faith.

One sphere where this holds true is disability sport.

Having been part of the marketing team working on BT’s London 2012 partnership, I witnessed first-hand the awesome, inspirational power of Paralympic sport. It’s difficult to remember a time when people didn’t know Jonnie Peacock or Ellie Simmonds. It’s thanks to the likes of BT and Sainsbury’s – who invested in brand activation around the Paralympic Games – that these and many other athletes became household names before the Opening Ceremony had even begun.

Whilst the London 2012 Paralympic Games shone a huge spotlight on elite level disability sport, the fact remains that disabled people are half as likely to participate in sport as non-disabled people. Finding local, accessible sporting opportunities remains the biggest barrier to participation for disabled people.

In 2015, I was hugely privileged to be involved in the creation of a new grassroots disability sport initiative with the Premier League, which sees all 25 Premier League clubs helping to create regular disability sport opportunities for their local communities.

The BT/Premier League Disability Sport Programme launched at the beginning of the 2016/17 football season, and tens of thousands of disabled people now participate. One of the core objectives that BT and the Premier League set out to achieve was to build a sustainable long-term infrastructure to ensure equality of opportunity at community level. To that end we have ensured that every club has a Disability Officer who works local disability groups and special education needs schools to provide new sporting activity specifically for disabled people.

In addition, we engaged two charities who focus on supporting disabled young people – The Lord’s Taverners and The Shippey Campaign – to work alongside us and the Premier League in order to support football fans with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) on match days. Under the umbrella of the BT/Premier League Disability Programme, we are funding the installation of sensory rooms into Premier League clubs, enabling fans with ASD and their families to enjoy a full match-day experience.

As well as investing financially, BT provides on-the-ground support for the delivery of the programme through employee volunteering opportunities. We’ve created a volunteering champions network to support each Premier League club. BT is also filming the clubs’ work and broadcasting it via BT Sport on match days.

Through partnership working, and with a clear mission and objectives, brands who choose to invest at the local community level of sport can not only help to level the playing field, but also achieve the same brand benefits associated with involvement in elite sport, if not an even greater impact.

You can find out more about the BT/Premier League Disability Programme here

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