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Societal Impact of Elite Sport: Positives and Negatives

About the Special Issue

In the early twenty-first century, elite sport[i] increasingly became a policy priority (Green, 2009). When facing the challenge of justifying investments in elite sport to their public, elite sport policymakers tend to argue that a wide range of societal outcomes will ‘trickle down’. However, there is scarce evidence to support this dominant discourse (Grix & Carmichael, 2012). This special issue underscores the critique that public investment decisions are often politically motivated and thus rarely evidence based. Undeniably, the current empirical evidence base regarding a range of claimed impacts generated in the context of elite sport is inadequate and fragmented (Frick & Wicker, 2016; Funahashi, De Bosscher, & Mano, 2015; Van Bottenburg, 2013). When measuring impacts assumed to be triggered by elite athletes, sporting success, or the organisation of major sporting events, it seems that academics have traditionally used study designs where causality is difficult to establish. A further criticism of elite sport impact research is the strong use of case studies and expert opinion with the subjective perceptions of individuals playing a key role as the main source of evidence. This special issue resonates with calls for the research community to contribute to empirical research with robust and appropriate research designs rather than offering assertions or opinions (Weed & Dowse, 2009).

Moreover, we propose a shift of focus from ‘if’ public investments can be legitimised towards ‘how’ public investments can (more) successfully be allocated for social impact purposes. Intrinsically, elite sport is neither beneficial nor harmful (Coalter, 2007). If we believe that elite sport can and should enable impacts, then we need to ask how elite sport should be envisioned and implemented to enable and, ideally, optimise its assumed impacts. Overall, the quality of evidence for the impact of elite sport in relation to several outcome areas is relatively weak (De Rycke & De Bosscher, 2019). We contend that what is required to develop the field is innovative, robust designs (like for e.g., mixed-method designs based on theories of change), which are more appropriate for establishing causality. Research that pushes forward with (inter- and trans-disciplinary) research designs (e.g., mixed-methods), informed by recognized conceptual frameworks will assist in providing a more solid evidence-base to guide the decision-making of practitioners and policymakers. Therefore, the purpose of this special issue is to develop the investigation concerning the assumed societal impact of elite sport further. Theoretical, empirical, and methodological submissions in light of the problematic evidence base and resulting limited understanding of the role of elite sport in society are welcomed.

Overall, the Special Issue on the Societal Impact of Elite Sport aims to:

  • review the current state of theoretical and empirical insights regarding the potential positive and negative societal impacts that flow from the various ways elite sport is organised, managed and marketed in society;
  • critically reflect on the existing research designs and encourage interdisciplinary exploration as well as new approaches that contribute to the understanding of the assumed societal impact of elite sport; and
  • propose a future research agenda for robust measurement of the assumed societal impacts of elite sport

Possible themes and subthemes this proposed special issue would include:

Contributors may come from any social or human science discipline, including sport management, marketing, sport policy, sociology, sport psychology, sport economics... Robust qualitative, quantitative and mixed method research approaches that would focus on the societal impact of elite sport are welcome. We are looking for studies that advance theory and knowledge on the understanding of societal impact of elite sport. For instance, studies that apply innovative methodologies or that may contribute to broader methodological debates. Additionally, we encourage research that goes beyond the well-used qualitative methods or traditional quantitative research strategies that are well established in sport management studies.

Research that aims to empirically investigate assumed positive or negative societal impacts in the context of elite sport is specifically encouraged. We invite contributors to examine the following themes and sub-themes:

  1. Research on social equality and inclusion in the context of elite sport; investigations of the potential of elite sport (when properly leveraged) to bridge different cultures and increase equality (e.g. social mobility). Or studies on manifest and institutional forms of discrimination (e.g. sexism, exclusion, exploitation, racism, human trafficking, etc.) in the context of elite sport;
  2. Research on identity and pride; international sports events are used to highlight national symbols and present athletes and teams as representatives of nation states. This provides occasions for the public expression of national values, pride, collective unity, identity and nationalism, rivalry and aggressive behavior;
  3. Research on ethics and fair play in the context of elite sport; elite sport provides a platform for ethical conduct and positive social debate but is often associated with unethical practices: scandals regarding corruption and fraud, competitive trait, aggression/violence, doping, unfair play and other deviant examples;
  4. Research on the ‘feel good factor’ or ways in which sports fans who attend or watch live sporting events derive a pleasurable form of excitement, happiness and satisfaction. Or, in contrast, experience anger, disappointment, frustration or hostility;
  5. Research related to the attractive power of elite sport. Sport events, teams and athletes enjoy a great deal of worldwide media coverage and have the potential to build strong brands by capitalizing on the emotional relationship shared with fans;
  6. Research on international prestige and image (category 6); ‘showcase effects’ set in as sport offers an arena for countries to compete with each other to gain international recognition and prestige. Indeed, countries bidding for major events sometimes do so to create a powerful public stage for their ideological battles, for propaganda, or to gain soft power;
  7. Research on the stimulation of sport participation and healthy behaviour in the context of elite sport; investigations whether athletes provide inspiration to develop an active lifestyle or alter personal characteristics (volunteering, character building, self-efficacy...). Or studies on negative impacts like decreased body image or discouragement to participate in sport due to the competence gap with successful athletes;
  8. Research on sponsors and commercial activity in the context of elite sport; partnerships and sponsorship deals hypothetically lead to direct economic impacts relating to merchandise sales, TV rights, jobs or sport industry assets. Nonetheless, throughout history, there are indications of mega-event organised suffering from financial hangovers;
  9. Research on the local beneficial and harmful impacts of elite sport-related activities; studies reporting on tourism, consumption, employment, exploitation costs and the impact on the living conditions within host communities (e.g., overcrowding, disorder and price rises). Host cities often try to regenerate neighborhoods by investing in public transportation, local infrastructure, hotels and green zones. Especially when hosting mega-events there is a clear negative environmental impact (including air pollution, waste...).


Submission guidelines

Papers should be submitted in electronic format through Manuscript Central using the following link: http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/resm; indicating you want the manuscript to be considered for Special Issue 21.1.

Because of the current COVID-19 environment, please note that the deadlines for submission of contributions to the Special Issue on Societal Impact of Elite Sport: Positives and Negatives has changed to those given below:

August 1, 2020:   Submission deadline of full papers for consideration. Manuscripts in review process.

November 1, 2020: Feedback to authors

January 15, 2021:  Return date for revised manuscripts

February 15, 2021: Second round of review process (if necessary) and finalisation

March 1, 2021:  Chapter written by SI editors – introduction to the SI

April 1, 2021: Materials are prepared for final publication and sent to publisher

Publication in 2021

January, 2021: First ESMQ issue of 2021


Please contact Jens De Rycke via email ([email protected] ) if you have any questions. 

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