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In November 2018, Calgarians participated in a plebiscite to decide if the city should proceed with a bid to host the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Calgary’s shot at hosting its second Olympics and first Paralympics came to an end as 56.4% opposed bidding. This was perhaps the final straw in what we, Calgary-based academics at Mount Royal University, had seen as a trend: sport and recreation were being minimized and underappreciated in Calgary

Another example was the ongoing debate and public pushback about whether Calgary should fund a field house, a conversation that started in the 1960s. Calgary is the only major Canadian city without such a facility. Other examples included the moral outrage over the expansion of separated bike lanes, the city considering closing public golf courses, and WinSport shuttering the bobsled, skeleton and luge run, a legacy track of the 1988 Olympic Games. 

The past few years have been volatile for Calgary’s sport and recreation sector. Every week, it seemed, we debated and questioned our commitment to being a city that promoted and supported an active life. We considered Calgarians as members of an Olympic city, one that embraced, celebrated and aspired to lead in sport and recreation, as well as health and wellness. But was this still true? 

Defining a ‘great sport city’ 

In January 2019, we assigned a question to undergraduate students who were studying sport and recreation management: Is Calgary a great sport city? We gave students latitude in how they defined a great sport city, with ideas ranging from the number of fans attending professional sport events to the number of world-class events hosted by the city. Students presented their findings to local sport leaders at the Canadian Sport Institute Calgary. When asked to rank Calgary against these findings, the results of the student analyses were mixed. Despite its status as an Olympic city, Calgary fell in the middle of most rankings. 

Moodle from the words submitted by attendees to the Sport Business Roundtable as to what our collective represented.
Moodle from the words submitted by attendees to the Sport Business Roundtable as to what our collective represented.

After further considering this question, we gathered 50 sport leaders from Calgary and the surrounding area for (what we called) the Sport Business Roundtable, in the Mount Royal University library. Delegates were from grassroots clubs to high-performance sport, including representation from ski hills, eSport, and postsecondary athletics and recreation. We spent the morning debating the future of sport. This included a welcoming plea from City Councillor and mayoral candidate Jyoti Gondek asking the sport community to provide a meaningful business case for why taxpayers should support and engage in sport.  

Three takeaways emerged: 

  1. We concluded that “sport business” was the wrong term to describe ourselves. We collectively decided to start using “active city.” 
  2. The people we invited didn’t really know each other. We had assumed they would already know one another. 
  3. This group genuinely wanted to connect and collect, which was reaffirmed when most delegates stayed well past the session’s ending time. And lunch wasn’t even provided! 
Attendees at the Sport Business Roundtable hosted at Mount Royal University.
Attendees at the Sport Business Roundtable hosted at Mount Royal University.

From this meeting, we concluded that Calgary’s rich regional active ecosystem was fragmented and inefficient. The result was its contribution to Calgary’s economic, human, social and environmental prosperity was being underleveraged.

The ActiveCITY Collective

The response was to create the ActiveCITY Collective: a collaboration of not-for-profit, for-profit and public-sector organizations as well as individuals engaged in Calgary’s regional active economy. Our goal was to transform Calgary into Canada’s most livable region through its active economy, and do this by facilitating collaboration, debate, learning and connection. The Collective would need to be independent and inclusive. It should be anchored in a systems perspective and work towards generating community prosperity. Finally, the Collective must use evidence and not anecdotes.

The New Zealand Model of Community Prosperity (also known as the Living Standards Framework).
The New Zealand Model of Community Prosperity (also known as the Living Standards Framework).

The ActiveCITY Collective was built upon the idea of an active economy that was grounded in 2 models. First, the New Zealand Model of Community Prosperity (also known as Living Standards Framework), which recognizes that benefits can be felt in the human, economic, environment and social spheres (New Zealand Treasury, 2018). The second model was Dr. Richard Florida’s idea of a creative class. In the early 2000s, Florida noted that “Beneath the surface, unnoticed by many, an even deeper force was at work—the rise of creativity as a fundamental economic driver, and the rise of a new social class, the Creative Class” (Florida, 2002). Could a similar argument be made about an active economy? Could Calgary and region mimic the growth of cities such as Nashville, which hung its hat on the idea of a creative class?

Downtown Nashville – Music City.
Downtown Nashville – Music City.

Nashville wasn’t an accident. Its creative ecosystem was built and nurtured for more than 100 years. It harnessed all its resources, from universities to musicians to entrepreneurs, to build a city and region that would attract and retain the best and the brightest. In 2006, Nashville included 80 record labels, 100 music publishers, 150 recording studios, 17 of the top 25 country music artists, and 39 fully integrated collaborative organizations (Raines & Brown, 2006). Could Calgary and region do the same thing but from an active economy lens?

Therefore, we began the process of trying to map and understand the breadth and depth of the active economy.

Mapping the active economy

The process of mapping the active economy included a series of steps that started with the creation of categories of organizations. This was followed by groupings of individual participants and concluded with a mapping of their interrelationships.

The first step was to create groupings that would enable measurement and a better understanding about what types of organizations constitute an active economy. We created 11 categories including organized sport, health and wellness, sport betting, professional services, media and content, products and gear, active life, equipment and accessories, tourism, design and infrastructure, and active recreation.

Categories of businesses and organizations in the active economy.
Categories of businesses and organizations in the active economy.

The second step was trying to understand the people in the active economy. Every individual or organization with an interest in or impacted by the active economy was considered an important player. This includes all forms of engagement, including professional or volunteer. Therefore, the ActiveCITY Collective defined engagement in 5 categories: participant, administration, enabler, policymaker and supporter. An individual or organization may encompass one or more forms of engagement.

Key players in the active economy.
Key players in the active economy.

In the third step, we attempted to map the interrelationships of the various factors of the active economy. The categories that we noted earlier didn’t operate in isolation. The potential benefits from the active economy would require interrelationships among the categories. While conceptual, our map showed the series of hypothesized links between different aspects of the ecosystem. For example, environmental value can be gained through the connections from design and infrastructure through active recreation. While complex, this map was central to our understanding of where and how to allocate resources that would generate maximum return on the public’s investment. This was answering City Councillor Gondek’s call for action at the Sport Business Roundtable.

A map showing the interrelationships between the various factors of the active economy.
A map showing the interrelationships between the various factors of the active economy.

During the mapping phase, we cajoled and recruited a broad cross-section of leaders in which to debate, discuss and consider how the sector could better work together. Due to overwhelming interest from would-be participants in the lead-up to a fall 2019 summit, the venue had to be changed 3 times! The summit was eventually held at WinSport with 300 participants and a waiting list.

Clearly, the idea of an active economy had struck a nerve. After launching an ActiveCITY website, we began to measure the active economy through research. With a team of students and colleagues, we enacted Calgary’s largest public engagement strategy, collecting input from more than 23 000 individuals. In addition, we hosted 20 virtual ‘FutureMaking’ Forums on topics ranging from eSport to First Nations and Indigenous persons in the active economy. We recorded more than 25 podcasts with community leaders discussing the future of Calgary’s active economy. We also helped coordinate province-wide longitudinal research on the intersection of arts, culture, and sports and recreation in a pandemic and post-pandemic environment. We determined that the active economy includes 95% of the 1.5 million people living in the Calgary region, incorporating 4000 enterprises, employing 43 000 people, and contributing $3.3 billion to the regional economy.

This led to the creation of Playbook 2030 and provided direction for Calgary’s support of the active economy.

From pandemic to Playbook 2030

The impact of COVID‑19 can’t be understated. The pandemic is causing seismic economic, human, and social costs to our city and region. Since travel and large gatherings are restricted, our outdoor recreation facilities face unprecedented capacity pressure. This has only accelerated the urgency of creating an integrated master plan for our regional active economy. The resulting master plan is known as Playbook 2030. It’s anchored in a strategic framework that will harmonize resources from across the commercial, social, and public sectors to strengthen our economic, human, social, and environmental prosperity. While Calgary is facing unforeseen challenges, Playbook 2030 identifies unrealized opportunities and unique advantages. The time is right to deliver a renewed vision of our city and region that leverages our greatest natural resource, an active economy.

Key metrics demonstrating the reach and engagement of Playbook 2030.
Key metrics demonstrating the reach and engagement of Playbook 2030.

We presented Playbook 2030 to the community during a virtual online summit on December 2 and 3, 2020. The theme was From Pandemic to Playbook 2030. At the summit, we reviewed the path from the devastation of COVID‑19 to the vision of a world-leading active economy as detailed in the Playbook.

In the press release following the summit, Cynthia Watson, the newly named co-chair for ActiveCITY and Chief Evolution Officer of Vivo for Healthier Generations, noted that “Calgarians challenged us in November 2018 to think differently. They wanted us to look forward, not backward. With the guidance of thousands of Calgarians and insight and inspiration from global leaders, we have defined a city that is not only a player, but a leader in the $3 trillion active economy.”

Cover of Playbook 2030.

The Playbook 2030 plan was based on 6 pillars: a shared vision, embedded in life, built on community, innovate and grow, drive sustainability, and inspire others. The plan also returned to the New Zealand Model of Community Prosperity, including links to the human, social, economic, and environmental impacts. For example, under economic impact we referenced a study for the British Columbia Ministry of Health Planning that estimates an annual cost savings of $49.4 million if physical inactivity could be reduced 10 percent.


We’ve attempted to create an ActiveCITY that is inclusive. It brings together volunteers, coaches, entrepreneurs, educators, policymakers, parents and guardians, in areas ranging from tai chi and gardening to soccer and emerging sport technology. What we share is a passion for the unique role that the active economy can play in moving our city and region forward.

For other cities and regions attempting to mirror this process, we offer the current steps being taken to implement our Playbook. The first is to transition the ActiveCITY Collective into a more formal structure. The second is to establish a harmonized governance model for implementing the program. The third step is to deliver a few quick wins with research studies showing benefits of how collaboration has worked. And the final step is to prioritize high-impact, ecosystem projects for Playbook 2030.

To support the implementation of Playbook 2030, the ActiveCITY collective has received a 2-year grant from the Government of Alberta’s Civil Society Fund. The goal of Playbook 2030 is to establish a framework to maximize the impact of Calgary’s regional active economy on both individual and community well-being, and in doing, transform Calgary into Canada’s most livable region. At times, the scope and depth of Playbook 2030 may feel daunting. For this reason, we think it is best to consider Playbook 2030 as a critical step in a ten-year master business plan for Calgary’s regional active economy. As a complex $3.3 billion business that incorporates 4000 enterprises across 10 sectors and impacts 1.3 million people, the business plan must be systematic, rigorous and evidence-based.

Playbook 2030 is uniquely Calgary. Its approach combines academic rigour, community spirit, entrepreneurial optimism, and a belief that this is a promotable differentiator that defines our civic culture and identity for a generation. We’re facing challenges unforeseen and unprecedented. This is a necessary and opportunistic time to be contemplating a new vision for our city and region, based on collaboration and leveraging our greatest natural resource, our active economy.

Anyone who spends time in the world of sports—competing, coaching, supporting, or spectating—has heard their fair share of inspirational quotes. From “alone we go faster, together we go further” to “teamwork makes the dream work,” the strength of the team is a central feature of stories about success in sport.

But what if we told you teamwork isn’t just important for athletes; it is critical for national sport organizations (NSOs) as well? To test this theory, the NSOs of Canada’s four Nordic sports—Biathlon Canada, Nordic Combined Ski Canada, Nordiq Canada, and Ski Jumping Canada—are teaming up on a Nordic Strategy with the aim of going faster and further together.

The Nordic Strategy is a joint initiative designed to explore how working together can help all four Canadian Nordic sports improve their international performance and increase the number of Canadians participating in Nordic sports. The potential is evident: At the Olympic Winter Games, there are 93 medals to be won across 31 events in the four Nordic sports. Canada’s Nordic athletes have only won six medals since the 1924 Olympic Winter Games, and none since the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy.

Four Nordic sports, one Nordic strategy

Biathlete rifle shooting lying position. Shooting range in the background. Race concept

Last spring, the four Canadian Nordic NSOs signed a memorandum of understanding and created a Nordic Strategy Steering Committee composed of staff and board members from all four organizations. The committee was tasked with investigating potential areas of collaboration and the structure—from handshake agreements to formal mergers—that will help to achieve the overall goals of more athletes on podiums and more participants in the Nordic sports.

Over the past year, the steering committee created workgroups to take a deep dive into three potential areas of collaboration, including athlete development, revenue generation, and increased participation and membership. The three workgroups provided recommendations to the steering committee on how to best contribute to achieving the overall goals:

Aligning with the recommendations of the workgroups, the steering committee is preparing a report that will be presented to the boards of the four NSOs in June. To inform this report, the steering committee is gathering data from a variety of sources. For example, the committee is taking a hard look at the creation of athlete and coach development pathways and speaking with clubs that already offer multi-Nordic sport programming (athlete development); exploring whether collaboration amongst the NSOs could lead to increased revenue generation with support of a third-party marketing firm (revenue generation); and collecting data to better understand the needs of new participants in Canadian Nordic sport (participation and membership). In addition, the committee will interview key stakeholders as well as NSOs in Canada and abroad with varying operating models and degrees of collaboration.

Changing how Nordic sport is delivered in Canada

Cross-country skiing of a young athlete girl. Classical alternating technique

While the Nordic Strategy is a joint initiative of the four Canadian Nordic NSOs, the team behind the strategy includes key players in several areas of Canadian sport. In fact, Own the Podium brought the four NSOs together for the first time in 2018 with the aim of facilitating collaboration for the benefit of all Nordic sports. The Canadian Olympic Committee, through their Sport System Excellence department, has also become a key partner in the project, helping to facilitate the steering committee. In addition, the steering committee has been keeping Sport Canada in the loop, as they too are interested in the findings of the project.

The support and encouragement of these partners have been vital in driving the Nordic Strategy forward, and speak to the necessity of collaboration across the Canadian sport sector. It’s about more than the four Canadian Nordic sports working better together; it’s about changing how sport can be delivered in Canada.

So, where to now? The data-gathering is in full swing, and there are easy and hard conversations still to come. The board members of all four NSOs will meet for the first time in May, and the steering committee will use the feedback from this meeting to complete the final report. From there, it will be up to the board of each NSO to decide on next steps.

A final reflection

Doing something for the first time is difficult. There is no road map; no perfect sequencing for how this should go. There is no exact proof available to help us decide precisely what we should do. It is not always comfortable and involves critique and reflection. Yet, it’s so rewarding to think boldly and outside the box about how we deliver sport in Canada. And it’s in times like these where we are thankful for good teammates and a strong support team.

Did you know the worldwide esports industry revenues are expected to top $159 billion by the end of 2020, and to have engaged more than 2.7 billion gamers? Within these staggering numbers, virtual cycling has carved out a not insignificant piece of the pie. Learn more about the benefits and possibilities of virtual cycling in the SIRC blog.

Giving Tuesday is a global movement for giving and volunteering, harnessing the potential of social media and the generosity of people to bring about real change in their communities. Research on the social responsibility activities of community sport organizations (CSOs) discovered members who are aware of the good things their CSO does beyond their sport programs are more likely to speak positively about the organization to others, and are more likely to stay involved in the future. Check out the SIRCuit for tips to increase the social impact of your organization.

Community sport organizations (CSOs) occupy an important place in our communities by providing sport and recreation opportunities for all ages, as well as serving a wider social role within our communities (see, for example, Taking Action: Community Sport Organizations and Social Responsibility by Misener, 2018). Previous research has pointed to the challenges these organizations face, including growing demands for services, competition for resources, and greater accountability to stakeholders and funding partners (Musso et al., 2016; Nichols et al., 2015). These challenges are not unique to CSOs but are perhaps accentuated in Canadian sport context given the reliance on a volunteer workforce, modest budgets, and the relatively informal nature of their organizational structures (Doherty et al., 2014). Perhaps now, more than ever, with unique challenges and uncertainty introduced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a strategic approach to capacity building may be particularly useful (see recent “Return to Community Sport” commentary). This article introduces a model of capacity building, providing an approach for CSOs to address challenges and leverage strengths in order to achieve program and service delivery goals.

What’s involved in a strategic approach to capacity building?

Capacity building refers to developing an organization’s resources (e.g., human, financial, infrastructure, planning, external relationships) and improving its ability to use those resources to successfully respond to new or changing situations (Aref, 2011). Based on learnings from two case studies and 144 cases of capacity building in CSOs, and existing research in this area, we developed, and subsequently examined, a process model that provides a step-by-step roadmap for organizations engaging in capacity building (see figure below; Millar & Doherty, 2016). Within the Canadian sport context, we believe the use of a targeted approach to capacity building that addresses the unique strengths and challenges of individual organizations will be most effective.

Step 1 – Identify the reason for engaging in capacity building

Our findings revealed that successful capacity building begins when a stimulus is placed on an organization. Therefore, in order to begin the capacity building process with a clear vision and a strategic focus, CSOs should pay particular attention to the forces within their internal and external environments. These forces trigger the organization to determine an appropriate response – one that will address the nature of the specific force and that is reasonable for the organization to pursue. Together, the force and associated response represent the stimulus for capacity building. Capacity building in the CSOs involved in our research was most often triggered by decreasing club membership, new programming demands, or conflict with club partners. In response to these forces, CSOs chose a range of strategic responses, such as introducing new programs or initiatives to attract members, targeting recruitment efforts, altering registration fees, and introducing recruitment and training initiatives for volunteers, coaches, and board members. Clearly understanding the stimulus that drives capacity building will ensure CSOs invest their time and energy effectively.

Tip: Organizations do not (and should not) engage in capacity building efforts simply for the sake of doing so – there should be some external or internal force that requires a response from the organization.

Step 2 – Conduct a thorough capacity assessment and identify capacity building objectives

Whether or not an organization responds to an environmental force depends on its capacity to do so. The particular capacity needs associated with a given stimulus will vary depending on the current state of the organization. For instance, a CSO experiencing decreasing membership may choose to respond by introducing a membership development program. The organization would then assess its current capacity to move forward with this initiative, identifying any capacity needs or assets that may hinder or facilitate that action. Capacity needs or assets may be related to the organization’s human resources (e.g., number of volunteers, certified coaches, level of expertise among executive members), financial resources (e.g., available funds, stability of revenue sources), existing relationships (e.g., quality of partnerships), planning (e.g., alignment with strategic plan), or existing infrastructure (e.g., access to facility space, equipment) (Doherty et al., 2014; Hall et al., 2003). If no capacity gaps exist, then the club moves forward with the proposed response (in this case, the membership development program). However, if gaps are present, the extent and nature of those capacity needs become the basis for the organization’s capacity building objectives. This is a critical step in ensuring that the capacity building process will address the specific needs of the organization – if the objectives are not clear and specific, capacity building efforts are likely to lack focus and, ultimately, be unsuccessful.

Step 3 – Select strategies that align with capacity building objectives

It is important for organizations to choose capacity building strategies that align with their specific capacity needs. An organization may identify a number of potential strategies to address its capacity building objectives, whether those strategies are internal (e.g., re-allocating existing funds, recruiting coaches from existing membership) or external (e.g., applying for government funding, recruiting new volunteers, enrolling in workforce training) to the organization. Young afro american businessman pointing at white blackboard and explaining new project to his colleagues while working together in the creative office. Teamwork. Presentation Our findings revealed that a key difference between the successful and unsuccessful cases of capacity building were the specific strategies chosen by each organization. Successful capacity building efforts often considered new and untried alternatives that were supported by members, aligned with the organization’s priorities, and were inline with what the CSOs had the capacity to pursue. In contrast, unsuccessful efforts often relied on those strategies that were “easiest and cheapest to do” and, as a result, failed to effectively address the identified capacity gaps. Capacity building strategies are only as strong as the planning that precedes their implementation (Cornforth & Mordaunt, 2011).

Step 4 – Consider whether your organization is ready to engage in capacity building

Effective capacity building relies on overall readiness to engage in those efforts. Our research showed that readiness is based on three factors;

  1. Organizational readiness – the degree to which board members and volunteers are willing, able, and motivated to support capacity building;
  2. Congruence – the alignment of capacity building objectives and strategies with existing organizational processes, systems, and day-to-day operations; and
  3. Existing capacity – the availability of existing capacity that can be leveraged to support and sustain capacity building efforts.

We found that the willingness and commitment of individuals within the successful case study was a key factor leading to that success; while animosity, lack of commitment from organizational members, and general disinterest in the capacity building efforts were key factors in the capacity building “failure” witnessed in the unsuccessful case study. Our findings also showed that congruence in the context of capacity building can be understood in two ways – at the micro-level, where day-to-day operations align with the workload involved with capacity building; and at the macro-level, where the club’s objectives, values, and mandates align with the capacity building efforts undertaken.

Our study of 144 cases of capacity building in CSOs across Ontario examined how ready they were for capacity building, and whether that level of readiness had an impact on the outcomes of those efforts (Millar & Doherty, 2020). Three key findings emerged:

Organizational context logoCSOs were most ready for capacity building in terms of the alignment of those efforts with existing club objectives, mandates, and values. Clubs are engaging in capacity building efforts that are congruent with their unique organizational contexts.

Capacity building logoCSOs were ready for capacity building in terms of having willing, committed, and motivated organizational members to drive the efforts forward. Clubs are relying on the willingness and commitment of their members (volunteers and board members) to drive capacity building efforts forward.

Organizational resources logoCSOs were least ready for capacity building in terms of having existing resources and assets that could be used to facilitate those efforts. Existing capacity also had a unique impact on capacity building outcomes, meaning that the resources an organization possesses are particularly critical in ensuring successful capacity building.

Capacity building efforts should only be undertaken when they align with the organization’s mission and existing operations, and when the organization can rely on existing resources to support those efforts. Any incongruence or overstretching of organizational resources will likely result in unsuccessful attempts at building capacity or will leave the organization in a less desirable position in the end. Our results showed that the more ready an organization is to engage in capacity building (across all three factors), the more likely they are to achieve their desired capacity building outcomes. In other words, organizations with willing and motivated people, who embark on capacity building initiatives that fit with how the organization operates, and who have resources that they can lean on, are more likely to be successful in their efforts to build capacity and to successfully address the needs of their organization.

Step 5 – Evaluate the short and long-term outcomes of capacity building

Successful capacity building results in both immediate and long-term changes to an organization’s capacity that ultimately contribute to program and service delivery. Whether an organization experiences the desired short and long-term outcomes depends on whether the above steps are followed in a strategic manner. In addition to assessing the impact of capacity building efforts, the attainment of capacity building goals, and addressing the initial environmental force, evaluation of capacity building outcomes is also likely to uncover additional capacity needs and may trigger a reassessment of the organization’s readiness to engage in the capacity building efforts, as depicted by the feedback loop in Figure A (above).  

Capacity building during times of change

This articles summarizes our research findings to provide a step-by-step process for CSOs as they engage in capacity building, which may be particularly timely as sport organizations across the country navigate the new sport realities that we are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As sport resumes across the country, and with the risk of future lockdowns, organizations will be facing new challenges and pressures from their environment that require capacity building in one way or another. The approach and insights outlined here provide a framework for organizations as they work to balance, address, and prioritize capacity building efforts, and to determine whether they are ready to engage in those efforts prior to doing so.

This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Major sport events in Canada and around the world have been cancelled in the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic. For sport administrators, researchers and policymakers, this pause represents a unique opportunity to reflect on the desired impacts and legacies of future sport events.

Event bids are often full of claims about the positive impacts of event hosting, both social and economic. In particular, sport events are often praised for the ability to increase sport and physical activity participation in host and non-host communities. Increases in participation are related to a “demonstration effect” or “trickle-down” effect, which refers to a process by which people are inspired by elite sport, sports people, or sports events to participate themselves (Weed, 2009). The demonstration effect can be measured in terms of new participants in a sport, an increase in participation frequency, participants returning to a sport after a long hiatus, or participants switching from one sport to another. In recent years, many researchers have dismissed such claims, arguing that there is no reliable evidence to support the existence of demonstration effects.

However, the question of the “existence” of demonstration effects may be far more nuanced than simply claiming they do or do not exist. It may be time for researchers to temper the debate about the existence of demonstration effects, and instead focus their efforts on investigating the mechanisms and conditions by which sport events are most likely to bring about desired participation impacts. The resulting evidence can help set expectations, assess investments, and guide legacy investments.

A Realist Synthesis Approach to Understanding Demonstration Effects

A realist synthesis approach to understanding complex phenomena explores a wide range of evidence to answer the question “what works for whom under what circumstances?” rather than “what works?” (Coalter, 2007). From this perspective, event impacts (e.g., increased sport or physical activity participation) are best understood as a result of the interaction of a particular combination of circumstances.

What follows is a discussion of some of the conditions that may be necessary for a major sport event to have a positive impact on sport and physical activity participation. By no means is this an exhaustive list of empirically supported conditions. The intention is to start a discussion about re-thinking what might be necessary conditions for demonstration effects to occur.

Condition #1: Youth Populations

Evidence to suggest that sport events will influence sport participation is limited when considering an entire host population. “One-size-fits-all” approaches to analyzing data may be masking evidence of demonstration effects present within particular sub-populations. Recently, for example, research has suggested that demonstration effects might be more pronounced among youth populations. For instance, Aizawa et al. (2018) found that the long-term impact of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games was more pronounced among those who were youth at the time of the event compared to other generations. Similarly, Carmichael et al. (2013) observed that students and those in part-time employment positions were more likely to participate in moderately intense activities after the London 2012 Olympic Games than people who were employed full-time. As people age, they may give a higher priority to areas of education, work, and family than to nonworking and sport-related activities (Aizawa et al.).

Condition #2: Communities that House Event Venues

Research into the demonstration effect has often drawn conclusions based on analyses of national and provincial/territorial-level participation data. Until recently, participation data are rarely delineated or examined within the local regions that house event venues. The notion of the “epicentre” effect suggests that when searching for evidence of a demonstration effect, researchers should first consider available participation data at local and regional levels, and then move outward and consider data at provincial/territorial and national levels (Potwarka & Leatherdale, 2016). Examined this way, participation impacts might be greatest near venue locations. For instance, Potwarka and Leatherdale (2016) observed no statistically significant changes in the rate of moderately active/active youth in Canada or the province of British Columbia from before to after the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. At the regional level however, the authors reported a significant increase in the rate of moderately active/active females from pre-event to post-event years in Richmond, BC. Interestingly, Richmond was home to the newly constructed Olympic oval, which saw a record number of medals for Canadian women speed skaters and was accessible for public use after the Games.

Condition #3: “Hometowns” of Medalists

Virtually every study of demonstration effects has examined participation impacts solely within host nations and communities, however demonstration effects have the potential to be a truly global phenomena. Millions of people from outside host communities and around the globe tune in to watch athletes from their own communities compete for Olympic and Paralympic medals. Potwarka et al. (2019) examined population-level changes in physical activity in the hometowns of Canadian athletes that won medals at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The authors reported statistically significant increases in physical activity levels among youth living in five (of 26) hometown health regions between the pre-and post-event time periods under investigation. No significant changes in participation were observed in any of the 26 control regions (i.e., regions that were not home to an Olympic medalist). People may perceive a special connection with elite athletes from their hometown because they share similar access to sport-related opportunities, coaches, and activity promoting infrastructure in the built environment.

Condition #4: Active, Engaged, and Inspired Spectators

Research has consistently shown that demonstration effects are most likely to occur within people and spectators who are already active sport participants and spectators (Funk et al., 2011; Aizawa et al., 2018). In particular, investigations of demonstration effects have revealed that people who are fans of the sport or have knowledge of the sport before experiencing live competitions were much more likely to intend to participate in the sport after watching it (Teare et al., in press; Wicker & Sotiriadou, 2013).

Moreover, what people think about, and what they feel while immersed in a spectator experience, can have a profound influence on post-event decisions to participate. In particular, fantasizing being an athlete participating in the action; intense absorption in the spectator experience; critically judging the performance and skills of athletes; and appreciating the grace and beauty of the sport itself, can influence the likelihood of feeling inspired while watching sport events (Potwarka et al., 2018). Feelings of inspiration while watching an event may play a key role in developing behavioral intention, and reduce feelings of inadequacy that can discourage participation (Potwarka et al., 2018). In an inspired state, spectators can become compelled to achieve new sport participation goals (Thrash & Elliot, 2003). In this way, inspiration can be thought of as an appetitive motivational state, which involves feelings of energy, confidence, and enthusiasm that lead to post-event participation (Thrash & Elliot, 2003).

Condition #5: Implementing Event Leveraging Initiatives

The demonstration effect literature consistently reminds us that the potential for demonstration effects is greatly reduced without carefully planned and executed event leveraging strategies (Misener et al., 2015). Leveraging is based on the premise that increased participation levels are more likely to result from the combined influence of staging an event and the implementation of interventions designed to promote sport opportunities (Coalter, 2007). In other words, a demonstration effect must be combined with opportunities to try the sport on display if there is to be a behavioral impact beyond just influencing people’s intentions (Chalip et al., 2017; Weed et al., 2012). Few sport events have included the design, implementation and evaluation of programs that encourage people to try a new sport (Taks et al., 2017). Researchers are beginning to examine the potential influence of exposure to particular event leveraging initiatives deployed before, during or after events on stimulating sport participation. Potwarka et al. (2020), for example, found that receiving a voucher for a free session to try the sport of track cycling stimulated participation among spectators with both low and high intentions to participate in the sport post-event. (Learn more about this research in the SIRC blog.)

Summary and Recommendations: Toward More Inclusive Understandings of Demonstration Effects

Legacy investments and event leveraging initiatives strategically targeting local sport organizations, community sport and physical activity infrastructure, and youth populations might help demonstration effects occur. Moreover, local and national media must continue to promote and cover exceptional athletes in communities around the world. These narratives can highlight athletes’ connections and experiences participating in their local communities. To maximize the likelihood of participation impacts from sport events, event stakeholders may also consider offering post-event trial opportunities and designing vicarious and immersive spectator experiences. Efforts should be made to make sport events more accessible to spectators by educating them about the nuances and rules of the sport before and during competitions. Doing so may create more engaged and inspired spectators.

Further research is needed to examine demonstration effects relating to non-mega sport events and ParaSport events (Misener, 2015; Taks et al., 2015). Moreover, attention must be directed at non-participants and those who are systemically excluded from participation opportunities because of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, socio-economic status, and ability/disability. Efforts must be made to remove barriers to post-event participation.

There may also be a need to build international research collaborations aimed at interrogating demonstration effects. To this end, it may be wise to establish a repository of national and more localized sport participation surveillance data, including demographic information, which could be shared among scholars and sport managers around the world.

In addition to further establishing conditions and mechanisms which might underpin the demonstration effect phenomena, researchers and event stakeholders should focus efforts on issues related to capacity and retention. While staging sport events might help get participants “in the door,” considerably less is known about evidenced-informed strategies to help nurture and maintain newly formed relationships with participants (Bakhsh et al., 2020). If sport researchers and event stakeholders wish to realize the full potential of demonstration effects, they must ensure spectator and participation opportunities before, during and after events are welcoming and accessible for everyone.

Recommended Reading

Byers, T., Hayday, E., & Pappous, A. (2020). A new conceptualization of mega sports event legacy delivery: Wicked problems and critical realist solution. Sport Management Review, 23(2), 171-182.

Research with a professional Australian Football team’s season ticket holders revealed that good service quality, communication and administration positively influenced renewal and referral intentions, and provided a buffer against unpredictable on-field performance. This could help inform strategies used by sport organizations as they seek to maintain strong relationships with fans through COVID-19 restrictions and return-to-play scenarios.

Spectators are considered by some to be an important component of homefield advantage…so what will be the impact of empty stands? From robot mannequins in China, to cardboard cut-outs of fans in Germany (with proceeds to local charities), a number of innovative ideas are emerging that could be considered by professional sport leagues as they develop their return to play plans!

All sports events impact the community in which they are held. In the latest SIRCTalks episode – Managing Sport Events to Maxmize Positive Impacts – University of Waterloo’s Laura Wood discusses how the hosting of non-mega sports events can leave lasting, meaningful and positive impacts on the host community.

The Para Sport Jumpstart Fund is designed to support introductory and early competition Para Sport experiences for children and youth with disabilities. Through this partnership between the Canadian Paralympic Committee and Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities, organizations can access funding for registration, transportation and equipment costs. The deadline for applications is March 15, 2020.