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Discussing advantages of applying ‘strategic CSR’ in the business of sports

The intersection between ’strategic CSR’ and sports branding has a capacity to integrate stakeholders’ experiences with a brand and the psychological meaning or value attached to a brand given the interactionist nature of sports branding (Cortsen, 2013), i.e. the symbolic and experiential characteristics of brand image and the fact that brand attitudes are founded upon stakeholders’ overall perception of the brand (Beech & Chadwick, 2007; Fiedler & Kirchgeorg, 2007; Meffert & Bierwirth, 2005; Miloch, 2010). Although CSR has detonated concerning coverage and attention on managerial itineraries in general (Carroll, 1979; Bruch & Walter, 2005; Kent & Walker, 2009; Van de Ven, 2008; Babiak & Wolfe, 2009), there is still some ground to be covered when looking more specifically on the practical application of ‘strategic CSR’ and its commercial potential in the sports industry. Kelly McElhaney, who is a professor at Berkeley and Founder and Director for the Center for Respnsible Business at the university’s Haas School of Business, wrote a great book about the essence of ‘strategic CSR’ (McElhaney, 2008).  Her findings indicate that businesses can apply CSR strategically to create business profits.

I completed an executive-level CSR-course at Berkeley in 2008 under Kellie’s guidance and that opening inspired me to look at how ‘strategic CSR’ can lead sports entities to better capitalization on their brand assets. In that regard, I have found that there is great commercial potential for sports entities when working with this business area. Though, the application of ‘strategic CSR’ for this purpose must meet criteria for good business practices and trustworthiness. In other words, sports entities should avoid situations in which they can be blamed for lack of authenticity and trustworthiness; postmodern stakeholders are simply TOO SMART so they will figure that out and thus the CSR initiatives may backfire negatively! In contrast, an optimal application of ‘strategic CSR’ in the business of sport is associated with several advantages. First of all, it may boost the sport entity’s brand equity. That will most likely have a positive effect on the bottom line; this is especially true when sports entities find a proper way to incorporate it in the sports sponsorship process. Over the years, I have visited various sports entities where proper application of ‘strategic CSR’ has played a vital role in enhancing sponsorship revenues, e.g. different football clubs in the German Bundesliga, Paralympic Committee Denmark, London Marathon etc. Moreover, I have consulted with football clubs in Denmark, which have improved their CSR-efforts intensively, e.g. FC Midtjylland and the initiative, ‘The Locals’, see here. The latter can definitely create good long-term ROIs if the good work is to be continued. Often, the problem area in relation to sports entities is that CSR may only be tied to isolated and short-term activities without strategic alignment and follow-up and that will most likely send the wrong message about authenticity and trustworthiness.

To deepen this discussion, I have worked with Responsiball to analyze what football clubs in the Danish Super League do in terms of CSR. That is a varied picture to conclude on but my conclusion is that the clubs in the league are more conscious about CSR then earlier. Additionally, they implement more initiatives today so that part of the development is positive. The tendency is that Danish clubs do more than earlier in this regard but that picture is also present in other European football leagues (which may help to explain why the Danish league has not moved up the ladder in Responsiball’s ranking). However, I have also seen that some Danish clubs have implemented CSR-initiatives without communicating this fact for what reason it influences the overall public perception of CSR in the Danish Super League negatively. Hopefully, this tendency will change in the years to come and let FC Midtjylland’s concept (i.e. ‘The Locals’) serve as good inspiration of a holistic approach to include ‘strategic CSR’ in the club’s business model to improve its commercial endeavors while creating positive societal change.

Skærmbillede 2014-01-07 kl. 11.52.06

Photo: Official web site of FC Midtjylland’s CSR concept.

In Brazil, Sport Club Recife is linked to ‘fan engagement’. The club’s fans are perceived to be very passionate and can go under the umbrella ‘tribal’ fans. The fans are characterized by having the club close at heart and as a part of their cultural DNA; it’s a lifestyle to support the club throughout the entire life span. In a branding campaign for the club, the term ‘Immortal Fans’ was brought to life in the sense that ‘organs’ of the fans ‘continue to shout for the club even after death. The ‘CSR’ aspect is tied to this as the club’s organ donor campaign is thought to make fans associate organ donation with immortal and remarkable club support. Therefore, the club created the ‘Immortal Fans’ donor card, which can be downloaded through an app. or received by mail. The strength of the convergence between ‘strategic CSR’ and sport is illustrated in the emotional equity linked to the passion for football and thus the club – and according to the Ogilvy Brazil approximately 51,000 fans signed up as donors.

UNICEF has been involved in another strong example of football and CSR, see video below. The #NoNameMatch reflects an inspiring example of how sport and football in this case can be efficient in attending societal problem areas. Paraguay must improve civil registration for kids to secure the kids’ identities. Paraguay and rivals Uruguay played a football match where the teams played in shirts with no names on the back. Commentators did not reveal the names of the players either for what reason the game caught massive attention resulting in the presidential candidates addressing the topic. Yeah, sport has a transforming ability J


Babiak, K. & Wolfe, R. (2006). More than just a game? Corporate social responsibility and Super Bowl XL. Sport Marketing Quarterly. 15, pp. 214-222.

Beech, J. & Chadwick, S. (2007). The Marketing of Sport. Pearson Education Limited. Harlow, the UK.

Bruch, H. & Walter, F. (2005). The Keys to Rethinking Corporate Philanthropy. MIT Sloan Management Review. 47(1), pp. 49–55.

Carroll, A. B. (1979). A Three-Dimensional Conceptual Model of Corporate Performance. Academy of Management Review. 4(4), pp. 497-505.

Cortsen, K. (2013). Annika Sörenstam–a hybrid personal sports brand. Sport, Business and Management: An International Journal, 3(1), 37-62.

Fiedler, L. & Kirchgeorg, M. (2007). The Role Concept in Corporate Branding and Stakeholder Management Reconsidered: Are Stakeholder Groups Really Different? Corporate Reputation Review. 10(3), pp. 177-188.

Kent, A. & Walker, M. (2009). Do Fans Care? Assessing the Influence of Corporate Social Responsibility on Consumer Attitudes in the Sport Industry. Journal of Sport Management, 23, pp. 743-769.

McElhaney, K. A. (2008). Just Good Business: the strategic guide to aligning corporate responsibility and brand. San Francisco, California, the US: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Meffert, H. and Bierwirth, A. (2005) ‘Corporate Branding – Führung der Unternehmensmarke im Spannungsfeld unterschiedlicher Zielgruppen’, in H. Meffert, C. Burmann and M. Koers (eds.), Markenmanagement – Grundfragen der identitätsorientierten Markenführung, 2nd edn., Gabler, Wiesbaden, pp. 143–162.

Miloch, K. (2010). Introduction to Branding. In Lee, J. W. (ed.), Branded: Branding in Sport Business (pp. 3-9). Carolina Academic Press. Durham, North Carolina, the US.

Sport Club Recife.


Van de Ven, B. (2008). An Ethical Framework for the Marketing of Corporate Social Responsibility. Journal of Business Ethics. 82, pp. 339-352.



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