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The application of ‘strategic CSR’ in the sports industry

From strategic and commercial angles, corporate social responsibility (CSR) can definitely be applied in the sports industry as an innovative tool to achieve profitable value creation. In their research, Bradish & Cronin (2009) state that “over the past decade, there has been a groundswell of support within the sports industry to be ‘good sports’, as evidenced by a growing number of, and commitment to, ‘giving’ initiatives and ‘charitable’ programs. Followers of the sports industry will notice that the application of CSR has been increasing over the years. Sports organizations are cognitive about the fact that they are several benefits to be associated with CSR-initiatives, i.e. benefits directly linked to an organization’s economic, management and marketing performances. Kellie McElhaney (2008, p. 5) has defined the term ‘strategic CSR’ as “a business strategy that is integrated with core business objectives and core competencies of the firm and from the outset is designed to create business value and positive social change, and is embedded in day-to-day business culture and operations.” Based on that theoretical foundation, sports organizations utilizing strategic CSR must apply a high ‘internal resource orientation’ and a high ‘external orientation’. So what does that mean in practical terms? For instance, it means that these organizations must involve their employees in the initiatives and still strive to communicate the essence of the initiatives and the related outcome externally. Additionally, professional sports organizations must recognize that they are established to comply with certain economic, legal, and ethical responsibilities (Carroll, 1979), i.e. making a profit, acting according to societal laws and regulations (do not engage in doping or match fixing), and reflecting positive ethical standards (fair play and sportsmanship). On top of that, sports organizations can execute discretionary responsibilities (Carroll, 1979). From my perspective that’s where sports organizations have a good chance to differentiate themselves from competitors in pursuit of commercial revenues (e.g. sponsorship income) and branding impact. Acclaimed professor from Harvard Business School, Michael Porter mentions that it is vital that the groundwork, which guides CSR-initiatives, “is not whether a cause is worthy but whether it presents an opportunity to create shared value — that is, a meaningful benefit for society that is also valuable to the business” (click here for further information).

There are numerous ‘best practice’ CSR-examples involving sports organizations. The ‘Special Olympics’ movement is a perfect example of a sports organization, which employs an altruistic sense of CSR covering much unexploited commercial potential. Here, sport is utilized as a perfect platform to create social change, which is exemplified via the organization’s web site. FC Barcelona’s collaboration with UNICEF is another example of a professional sports organization applying strategic CSR for commercial reasons, see here. In that regard, research has proved that the commercial benefits of applying strategic CSR in the sports industry may be linked to stakeholders’ positive product and brand evaluations, brand choice, and brand recommendations (Dawar & Klein, 2004, p. 204). That links to profitability! I definitely expect that the conditions for the crossroad between ‘strategic CSR & sports’ will continue to evolve, especially in an economic climate where sports organizations are faced with ‘limited or sharpened conditions’ regarding public and commercial funding.


Bradish, C. & Cronin, J. J. (2009). Corporate Social Responsibility in Sport. Journal of Sport Management (Human Kinetics, Inc.). 23, pp. 691-697.

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

Dawar, N. & Klein, J. (2004). Corporate social responsibility and consumers’ attributions and brand evaluations in a product–harm crisis. International Journal of Research in Marketing. 21(3), pp. 203-217.

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.


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