As a society we continue to like our sports bigger, faster and stringer. We love innovation and technology, and a sprinkle of analytics doesn’t hurt. However when we look away from the bold and the brightest, sometimes we miss the best stories, and adaptive sports and its evolution is changing this. Before his legal issues, Oscar Pistorius was the adaptive sports poster child; overcoming adversity and competing on the biggest stage possible. However he was never alone, and more of those amazing stories and athletes will continue to rise as we head toward Rio.
Will brands engage, will the media fond the superstars along with the good stories, we asked Howard Brodwin Founder of Sports and Social Change to outline the value and the possibilities.
What exactly are adaptive sports?
By definition, it’s any sport where the rules and/or equipment have been adapted to accommodate people with physical differences or impairments. Most common are the wide assortment of Paralympic sports, which are adapted versions of many Olympic sports (i.e. – Wheelchair Tennis, Wheelchair Basketball, 5-a-side Soccer for the Blind/Visually Impaired, Blind Judo, Sled Hockey, etc.). There’s also adaptive Surfing & Skateboarding, Wheelchair Moto-Cross (WCMX), Adaptive Cross-Fit, Adaptive Golf, any tons of other activities. There really are no boundaries to what sports can be “adapted” to meet the challenges of people with physical impairments.
Have brands taken notice and what is the value proposition there?
The International Paralympic Committee, who oversee the Paralympic Games, has built relationships with Samsung, Atos, Panasonic and Toyota. Here in the US, a few large brands have more recently become engaged with the US Paralympic program including AT&T, The Hartford, Citibank, Kelloggs, Coca-Cola and Visa. Deloitte has also been very involved in supporting adaptive sports programming for US Military Veterans, hosting the Warrior Games and supporting Team USA that competes in the Invictus Games. But once you look beyond these international competitions, there hasn’t been much involvement domestically from larger brands. And the most glaringly absent? Hard goods and soft goods brands in the sports business.
The value here for brands is to engage with both people in the disability community as well as the families who are part of the support system. Think of it this way: Someone who uses a wheelchair or is an amputee still has a bank account, uses a mobile phone, goes to restaurants, is a gamer – they’re consumers, just like anyone else. Since the vast majority of adaptive sports programs in the US are run by nonprofit organizations, brands commonly view adaptive sports purely as “charity.” I believe companies who authentically embrace the members of this community as “athletes” and activate their brands as they do with any sports marketing opportunity will see the benefits.
For brands that value content marketing, the world of adaptive sports is an absolute treasure trove. It’s a richly diverse community filled with unique stories. Every athlete, family, coach & sports program has followed their own path to getting involved with adaptive sports and will gladly share what participating means to them. For many, it has completely turned their life around. And no two stories are the same.
How has advancement in technology changed the way adaptive athletes compete?
Adaptive sports creates a really unique intersection of technology and athletic performance. For many adaptive athletes the equipment is truly an extension of their body. High-end running prosthetics or “blades” are often made with carbon fiber and other composite materials that are both strong and flexible. And many of the components for racing wheelchairs and handcycles are similarly made from extremely strong and lightweight materials. BMW has even started working with US Paralympics to develop a high-end racing wheelchair.
I’ve recently started exploring how 3D printing technology can be used in this space. There have been some amazing advancements in developing prosthetics with 3D printing and I’m confident this technology can provide a big breakthrough in making adaptive sports equipment less expensive and more accessible.
Who would be the consumer audience for sports?
Anyone who is a sports fan would be a fan of adaptive sports. The skill level of the athletes, the strategy, competitive spirit, drive and passion are no different than watching “able bodied” sports. Basketball fans might not see any highlight reel dunks in wheelchair basketball, but they will see plenty of fast break points, blocked shots, and 3-point shooting accuracy that would make Steph Curry jealous.
At the London 2012 Paralympic Summer Games, 50,000 fans were on-hand to watch adaptive Track & Field, so we know there’s an audience for the elite level competitions. NBC Sports recognized the potential in sharing adaptive sports with a wider audience and has committed to 60+ hours of coverage for the upcoming Rio Paralympics. Sports fans in the US will get a chance to see the best in the world compete, including a very talented Team USA heading to Rio.
This seems very grassroots, have there been advances recently at the AAU or high school level?
The adaptive sports movement has almost exclusively grown from the grassroots. While Paralympians are the most visible adaptive athletes, everything that happens in this community at the local level is organized and operated by hundreds of nonprofit programs, and supported by thousands of volunteer coaches across the country.
High school adaptive sports are relatively new. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, schools in 13 states offer programs for students with disabilities, however much of that is for students with developmental or intellectual disabilities, not physical. Adaptive high school sports for students with physical disabilities are currently running in Texas and Ohio, with California coming on-board earlier this year. It’s a small sports offering – Track & Field and Swimming/Diving – as there’s a big learning curve for coaches as well as the athletes, and in many cases a need for proper equipment (i.e. – racing wheelchairs or running prosthetics for Track & Field).
This is a great start to building the movement among young athletes. In California, adaptive Track & Field athletes are eligible to compete in State Championships and earn points for the school’s team, so there’s a big incentive for coaches to recruit and train athletes.
Wheelchair basketball is a sport that jumps to mind; how does the NBA, WNBA and even the NCAA look at the sport and the athletes from a business and diversity perspective?
There are many layers and nuances to how each sport within the adaptive sports community has evolved, including if/how they’re connected to their NGB. In the case of basketball, much of what goes on around the country is administered through the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA), which has been around for over 60 years. They run the largest independent tournament every year, as well as organize much of the men’s and women’s collegiate wheelchair basketball programs. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was the first collegiate wheelchair basketball team (1948) and still runs one of the top programs in the United States.
That said, none of the collegiate wheelchair basketball teams are part of the NCAA sports program or their school’s athletic department; they tend to operate either as independent nonprofits or through a school’s recreation department, and are responsible for their own fundraising to cover travel, tournament entry fees, equipment, coaching, etc. In January of last year, the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) became the first NCAA sanctioned conference to provide a range of options for students with disabilities to compete as intercollegiate varsity athletes. Wheelchair basketball is not currently part of this sports offering, but is planned for the near future.
The NBA’s involvement wheelchair basketball has not been at the league level, but instead largely through individual franchises sponsoring a local team run by a nonprofit organization. In some cities, there are strong, long-standing relationships in place between a nonprofit and their local NBA team. However in others, the NBA franchise is no longer engaged with a local team. And I’ve even heard of one situation where an NBA team required their locally “sponsored” nonprofit team to purchase the jerseys that featured the NBA team’s name/logo. A little tough to swallow when a nonprofit org whose players have to shell out $3K-$5K just for their own basketball wheelchair, then have to pay to wear an NBA team’s logo who is supposedly sponsoring them.
How will the Rio Games influence the growth of adaptive sports?
With NBC Sports expanded coverage of the Paralympic Summer Games in Rio, and that fact that it’s a time-zone friendly event for the US market, this could certainly be a breakthrough year for adaptive sports. The 2012 London Paralympics were widely recognized in this community as a watershed moment in the UK and throughout Europe for people with disabilities to be seen by society as athletes.
The Paralympics are a great showcase for the broader public to see people with all types of physical differences or impairments – spinal cord injury, amputations, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, blind/visual impairment, and a myriad of other physical disabilities – competing as elite athletes, challenging themselves and each other. And the level of competition at the Paralympics is no different than at the Olympics – these athletes are the best of the best at what they do.
The power of a media partner like NBC Sports to tell the stories of these athletes and show their athletic prowess is tremendously valuable in getting adaptive sports into the mainstream sports conversation.
Who are some of the American athletes people should be on the lookout for? Is there a next Oscar Pistorius who can cross-over?
It’s tough to single out any athlete in particular, as the US Paralympic team has some great veterans returning this year and several new athletes that have developed through the pipeline. For cross-over potential, Track and Field is certainly a place to look, and I’d keep an eye on sprinters Richard Browne, Jarryd Wallace and Blake Leeper.
Judo offers another great opportunity for an adaptive athlete to compete with “able-bodied” athletes. Paralympic Judo is competed by blind/visually impaired athletes and there is virtually no adaptation of the sport from the Olympic version. Blind judoka regularly train with sighted athletes and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Paralympians Dartanyan Crockett or Christella Garcia eventually compete in the Olympics.
And I’ve been very lucky to be around an impressive 10 year old adaptive athlete in Los Angeles – Ezra Frech – who currently holds 9 national Track and Field records. And his basketball skills are off the charts – just ask the Golden State Warriors, who hosted him a few weeks ago to speak to the team.
Where do you think adaptive sports can be in five years?
In five years I believe we’ll see significant strides made in adaptive sports becoming part of the general sports conversation. Elite athletes will be more visible to the casual sports fan, grassroots programs will grow with more kids, adults and Veterans participating, media outlets will cover more events and offer greater exposure, and the competitions will draw large crowds purely for the experience of watching a great sporting event.
And as the stories of these athletes are told – whether through their own platforms or the larger media entities in sports – society will start to see people with physical impairments as no different than anyone else. One of the best campaigns in recent years for Paralympic sport carried a tag line that defined it perfectly – “It’s not what’s missing, it’s what’s there.”