SPORTS

Sports world grapples with need to both fight and embrace technology

05/23/2012 05:17 EDT | Updated 07/23/2012 05:12 EDT
QUEBEC CITY, Que. - The sporting world has found itself stuck in a love-hate relationship with the Internet.

On the one hand, it has opened up a world of marketing and communications possibilities that allow every armchair quarterback unprecedented access to the game and to athletes.

But the problem is that those quarterbacks are staying in their armchairs — only about 30 per cent of Canadians participate in sports, according to statistics compiled by government and the not-for-profit sector.

Meanwhile, the amount of time people spend sitting in front of a computer or video game console continues to rise.

"Physical activity has been designed and engineered out of our lives," acknowledged Charlie Denson, president of Nike Brand for Nike Inc., one of the many leaders in the sporting world gathered in Quebec City this week for a major conference.

SportAccord brings together sports federations, Olympic executives and leaders from the multibillion-dollar industry which surrounds them for a week of group think on the future of sport.

The role of digital technology is featuring prominently in almost every session, even the closed-door ones of the International Olympic Committee executive board where members are being taught how to use tablet computers to cut down on paper use.

"It's a very entertaining process," quipped Mark Adams, the IOC's chief spokesman. "Some of them were more apt than others."

But the challenges posed by social media are the most vexing, from the lucrative broadcast deals threatened by the public armed with video cameras to a sports market where attention is now pulled in dozens of different directions as new sports emerge and dominate.

At its core, leaders are concerned with capturing the attention of young people and turning them into both lifelong athletes and fans.

"Now is the time we should be asking ourselves, how are we going to grow?" Denson asked during his morning keynote speech Wednesday.

Some are arguing that the answer is partially technology itself.

Video games that now allow players to actively kick a soccer ball or throw a pitch represent the next stage, said Peter Moore, the chief operating officer of Electronic Arts, a major video game developer.

"It is an inspiration to get out and play the real game," said Moore said.

Technology will also eventually improve to allow video games to not just provide the experience of playing a game, but also being at the game, he said.

The corporate world is also serving as an unlikely source, noted marketing executive Ann Wool.

Participation in road races, walks and triathlon is growing, she said.

"Who is doing that? It's not the government. It is, for whatever reason, companies."

Attention from the private sector is coming in the face of declining attention from governments.

"The relationship between sport and state has always been a rather uneasy one," said Stefan Szymanski, a kinesiology professor at the University of Michigan.

The original purpose of government involvement in sports was linked to having a military ready and fit for duty, but that role has eroded.

But he said he expects governments to start taking more of an interest, now that the health-care costs of physical inactivity are becoming apparent.

This June, the Canadian government will release an overhaul of its sports policy, last reviewed in 2002.

It's expected to focus on increasing participation, though Minister of State for Sport Bal Gosal said there is no new money attached.

The 2012 federal budget also promised more money for sports participation programs, but dollar figures haven't been announced.

Gosal, who said he played soccer all the way through university and never shies away from other sports, agreed participation remains a major challenge.

He said he feels there needs to be more focus on amateur sport.

"We should be using our Olympians more in communities to promote sports, promote physical activity," he said. "We are not doing that enough. We are trying to make that change."

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