Crowdfunding sport around the world

As the sports world gears up for the Sochi Olympics, attention turns to the nation’s athletes and their efforts to stand on the podium and listen to their national anthem come February, with the added benefit, for some, of sticking it to Putin on his home turf.

As the afterglow wears off in March, most revert back to toiling in obscurity. Good for the training, bad for the fund raising, as the public mind turns to the hot hand and away from sports with which they have little connection until the next Olympic cycle.

This is not just an issue for Americans of course.  Nor is it limited to Olympic-caliber performers.  Athletes from all over the world face the same issues and are turning to crowdfunding as a way of making it easier to continue competing while not being continually distracted by fund raising.

Australians looking wanting to harness the power of the crowd for the benefit of their athletic development turn to Sportaroo.  Sportaroo started with a twist, as it was the gifts that led to the creation of the site.  Co-founder Ashley Howden was looking for a unique, sport-related gift for one of his children, and was surprised at the shortage of truly unique items on the market.

“Sports clubs have the opportunity to offer so much more to their supporters,” he recalled thinking.  Howden would share this thought with some close friends over a pint, and after several weeks and a few more pints, they came up with the concept for Sportaroo.

The fun-loving, adventuresome spirit that so many associate with the Aussies is a central part of what makes Sportaroo special.  This local flavor was sealed in with the first Sportaroo project.  Not many associate bobsledding with Australia, but it does have a presence there, albeit a small one.

“Australia isn’t exactly known for its winter conditions or sports, so we had a ‘Cool Runnings’ scenario, where the Australian Women’s Bobsled team was looking for some funding,” recalled Sportaroo founding partner Richard Briggs.  “We had an underfunded team with no natural fan base to launch with, but we figured if we can make this work, then we can make anything work.”

And work it did.  In three weeks, the bobsledders raised more than $20,000 towards a new competition sled.  Since its launch this February, Sportaroo boasts a 90% success rate.

Canada’s Sportaroo is Pursu.it.  Started by former Olympic kayaker Julia Rivard and friend Leah Skerry, Pursu.it was born out of a tough decision Ms. Rivard faced following the Sydney Olympics – continue training and be poor, or let the dream go and “pursue” a traditional career.

“I’ve always had some regrets about that decision,” Ms. Rivard told the National Post.  “With more time I really believe I could have gone to the top of the podium.”

While both Sportaroo and Pursu.it are open to athletes of all levels, so far most of their patronage has come from higher level participants.  Look for that to change as crowdfunding becomes more normalized in the next few years.

Crowdfunding and athletics are in many ways a perfect marriage, as the passion needed to singularly focus on one activity, can, if properly channeled, be a natural draw for sports fans and those turned off by the commercialization of professional athletics.  We are drawn to sport in its pure form -the singularity of purpose, the person against the environment, competing against the best, with success or failure immediately known.  We want to have these experiences, and gravitate to those who can provide us with the opportunity.

The founders of both Sportaroo and Pursu.it recognize this, and encourage their athletes communicate often with their supporters in order to preserve that connection and to make them feel part of the ongoing experience.  “Anywhere there is a real connection tends to work well. Which is why we work hard communicating with our campaigners to begin with and write many articles on our blog,” said Briggs.

The sites also work with the athletes to provide donor gifts that preserve those emotional ties.  “We see certain items sell best when there is a real emotive connection between supporter and athlete,” Briggs added.  “’Give us a hand to push for gold’ with the men’s bobsled campaign or personal postcards from the athlete when they are competing overseas with the funds you helped raise, are examples.”

The irony in sport funding is, that as the success of so many athletes on both sites show, there is latent demand that is being tapped into by crowdfunding athletes, yet they have to crowdfund because their societies as a whole are preoccupied with a few major sports.  In the US, it is football, basketball and a few others.  For Canadians it is hockey.  “In Australia, the four major codes are the National Rugby League, Australian Rules Football, cricket and the Australian Rugby League.  Soccer is catching up too,”, offered Briggs.

Add in a recession that cut the corporate world’s ability to invest in sport and the need for Sportaroo, Pursu.it and their kin has never been greater.

While crowdfunding of sport remains mostly the domain of higher level competition in the western world, in other parts of the globe it has allowed those for whom sport is much more than winning a medal the opportunity to experience all that comes with international competition.  Special Olympics Bharat is the country of India’s Special Olympics program.  They boast more than one million athletes and and additional 85 thousand coaches and volunteers.

This year they have been invited to the Special Olympics Asia Pacific Regional Games which take place in Newcastle, Australia this December.  Four hundred athletes have been shortlisted and Special Olympics Bharat is crowdfunding for support so these athletes can get the proper equipment, clothing and also travel to the games with the 100 coaches that must accompany them.  While they ultimately fell short of their goal, some athletes are still headed to Australia.

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