Social sporting innovations from Hogwarts to Bruges

Alan Bairner
Loughborough University, UK

Anne Tjønndal (ed.)
Social Innovation in Sport
283 pages, hardcover.
London: Palgrave Macmillan 2021
ISBN 978-3-030-63764-4

I  am enough of a technophobe that I approached this book with a certain amount of trepidation solely because of its title. When I see the word ‘innovation’, my mind immediately thinks of technological domination, exploitation and alienation. However, the editor is quick to point out that ‘innovation’ is not understood in this collection of essays as it was by Joseph Schumpeter for whom the word ‘was closely tied to business, markets and competitive advantage that would bring financial gain’ (p. 3). Here, apparently innovation is all about ‘transformation and renewal’ (p. 4) although I am not entirely sure why these words could not just as easily be used in relation to innovation for profit. I was partly reassured, however, by the editor’s explanation that ‘the ambition of this book is to explore social innovation in sport, i.e. cases in which innovation and entrepreneurship are used as strategies to make sport more widely accessible, inclusive and equal’ p. (viii). So innovation for good rather than evil and yet some nagging doubts remained especially when Anne Tjønndal states that ‘sport is inherently innovative due to its capacity to adapt, evolve and change’ (p. 7). So it is, although arguably more with a Schumpeterian understanding of innovation in mind rather than a desire to be more inclusive. I would argue indeed that sport is inherently conservative, reactionary even, in its refusal to change its core values and renew its traditional hierarchies. Nevertheless, I was determined to read on.

In addition to the editor’s introduction, the collection is divided into four parts, three of them containing three chapters and the fourth containing four. Part I examines theoretical perspectives on social innovation in sport. Part II focuses on sport and social innovation in practice. Part III is concerned with innovations that challenge definitions of sport and, finally, the focus of Part IV is gender and social innovation in sport. It would take too long to review every chapter in the book and, even if it were possible, I would almost certainly try the patience of the readers of this review. For that reason I plan to concentrate on only four chapters.

Switching the chronological order, allow me to comment first on Chapter 11 in which Jeffrey O. Seagrave discusses what he calls ‘the wonderful world of quidditch’ identifying this ‘sport’ as an innovative model of gender inclusivity. I admit that I come to this topic with baggage.  I am too old to be interested in what Harry Potter and his friends got up to at school and I am too much of a supporter of Scottish independence to look for progressive ideas in the work of the arch unionist, J. K. Rowling. Seagrave tells us that ‘the real-life sport of Quidditch’ (p. 212) has attracted as many as 20, 000 players in 40 countries – a reasonably high number of countries but, by my reckoning, not many players and most of them, I would guess, are middle-class.  Yet, having taught for almost twenty years in a university that recruits a lot of middle-class students, I can honestly say that I have not met anyone who plays quidditch. Seagrave argues that quidditch can help to transform sport in such a way as ‘to cultivate more socially just relationships’ (p. 222). That goal itself is laudable but why not start with those sports that attract considerably more participants than quidditch?

Making the strongest case in the entire collection for the value of social innovation, Van Tuyckom’s key point is that the young people themselves were involved in every step of the process whereby the digital platform was created.

So now for something completely different. CrossFit is certainly more popular around the world than quidditch as a form of physical activity and it is examined in Chapter 10 by Christina Gipson, Hannah Bennett, Nancy Malcom and Alexandra Trahan. The authors use the right language – ‘social innovation by attracting individuals from diverse backgrounds to the sport’ and ‘the development of strong community bonds’ (p. 191). However, they also acknowledge CrossFit’s commercial success which might make the more cynical reader think of Schumpeter rather than Tjønndal.

I read Chapter 3 with great interest, primarily to reacquaint myself with the current condition of sport in Swedish society having been one of the many who, in the past, was convinced that the Swedes had got things right in terms of social organisation in general and the organisation of sport in particular.  In discussing social innovation and social entrepreneurship in sport, Katarina Schenker, Tomas Peterson and Daniel Bjärsholm explain how the sports movement and sports policy in Sweden are evolving. Both have traditionally been characterised by volunteering, government support on welfare policy grounds, and close cooperation with the state.  The authors note that since the turn of the millennium, however, things have changed and ‘as in the rest of the world, the way of organising sports has been increasingly challenged by other forms of organisation’ (p. 39).  For example, in response to reduced voluntariness, there have emerged ‘more commercial and/or individualistic relations’ (p. 39). With this in mind, Schenker et al. focus on alternative ways of organising sport which challenge the old sports model as well as the social exclusion that can result from the unfettered marketization of sport and leisure. The government-led strategies they discuss are A Handshake for the Children and Youth of Sweden, The Lift for Sport, Sports for the Newly Arrived in Sweden, and Uniting for Daily Movement. The authors argue that these have failed to achieve their intended outcomes and argue that ‘some social innovations actually require new organizational structures if the outcomes are to be successful. At the same time, to change the old structures, entrepreneurial thinking is necessary’ (p. 50). It is a well-argued but, for this reader at least, a sobering conclusion.

I have no doubt that Tjønndal conceived of this book with the best of intentions, namely to promote sport-specific social innovation and thereby encourage ‘solutions to complex social issues in sport contexts’ (p. 13). I am happy to say that her aim has been realised by one chapter in particular. Charlotte Van Tuyckom’s Chapter 5 ‘We App to Move’ which examines a digital platform intended to support sporting activities for socially vulnerable young people in Bruges is a masterclass in how technological innovation can be used to reach out to diverse groups of people and help to make their lives better. Starting with the concept of ‘Buurtsport’ or ‘neighbourhood sports’ which in Flanders are ‘especially aimed at socially vulnerable youth’ (p. 80), Van Tuyckom explains how this works in the three most deprived neighbourhoods in the city of Bruges (Zeebrugge, Sint-Peters and Sint-Jozef), each of which is ‘specifically characterized by a lack of sports clubs and sports facilities’ (p. 81). Making the strongest case in the entire collection for the value of social innovation, Van Tuyckom’s key point is that the young people themselves were involved in every step of the process whereby the digital platform was created. To all intents and purposes, this was the chapter that made me believe that social innovation can achieve the sort of goals which the editor outlined at the outset. For that reason alone, if I could play tennis, I would certainly invite Charlotte for a game (but you will have to buy the book to understand that comment).

One limitation of the book which Tjønndal acknowledges is that ‘the content is heavily Eurocentric and certainly with a global north orientation’ (p. viii). However, there is no explanation of why this is so. It would surely have been possible to find authors willing to discuss sport and social innovation in such countries as China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Perhaps that is something to consider for a subsequent edited volume. For now, my takeaway message is that the book certainly made me think, often with scepticism but occasionally, as in the case of Van Tuyckom’s chapter, with considerable enthusiasm. It is likely that younger and less world-weary readers than me will enthuse about even more of the chapters.

Copyright © Alan Bairner 2021

Table of Content

Theoretical Perspectives on Social Innovation in Sport

Social Innovation in Sport: An Introduction to the Theory
Anne Tjønndal
Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship: Useful Theories for Sport?
Mikhail Kosmynin & Elisabet Carine Ljunggren
Social Innovations and Social Entrepreneurship in Sport
Katarina Schenker, Tomas Peterson, Daniel Bjärsholm


Sport and Social Innovation in Practice

Practice Occludes Diffusion: Scaling Sport-Based Social Innovations
Stefan Holmlid, David Ekholm, Magnus Dahlstedt
‘We App to Move’—A Co-Created Digital Platform to Support Self-Organized Sporting Activities for Socially Vulnerable Youth in Bruges
Charlotte Van Tuyckom
Social Innovation, Sport and Urban Planning
Maja Nilssen, Anne Tjønndal
Social Innovation and Challenges in Youth-Based Sport Practices: An Analysis of State-Led Programs
Selçuk Açıkgöz, Reinhard Haudenhuyse, Cem Tınaz


Innovations that Challenge Definitions of Sport

Social Innovation and Virtual Sport: A Case of Esports in Norway
Anne Tjønndal, Mads Skauge
Footbag Freestyle: Innovation in the Organization and Practice of Sport
Verena Lenneis, Anne Tjønndal
Social Innovation and Fitness Sports: A Case of the CrossFit Movement in North America
Christina Gipson, Hannah Bennett, Nancy Malcom, Alexandra Trahan


Gender and Social Innovation in Sport

The Wonderful World of Quidditch: An Innovative Model of Gender Inclusivity
Jeffrey O. Segrave
“Introducing” Roller Derby: An Old Sport Made New and Innovations in Gender Policies
Adele Pavlidis
The Creation of Stunt Cheer: A Story of Innovation, Cheerleading and Gender Politics of Sport
Nancy L. Malcom, Christina Gipson, Kristen S. Pirie, Rachel Miller Wood



Social Innovation in Sport: Implications and Directions for Research
Anne Tjønndal
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