The power of sport
A new alliance between adidas and ASU aims to change the game by including diversity, sustainability and human potential
It is 6 a.m. at an amphitheater in Papago Park in the East Valley and almost 60 hearty souls are bounding up the stone steps, pushing through lunges, grunting through pushups and exchanging high-fives on a swampy summer day.
They are members of the Phoenix “tribe” of the November Project led by two Arizona State University graduates, Jackie Knoll and Trevor Warren.
They come the first time for the workouts. They come back for the hugs.
The group is a social experiment in action. Workouts are free, non-competitive, all-inclusive and built around fun and positivity. The group’s motto: “Just show up.” Members don’t greet each other by shaking hands.
“It’s a non-threatening, open, supportive community, and I think that’s why people keep coming back,” said Knoll, a speech pathologist who started the local chapter with Warren, a Honeywell engineer, in 2015.
And it is just the sort of phenomenon the Global Sport Alliance wants to explore.
The alliance — which includes the Global Sport Institute, a unit aimed at translating and amplifying complex sports research to broad audiences — combines the global reach of shoe and apparel giant adidas with ASU’s applied research capabilities in areas such as engineering, nutrition, design, sustainability, law, business, sociology and personal health.
Their shared goal: to unlock “the power of sport” and deliver real-world solutions.
The ambitious alliance emerged from the initial discussions between ASU and adidas that led to a uniform deal in 2014. ASU President Michael Crow, Vice President for Athletics Ray Anderson and Mark King, president of adidas North America, met during those discussions and decided that such partnerships have far more potential than simply providing uniforms to sports programs.
King likes to describe sport and adidas as “disrupters” that don’t simply look to improve on what they or others are doing, but to find completely new solutions. He said the most exciting aspect of the partnership with ASU is that he knows it will lead to discoveries that nobody is even anticipating.
“What don’t we know?” he asked. “That’s what we’re after. And what could we find out that could be great for ASU, adidas, athletes, for people in sport or people in general? Let’s go see if we can find something that everybody doesn’t know about, and then share it.”
To do that, adidas and ASU will share ideas and assets — students, researchers, scientists, engineers, designers, experts in sustainability and sociologists. They aren’t looking only for new materials, technology or designs that will improve performance, but also for ways sport can impact society and build communities.
King believes that ASU and adidas will each benefit, but more importantly, people will benefit.
“ASU is looking at the world through the lens of education,” he said. “We have designers and engineers looking at the world through the lenses of sport, performance and human performance.
“So, is there a way to combine our assets with their assets to find new and interesting ways to affect the world in a positive way through sport?”
ASU and adidas believe the answer is yes. That is the idea on the conceptual level.
To put it into practice, Anderson tapped Kenneth Shropshire, director of the Wharton School’s Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, to serve as ASU’s first adidas Distinguished Professor of Global Sport and chief executive officer of the Global Sport Institute, an endowed position created with a contribution from adidas.
Shropshire is an expert in sports business, sports law and the social impact of sport.
In keeping with the Global Sport Alliance’s model that encompasses a wide range of discovery, Shropshire will hold faculty positions in ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and the School of Social Transformation’s African and African American Studies.
“In the end, we want to provide greater access to information involving sport in a way that people can understand,” Shropshire said.
There are really no boundaries to where the Global Sport Institute might go, he added.
“It might range from: Is walking better than running? Should I spend money for Gatorade or just drink water? What are the chances of my kid becoming a professional athlete? Should I spend money on these private lessons?”
He said it can explore whether there is value for communities that host the Olympic Games, look at the the benefits of professional franchises to communities, or evaluate the importance of activity for kids.
An area of special interest to Shropshire is the role of sport in Native American culture and communities.
He compares the potential for research on the reservations to research that he did in South Africa with the Royal Bafokeng Nation, a tribe of about 300,000 people that won mineral rights to a platinum deposit below its land in 1999.
“Their community had not previously had sport in their schools — think about apartheid,” he said. “The king asked me, ‘If you could start all over in the United States, what role would sport play in schools, and how would you do it the right way?’
“I thought that was a fascinating question. This tribe’s wealth comes from the world’s largest platinum deposit, which has given them independence of thought. In the U.S. you see something similar in tribes that have wealth from casinos.
“So there is this idea that you have communities trying to retain their identity and culture, but that also want to participate in broader aspects of society, like sport.”
“In the end, we want to provide greater access to information involving sport in a way that people can understand.”
— Kenneth Shropshire, chief executive officer of the Global Sport Institute
Eric Legg, an assistant professor in ASU’s College of Public Service and Community Solutions, has lived on the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona and witnessed the impact sport can have there.
The Hopi have long traditions in running, and basketball on all of the Indian nations is wildly popular.
“I refereed basketball, and I’d drive down the main road and it was bumper to bumper for miles with people going to the junior varsity game,” he said.
Rick Baker, the cross-country coach at Hopi High School in Keams Canyon, said that when his team goes to the state championship each year, “we have a whole mess of fans there.” Running is both a source pride for the school — 27 consecutive state titles and counting — and woven into the fabric of their community.
“Running is a big part of Hopi culture,” Baker said. “Everyone is involved. The traditional races we have — the fans can relate.”
Those traditional races take place throughout the year, when the males of all ages run from the base of a mesa to the village at the top. Think of it as a 5K straight uphill, with something far more significant than a runner’s medal at the end. Participants run “for strength and for moisture – rain. For overall health for everyone,” Baker said.
Baker himself knows the motivation that sport can inspire in a person’s life. After he won the state title in the mile in 1977, “that changed my attitude in life. It made me want to go to college. At that age when you don’t look five years down the line … it made me hungry.”
He sees that continuing power of achievement in his students today, and the way it brings the community together. Others have seen that, too.
While ASU’s Legg was teaching on the reservation, Hopi High’s long-struggling football program hired some new coaches and had one of its best seasons ever.
“They got the kids engaged, and this team went from being really lousy year after year to being really good,” Legg said. “The community just gravitated to that team.
“Native communities have their own set of issues, and sport is not a magic elixir by itself. But it has that potential to engage people. I haven’t seen this done, but it could be a very simple thing: You get all of these people coming to basketball games, so maybe you have social-service agencies there. ‘This is where people are, so let’s grab them.’ It’s a way to use sport as a vehicle to connect with the community.
“That’s one of the great things about having adidas involved. You get this big-picture approach, two global enterprises attacking that big picture a little piece at a time.”
Legg said the idea that sport has the potential to change the world might sound cheesy, but he believes it and so do the Global Sport Alliance partners. It is the same power that exists within the November Project movement.
Brogan Graham and Bojan Mandaric, Northeastern University rowers at the time, started November Project in 2011, sending out a Facebook post to their friends to let them know they were going to be at Harvard Stadium to run the stairs once a week to stay in shape during their offseason.
One friend joined them for the first session. But the next week there were more. Relying only on social media and word-of-mouth recommendations, the group eventually grew into the hundreds.
Then it began to spread to other cities.
The November Project has flourished in Phoenix with as many as 100 people showing up for some workouts. And there are “tribes” around the U.S., Canada, England, Malaysia, Serbia, Hong Kong, the Netherlands and Iceland.
“Physical fitness is not necessarily the reason people want to go,” Legg said. “That’s an added benefit. What they’re getting out of it is a sense of community. They’re getting social support, particularly when you’re talking about the adult recreational space.
“Yes, they love the athletic component, but it is much more about those relationships, the sense of community and the social support than it is the activity.”
Knoll and Warren agreed, adding that many of their workouts include pairing off with a partner or taking part in a team activity, essentially requiring members to engage with each other. And that’s what makes it work.
“They’re not alone on a treadmill at the gym with their earbuds in,” Warren said. “They’re interacting with people, building relationships, hugging, encouraging each other and having actual physical interaction while getting a killer workout.”
That’s the power of sport.
Learn more about the alliance at adidas.asu.edu.
Written by Bob Young; this story originally appeared in the ASU Thrive magazine. Top photo: Members of the November Project's Phoenix chapter work out at Papago Park. Photo by Jarod Opperman.