What the Nexus Between Sports and Civic Engagement Reveals About the Art of Data-Driven Insights

We explain the art built on data science that can help brands find unique perspectives and gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace of ideas.
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Nary a presentation goes by that we don’t find ourselves using the phrase “data-driven insight.” It’s important in today’s marketing world, and an agency is compelled to use this phrase whenever possible.

Of course, it’s one thing to say it—and another to do it. Looking at web traffic—not an insight. But futzing around with datasets, testing hypotheses and seeking, um, enlightenment? That’s the path to a data-driven insight. Can data reveal something new in the first place?

On the rare occasion when we find ourselves with a bit of downtime, we go looking for such things, you know, just for fun. Because we’re nerds. We have access to all this data—maybe we can use it to answer interesting questions we always wondered about.

For instance: Why is civic engagement in our country so paltry?

Agency Nerds Like Data

So get this: Just 78 percent of Americans did any civic activity at all in the last 12 months. That’s a stat from GfK MRI, one of our partners. The list includes such monumental inconveniences as voting, recycling and even signing a petition (which is now as easy as posting something on Twitter). Less than 6 percent of people have been to a rally, and less than 12 percent have attended a public meeting on town or school affairs.

But let’s stop dwelling on the negative. We have a theory. That if you could just get people off the couch to do any sort of sporting activity, they’d become more engaged citizens overall.

Playing a sport involves people with the world around them. It makes one feel a modicum of control in life, and forces interpersonal connections. We suspect that addictive feeling will trickle down to civic engagement.

Connecting the Dots Within the Data

Do people who play sports make better citizens? Theoretically, they should be switched-on, active people prone to participating, just in general.

Turns out we are right. If you look at the 62 percent of the population who participated in any sport at any time in the last year, they were already 5 percent more likely than the average person to have taken part in a civic activity.

Diving a little deeper into the data, these “any sport, ever” folks were also 8 percent more likely to vote, 20 percent more likely to go to a rally and 15 percent more likely to go to a public meeting.

It’s one thing to talk about “data-driven insights”—and another to figure them out.

What sport is the best predictor of someone voting? Golf.

Certainly, age and income are good predictors of voting, and golf isn’t known for being young and cheap. But perhaps there’s more to it.

People least likely to vote tend to be wakeboarders, car racers, soccer players, skateboarders, motocrossers and people who hunt with handguns (who knew this was a thing?).

What do you notice? Comparatively speaking, golf is inherently more social than most of these activities.

It’s customary to get paired up with three strangers, spend four hours humiliating yourself in front of them, help them find their belongings in the woods and ultimately throw back a few together in the clubhouse.

Wakeboarding, skateboarding and shooting animals with handguns are not just individual sports, but also often solitary. Skateboarding, for example, is the quintessential activity for the disenfranchised young male rather than a civic-minded citizen. A skater is more likely to grind on a monument than march on it.

As for soccer … weird one, right? It seems like a healthy team sport that would be an excellent predictor of engaged voters, yet it’s lumped in with the likes of motocross and skateboarding.

Interestingly, soccer players are more likely than average to do essentially every other civic activity aside from voting, perhaps suggesting that many of the people who play soccer as adults in our country may be immigrants from soccer-loving countries who are not eligible to vote but do participate in our democracy in any other way they can.

From Percentages to Data-Driven Insights

Well, that was easy. Sporty people who are open to others tend to vote. Let’s try to go deeper.

Interestingly, those most likely to attend a public meeting are tennis players, at 19 percent. Perhaps they’re fascinated by rules, seeking to take part in how the lines are drawn. Or perhaps there’s something about subjecting yourself to three hours of repetitive, assured personal failure that makes you want to vent in public.

Those least likely to attend public meetings are paintballers and karate enthusiasts. They have no use for organized civil discourse, preparing instead to fight back more directly, which explains why they’re actually more likely than the average person to attend a political protest.

It’s clear that conflict and anger are still all too effective at fomenting movements, but it’d be nice if we could figure out how to inspire engagement out of a wholesome self-interest rather than anarchy.

Which brings us to skiing.

What is it about careening down a mountain in the dead of winter that makes you want to vote, attend meetings, run for office and write to your elected officials? The clean mountain air? The rush of feeling alive?

Downhill skiers are the most likely people to take part in a litany of civic activities. They over-index significantly across the board. They even lead the leisure pack in recycling, at 73 percent. (BTW: Those least likely to recycle are, you guessed it, people who hunt with handguns, at 45 percent.)

It’s unlikely that it’s the excitement of strapping boards to your feet and flying down a mountain that drives engagement, because snowboarders are fairly disengaged citizens. (Maybe they just need one more board to strap onto their feet!) It’s more about nature.

Identifying the Common Denominator in Civic Involvement

Our most engaged citizens—those significantly more likely than average to engage in all sorts of civic activities—tend to enjoy nature. Skiers, canoers, backpackers, hikers and yogis are quite mindful of their role in democracy.

The mental and physical benefits of getting in touch with nature are well documented. And there may be some truth to the idea that to engage civically, we need to disengage from everyday life more often.

But we think there’s something more: These nature-centric sports are simultaneously social and contemplative. They provide a supportive community to participate with you but also a moment of peace for self-reflection on bigger issues. The social component is constructive and passive, not competitive or aggressive.

You’re doing these activities with others, not against them. There are no points, no goals, no buzzers. They’re inclusive but also personal. They show you that self-interest and participation are not mutually exclusive. In essence, they show you the joy of being alone together.

So, if you want to get people to engage more in our society, take them to the top of the mountain and ski down to the bottom. Just save the talking for the ride back up.

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