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This Monday, the NBA player and FC Barcelona’s global ambassador to the USA inaugurated BIHUB’s ‘Sports Tomorrow’ congress by speaking, among other topics, on the future of the sports industry, the role that innovation and new technologies play in it and the challenges it must deal with due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In conversation with Alfons Cornella, innovation expert and co-founder of the Institute of Next, which develops new innovation and transformation systems for companies, Gasol emphasised the relevance of innovation in the world of sport: “Innovation is important for the development of any business and sport is no exception”, he says. He believes it to be involved in two main ways: “On the one hand it constantly improves the product, adapting it to current times and to what fans demand. And on the other hand, it’s important for athlete development, because it helps to boost their performance”.
That is why Gasol feels it is so essential for sport to continue to invest to grow and is so unequivocally committed to innovation, as this will not only benefit the industry itself, but will also end up benefitting everyone because of the good that sport does for society. Says Gasol: “Sport is not just an industry, it is a way of life, an entertainment form that covers different fields. That is why it is important to continue investing in it, because sport is a driver for the development and well-being of society, communities, cities and countries. In general, countries that invest in sport are in a better position.”
Sports Tomorrow as a catalyst for the sports industry
New technologies are an essential element of innovation and, according to Gasol, they must be integrated as efficiently as possible to meet this dual goal of improving the industry and the fan experience, as well as athletic performance. He says that “it is important to incorporate new technologies and that is why this Barça Innovation Hub congress is such a unique and important event, as it brings together entrepreneurs, innovation experts and companies from the world of sport to discuss and share these issues, draw conclusions and act as a catalyst so that something productive can come out of it for the sports industry.”
Values that can be learned through sport
Gasol recalls his own beginnings and how his parents, who played basketball, naturally encouraged both he and his brother Marc to start playing the sport. Since then, Gasol has been learning and incorporating a series of values through sport, including “teamwork, communication, working together for a common goal, appreciating how hard it is to achieve excellence or win championships, determination, commitment, sacrifice, and respect for your opponents.”
The psychology and mental health of athletes
Gasol feels that it is important to discuss a topic that is rarely talked about, namely the psychological aspect and mental health of professional athletes. “Athletes are under a lot of pressure to perform, and not to let anything affect them. Everyone expects you to be a superman, but that’s not the case. That’s why we must talk about mental health.” He cites examples like Andrés Iniesta and Ricky Rubio, athletes who have spoken openly about this issue, admitting that they went through difficult periods and acknowledging that they needed help. “I think this is very important” says Gasol. “Ultimately, we are people too and people need to realise that we aren’t invincible, we are not robots, we are not machines and we may need help too.”
Impact of sport and athletes on society
Nelson Mandela said that sport can bring hope where there was only despair. Gasol agrees, and describes the positive impact of sport based on his many years of experience participating in different social programs. “I have travelled with UNICEF to different parts of the world and seen how sport unites people and communities, even those who have been divided by conflict and civil war” he says. “We need to connect with each other. No matter where you are from, what language you speak, what religion you have or what your sexual identity is, sport allows you to play the same game, have fun together and it also helps people to socialise, to overcome their fears and to connect with each other”.
As for the impact that athletes can have on children through their actions and behaviour, Gasol acknowledges that this is something he became more aware of over time. “As you get older, you realise what an impact you can have on boys and girls and how you can help them, especially the less privileged ones. This is one of the most striking and powerful things I have ever experienced.”
Gasol recalls his experience with UNICEF, as a Global Ambassador for 17 years, and now as a Global Champion for Nutrition and Zero Childhood Obesity, a cause he also supports through the
Gasol Foundation. Now, in the home straight of his career as an athlete, he wants to be remembered, as he says, “for the impact I have been able to have on other people, for the work done and for the time I have spent on others, and that is something that I want to continue doing and that I want to pass on to other athletes, so that they are aware of the positive impact they can have.”
The role of athletes in the sports industry
‘Shut up and dribble’ is, according to Gasol, an oft-cited cliché to define the role that athletes are expected play. But he insists that professional sportspeople need to be more involved in the way the sports industry is run.
“We need to view athletes not only as assets within an industry in which they only play for a certain time and then they leave so that others come in and the business continues. I like players to get involved in business, to train as managers, to invest in technology and start-ups, and to become partners in the world of sport and be able to form part of its growth process.” Gasol adds that to achieve this, it is important to “get trained and to take advantage of opportunities while active in order to create new ones for the future.”
Sport and its challenges in times of pandemic
The sports industry, like so many others, has had to adapt to the new normal. The pandemic has kept fans out of most stadiums, and this raises certain questions for Gasol: “How can sport continue to be a unique experience when fans can’t go to games? How can we keep sport attractive as a product? What role should innovation play in this?” The answers to some of these questions, says Gasol, take us back to innovation. “Innovation has to play a major role in helping to adapt to such a disruptive time. Clubs and leagues must look for new formulas and new lines of business to compensate for the absence of crowds and to continue to provide them with an attractive product at a time when there is huge competition in terms of content on offer”.
On the social side, the pandemic is, according to Gasol, “a challenge that has to bring out the best in each of us in order to find the best solution to this problem together.” Here again, children are a prime consideration of his: “We need to learn to reach out to boys and girls so that they continue doing sports at home. That’s very important. They are the future and we need to protect them.”
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