Exclusive Roundtable Focuses On How To Build A Level Playing Field

Last week, we hosted a roundtable event, ‘The DE&I Playing Field’, where we were joined by Steve Phelps – President, NASCAR, Colie Edison – CEO, Professional Bowlers Association (PBA), Fred Whitfield – President and Vice Chairman, Hornets Sport & Entertainment, and our very own Non-Executive Chairman, Seb Coe.

The session saw our guests discuss some of the most pressing issues facing the industry today, including: how organisations are cultivating a greater culture of diversity, and the actions that leadership executives are taking to create a more level playing field.

The session began with a reflection on the events of the past year, in particular the tragic death of George Floyd. According to Phelps, this was a ‘seminal moment’ for NASCAR, sparking an unqualified commitment that ‘we need to do better as a sport.’ It led to a ban on the Confederate flag, sensitivity training for staff and fellow drivers rallying round Bubba Wallace in an emotive act of solidarity at the GEICO 500 in Alabama.

Owing to the different demographic make-up of both its audience and competitors, the NBA has long had a focus on diversity and inclusion, yet Whitfield also understood 2020 as a catalyst for change: ‘It’s given our league and players a chance to amplify the values we believe in, and talk about our mission.’

Two different journeys, but the same end goal in mind. Either way, both answers spoke to the idea that sport – where people from all walks of life can watch or participate, regardless of background – can be a great driver of change. It was a point echoed by Coe who reflected on the actions of Jesse Owens, John Carlos and Tommie Smith as evidence that sport had often been ‘at the cutting edge’ on these issues.

But what does a more diverse and inclusive industry look like, and how do we get there? For Edison, the first female CEO of the PBA, it’s about a shift in mindset, being brave and ‘having a set of goals that may not always reflect what has been the traditional way of doing things.’ With the PBA, she has set about bringing in female leaders who can ‘impact that change.’

For Coe, it’s about good governance and a far greater gender balance in administrative structures. As President of World Athletics, he has rewritten the constitution to make it illegal for the sport to have any governance structure that is not 50/50 by 2027.

In fact, each organisation represented here has their own unique approach to creating a more inclusive industry, and as Phelps pointed out it is not always targeted at the senior executive level. NASCAR’s successful Drive for Diversity program ‘provides opportunities for women and people of color’ to train as drivers, or pit crew members, while CSM has its own successful Grassroots initiative. The Hornets also have an internship programme, which Whitfield believes provides the very foundation of his organisation’s attempts to create a more diverse workforce: ‘If you don’t have a diverse internship pool, you’re not going to have a diverse entry-level pool and so on.’

That greater level of diversity, both in administrative structures and professional playing members, will create more role models, help the sport industry better reflect the make-up of society at large, and ultimately enable organisations to talk to a broader audience.

As Edison noted, ‘I want the PBA to reflect what you’re seeing when you go to your local bowling centre,’ a point reinforced by Coe, who said: ‘Young people are asking a fundamental question of our business: does it look like the world I live in? If not, they will find a different activity to enjoy.’

Ultimately, there is also a strong business case for improving the diversity and inclusivity of any given sport. It was Coe who highlighted the fact that those organisations with a culture of diversity and inclusion at their core outperform those without by 15%, and NASCAR is proof of that. Phelps told of how NASCAR is offering ‘more than just white males’, with the likes of Coca-Cola, NBC and AB inBev wanting to partner with them on DE&I issues, and Michael Jordan now even entering the sport as a Team Owner.

Nevertheless, the panel agreed that improving DE&I within a business is a perpetual issue, which requires a long-term commitment. As Coe put it: ‘There is no final destination. It is something organisations need to be forever vigilant about, and those who are not will fall by the wayside.’ Encouraging progress has been made in the last year, but there remains much work to be done.

If you would like to watch the roundtable event in full, click here to sign up and receive it.