For anyone who read and remembers my May message last year, this will sound familiar: Special Olympics was named the Top Disability Organization in the 2017 Harris Poll EquiTrend Study. As reported in the April 25th online edition of The NonProfit Times, the rankings are based on three simple questions: How well an individual knows the entity; what they think of it; and, whether they want to interact with it. The study classified nonprofits into categories, one of which is “disability.” Once again, Special Olympics ranked number 1. Most interesting and equally encouraging was the fact that Unified Sports® ranked 2nd in this category. For those of you not familiar with Unified Sports®, it is an inclusive Special Olympics program that unites Special Olympics athletes (individuals with intellectual disabilities) with unified teammates (individuals without intellectual disabilities) to form teams for training and competition. Click here for more information about the poll.
On the surface, the results provide positive news in which we can take pride. Yet every day – and I mean every day – I am driven to figure out how to get more athletes. Why do only 7,549 athletes (2016 year-end) participate from among the estimated 115,000 individuals with intellectual disabilities who live in Maryland? That’s only 6.5% of the eligible population. According to Statistic Brain, from research reported on in March 2017, 60% of youth ages 5-18 play sports outside of school. Special Olympics really doesn’t have extensive competition for providing organized sports opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities. While certainly not grounded the rigor of quality research, I do think it’s fair to conclude that the brand recognition of Special Olympics and Unified Sports® among the public at large does not translate into active participation in sport by people with intellectual disabilities. At least not in Maryland.
So what are we doing to recruit more athletes? For starters, we established a growth goal to have 20,000 active athletes participating by 2025. Our staff continues to work with our Area Program leadership volunteers who run the program in communities across the state and our Board of Directors to draft a strategic plan to guide our efforts.
According to the Harris Poll, “…brands create powerful connections with consumers. The stronger the brand, the greater the bond.” Based on the poll, our focus need not be so much on building our existing Special Olympics brand as much as it is helping people fully understand what the brand means. We also need to learn from the increased brand recognition of Unified Sports® in our efforts to educate the general public and our future athletes about the scope of our Program in Maryland.
Here in Maryland in 2016, our Interscholastic Unified Sports® program continued to thrive with over 2,200 Special Olympics athletes teaming up with over 3,100 student athlete unified teammates to compete in tennis, bocce (indoor/outdoor), strength & conditioning and track & field. So 29% of our participation comes from athletes who train and compete in organized high school Unified Sports® programs. Let’s consider why that works. Athletes and teammates are a captive audience who go to school together. The schools that they attend have the available and accessible facilities. Coaches typically are already in the building. The schools can organize transportation for matches and meets. Post-event transportation may be the biggest obstacle, but essentially the program is brought to the athletes.
So middle school, elementary school, and early childhood programs is a focal point for growth. At this year’s Summer Games we will have a Young Athletes Program demonstration on Saturday, June 10th for the first time ever. Click here for more information about that event.
Our athletes are great leaders and continue to be the best recruiters for us. We have launched a podcast, Brave in The Attempt Maryland, that we hope provides another channel through which to tell the story of how Special Olympics Maryland impacts the lives of our athletes and those touched by our athletes. On Wednesday, June 7th we will have the first ever Brave in the Attempt Talks at Towson University. Presented in partnership with Maryland Department of Disabilities and Maryland Developmental Disabilities Administration, eleven individuals will tell their stories as we celebrate the life experiences of Marylanders with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Families will also play a valuable role in helping recruit more athletes by sharing their own distinctively compelling stories of how their lives are enriched through Special Olympics. I continue my efforts to connect with parents to understand how they got involved and gain insight from them in an effort to better communicate and connect with parents of prospective athletes in order to get them involved.
Of course, our volunteers are exceptional spokespeople as well. We need our corporate and community partners to share their stories, too. The point is, we need to communicate over and over again – to as many people as will listen – how Special Olympics Maryland transforms lives. How through sport, we are creating a world where opportunity is not limited by disability.
While we want more athletes in the program, I am happy to share positive news related to those athletes currently training and competing. From April 1st through June 4th, our athletes will have had over 100 competitions ranging from Interscholastic Unified Sports regular season bocce matches and track meets, post season district and state invitationals to community based “Spring Games,” and qualifying events in track & field, swimming, softball, cheerleading, and bocce. As we eagerly anticipate our 47th Annual Summer Games at Towson University, June 9th -11th, we celebrate all of our athletes, mindful of all the work still to be done to include more. This year’s Summer Games theme is “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” so I invite you to come witness our athletes, families, volunteers, corporate and community partners and other supporters in action. If you have never been to a Special Olympics competition, I urge you to join us and have your life transformed.
Building a world where opportunity is not limited by disability,
James C. Schmutz
President & CEO
I’m pictured above welcoming athletes at the Opening Ceremony of last year’s Summer Games.