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Cynics once described football clubs as million-dollar businesses run out of biscuit tins. The cynics have refined their tune and now describe most clubs as billion-dollar businesses run out of biscuit tins. Their view reflects the apparent lack of business- trained expertise at the top of many clubs.
A search for professionals in logistics, HR, marketing, even finance, let alone MBAs, on club main boards draws almost a complete blank.
The same can be said for most sports, despite their scale and rapid growth. Football, horseracing, golf, tennis, rugby, cricket, Formula One and athletics have a combined annual turnover in the UK of about £30bn ($47bn). Add other top European sports like water and winter sports and the Europe-wide figure is close to £120bn.
A European Union study in 2006 suggested that sport generated value-added of 3.7 per cent EU GDP. These figures reflect the impact of sport across an array of industries from textiles, communications and logistics to tourism and leisure. In size sport compares with sectors such as aerospace and tourism, but this analogy bears no examination when it comes to either the professional qualifications of their executives or business school engagement.
The shortage of qualified managers is partly explicable by the “show us your medals [or money]” mindset within sport. The thinking is that, if you have not performed to the highest sporting levels, how can you manage those who have? The alternative entry route to the boardrooms of most sports is as an owner or investor.
Neither route necessarily brings with it the skills associated with business education. Seemingly successful enterprises often end up incurring massive debts, having to rely on “windfall” investors and unable to build internally viable business models.
The limited business school engagement with sport is harder to explain. Industry- and sector-specific MBAs have proliferated, but sport, despite its scale, needs and student interest, is largely neglected by schools.
This may reflect the strength of centres of sporting excellence outside business schools. A few schools have recently developed initiatives across sports, but typically outside their core MBA or other masters programmes.
However, in general business schools seem reluctant to work in and for the sector. This apparent disdain may reflect a view that advocacy merely reflects interest in enjoying, supporting or watching, rather than paying attention to serious industries such as banking. For others, sport might, at best, constitute a laboratory for academics to develop other interests.
This neglect is not confined to the UK. Despite the importance of sport in US higher education, the business, economics and finance of sport often operates at the fringes and across Asia and Latin America coverage is even more patchy.
The figures bear this out. In UK professional sports, the best estimate of the graduate level labour pool is around 10,000, with less than 10 per cent holding postgraduate degrees. Estimates for Europe vary, but are probably comparable with the UK at around 50,000.
Shortages of qualified business professionals pose problems. Sports face challenges ranging from those affecting whole communities, like managing the post-Olympics legacy, to those confined to specific sports, such as how Manchester United football club can turn its international fan bases to revenue streams.
Neither medals, being a fans’ favourite, or even entrepreneurial success elsewhere, will necessarily provide the capabilities to secure an economic or commercial legacy after the Olympics that justifies the investment, or ensures that strong businesses can be built in Asia or other sporting “hot spots”. The competencies developed in a management school just might – at least if the school has built up the capabilities to apply them to sport.
Business schools have shown they can engage with key business sectors, delivering the necessary skills. Leaders in sport are starting to appreciate the management challenges they face. The goal is gaping, but who will put the ball in the net?