Lessons to help sports industry lift its game

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Fuelled by broadcasters’ cash and packaged into some of the world’s most talked-about events, high-level sports have become glamorous, lucrative businesses – albeit sometimes short of expertise and experience at the executive level.

No wonder business schools and their students are being drawn to opportunities in the sector, where enlightened sports administrators recognise the need for better leadership and a more professional approach.

The sports industry is “relatively young” and demands specific skills, says Nigel Bannister, chief executive of MBS Worldwide, the blended and distance learning arm of Manchester Business School. “One only has to look at the scrutiny Olympic com­mittees are now under as they seek to implement very large budgets and complex projects.”

MBS, the biggest and one of the highest-ranked in the UK, is among schools seeking to establish credentials in the sporting arena. Last month it launched an MBA for sport and major events, aimed at executives who work with international sports federations, professional sports clubs or organising committees for big sporting pageants. The course is also pitched at those wanting a career move into the sector.

MBS had already established itself as the base for executive programmes run by the World Academy of Sport. The academy – a venture with IF Education, an Australian company – runs a suite of short courses for sports and events professionals and has forged relationships with the international governing bodies for several sports, including cycling, skiing and netball. It means a generation of leaders from those bodies – particularly those involved with recruiting and developing sporting talent – can develop their skills on courses at Manchester.

The fourth and latest partnership takes MBS on to the rugby field, with the International Rugby Board and the academy agreeing a programme for the professional development of the IRB’s administrators. Syd Millar, IRB chairman, says the board needs to equip those running the game “with the ability to continue its growth and deal with the challenges it faces”.

Chris Solly, director of the academy’s executive centre, says the academy will equip students “with business skills related back to a practical setting”. The new MBA, he says, is a logical consequence of sports now being a full-scale industry. “Its people should have a masters programme so they can have the business skills that anyone in a ‘normal’ industry would,” he says.

Modular format

About 80 per cent of the MBA is shared with other courses, while the sports and events specialism uses case studies from the world of sport, such as the organisation of the corruption-hit Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Mr Solly cites a need for many more business-based case studies.

Among the first of the MBA intake is Paul Davies, a performance manager with Paralympics­GB, formerly the British Paralympic Association. Making what he calls “a commitment to my own development”, he has sponsored himself through the course.

For Mr Davies, one attraction of MBS was its status. Another was the modular format. The course can be completed over 2½ years, with attendance in Manchester required for a week every four months, which can easily be slotted into his diary.

Mr Davies welcomes the fact that most sessions in Manchester take place with students from different specialisms of the global MBA programme. “I wanted to get the most out of an MBA and that meant rubbing shoulders with people from outside my industry. I wanted a sports specialism – but I also wanted to be in the mix with people from different walks of life. At the end of the day I will have an MBA that will be recognised across a number of industries and I will not have pigeonholed myself.”

The business school’s overtures towards sports are welcomed by city leaders in Manchester, which is trying to build on its successful hosting of the 2002 Commonwealth Games. It already hosts the UK’s national squash and cycling centres. Mr Solly says there was a “common goal” between the city and the academy. “Creating a centre of global excellence for inter­national sports bodies was totally in line with what they are doing,” he says.

Quality

Mr Solly has a wealth of experience. He was the first chief executive of the Australian Ski Institute, which helped to turn Australia into an unlikely but regular winner of medals in fields more associated with northern hemisphere climes. He went on to start Olympic Games Knowledge Services, a joint venture with the International Olympic Committee, to try to ensure continuity of quality and experience from one Games to the next.

Mr Davies believes Manchester has “got it pretty right” in structuring an MBA course that reflects the requirements of managing athletic performance. “There is stuff that we are learning that I could take out and use tomorrow,” he says.

That is just as well, for, as Mr Solly knows, sports executives are demanding customers. “Sports people do not have lots of time and resources. If they are sitting there for more than five minutes and they are not getting something they can use, they will be out of the door.”

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