The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated what was already shaping up to be one of the sports industry’s most transformative moments. The current context now combines an economic shock with an unprecedented global humanitarian crisis. On its current course and speed, the sports industry could now be entering an era defined by a combination of intense competition, technology-led rapid change, investor scepticism, and increasing public and government pressure on funding.
While the depth and duration of this crisis are uncertain, our research suggests that without fundamental change, it will be difficult for many traditional sports to return to the attractive position that has historically prevailed. The question of how it continues to create value and provide governments and other stakeholders with social return on investment in the next normal is therefore fundamental.
To change the current paradigm, the sports industry will need to dig deep and tap its proud history of bold moves and innovation in a safe and secure way under the toughest conditions.
The sports sector is resilient because it is a fundamental part of the fabric of society. Even during the global recession people still play sport, watch sport and exercise. Under most scenarios, sports will remain a multi-billion-dollar market. Given its role in society, it is too important to fail.
But there will be winners and losers. The winners will be those that use this crisis to boldly reposition their business and transform their operating models. Sports companies, fitness owners, leagues and clubs that don’t, will need to restructure or inevitably atrophy. Winners will use this as an opportunity to redefine their reasons for being and the basis of their distinctiveness. By also thinking differently and doing things better.
Our research and client work illustrates there are 3 fundamental questions that sport leaders need to answer.
Being – “Why”
In his seminal book “Start with the why” Simon Sinek advocates how great leaders inspire everyone to take action through an understanding of the company’s main reason for being. What is the sports relevance to society? What fundamental purpose does it really serve? The starting point for all sports leaders as part of defining their purpose is to understand their contribution to society and to stakeholders - by defining their economic impact, contribution to health and benefit to social resilience. Understanding the sport comes first. How does cricket contribute to the fabric of society in England, Australia or India; how does football contribute to the health and wellbeing of children in Europe or Middle East? In our experience we find that less than a third of all sports leaders or businesses have addressed this question carefully or fully in the last decade. A third have paid lip service to it in their 5 year strategic plans. The other third have never even questioned the need for it.
Thinking – “What”
The challenge for the FA or UEFA, the ECB or ICC is to figure out how they can uniquely contribute to this purpose, what is their unique role and distinctive strategy. Again, our observation is similar. There are only a few sports leaders who systematically, rigorously and creatively address these strategic questions on a regular basis. However, with unprecedented challenges there are also unprecedented opportunities to collaborate within the sport and between sports. The British Racing leadership have come together as one to model the impact of COVID-19 on the whole sector. Five national governing bodies in the U.K. have come together to determine the impact of their team sports on children and started to discuss the new policies and practices that are needed to address the root causes leading to high levels of mental health issues and obesity in young people.
Doing – “How”
Leaders should start to experiment early. Look for quick wins, be willing to fail and learn. Pilot, roll out and embed new ideas and practices. Innovation often comes with action first. The best sports leaders often act their way into a new way of thinking. The best sports leaders plan well but execute better. We have found that the real winners will lead from the front. In Mike Carson’s excellent book “The Manager: Inside the Minds of Football's Leaders” he describes how the best managers lead in crisis and when under pressure. They empower their teams and motivate their staff. They will demonstrate the behaviours needed, make the difficult decisions, drive the organisation and the sport forward.
The COVID-19 crisis has posed challenges never seen before. There has also never been a better opportunity to be radical, to fundamentally question and change the “normal”. It is a new age beckoning for sports and a day of reckoning for sports leaders. The winners will be those bold enough to reimagine their sports.