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What sport can tell us about growth?

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In our ever growing world of business, just what lessons can sport teach us?

Contrary to the old cliché, there are lots of businesses like show business. Sport might just be the biggest of all, and one of its primary considerations is familiar to businesses of all kinds: growth.

Growth brings problems, among them the age-old issue of supply and demand. Has anyone in the wacky world of sport genuinely solved this notoriously difficult conundrum – and, if so, what are the lessons to be learnt?

The beautiful game at breaking point

Perhaps inevitably, we start with football. It portrays itself as “the global game”, but purported ubiquity has come at a cost. Its overriding ambition to conquer every corner of the world arguably led to truly global levels of corruption at FIFA. “Build it and they will come” is going to be well and truly tested when Qatar hosts the World Cup in 2022.

UEFA has also been experimenting. The expanded format of the recent Euro 2016 championship gave fans of the “minor” nations much to cheer about. Some of the players who most conspicuously excelled were out of contract but will be snapped up soon enough on the strength of their exploits. Unfancied Iceland exemplified the prospects for expansion and brand development.

So there were plenty of winners – and yet the pundits suggested the overall standard of play was poor. Too many teams were happy to settle for a draw during the group stage or for penalties during the knockout phases. This suggests a scenario typical of many organisations: growth at the expense of quality.

The dwindling of the Olympic spirit

Let’s turn, then, to the Olympics and Rory McIlroy's polite refusal to go to Rio. “I didn’t get into golf to try to grow the game,” confessed the former top-ranked player in the world. “I got into golf to win championships and win majors.”

It was the modern-day Games’ founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who said: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part.” Yet it’s obvious that many professional golfers don’t regard a gold medal as the pinnacle of achievement in their sport and would rather watch “the stuff that matters” ­– to use McIlroy’s memorable phrase – than get involved themselves.

In other words, the days of glorious amateurism are long gone. Like football, golf is a multi-million-pound business that depends on players and teams who are enterprises in their own right, who conduct individual cost/benefit analyses and who engage only if the rewards match the effort. If your sport doesn’t enable you to make a living then you have to rely on patronage of some sort, which means you may be professional – but you’re most certainly not a business.

Cycle of success

So sport’s lesson for effective and sustainable growth must lie elsewhere. But where?

Anyone paying attention to the parallels between sport and business knows the name of Sir David Brailsford, figurehead of the movement that transformed British Cycling and inaugurator of the system of marginal gains and continuous development. Suffice to say that the revolution he brought about achieved such dominance of Olympic track cycling that the rules had to be changed to give the rest a chance.

Sir David later moved on to road cycling, and it’s instructive to see how that ecosystem deals with the balance between winning and taking part. Take, for example, the Tour de France, where Sir David’s Team Sky appear to have weathered the storm of resentment and suspicion that followed the Lance Armstrong era and are now enhancing a spectacle that’s managing to grow in both scale and quality.

A key reason for Le Tour’s renaissance may be that the event caters for more than one winner. There is, of course, an overall champion, but the honour of wearing the famous yellow jersey is awarded provisionally every day, meaning several riders enjoy the privilege during the three weeks of the race; ditto the green, white and spotted jerseys. There are daily awards for the best team performance and for the most aggressive rider. In short, there’s always something to compete for.

Sustainability, success and satisfaction

Oscar Wilde remarked that every saint has a past and every sinner a future, and so it might be with Le Tour. It has priceless “heritage”, like any strong brand, but it has also embraced new technologies and opportunities. The prospect of on-bike cameras and live streaming of team radios, à la Formula One, can only further improve TV coverage, while reach and extension are most clearly illustrated by Le Tour de Yorkshire – the legacy of the 2014 Grand Départ.

All of this goes to the heart of one of the secrets of innovation for any organisation: alignment. Sustainable growth depends on bringing value to as many different interested parties as possible, directing seemingly disconnected elements in support of a common goal.

Football may have become bloated, diminishing its appeal; the Olympics may have been reduced to an alleged irrelevance, its ideals long overtaken by something less Panglossian; but Le Tour manages to achieve co-operative buy-in while remaining one of the most competitive events in sport – and that, in the end, is why so many of those who survive to pedal down the Champs-Élysées can reflect on a “good” tour. Oh, for a workforce similarly suffused with satisfaction at the end of the average day.

Paul  Kirkham

By Paul Kirkham

Paul is a researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity at the Haydn Green Institute for innovation and entrepreneurship at Nottingham University Business School.

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