• Ian Sandbrook

Should sport’s goal be to return to normal?

The future for sport after Covid-19 won’t be some inevitable situation completely thrust upon us, it will be determined by the CHOICES that people make along the way.

In light of the current situation, I’ve had a bit of time to think about how sport is currently run and what the future could hold.

Amongst a number of topics I wanted to cover, one question I’ve kept coming back to, is this:

Is the status quo in sport broken?

Where do you stand as a national, regional or local sports organisation? Do you agree it is broken? Are you reeling off justifications for how you currently operate? My gut feel is the more you go ‘down the chain’ the more people would agree that the status quo isn’t working. Perhaps quite a telling observation?

To generalise, we have enabled a system where the top end is comparatively swimming in money, while the rest of sport is just trying to stay afloat. On the one hand we have leading sports people earning multi-millions and their activities sucking up vast quantities of resource, and on the other we have a severe lack of facilities for grassroots, costs that are prohibitive for many people to play sport, volatile and uncertain funding systems, falling participation rates, and scary obesity and inactivity rates that sport can fundamentally shift if only we truly enabled it.

Therefore, at a macro-level, I believe the task ahead of us should be to choose not to return to business as usual, because the reality is that model was already on a knife edge.

I totally understand that we want some normality to return in the immediate future – get clubs and community sport up and running again, get our professional competitions and events underway, get some activity and money pumping around the system again – but we have to take this opportunity to shape a more ‘community value’ driven future for sport.

In my opinion, the goal should be to transform the business as usual into something more human, empathetic and community driven, so everyone can access and enjoy sport. Not just pay lip-service to that noble goal.

Covid-19 is showing that we pull together when we need to, but if we let everything ‘return to normal’ when this over, then I fear we will easily slip back into old ways that have created an imbalanced system.

It seems to me a ‘community value’ focus is more reasonable to people now. I truly believe there’s room for change that there wasn’t previously. However, it will take courage and strong leadership for this to have any chance because the fundamental barrier will be our inability to think in terms beyond winning and money.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be making money, we need to. Or that we don’t want winners and role models competing at an elite level, we do. However, will you have the courage to allocate resources in a way that truly benefits your whole sporting system?

Can we shake loose from our old ways?

Do average professional athletes need to earn more than company CE’s?

Do we need hundreds of people in Head Office while 1 part-time employee runs everything in a district?

Are we that insecure that we need to spend 10s, even 100s of millions of dollars on chasing gold medals or winning world cups to boost our self-esteem?

Do we actually have the resources to make sport affordable, accessible and a part of life for everyone leading to a healthier and more active nation, but choose not to?

As an example, Sport England have just made the excellent announcement of nearly £200m worth of funding available to help community sport through this crisis - £50m of it in emergency funds for clubs to cover fixed costs. I fully understand this is a unique time and measure, but surely you could mount a strong argument for similar future policies that would be transformative for community sport and have huge benefits for sport and wider society?

It’s a tough philosophical question that we will no doubt be asking ourselves across all areas of business and society as we recover from the biggest global crisis since WWII. The reality is that any systemic change is likely to be incremental, initiated by policy and structure, and brought to life by the people you prioritise.

Therefore, I’ve outlined below a few things a national sports organisation could perhaps start initiating at a macro-level to challenge their own status quo and move towards a more community driven approach.

1.      Re-visit your purpose and whether your actions truly align to it

If I was to fly someone in from another universe to tell me the purpose of a leading national sports organisation from what they observe, they might say something like this:

‘Maximise revenue to run, support and promote competitions/teams in the hope that it will drive participation growth.’

That might seem harsh and I know many do far more than that, and some do it really well, but I’m convinced ‘an outsider’ would identify the above as the overwhelming priority displayed by the actions of many national and regional sports organisations. And this is my point about alignment of purpose and actions. I don’t think I’ve seen an NSO with a purpose like the above? They sound more like this:

‘Unify and support communities through our sport’

In my opinion, there is a discrepancy between what we say and what we have ultimately prioritised. I would argue that many of our actions have been enthralled to servicing the pointy end of sport, at the expense of what’s best for the majority.

You might even class it as mission creep – “the gradual or incremental expansion of an intervention, project or mission, beyond its original scope, focus or goals, a rachet effect spawned by initial success”.

It is our biggest blind spot, the elephant in the room, and we haven’t been able to have a rational conversation about whether we’ve let it become more important than our primary purpose.

My challenge to you is this - will you make the conscious decision to ensur

e actions, priorities, and crucially your budget lines, align with your purpose and create benefit throughout the system? Or will we continue to perpetuate an imbalanced system that vastly resources and rewards the top end, while the rest struggle to hold the ship together?

2.      Start Myth Busting

This is the time to challenge some of our long-held views, many of them myths or out of date, that have guided how we operate. The number one myth in my opinion, that has been perpetuated to the detriment of grassroots sport is:

‘That successful elite teams or athletes is the main driver of participation growth in sport’

This has enabled a disproportionate focus on performance sport that has undermined our traditional grassroots sport structures.

As an example, I look at two of the ‘big’ sports in New Zealand – Rugby and Cricket - and the grassroots of those sports is considerably weaker than they were 20-30 years ago - no matter how they try and spin participation rates. This is despite both of these organisations having significantly higher income and enjoying the most successful period in their history for their professional teams. The theory simply doesn’t reconcile. To put it crudely, this myth has contributed significantly to the under investment in grassroots sport for the last 20 years.

Building and strengthening the foundations of a sport takes considerably more than a successful national team or elite competition. Don’t get me wrong they play an important part, but is its importance over-played because it’s the easy option, especially for those coming into sport from a commercial background?

The development of a thriving sporting system (done primarily through volunteers remember) takes time, is complex and multi-faceted, and can’t be solved like you’re selling a Mars bar.

We need to stop looking for short cuts and empower from the ‘bottom up’.

3.      Look at the balance of staffing structures in your federated model

How many people do you employ at head office – 50/100/200/300+. I know that’s at the upper end of the spectrum, but whatever the size of your organisation, have a robust discussion about whether your current model is the best use of resource to achieve your purpose. Where is the tipping point of what you need at Head Office and what is extravagant, essentially locking up resource that could have more impact further down the pyramid?

For those with a federated model, will there be a shift in the balance? Particularly in relation to staffing structures, outcomes and responsibilities throughout the system. Will States or Regions become less important? Or will Head Office become ‘lighter’ and less top-heavy?

Outside of day-to-day operational activities, could national sports organisations start operating in smaller, self-contained but highly functioning teams on a narrow range of specific, value-add projects that are then disbanded once delivered? How can we get away from the inevitable ‘working in silo’ and protection of ‘your patch’ politics that wastes so much time and energy?

For what it’s worth, I broadly believe there could be a flattening of staffing structures to allow more resource to be allocated closer to the ground. That would be more in-line with a community value purpose, but that’s my opinion.

The other underlying problem of an over-resourced head office in sport that is often overlooked, is that you have all these fantastic people doing great work and making great advances in their specific areas, but then they struggle to implement them at a local level because the people at the bottom of the pyramid simply don’t have the capacity.

You get the situation where those handful of local/regional staff and volunteers at clubs, that are already overburdened, are getting asked to deliver more without extra resource and no more hours in the day! They just don’t have the capacity and so the improvements you are hoping for don’t eventuate or something gets sacrificed in the short-term to focus on the ‘flavour of the month’.

4.      Understand where your resource is really going

That seems such an obvious comment, but do you have a good grasp of it? As this piece is written from a ‘community sport’ perspective, a great example is where and how funding distributed for ‘community sport’ or ‘development’ by a national body can get used inappropriately.

I’ve seen many examples where funding that was allocated in good faith to go towards ‘community sport’ or ‘development’, is being funnelled into local or regional pathway programmes and competitions, under the guise of ‘development’, that only service a narrow few. What on face value might seem a significant investment into grassroots from the top, is in reality having sizeable percentages of that funding being used to subsidise exclusive opportunities either directly or through staff time.

This is a classic example of my previous point about ‘purpose and actions’ - a demonstration of how we have perpetuated the importance of producing our next stars over the majority, even at the lower levels of the pyramid.

5.      Support the leaders - look for the ‘future-thinking’ people

There will be a lot of ‘damage control’ at the moment and people will step up that are great in a crisis. Creating short-term plans to steady the ship will be important. However, if you are serious about coming out of this stronger and creating a new way of operating, then the people you want are the ‘future-thinking’ people. Who are the people that display the vision, inquisitiveness and courage to take on the task of creating something better? Not those that look to return to ‘business as usual’ or try to protect their patch. Identify these people and make sure you prioritise and empower them to lead. This is maybe a little cold and calculating, but this crisis will give you the opportunity to promote leadership over management. I’ve outlined a few ideas above to get the ball rolling. I acknowledge my community sport bias and I’m sure many of you will disagree with some of it, but what I hope is it’s got you thinking seriously about what your sport is doing and how you might start to shape the future.

We need to have these meaningful, tough conversations to find a better way because I believe we can, and need to. What I ultimately hope for is a more balanced system that has the greater good at heart.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this, so please feel free to comment below or get in touch with me –

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