Sports is a business. And, just like any other multimillion-dollar (and in some cases, multibillion-dollar) business, sports needs strong leadership. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, that leadership must be steadier and more purposeful than ever, armed with a new vision that will differentiate clubs and teams. These leaders must be prepared to not only make a difference on the field of play but also in the boardroom.

What does this new breed of sports leader look like? We interviewed some of the world’s leading sports executives, stakeholders and experts to find out.

6 traits that define a new type of leadership in sports

1 A fundamental connection to sports

Followers of sports are more than fans. They often have a passion for their team, and they viscerally feel their wins and losses along with the players. So, while leaders joining the sports industry from other sectors may have essential leadership qualities, it’s especially important that leaders feel a deep connection to what they do.

That connection starts with a fundamental understanding of the sport at hand. As Collette Roche, Chief Operating Officer for Manchester United Football Club, said, leaders must have the knowledge that enables them to “provide the right experience, whether in the stadium or digitally.”

At a minimum, leaders must have an understanding of the sport as well as what matters to fans and players alike. Jamie Reigle, Executive Director of Formula E and former senior executive at Manchester United Football Club, concurred on the importance of a connection to sports. “If you don’t have some appreciation, and a passion for football, working in the NFL is going to be strange to you. You have to appreciate that this is something that means a lot to your fans, your customers and the employees who choose to work in a sports organization — that it’s a passion point in a way that a lot of other career choices are not.”

Another key difference between leadership in sports and business is the power of the brand, which requires chief executives to be resourceful. “People who come from big organizations get attracted by the allure of sports, but often the brands are much larger, impactful and subject to external scrutiny than the resources available,” said Mark McCafferty, former CEO of Premiership Rugby, advisor to CVC Capital Partners and Chair of Warwickshire Cricket, the reigning County Champions. Setting the right tone requires leaders with resourcefulness, persistence and resilience, he added.

Ability to manage through uncertainty and politics in sports

Excelling as a leader also requires thriving despite uncertainty. As McCafferty said, “You’ve got to have executives who are really adaptable and can move at pace. Leaders have to accept that today there is increasing uncertainty on the path to strategy execution, so while they focus on the targets, adaptability and agility in the routes to those targets require high-quality leaders and teams.”

Ian Ritchie, the former CEO of the All-England Club and RFU, addressed this challenge. Recognizing the value that outside leaders can bring to sports, he noted that new leaders in sports must have “relevant experience” as well as “the right character and personality. The biggest issue is still cultural adaptability and making sure you understand what you’re letting yourself in for. Are you aware of how complex the politics are going to be? Because you can’t do your job unless you’ve got that sorted out.”

2 Commitment to diversity in sports

Sports organizations frequently lack diversity in representation on the board and in their leadership ranks. Often, that’s because they face significant challenges of structural inclusion, meaning that their talent management practices have built-in inequities that make it harder for underrepresented groups to be hired and advance. This is a limiting factor for sports organizations’ growth, because, as our research shows, only the most diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations outperform their peers.

As Tove Okunniwa MBE, former CEO of London Sport and board member of Sport England, observed, “Diversity in sports leadership generally is further behind than it should be. At the board and executive level in the UK sports industry, it is still very heavily dominated by white, middle-class men. Relative to other sectors, there has been limited progress.”

To accelerate this progress, organizations must start building in diversity from the bottom up. Okunniwa said, “The way organizations are recruiting right now is way more professional, systematic and skills-based than it was. There is a real sense of diversity, equity and inclusion — seeking out candidates with broader backgrounds and experience from both within and outside the sports sector. There are more robust processes in place now and less sense of a small, exclusive pool.”

It’s also critical for organizations to take an intentional, proactive approach to diversity — and not respond simply out of obligation or because of social pressure. Ian Holmes, Director of Media Rights for Formula 1, explained, “Any serious sport needs to understand that it’s an incredibly important thing — and that’s not just to tick a box. If you think it’s there to tick a box, then you’re probably going to fall short. It’s something that will continue to become more and more important. And I think sport has to realize that this isn’t something that they have to do, should do, need to do — it’s got to be something they want to do.”

3 Focus on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and shared purpose in sports

Sports are a venue for athleticism, but they’re also a platform for advancing globally conscious, socially responsible ideas. Leaders in sports must consider how their environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies reflect their organizations’ ideals — and find ways to turn those ideals into action.

For Sophie Goldschmidt, CEO of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Team and an advisory board member of the World Surf League, “CSR and other sustainability issues really form the purpose agenda.” She continued, “I feel like it’s all linked — and purpose is internal and external as well. It’s about having a broader reason for being than just selling tickets, sneakers or whatever else. I think it’s a very important business driver and motivator — and ultimately, it’s good for business... when you position yourself from a purpose perspective.”

David Ellis, the former CEO of Harlequins RC, agreed, asserting that purpose should be a driver in organizations. “Purpose is a driver of positive growth. It’s not just a marketing lever; it’s an operational lever. It’s across your business. If you can get that right, you will grow your business. There is so much capital out there in the markets looking to invest in good purpose-driven projects. You can no longer think in terms of sponsorships and not have authentic relationships there.”

4 Filling in skills gaps: a realistic approach to sports leadership

Looking at the future of work, addressing the talent gap will be a key factor that contributes to organizations’ success. Now more than ever, filling that gap by building and strengthening relationships with talent that has the right skills to lead organizations — in sports and any other sector — requires a human approach.

This is especially true for leaders who are new to sports. One leader who transitioned from business to sports, Ross Niland, the CEO of Queen’s Club, offered, “As someone who has come from a different kind of business background, you’re not going to know it all. There are going to be major gaps in your knowledge. Therefore, the team around you needs to fill those gaps.”

According to a senior executive for a Premier League football club, sports organizations are often driven by short-term thinking and popular decisions, making it difficult to focus on the big picture. And, while the scale of sports brands is substantial, organizations are often lean. That means there’s typically a great need for specific skills.

While ideally, all of the necessary skills and traits required to lead a sports organization would be contained within a single leader, that’s unrealistic, according to our interviewees. As Matthew Entwistle, Group Managing Director at global sports marketing firm Two Circles, put it, “Being a fully rounded leader is really hard. You’ve got all these countervailing energies and poles and the only thing that unites everyone is a huge amount of passion for the sport.”

5 An understanding of the complexities in today’s sports industry

The context of the sports industry has changed a lot in recent years — and with it, so has the need for a new kind of leadership in sports. Leaders must lead the business while also navigating the complexities associated with satisfying demanding athletes, fans, board members and stakeholders.

Reigle emphasized the importance of understanding this context and recognizing the change in expectations for leadership in sports. He observed, “You have, obviously, leagues and teams — but also agencies and deal-doers. Historically, the industry had more generalists, but we’re seeing increasing numbers of very specialized media platforms, plus all that’s happening with the opening up of gambling, what that means in terms of data suppliers, and the infrastructure required to facilitate the push to develop direct-to-consumer relationships.”

These relationships and media developments are expanding the ways that teams connect with fans and build engagement. Some Premier League football clubs have added sources of revenue outside matches, including hosting conferences and building hotel and restaurant space.

Others football clubs are creating brands in adjacent industries. For example, Chelsea Football Club founded a nutrition company, Blue Fuel, and is about to launch a health app called C Score. The most effective sports industry leaders will continue finding new ways to reach their current and prospective fan base.

6 An emotionally intelligent approach to the people and business of sports

When we think of sports leaders, there’s an image that comes to mind from media coverage: domineering, sometimes volatile leaders who seem to rotate through a revolving door. But that’s not the reality today — at least, it’s not a reality that drives organizations forward.

When we talked with some of the world’s top sports leaders, we heard a constant refrain: that it’s essential for leaders to take an emotionally intelligent approach to the people and business of sports. Successful leaders must be authentic and able to build a sense of trust, transparency and honesty inside and outside their organization.

As Goldschmidt explained, “It’s very easy to become quite insular, especially if you’re in big jobs, because you get so immersed day in and day out.” That’s why it’s important for leaders to engage their people and have real conversations. Goldschmidt continued, “So, to have that kind of broader perspective... having a curiosity outside of your own lane. That’s really important. Leaders that have real empathy and really care about their people... and are willing to step back and be challenged and have those tough conversations... that kind of dialogue, being approachable... that’s powerful.”

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What it takes to become a leader in sports for 2022 and beyond

The difference between sports teams winning or losing often comes down to attitude. And while players themselves must exhibit the right skills, behaviors and actions, the attitude and culture of the organization starts at the top. This requires sports organizations to invest in finding the right kinds of leaders to shepherd them through the uncertainty of a changing world — both now and in the future.

To learn more about the type of leadership in sports that builds winning organizations — on and off the field — read our new whitepaper, A new era in sport demands a new kind of leader.

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