Parallels between the roles of a team captain and an NGB

25 02 2013


The role of an international rugby captain came under public and media debate in Wales last week. Regular captain Sam Warburton was fit again but left on the bench, with Ryan Jones retaining his place and the captaincy. With many accepting the logic of not changing a winning team, focus turned to the role of the captain(s) and who could/should/would do what.

The captain’s role can take many forms, including leader, organiser, encourager and of course player. And the specifics of what’s required often vary by sport, team and the individual in question. But what is consistent is that the role is as much as about bringing the best out of others as it is about playing well themselves.

The debate in Wales got me thinking about the role of NGBs. Like team captains, NGBs can be required to play many roles within and on behalf of their sport. But while the requirements vary by sport and situation, it is vital that the NGB has clearly defined its role before it finalises its business model.

What roles could an NGB play?

The many potential roles of an NGB can be clustered under three headings – leader, enabler and deliverer.

Leader – This could include the traditional role of governor, setting and enforcing rules of play and standards of experience. Or it could be a thought leader, sharing lessons, successes or new innovations with other partners. Or it could be a connector, co-ordinating the different organisations across the sport to achieve common measures of success. Or it could be leading the performance of a group of partners the NGB has formally or informally outsourced work to.

Enabler – This could include recruiting, training and upskilling the workforce across the sport, through a range of formal and informal qualifications. Or it could be supporting the delivery chain of clubs or facilities to improve their facilities, marketing skills or other capabilities. Or it could be about aggregating, adding value to and sharing consumer and market intelligence to enable partners across the sport to provide innovative and relevant offers to a growing number of participants.

Deliverer – This could include directly filling a delivery gap, either with national programmes or through a club network. Or it could be running competitions and events that other providers train people/teams to take part in. Or it could be through stimulating innovation by developing and testing new products to create a proof of concept for the market to scale up. Or it could be through orchestrating and delivering an overarching campaign to drive demand across the sport.

My intention is not to prescribe the ideal role of an NGB. That depends on the market their whole sport operates in, future customer needs and the strategic outcomes of the NGB. However the strategic choices and the information required to make them are similar across sports. And the key word here is choice. In the same way that Sam Warburton or Ryan Jones couldn’t play all 15 positions and direct the game from the stands, no organisation can successfully be everything to everybody.

Strategic choices require a clear understanding of the whole market

To develop a clear understanding of the market (sport) and its potential customers (participants), requires answering 4 broad questions:

What does current demand look like?
This includes understanding who is doing what, where, when, how, why & with who; and hence identifying the current trends, customer behaviours, needs, influences and barriers.

What does current supply look like?
This includes understanding who is providing what, where, when, why & how successfully; and hence identifying the needs, priorities and drivers of current providers.

What does future demand look like?
Given the trends within the sport, across other sports and throughout the target customers wider lifestyle, how is demand likely to change if nothing different is done? Are the potential market forces and new trends likely to increase or decrease demand over the next 3-5 years?

What does future supply look like?
Given the most likely political, economic, social and technological trends, what is likely to happen to supply over the next 3-5 years? For example will facilities be opened/closed/repurposed and what could be done to respond to the positive and negative impact of this potential future?

In summary, these aren’t simple questions to answer as they require a deep and on-going flow of market intelligence and consumer insights. However some NGBs are already building this understanding of where their whole sport is now and where its going. This understanding is being used to evolve their business model by making strategic choices about the market opportunity they are going to pursue and the role and priorities they will need to achieve it.

This focus on defining a key role is crucial to future growth as the expertise and processes required to be very good at governing a sport, running events, orchestrating national marketing campaigns, developing innovative products are all different – and these are just a few of the potential roles NGBs may choose to play. Doing a bit of everything isn’t the answer, as anyone who’s seen a prop dive pass or attempt a drop goal will testify…


Balanced scorecard – 20 years young

23 10 2012

The Balanced Scorecard approach to successfully executing business strategy is now 20 years old. But the work of Kaplan and Norton is still relevant to our sector today, as we move from counting inputs and outputs to measuring impact and outcomes. For those not familiar with the approach, the balanced scorecard enables a business to manage its performance across four dimensions of the organisation, rather than down within departments or silos. These dimensions are:

Financial / Stakeholders – is the organisation creating value for its ultimate stakeholders/funders?

Customers – is the organisation providing the products, services & experiences that its customers want to buy (with their limited time or money) , so that value is created for the stakeholders?

Processes – are the organisation’s internal processes efficient & effective enough to deliver what current and potential customers want?

Learning & growth – are the people and organisation learning from its stakeholders, customers, partners and processes to keep improving what they offer to their customers?

For a more complete yet succint introduction, watch this wonderful short video by

Forget satisfaction, what’s your net promoter score?

13 05 2011

What’s your team’s/club’s/sport’s Net Promoter Score? Or put another way, how many of your current customers would actively refer you to their friends?

While debate rages about how accurately this measure can predict revenue growth, most leading companies still pay more attention to this measure than they do to customer satisfaction scores. Why? Because we’ve all claimed to be satisfied when a waiter asks for our feedback on an ordinary meal. But rarely have we then recommended that restaurant to our friends.

Net Promoter Score was in the London news this week, in an article about Metro Bank. If you’ve not heard of them, they’ve just opened their sixth branch in London and are owned by Vernon Hill. According to the article, Metro Bank have a Net Promoter Score of 97% – that means 97% of their existing customers would recommend them to a friend.

Now they’re still very young, but that’s still a remarkable number. For context, the reported score for First Direct (who have a strong history of growth through word of mouth) was 57%, for RBS was 10% and for Barclays was -35%. In Barclays’ case, that means 35% of its clients would actively dissuade a friend from using it.

From a sports perspective, it’s easy to think that all our regular participants would recommend us to their friends. After all, they must love the club/sport if they keep doing it. But if that were the case, every team and leisure centre would be experiencing astronomic growth!

So what would you need to do, to have 97% of your current customers wanting to recommend your team or sport to a friend..?

Sustainable business growth at Nike

26 03 2011

Last week, Nike announced their quarterly results. Constant dollar revenues grew 9%, with growth in every geography except for Japan. But it wasn’t the results themselves that interested me; but rather, how they explained their strategy for creating sustainable business growth.

Mark Parker, NIKE Inc.’s President and CEO, said “everything we do at Nike is based on delivering long-term sustainable growth. At the same time, we’re focused on delivering value to our shareholders in the near term. This is the balance you’ve come to expect from Nike, and it remains our commitment going forward.

We strike this balance by leveraging our significant competitive advantages, and chief among them are our authentic emotional connections with consumers, innovative product and retail experiences that lead the industry and a strong NIKE Inc. portfolio that gives us tremendous opportunities for growth and significant levers to drive profitability.

Consumer-driven companies with strong brands and compelling products will be in the best position to maintain their margins, and disciplined companies who are lean and focused on how they use their resources and who are aggressively seeking new ways to grow will prosper. Those who don’t won’t. In that sense, the roadmap for success in the future is no different than it’s always been”

Later in the call Charlie Denson, President of the Nike Brand, added: “As always, we’re focused on managing the business for sustainable long-term profitability. For the Nike brand, that means staying laser-focused on innovation, first at the product and brand level to drive the top-line growth and also driving innovation and discipline into how we run the business.”

While Nike is a multi-national commercial business, I believe there are some important messages here for the UK sports sector; whether the goal is increased profitability, more fans on seats or more participants on pitches, courts and roads.

Nike see their competitive advantages as including “authentic emotional connections with consumers, [and] innovative product and retail experiences”. And the Nike store environment and the style and tone of Nike’s services and communications would confirm this. They lead the market by listening to what consumers say about how they play sport – what it means to them, how it makes them feel and how they want to ‘consume’ it. They’re not bound by the rules of each sport, but rather by the needs of their consumers.

Many people associate Nike with product innovation, whether it’s Nike Air in the 80’s or Nike+ in the 00’s. But innovation also runs through how they manage their business processes and costs. Innovation and discipline is a powerful combination, as the likes of the Barcelona football team or the British cycling team regularly demonstrate. But how often do these twin traits of innovation and discipline emerge within the organizations and processes running sport?

So according to Nike, sustainable business growth comes from:
– being a consumer-driven company (clarity about why you exist, and where your strategic priorities are)
– creating authentic emotional connections with consumers (knowing who you exist for, and why you are still relevant to them)
– delivering innovative and compelling products (aligning what you provide to the people you exist for)
– providing innovative retail experiences (differentiating how you deliver your innovative products)
– embedding innovation into all aspects of the business (creating continuous improvement in both what you produce and how)
– being disciplined, lean and laser-focused (all business processes have a clear and relevant purpose, and are carried out both efficiently and effectively).

These traits exist across elite sport, and no doubt also reflect Nike’s origins with Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight. But they are just as relevant to how sports organisations across the market place could be operating. Can you share a good example of how these principles are being applied within the UK sports market…?

Governing the business of football – the A-League and English Premier League search for the same answers

21 04 2010

Football club ownership is in the news in both hemispheres at the moment. In the UK, Manchester Utd and Liverpool fans are both protesting about the investment approach taken by their American owners. Co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett have decided the business culture clash has gone on long enough, and put Liverpool up for sale. But the Glaziers, at least publicly, have no plans to sell despite the on-going green and gold protests from Utd fans.

These owners under seige come from a US sports model where debt is heavily leveraged against the club’s assets. But the average UK fan prefers that owners dip into their own personal wealth to support the extravagent player purchases that defy business logic. Last financial year, Chelsea reduced their losses to 47 million pounds (down from 70 million), while Man Utd actually made a pre-tax profit of 48 million pounds. But while Utd’s finances remain supported by heavy debt, Chelsea’s have been propped up by their owner Roman Abramovich. In fact Chelsea can now claim to be effectively debt-free, after Abramovich converted all his interest-free loans to the club into equity. Strangely, I can’t recall hearing about Chelsea fans protesting about the amount of money that Abramovich is personally losing, despite the Daily Mail last year estimating his investment at over 700 million pounds.

After taking over West Ham earlier this season, David Gold told the Daily Telegraph “The place was a car crash. “Every page we turned in every document revealed yet another problem. It was the worst set of figures I have seen. ”You have to say I’m certifiable – potty. There’s no other business like this. In fact that’s a misnomer, it’s not a business. We’ve lost the plot. It’s insane.” The current plight of Portsmouth, Cardiff and Crystal Palace (and before them Bradford, Wimbledon and many more clubs in the Football League) shows that the insanity is widespread and lessons have yet to be learned.

The basic principles of profit and loss haven’t been ignored to this degree since the dot com boom allegedly changed the rules of business. It did in many ways, as the music and publishing industries will testify. Yet it still proved that consistently running up costs higher than revenue eventually leads to collapse – as the glorious rise and fall of Boo proved.

In a bid to take clubs back to business school, Michel Platini has launched UEFA’s answer, a club licensing discussion paper. If implemented, the proposal marks a significant change in European football. It brings in an new era of regulation that franchised sport in Australia and the USA already knows well. According to UEFA, the future is marked by “discipline and rationality”. and they believe, it would stop clubs such as Portsmouth going into administration by forcing them to live within their means. While not easy to achieve, this is a fine a necessary goal that reflects business rather than sports reality.

The UK’s politicians have also got in on the act, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown saying recently that debts at some clubs were “too high” and warning them to “look very seriously to their responsibilities to supporters”. Labour are taking this issue seriously enough to include football reform in their election manifesto, claiming that they want to give football back to the fans. The proposals under review include clubs having to give as much as 25% of the club to fans. UEFA’s Platini has applauded this approach, saying that supporters were the only people who had a genuine “identity” with clubs.

Fans owning clubs is not new, with fan groups called “socios” owning 25% of 4 of Spains top flight clubs. But even there all is not good in the business of football, with players threatening to strike in a bid to receive unpaid wages. According to Michel Platini, the German model is the way to go, with 51% of each club being owned by the fans.

So what does all this have to do with the A-League? Well club ownership is the talk of the town here in Oceania too. A-League clubs Adelaide and Brisbane are already under FFA control, and in the last few weeks the two most recent expansion clubs – Gold Coast and Queensland Fury have come under the microscope. The Gold Coast have struggled to connect with their local community. Average home crowds were 4,488 despite the club boasting some big name players and being in the running to win the league until the very end. Meanwhile, owner Clive Palmer raised the ire of fans and the FFA with unpopular moves to restrict ground attendances in a bid to control the finances.

Up in Townsville the Fury also had a big name signing, ex-Liverpool player Robbie Fowler. But their maiden season didn’t fare as well, as they narrowly avoided finishing bottom of the table and attracted an average of 5,884 fans. After having put AUD $2.5 million into the club, sole investor Don Matheson can no longer sustain it. While this isn’t a good situation, it has at least opened the FFA’s eyes to the situation, with CEO Ben Buckley saying “to be successful long-term there needs to be wider community and corporate support for North Queensland Fury and it cannot be left to one person to drive the club”.

Giving the game and the team’s “back” to the fans is a popular approach at the moment, but on it’s own it doesn’t guarentee that the business itself will be run anymore successfully. Alongside the community support and involvement is required top level financial governance, a customer-focused business model and strong leadership. It’s not a new approach, but unfortunately it is still not common sense.

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