Staying Onside in 2024

After a fifteen-year hiatus, I’ve started playing competitive football again.

I must have played about 800 games in my life, so I can (and do) play games in my sleep.

Turns out, though, that things have changed since I last put my boots on. The ‘new’ rules for offside are blowing my mind. I still don’t really understand when someone is interfering with play and have had to re-learn how to defend almost from scratch.

Re-learning anything you think you know inside out is not easy. I have had to accept my game is out of date and decide that I want to start over. It’s taken some resilience – it has been quite a learning curve for this old dog to learn new tricks.

Plenty of sports industry leaders have admitted to me they share similar vulnerabilities at work. Our industry is mid-pivot, yet their personal appetite for change and confidence in their organisation’s ability to move at pace are often low. We often use the Kubler-Ross change framework to frame the conversation. They’re usually lurking somewhere between frustration, passive depression and, at best, grudging experimentation.

Sport is moving too fast for them to stay there long. It currently sits uneasily in the squeezed middle of the global economy, representing around 1.5-2% of global GDP[1]. Large enough to seize the opportunities of a global market, but small enough to be particularly impacted by commercial headwinds.

Sporting businesses are also often held to ‘higher’ standards than the rest of our economy. Whether you think that is right or wrong (I think it’s right), it makes leadership even more challenging. Western media think nothing of filling columns railing against Saudi investment in global sport yet paying scant attention to our wider economy ‘levelling up’ by accessing the same funds[2].  

If the media won’t help us along, we can forget finance. Our position in the long tail of global finance isn’t remotely strong enough to wag the whole dog, as Roger Mitchell’s latest column on Endeavor (home of former industry bell-weather IMG) superbly points out.

Little wonder, then, that the prevailing leadership style in sport has tended to be one of slightly apologetic, shoe-gazing Realpolitik.

Trouble is, Realpolitik leadership is far too reactive for today’s sports business. Leaders need to be visible and proactive in a shape shifting industry. After all, the biggest success stories of the last twenty years are already consigned to history. Tiger and Nike. EA and FIFA.

Imagine if you’d told Sir Alex Ferguson in 2011 when he last won the Premier League that by 2024 Manchester United’s on-pitch performance (but not the commercial side of the club) would be run by a billionaire businessman with a background in industrial chemicals.  

Of course, what Tiger, Jim and EA have in common is the financial muscle to drive decisive action. It’s not easy to make that call when money’s too tight to mention. Sport’s existential challenge is to balance the books while simultaneously building a long-term audience profile and to do so when budgets are tight, digital is consolidating and the sporting interests of newer, more influential generations are fragmenting[3]. The algorithms of the big digital platforms will never be stacked in favour of 2% of global GDP, so even for the big guns financial literacy, bravery and agility are business critical.

There are some great examples of those traits at the moment if you look closely. The PTO’s new T100 race series is taking on the status quo in triathlon with pace and conviction, building with and for its athletes.

Stuart Cain and his team at Edgbaston have woven trust, care and diversity into their work in their local heartland and driven business results in doing so.

Sail GP’s work on purpose and sustainability underpins their entire business model.

We’re also slowly learning how to market women’s sport. I particularly loved Premiership Women’s Rugby’s launch campaign this year, ‘Powered Differently’, presenting female rugby players and its product totally differently from the get-go rather than iterating the men’s model. How many female-focused products in the corporate world do you think are launched without any understanding of the audience? This has nothing to do with budget – PWR is the very early days of its existence – but about sport’s desire to genuinely listen to 50% of the potential market it has under-served for decades.

What underpins each of these examples is a genuine desire to change. None of these come from big budget businesses – and in truth money can often be a derailer. Too often today I am asked to help businesses in sport which are looking for private equity or Middle Eastern cheques to prop up existing, fundamentally broken business models. I also worry about the use of private finance in clubs and leagues. The West may be just about coping under terrifying levels of corporate debt[4] (and only just) but not many other industries have direct costs between 70% and 120% of their revenue bases. Take the cheque by all means – but use it to fuel the creation of a new model, not prop up an existing one. Granted I am biased having co-founded the business, but Two Circles’ spell under Bruin Capital’s ownership and eventual sale to Charterhouse Capital Partners did this brilliantly.

It took 15 minutes of my first game back (with the left winger taking up positions I couldn’t cope with) that I realised it was my fault, not the linesman. I either needed to shift my mindset and learn the new rules of the game ….or accept I was old, slowing up and needed to retire. The same is true with sport’s senior leaders. It’s not easy.

Change is not linear. I’m still prone to forget that I need to mark people behind me as well as in front. That said, if you can generally move from depression to active experimentation, it’s a lot of fun. You might even be able to justify buying some new boots!


[2] Saudi investment in the North of England to soar in 2024 | DWF Group.