Hans Westerbeek

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Creating post pandemic share value in higher education and sport: new business models

I was lucky enough to participate in a Harvard Business School alumni webinar earlier this month, where Professor Rebecca Henderson spoke to us about her new book, ‘Reimagining Capitalism in a world on fire’. Her opening statement – that “genuinely free and fair capitalism is one of humanity’s greatest inventions” – was backed up by statistics of how capitalism amongst other things, has contributed to reducing global poverty and increasing wealth and health of billions of people. Various influential authors such as Stephen Pinker, in his book ‘Enlightenment Now’and Hans Rosling in ‘Factfulness’confirm these optimistic and positive pictures (and the quantitative evidence to back this up) about the impact of capitalism (or one might argue: globalisation) on human progress. Irrespective of the many ills that globalisation may also be (partly) blamed for, I am too an optimist and believe that grosso modo, globalisation delivers more ‘good’ than ‘bad’. However, the OECD argues that the pandemic has already triggered the most severe recession in nearly a century, putting the world economy in its most precarious state since the end of World War 2 and the full social and economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic may not become clear for years to come. What we do know is that both socially and economically, societies, nations, economies and communities will be severely affected by the effects of this global catastrophe. It has confirmed that we now live in a truly disruptive period in history in which we are forced to change the way that we live our daily lives, and at high speed, prepare for how our children and grandchildren can also enjoy the ‘achievements’ of globalised capitalism without these being negated by the negative effects. 

Henderson made very clear that capitalism as we know it actually is neither free nor fair. Brutal pursuit of profit has led to climate change, increasing division between the mega rich and poor (even when they do not live in extreme poverty anymore) and increasing (social and economic) divisions between minority and dominant populations. The latter in particular leads to severe political unrest and populism that is less about democracy and more about narcissistic power monopolies. As a University Professor myself, one whose concentration is on explaining and advancing the world of international sport business in particular, I would like to focus on one particular concept (shared value) that Henderson brought to the fore that would allow us to ‘reimagine capitalism’. In the next few paragraphs I will apply that to my industry of employment – higher education – and then to my area of academic interest and expertise – international sport business. However, before doing so it does pay to paint a more complete picture of what Henderson outlined as the way forward for capitalism in a disrupted world. Beyond ‘shared value’, the concept that I am going to tackle next, Henderson put forward three more steps in the reimagining of capitalism. Leaders and organisations should intensify and renew their ways of cooperating. Global financial systems require significant rewiring. And finally, our institutions ranging from government to global NGOs and the like, need to be rebuilt, some from the ground up. Across all of this is the vital need for a change of (organisational and) ‘human’ culture(s). A cultural change that was best expressed by one of the panel members following the presentation by Professor Henderson – that sustainabilityof societies is not enough anymore, that ‘regeneration’is the key concept that should drive corporations to work towards profitable and value adding contributions to society at large. In other words, liveability on our planet already has reached a critical turning point. To sustain this level of liveability would not be sufficient for future generations. We urgently need to regenerate our natural environment.

So, back to shared value… Let us assume that ‘regeneration’ towards a healthy planet has truly become the dominant cultural context of societies. Shared value, in that regard should then contribute to a planet that offers next generations an environment that amongst other things, provides plentiful opportunities to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. Shared value simplistically has to deliver on two fronts for (international) business – making money AND solve the big problems of our time. Henderson argues that producing shared value, indeed is founded on shared values. Shared values (between firms and between governments anchored in communities) in turn provide a platform for cultural change and for trust and for joint action – across industries and between regions. Big problems can then become inputs that precede the (potentially destructive) competitive nature of capitalism. In other words, if big problems provide the competitive environment in which firms are jointly working to solve those problems, then the problems themselves are not a reason anymore to compete… they provide the competitive opportunity!

In higher education that opportunity remains blatantly clear… to bring knowledge and evidence to all corners of the globe, in the process eradicating ignorance and advancing self-determination, self-confidence, and economic and social wellbeing. What we very quickly (had to) learn(ed) during COVID lockdowns is that education can be truly borderless. With the catastrophic loss of international student enrolments in the Australian higher education sector has come the realisation that it soon will be ‘old school’ thinking to ‘make’ international students travel to foreign destinations. Australian universities in particular have found out the hard way that overreliance on physical presence of international students in their business models has led to a crash of the market that has not been seen before. What in particular has been found out is that the substantive fees received from overseas students have often been invested in what now can be deemed largely unproductive (future) assets – bricks and mortar buildings that could remain empty. In other words, infrastructure rich universities will find it hard to get a short-term return on assets, and will have to be strategic and innovative in making those assets deliver long term return on investment. A most likely development, in my view, is that ‘excess’ infrastructure will be re-purposed into hybrid teaching spaces that will accommodate for global delivery and interaction. In regard to research, there will be a surge in building strong relationships with business, and use infrastructure to outfit innovation hubs, start-up and business acceleration spaces, and create joint ventures to further develop and commercialise research into profitable business applications. 

Beyond connecting more and deeper with business is the obvious opportunity for universities to better collaborate between them rather than compete against each other, in particular in the space of research. In Melbourne, Australia, for example, there are several universities that profess and position themselves to be global leaders in sport education and research. For the sport business and sport science sector, Melbourne in many ways is what strategic management Professor Michael Porter (also from the Harvard Business School) has described as a competitive industry cluster – a geographical location where the concentration of resources and talent can lead to sustainable competitive advantage over other regions. However,… real clustering only happens if talent and resources are combined in cooperative frameworks. In regard to sport science and sport business, this collaboration between universities remains a distant prospect for now. But the pandemic may drive (or even force) decision makers into common sense and put aside differences towards creating greater collective shared value. 

During these pandemic times, the majority of teaching staff have been forced into delivering their courses in full time online mode, and guess what… it works rather well… Although we do not get the face-to-face in-class room interaction and social contact, the virtual classrooms have higher attendance, and even if it proves hard to get up to attend a 10am class, you can always watch it on demand. The new business models of international education, in my humble opinion, will move towards significant partnerships between content rich Universities and those higher education institutions in countries of great need that require content and educational delivery expertise to service their local populations. Rather than higher value – low volumenumbers of students travelling to foreign locations, the new model of creating shared value will be lower value – high volumenumbers of students. Those students will (can) be educated in their home towns and continue to live and immediately add value to their local communities, whilst benefitting from deep content knowledge and educational expertise of leading Universities. The shared value created in a post-pandemic world will be (or should be!) that many millions more will gain access to much cheaper high-quality education. Fewer students from wealthy backgrounds may still travel to cosmopolitan cities and their high-profile universities to enjoy a premium educational experience, but the real opportunity is to deliver quality education to the masses that have not had access to higher education before. The business models of (Australian) universities will therefore have to dramatically change… but those who do this in a reimagined and swift manner, may be better for it! More impact, whilst generating more resources to invest into regenerating a healthier planet and creating shared value.

Now let’s have a further look at my academic field of inquiry and education – international sport business. What is the competitive opportunity delivered by the disruption caused by the pandemic for the global sport industry? The current focus is very much on survival, and let’s be honest, there will be many victims in the short term. This is not because sport as a platform for playing, spectating or even business (sponsoring, marketing) communication will fall out of favour with its various target markets. On the contrary, I believe that sport as a platform will thrive for the simple reason that the pandemic has shown us the importance of being physically active – for physical, mental and social health reasons. The lack of community sport engagement has also further emphasised the social role(s) that sport participation plays in bringing (minority and dominant) communities together. However, as noted, there will be many short-term victims because the business models that underpin pre-pandemic community and professional sport have been over reliant on member registration fees and spectator admission fees. Without the sport activity happening there is no sport business. Stated differently, where sport producing organisations have been able to continue, or redirect their efforts towards providing opportunities to engage in the sport activity, their ability to produce revenues has also continued. One subindustry of accelerated growth therefore has been e-sports where the limitation of physical presence does not exist. Other sports such as running, cycling and even tennis and cricket have done relatively well because of their limited ‘physical contact’ compared to full contact sports. The main challenge for spectator sport remains that business success depends on mass gatherings in stadiums and around the weekend playing fields of amateur competitions.  Playing and spectating opportunities will remain limited, at least until a vaccine will ease pressure on social distancing. 

Like my views on the higher education sector expressed earlier, I believe that sport cannot and should not hope for things to return to how they were before, and rebuild their businesses using the same business models. Again, applying the insights from Rebecca Henderson on a reimagined capitalism to sport, the future of sport business will heavily rely on creating (better) shared value, and will be underpinned by three-way partnerships between (community and elite) sport organisations, government, and business organisations. The big problem that requires a solution is one where access to sport and regular physical activity is broadened to all layers of society and not only to those who can afford the increasing fees that sport organisations will have to start charging if sport is left to its own devices. The social responsibilities of big business extend to the health and wellbeing of their employees but also to the communities that they derive their profits from. Generating better shared value would result from better collaboration with, and to a certain extent resourcing of the operations of community sport organisations. The partnership with local, regional and federal governments could include legislating some of this resource transfer. For example, India became the first country in the world in 2014 with government legislation that requires corporate business to spend 2% of their profits on corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects. Sport has since then been identified as an area of justified CSR spending. It is beyond the scope of this article to assess the overall success of this legislation but it is worth noting that after the legislation came in place, spending on CSR projects significantly increased. For now, the principle applies and offers scope to further define and determine how partnerships between sport, government, and corporations can create business models that make engagement in sport less vulnerable to the effects of major disruptive events such as a pandemic. Similar business models would apply to professional sport, where the major generator of revenue remains the opportunity to distribute professional sport through mass media platforms, increasingly with the availability of sophisticated digital technologies. We may well have the opportunity to go back to times when we crammed 100.000 people into seats of a stadium up close and personal. However, to depend on gate receipts as a (too) significant part of overall revenues, seems folly and should be avoided. I have, together with some of my colleagues, proposed over a decade ago, that digital technology combined with artificial intelligence will allow for the creation of virtual spectator environments where the ‘live’ experience will come increasingly closer to the ‘real’ thing. It may not be perfect (yet), but if the pandemic rules that we cannot go to the stadium, we can bring the stadium home. 

As expertly explained by Rebecca Henderson, shared value in the true sense of the concept can present a solution to many industries struggling with our dominant version of capitalism. I have tried to apply this to the higher education and sport industries in this short opinion piece. Beyond creating shared value, I have advocated that better and deeper collaboration between stakeholders further presents a way forward towards new business models, rather than hoping to return to the ways that things were. The reality is, the good old times are gone, and we need to look forward to creating the better new times. 



In a disrupted world, can a return to sport (business) provide hope and perspective?

(with Rochelle Eime, a shorter version of this article was published in the Herald Sun on 22 May 2020)

Unlike the definition of disruption, which reads along the lines of ‘a disturbance or problem that interrupt…’, it seems that during the last decade the world has quietly slipped into a comprehensive state of disrepair. Only when the worst bushfires in modern history hit the South East of Australia this year, did some people start to wake up to the reality of ecological disruption. And then COVID-19 hit, a human health crisis predicted by few and expected by even fewer. The pandemic has laid bare the global disruption that has crept up on humanity like a sniper, and hit us straight between the eyes. Suddenly post-neoliberal erratic political disruption has combined with economic depression, ecological disaster, social distancing and digital transformation – the latter the only force for the good in the current crisis (for the time being). All in all the perfect storm. 

Many industries have been hit hard as a result of having to socially distance individuals and communities in order to avoid health system overload. One of the most immediate, and still worst hit areas of business and community activity has been sport. Professional spectator sport and community-based participation sport had to stop operating overnight, and what seemed to be an untouchable and perennially healthy business model, was laid bare by the pandemic to be utterly vulnerable when being shut down. For community sport, the absence of weekly competition structures and development activities shut down community organised sport business immediately. As competitions are driven by State and National Sports governing bodies, and funded by individual player membership or registration fees, no competition means quick evaporation of cash flow. In professional sport, with players not playing there are no spectators who pay and no media to report, then there is no business to be done.  

However, some have argued that the pandemic offers the best opportunity to, for once and for all, advocate the fundamental place of sport in society. The pandemic is an advertisement for why physical activity, being physically active, and engaging in playful or competitive sport-like activities is vital to maintain or improve one’s physical, mental and social health and wellbeing. Since schools and businesses have been forced to send students and employees home, and health and fitness operators have not been allowed to open their doors to the public, one of the overriding (government and health) messages has been to remain physically active and engage in frequent exercise. Exercising has been one of only four reasons for Australians to be ‘allowed’ outdoors during stage 4 pandemic restrictions. Health promotion experts have long been crying out for politicians to focus on physical activity as a public health priority, to combat a range of chronic diseases that are crippling our health system and the health of individuals. But never before have so many people longed for the days that the parks and sporting fields could be utilised at will, and not in modern history have families engaged together in walking, running, cycling or park fitness than during these pandemic times. 

So being able to play sport and being physically active is important. Ironically, sport has not before been in a better position to showcase the value that it adds to communities. Sport organisations have the chance to be among the first to deliver hope and perspective to individuals and communities that are getting tired, anxious, impatient and stressed as a result of forced isolation from what was considered a normal life. The lifting of pandemic restrictions will only partly answer the question of how sport will return? Which sports will return first to baseline operations, and how will we play sport throughout ongoing social distancing measures? What are the risks, rewards, opportunities and challenges? Some of those questions will hopefully be answered when we complete a research project that is run by Victoria, Federation, and Flinders Universities investigating the physical, mental and social health of active and non-active Australians before, during and after social distancing measures were put in place. 

Some further answers are provided by David Hughes, who is the Chief Medical officer at the Australian Institute of Sport, and one of the architects of the Framework for rebooting sport in a COVID-19 environment. In this Framework a roadmap is presented for how sport can re-start its operations. The AIS Framework recommends a staged approach (Level A, B, C) where every level requires a risk assessment management, an analysis of safe environments and education of participants. It must be noted that the AIS Framework is about the ‘how’ and ‘when’ of returning to sport, it is not about how sport business can and will be conducted in the near future, nor does it consider the underpinning business models that fund and deliver sport.

In that regard and for what it is worth, wespeculate that community sport clubs will return first to a base level of business operation. As they are mainly run by (parent) volunteers, they will also have the immediate capacity to get children and adults back on the field to start training and engage in informal competition. This will not require massive funding injections. State and national sport governing bodies will be confronted by difficult (community) questions of what the immediate value is that they add to sport and that community members pay registration fees for. Those clubs that return to the core business of community sport – to play, enjoy playing, socialise together and connect the community – will thrive and outperform clubs and associations that focus on performance, premierships and player payments. 

Government, but also the health (insurance) and education sectors will more than ever realise the value that sport delivers to their business. Resilient communities, lower health costs and higher educational (and job!) performance as a result of being physically active may well stimulate structural investment in safeguarding community sport delivery from external shocks such as a pandemic. For example, government may decide it has to invest in the back office operations of sport governing bodies, and put government employed staff on the payroll to ensure the continuity of service to community sport clubs during times of extreme disruption.

Elite or professional sport will have its own challenges. Already there is widespread talk about the salary costs of professional athletes having to come down, or if nothing else, partly invest player payments in crisis funds that are kept by the league or player associations. In various professional leagues there is serious debate about the size of player lists and if there really is a need for the high number of specialist high performance department staff and also those in the administrative back office. Lean, mean and agile may well become the key concepts of sport business model transformation. 

In the end, we believe that communities will flock back to sport, and that demand for sport may increase (at least temporarily). If done right/well, sport can provide a unique opportunity to individuals and communities to come together, to play, to help each other, and to build resilience and resistance, first when social distancing is further relaxed and eventually post-COVID-19, to improve individual and community health. As for any good crisis, sport should not waste this one to expand its societal scope to include health, a ‘new’ focus that sport has largely neglected at the expense of building highly paid star player lists and striving for premiership flags. 

From a sport business perspective, it will be interesting to see which sports will ride this wave and which sports will drop off the back of it. This will partly be on the governing boards and executive managers but also be determined by the rules and format of the sport (game) itself – how easy is it to play the game and also, does the sport offer scope for social distance? Some sports will be better suited to offer health, fun, hope and perspective, and shall rise to prominence as they show to be more fail proof than others in times of disruptive crisis. 

Some of the issues raised in this article are debated on the 26thof May, when the Sport Australia Hall of Fame and Victoria University, in partnership with Sport Australia and the Australian Institute of Sport, organise the 5thNational Sport Integrity Forum. The Forum is hosted on the Zoom platform and livestreamed on Facebook. The theme for this year’s Forum is ‘a return to sport: risks, rewards, opportunities and challenges’. 

Hong Kong and the power of sport


The power of sport has been underplayed by those contending that sport is merely a frivolous pastime for the relatively few who can afford the leisure of it. Recent events in Hong Kong and by extension in China, have once again proven this naiveite to be wrong. Months of mostly non-violent uprising by freedom of speech cherishing natives of the former British ruled enclave have been elevated to a whole new level of global prominence. This happened when a senior NBA executive from the Houston Rockets tweeted his support for the pro-democracy protestors. Interesting side note to this is the fact that Chinese superstar Yao Ming played for the Rockets between 2002 and 2011 boosting the popularity of both the club and the league in China. At present, business in China amounts to about $US4 billion annually for the NBA. 

Although the initial response from the NBA and the Rockets was to distance themselves from the tweet – US bipartisan critique on this weak reply by the NBA facilitated a more considered response. NBA boss Adam Silver noted that the tweet was an ‘expression of free speech’ and as such conforming to American values. In Japan, where the Rockets played the Raptors, Silver told reporters that the NBA would not compromise its values on freedom of speech and that money was not the only thing driving them. In a world where most foreign companies would quickly yield to the demands of government and corporates in the biggest consumer market in the world, the NBA response at present has become quite remarkable.  

Hong Kong, as a former British colony, was handed back to China in 1997. However, it maintained its judiciary and separate (from China) legal system including rights of assembly and freedom of speech. This ‘Basic Law’ expires in 2047, and the protests in many ways are preludes to the decision-making process about the judicial and legal future of Hong Kong. 

I admire the Confucian mindset of the Chinese people (work hard, delay gratification, care for current and future generations). I am in awe of the economic miracle instigated by the present and past leaders of China, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. I question top-down unilateral decision-making (as a principle: anywhere, any place, anytime). I fear and object to the withholding of (any) information that should be available to anybody wanting to make up their own mind (having said that, the powerful impact of non-evidence based/incorrect/propaganda and so-called fake news show how naïve and easily manipulated most of us are). 

The power of sport – its global reach and popularity (in China as well) – has brought the issue of access to information and the freedom to interpret and express opinion about this information to the global front pages. Hong Kong is an enclave of cultural, political, social and demographic hybridity between Confucius and the philosophical genes of the ancient Greeks, Romans and Erasmus. In a way Hong Kong is the living proof that mixing the long term (head down, work hard, delay rewards) with the short term (enjoy now, live in context, make your own luck) is a way of living and institutional system (forgive my simplification but is it called liberal democracy!?) that works (and could work) for many generations to come. 

The NBA and its stars have underestimated their power to influence, yet may have overshot the target. By solely focusing on how the Chinese government is trying to bring Hong Kong back into the fold, within their direct sphere of legal power, they may have missed the opportunity to acknowledge the miracle that has (and continues to) lift(ed) millions out of poverty. 

The power of sport is exemplified by the fact that a tweet by an NBA Club manager created more global communication about the Hong Kong uprising than the protests themselves. Let’s keep Hong Kong the democratic and economic powerhouse that it is. The Chinese government could and should take the global response to discontent in Hong Kong to heart and consider bringing Confucius together with Erasmus – their values and philosophies align. Free speech, access to information, self-determination, and autonomy, benevolence, non-maleficence and justice will lead the way to long term prosperity for most. Then Hong Kong may well turn out to be the perfect experiment uniting the old East with the old West into cultural, social, and political unity.   

The rights of athletes and the rising power of the stars

Where the loss of democracy in society at large presents clear and present danger, the counter balancing movement of crumbling autocratic and self-regulated power in international sport governing bodies delivers a much-needed opportunity towards developing transparency and accountability in world sport. Long-time established sport governing bodies such as national and international federations are starting to lose their almost absolute control and stranglehold on the development and management of their sport. An example is the exposure of widespread corruption in FIFA and the resultant charging and arrest of several corrupt FIFA Board members including the downfall of its former President Sepp Blatter. The most recent arrest of former UEFA President Michel Platini shows that these (corruption) issues don’t just go away either. Another example of an emerging loss of absolute power is a ruling by the German Cartel Office in February 2019 in regard to Rule 40 of the Olympic charter. The bye-law paragraph 3 states that “Except as permitted by the IOC Executive Board, no competitor, coach, trainer or official who participates in the Olympic Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games”. 

The German Cartel Office ruling stated that Rule 40 of the Olympic charter was too far reaching and the office released German athletes from having to clear their personal marketing activities with their National Olympic Committee when preparing for and participating in the Olympic Games. The President of the German Cartel Office explained that “We ensure that the advertising opportunities of German athletes and their sponsors during the Olympic Games, which the DOSB [German Olympic Sports Federation] and IOC significantly restricted in the past, are extended. While athletes are the key figures of Olympic Games, they cannot benefit directly from the IOC's high advertising revenue generated with official Olympic sponsors”. The Cartel Office stated that IOC and DOSB should be subject to competition law.

On the 27thof June the IOC announced it will amend bye-law paragraph 3 to read: “Competitors, team officials and other team personnel who participate in the Olympic Games may allow their person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games in accordance with the principles determined by the IOC Executive Board.” It can (and will) be argued that this is merely a paraphrasing of the original text, where the power still firmly lies with the IOC Board, but the fact remains that more equal distribution of power and resources has firmly been set on the agenda. This is further exemplified by the rise of international, or even global athlete advocacy. A start-up athlete representation organisation called Global Athlete sent out a press release on the 11thof April 2019 wishing: “the athletes that have been invited to attend the International Olympic Committee’s International Athletes' Forum in Lausanne (13-15 April 2019) the best of success for constructive and open dialogue to further enhance the rights of athletes. With the current global surge in the athlete voice for positive progress, the time for meaningful change is now upon us. This is an important opportunity for athletes from around the world to come together and discuss emerging issues that are deeply affecting the collective international athlete population; issues that have spurred the athlete community to speak up for change like never before”. Again, one may withhold judgement on how well this new organisation represents a collective athlete voice, but the fact remains that the time probably is there that “a new international athlete-led movement [can] inspire and lead positive change in world sport, and collectively address the balance of power between athletes and administrators. [Global Athlete] aim to help athletes gain a more represented voice in world sport, recognising that the neglection and suppression of the athlete voice has gone on for too long”. (at

Research by Victoria University and Tennis Australia has found that beyond the star power of global tennis stars – for example as measured by their ranking or the number of followers they have on social media – some athletes more than others possess the power to significantly influence the level of engagement on social media. No better example than the current case of fallen rugby star Israel Folau, who has generated a media storm and a massively divided debate on the issue of freedom of expression. Folau was sacked on the 17thof May by Rugby Australia (RA) for posting a message on Instagram that included a reference that ‘hell awaits homosexuals’. RA described the post as a high-level breach of the Professional Rugby Players’ Code of Conduct. The point of course is that the ‘influencer’ Israel Folau, as a professional athlete greatly extends beyond his sport. He has ignited and continues to fuel a National debate that divides radical/rigid Christians from more enlightened believers and non-believers. The rise of global athletes who have amazing influence is here to stay, and most likely will continue to rise. The (mostly unexpected) sensational fundraising success by Folau to fund his legal campaign has further sparked debate and action, to the extent that comedian Magda Szubanski set up a counter fundraising page at On their page they express the core of the debate that Folau, by his actions has sparked.

“Our Australian community is diverse, accepting, powerful, and generous. It's that spirit for which we should be known, and it's with those values that we should be donating our time and money.Fundraising efforts which seek to divide us divert time and energy from those in real, immediate need. There are too many in Australia in the "fight of their lives" - doing their best to survive, and not seeking the chance to put others down.We are a diverse group of people; a united team of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Atheists - some gay and some straight. 90% of funds raised will go to the Children's Cancer Foundation, which distributes grants for research, patient care, and family support.10% of funds raised will go to Twenty10, which provides health, legal, and housing services (among others) to people of diverse sexualities and gender identities”.

The emerging democratisation of National and International sport governing bodies is a good thing. The increasing voice that athletes have in that process, about how their sport is developed, promoted, commercialised, and shared is an important input into and output resulting from such democratisation. However, we should not forget that with great(er) power comes great(er) responsibility. By the way, I donated to ForLove

Forever young - how older Australians can turn back the clock (with Rochelle Eime)

Sport Australia has just delivered $23 million to its Better Ageing program, aimed at encouraging older Australians to participate more in sport and physical activity. In terms of a broader health policy, this seems like a good fit. Australians are ageing rapidly as the 3.7 million residents now aged 65 or older (or 15% of the population) is expected to boom to 8.7 million people or 22% of all Australians by 2056. According to the Better Ageing program, this group does not currently receive consistent and timely information about how and why participation in physical activity is important. Research shows that physical activity in later life has significant cardiovascular and metabolic health benefits, and helps to control weight and combat chronic diseases, reducing the huge and increasing pressure on our health system, and therefore our economy too.

We  also know that participation in sport, particularly club and team-based sport, can contribute to a range of psychological and social health benefits for adults that extend above and beyond the improvements attributed to participation in physical activity. This is due to the social nature of participation in club and team-based sport. Recent research on the benefits of participation in sport for older adults highlights that social health benefits are most prominent, followed by physical and mental health. Sport for older adults can be a great vehicle to improved social connectedness and reduced social isolation. Comments from older sport participants in this study revealed that:

 “It’s the social aspect that keeps me going.”

“We come together for the socialisation, don’t we?”

“I think the club sort of becomes your extended family.”

Yet, despite these benefits, few adults and even fewer older adults play organised, community club-based sport. Compared to the 40% of 10 to 14-year-olds who take part in sport in this country (Australia’s peak age group for sport participation) only 1.2% of Australians aged 50 to 54 play sport. This drops even further with age, with fewer than 0.5% of adults over 55 participating in any of Australia’s 12 most popular community sports that include Australian Rules Football, basketball, cricket, bowls, tennis, hockey, gymnastics, golf, sailing, netball, swimming and soccer.

Australia’s sport governance and policy-making body recently rebranded from the Australian Sport Commission to Sport Australia. Its new 12-year national sports plan, Sport 2030  highlights that Australian sport policy must for the first time ever, extend well beyond just the games of ‘sport.’Sport 2030’s ambitious goal is to get Australians not only moving more, but to make Australia the world’s most active sporting nation, known for its “integrity, vibrant participation base, thriving sports organisations and its elite competitive results.” If realised, this plan could deliver significant health outcomes for individuals, communities and the nation. The policy has shifted from focusing on participation in traditional community club-based sport – which is largely a competition model – to a broader definition of ‘sport’ that includes leisure-time physical activity outside clubs. So as well as traditional, structured sports, the plan brings new and evolving activities such as ‘ninja’-style obstacle courses and stand-up-paddle boarding under the umbrella of ‘sport’.

But how does such a significant long-term investment benefit older Australians and realise the mandate of the Better Ageing program? Will Sport 2030 identify and develop more recreation-based activities for older Australians? As the national policy has never focused on this group before, one easy option may be to promote more pursuits such as ‘walking’ sports as suitable activities for seniors rather than to modify the traditional form of the sport and creatively develop activities for this group. To date, sport governing bodies have strategically focused on children, young people, and elite athletes. Older adults for the vast majority of national and state sporting associations are simply not a priority, in part because they do not  have resources to focus on them.  Societal perceptions that sport isn’t for older adults also act as a barrier.

As Australia’s sport industry is handed the Better Ageing funding, it has an opportunity to make a sustainable difference to older Australians by carefully researching and identifying the distinct needs, desires and capabilities of this long-ignored sector. What about modifying cricket with shorter wickets and game times, and a softer ball for example? Clubs and communities must also have the right infrastructure to accommodate older adults, such as ramps or handrails. We’ve learned from the booming popularity of women’s football that investing in certain groups can certainly drive demand, but there was an obvious oversight when enthusiastic new players are required to use change rooms with open urinals. We also must consider the social needs of this group. Older Australians have different reasons for participating in sport, and a 65-year-old doesn’t want to play against a 20-year old even though they may both be lumped together in an ‘adult’ league.

The Better Ageing program is commendable, but without sustainable policy and governance changes at all levels, attempts to encourage older Australians into sport and other physical activities risk falling over once this investment stops.


Sport 2030 – will Australia regain its leading sport nation status?

On the first of August 2018 the Minister for Sport, the Honourable Bridget McKenzie (@senbmckenzie), launched the long awaited National Sports Plan, or ‘Sport 2030’ – for Australia to be(come) the world’s most active and healthy sporting nation, known for its integrity and sporting success. Around the traps it was clear that the plan had been doing the rounds for a while. The public release of the much anticipated ‘Review of Australia’s Sports Integrity Arrangements’ was also long overdue. The delays were justified by the Minister due to the significant importance of both reports, and the consequent requirement for government collaboration across various portfolios including Home Affairs and the Attorney General’s office. The review of integrity is part of the bigger national sport plan and is targeted at ‘safeguarding the integrity of sport’ part of the agenda.

I can call myself an academic and consulting veteran of sport business and management, having done almost 30 years in three different Australian Universities and four international tertiary institutions, and a successful 5-year stint at private sport business consulting as well – in and outside of Australia. But I started my career as a physical education teacher, during the times that in the Netherlands, and also in Australia some ‘wise’ politicians sought to redirect resources in the primary and secondary school systems by phasing out mandatory physical education classes, taught by specialised PE teachers. I have been in this industry long enough to have witnessed the short-term gain (Sydney 2000) to be had from investing a lot of high performance money in the last generation of children who had regular PE lessons at school. Ever since Sydney 2000 the Australian Olympic medal tally has been shrinking. This can only in part be explained by increasing competition from other nations investing in their high-performance systems. With a relatively small talent pool (26 million), Australia needs to make the best out of its potential, and if the talent pool is shrinking because young Australians cannot run, catch, throw, jump and coordinate their movements in the way that previous generations had learnt to do, then that surely explains lack of podium success.

Although the strategic priorities of the Sport 2030 plan seem straightforward, digging deeper into the mission and targets set by the rebranded Australian Sports Commission – now Sport Australia – provides a window into an exciting future for Australian sport. More people from cradle to grave engaged in sport and physical activity; a recast high-performance system that is empowered to achieve success for sports and for athletes; a whole of system approach to safeguarding competitive sport from illegal interference and exploitation; and a successful sport ecosystem – the in-vogue word for ‘industry’ – that is capable of delivering sustainable social and economic benefits to Australians. What does this deliver? Sport 2030 aims to build strong communities, made up of strong, enabled and empowered individuals who are physically and mentally healthy, facilitated by and in a sport and recreation environment that delivers economic and social value.

Just words you may argue. Sure, like any strategy, easy to put on paper but hard to execute. However, this is the first strategy document by the Australian government since I arrived in Australia in 1994, where the expressed focus is not (only) on achieving elite sporting success. And there is also a fresh wind blowing through the corridors of Sport Australia power. Both the Board and the rebuilt Executive Team at Sport Australia have taken the bull by the horns, and collectively turned realisation (that more of the same is not good enough) into action. The AIS has been credited with achieving amazing success during the first two decades of its life, but in an open admission by the Minister in Canberra, has lost its way during the past decade, and is in need of a complete rethink (which is happening as we speak). Sport Australia’s Board and AIS management are actively negotiating with State and Federal government about what to keep and what to sell on the massive AIS parcel of land. How can Canberra based management of the AIS better service a National elite system? How to empower and enable the range of stakeholders in Australian elite sport, to better perform their function in the system? This as opposed to basing all people and services out of Canberra.

Unlike earlier versions, the National Plan hardly talks about the traditional ways of growing participation in sport (through NSOs and SSOs) but rather, outlines a required focus on ensuring that all Australian children have the skills, confidence and motivation to be active for life and safe in the water. This can also be done by reducing barriers to sport and physical activity participation. And note the structural inclusion of ‘physical activity’ throughout the document – an acknowledgement that before sport participation comes confidence and desire to be physically active. There is also emphasis in the plan on investing in sport and recreation facilities – not merely ‘build it and they will come’, but with a focus on ‘universal design’ so that sport is accessible to all Australians.

In regard to the sport industry as a whole, there is an acknowledgement that some existing practice, like hosting and organising major sporting events in Australia and extending Australia’s sport diplomacy strategy, will require continued support and investment. More novel though are the intentions to collect data, evidence and insights to promote how active, sporting and healthy Australians are and could be, and also to actively increase the sport industry workforce capabilities. These latter intentions offer tremendous scope for Universities, but also for vocational and secondary school providers to partner with Sport Australia.

Last but not least… safeguarding the integrity of sport. At the foundation of this should be contemporary and efficient governance systems. Highlighted in the plan is also a focus on protecting children in sporting environments – an open acknowledgement that there are (and may be more) problems underneath the veil of a club-based delivery system of sport. A system that is insufficiently equipped and prepared for predators using the cover of ‘fun and healthy sport’ to satisfy their sick desires. Or indeed, physical sporting environments that do not live up to the health and safety standards that ensure an acceptable level of injury risk.

However, the major advancement of Australian sport may well come from the recommendations outlined in the Review of Australia’s Integrity Arrangements, in short, the Wood Review. There are 52 recommendations for the Australian government to consider, covering five action themes that go to the heart of integrity (safeguarding). First a National Sports Integrity Commission should be established, resourced and equipped to be the single platform that regulates, monitors, develops and delivers policy around integrity. Second, the Review recommends the establishment of an independent National Sports Tribunal, including an anti-doping, general, and appeals division. Third, the Review recommends deeper investment in the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) to invest in anti-doping education and outreach to younger athletes, and to streamline anti-doping procedures and change the ASADA-Act to more effectively carry out the organisation’s duties. Fourth, the government should establish an Australian Sports Wagering Scheme, governed and run by the new Integrity Commission, to ensure that wagering legislation and policy is formulated, guided and executed in a transparent and consistent manner. Finally, at the core of the matter, Australia should sign up to the Council of Europe Convention on the Manipulation of Sports Competitions (the Macolin Convention) as a first step towards a strong response to match fixing and the corruption that is underpinned by it. This will allow better international engagement in combatting match-fixing and illegal gambling, but equally important, drive the national discussion and agenda on tackling the range of criminal behaviours that threaten sport’s integrity.

The proof is in the pudding – good old adage – and as such, very true. Where from here? How will Sport Australia’s management and governors take this ambitious, and enlightening plan to the next phase, and find the resources to implement it in a sustainable fashion, so that its effect can be traced all the way to 2030 and beyond? This is an opportunity for a bold, forward and long term thinking government, way beyond their electoral survival, to invest in the wellbeing and welfare of Australians for generations to come. Not only will this bring medals to Australian young athletes, but it will make Australia’s education and health policies the envy of the obese and sedentary (rest) of the world, and indeed safeguard the future of the lucky country.

I have seen the future (of sport) and it is about sustainability and analytics

The grass is always greener on the other side… Or is it? I am on my way back home – to Melbourne – the most liveable city in the world as judged by a panel of wise women and men. And indeed, I live and love living in Melbourne (@cityofmelbourne) because of how great a city it is, with so much culture, art, sport, shopping, food and nature on offer, and so many business opportunities to pursue (@WhatsOnMelb). But it remains interesting that to date I have missed the amazing story of my former home town, the City of Groningen (@gem_groningen), in the Netherlands. I guess I had to move away from the place where I spent 12 years of my life as a student and young professional to fully appreciate how green the grass really is back there.

Earlier in the week I had spent a couple of days in Amsterdam, at the Sport Analytics World Series (@Sporting_Data) co-produced by KPMG (@KPMG). At this event, I was observing and engaging with a host of digital economy literates, who are transforming the landscape of sport business as we speak. Don’t hold me to the number I will present next as I took it from a slide that was presented at the conference, but during the past decade the business of traditional sport (delivered by clubs, national associations, federations and event owners) grew by about 70%. Pretty good growth rate wouldn’t you say? Well, the sport business value generated by the ‘new’ industry entrants (sport tech apps and devices, new sports, new events, gaming, gambling, esport, digital distribution etc.) has grown almost 900% and is likely to keep outpacing the ‘traditional’ owners of sport for some time to come. This means that those who own ‘digital’, ‘data’, and ‘data transformation’ will also increasingly own sport business. If you can’t profile your increasingly diverse range of sport consumer segments, then you will also rapidly become irrelevant as a sport content producer. So, on the one hand, the future of sport is digital but we knew that, right? Digital, and data combined with artificial intelligence will disrupt the current order of power and transform the way in which we consume sport. But beyond the digital, I believe, will always remain the real thing, so beyond a digital future, I continue to see a natural, and as such human future for sport.

During the latter stages of last week, I returned to Groningen for a couple of days, catching up with one of my PhD students, and spending a rare and delightful weekend with my sister and her family. The weather was awesome – unDutchlike sunny and warm – and I extensively took advantage of the number 1 Dutch preferred mode of transport, the pushbike. And my goodness, how green the grass really is in Groningen (and many other municipalities around the Netherlands for that matter). My family resides on the outskirts of the suburb of Lewenborg, where water abundantly cuts through the farm and wetlands, and where working windmills and locks control the flow of water from high to lower lands. If the Eskimos can distinguish between hundred shades of white, then the people from Groningen must be able to do so for the colour green.

What impressed me to no end though, is how the City and Provincial governments (with funding support from Lottery (@PostcodeLoterij), and National (@Rijksoverheid) and EU (@EUCouncil) governments) have regulated and facilitated the land to be returned to its original state, and to bring sustainable harmony between the human and animal residents that live there. Farmers are paid to grow a 2-meter-wide ring of wildflowers around their land to bring the bees back to do their essential pollination job. To house bees and fellow bugs, there are ‘insect’ houses located along the highways – wooden constructions that provide protective and attractive cover for flying creepy crawlers, away from the main residential areas to ensure that the public is not disturbed.

Although it seems that there is a lot of roadworks going on, further investigation tells me that the City has embarked on a three-year construction project that will see a number of main streets and highways ‘sink’ into the ground, to be covered by residential housing and green space. The vision is to return the City to those who walk, cycle, and those who use sustainable public transport. There is a busline that runs electric busses, charged at the final stop by solar panels on the terminal. The terminal is built at a major parking lot where commuting workers park to take the bus into the city trouble free.

In various suburbs, natural gas dependent households are being phased out (also because of recent earthquakes that are blamed on excessive natural gass drilling in the region). Any yet to be built housing will be designed and constructed ‘gas free’, running on solar generated energy only. If self-generated solar energy is not sufficient then residents can ‘buy’ a stake in a windfarm that will supply the remainder of required electricity. Blocks of hundreds of houses surrounded by water and connected by bridges, are fitted with solar roof panels as a rule rather than an exception, increasingly capable of supplying all of the household’s electricity needs. Older residences without solar capacity receive a government subsidy to fit their roofs with sun soaking cells or indeed, spend this money on double glazing or insulation. Shower and sink water is directed into the surrounding water planes where it is naturally filtered by the sandy soil and special wetland filters, before it is being returned to domestic use. Such water is also used to maintain some of the perfectly laid out pitches of the local soccer club – FC Lewenborg (@FCLewenborg) -  and you could mistake this facility for a professional club, if you did not already know that the Netherlands have some of the best, if not the best, community sport and recreation infrastructure in the world. Noteworthy is that the football club uses a combination of real and artificial turf pitches, to allow for maximum flexibility during extreme freezing or excessive rain conditions.

Leisurely riding your pushbike around City and countryside, without the stress of having to negotiate angry and ignorant drivers of cars is a sheer delight (Melbourne eat your heart out…). It is enabled by the fact that dedicated bike lanes in the city, and separate bike paths in the countryside communicate that those who ride bikes rule the road. FC Lewenborg’s facilities are picturesquely positioned within the wetlands, surrounded by grazing Scottish highlanders (who may end up on your plate as organic free ranging beef), and connected to the City by several smaller Futsal courts that are extensively used by the local youths. Holland may not be playing at the World Cup this year, but if enabling participation is a key success factor to qualifying for the World Cup, then the mighty Orange (@KNVB) will be back with a vengeance.

So really, I return to a City that can have it all and is working hard to make that happen. I have just seen the future, and it has been right on my doorstep without me realising it. I actually lived there for a while, when admittedly, the future seemed or was projected vastly different from the one we are facing today. But to touch and feel a microcosm of how a sustainable future could work, that it actually can be done, is both heartening and exciting. Of course, at present, such dedicated sustainability thinking and execution remains limited to a number of (small, wealthy and quite democratic) countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, to name a few (or to name the few?). But to see how small communities can quickly reach a tipping point of cheap solar energy, integrated and productive green space, and active transport prioritised suburban design, in which community sport is presented as a centre piece, is nothing short of spectacular. 

Is India the sleeping giant of world sport?

If the size of a nation’s population is an indicator of the talent pool for elite sporting success, then India should be alongside China on the Olympic medal rankings. But it is not. Whilst China consistently appears in the top three of medal rankings, India is painfully absent from the top 20, hovering around 50th spot for the majority of its Olympic history. This to the increasing discontent of government and a selection of proud Indian billionaires. 

I had a long-held desire to travel to India since I was first caught by the travel and exploration bug during the late 1980s. Like it said in a recent advertising campaign to lure tourists to the country – ‘the thousand colours of India’ had a magical attraction on me. It took another two decades for me to get there, where the multitude of colours and sometimes shocking contrast between beauty and poverty got me hooked on the country.

Six months before the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games (CG) I got my first dose of India, speaking at a conference that celebrated and debated the upcoming event. It was going to be the biggest sporting event ever to be hosted by India. On the dedicated Games website, it was noted by the organisers that “hosting a sporting event at a scale such as the Commonwealth Games is a matter of international prestige for the country, and is bound to boost brand India”. They (the CG organisers) further argued that “improved infrastructure and appearance of the host city, and global media exposure will serve to transform the image of the city” and that “another legacy of the Games will be the social, economic and physical regeneration of Delhi. The Games will help to boost urban renewal, create jobs, increase investment and transform the landscape of the city”.

Today, in 2018, those who ran the event and were responsible for its legacy will probably have come to the realisation that those objectives were laudable, yet completely out of sync with the conditions that such objectives can be achieved in. Delhi and its governors found out the hard way that “the Games will [not] leave behind dramatically improved, world-class sports facilities that generations of Indian sportspersons can use in the future”. And also, that “the establishment of an Olympic-size pool as well as a gym in the Delhi University will [not] boost sports among the youth of Delhi” ([not] added by me). The final and overriding objective for hosting the Games, that “… the legacy of the XIX Commonwealth Games 2010 Delhi will be to boost the sports culture as a part of the daily life of every Indian, particularly the youth”, made me realise that the Commonwealth Games turned out to be the cart before the horse for Delhi and for India. It further sparked my desire and ambition to not only study sport infrastructure and delivery systems in developing economies, but it also made me realise that India was the perfect ‘happening in real life’ case study.

One of the prime conditions that is required for a major international event such as the Commonwealth Games, to achieve ambitious objectives such as those formulated by the Delhi organisers, is to have a vibrant community sport culture. A culture that is enabled by another condition: basic community sport infrastructure so that opportunities to play are abundant and accessible for all, but in particular for the young people. Beyond a natural desire to play and compete in purpose built facilities, one needs a large cohort of coaches who have received proper training and who can advance their skills via a well-developed coach accreditation track. Finally, if a nation is to advance its elite sporting success, it is also important that the young and talented can test their skills in well organised competitions – some of which played and paid at the professional level so that it can be watched on multi-media platforms by (paying) spectators.

I have been back to India many times since 2010. One has to realise that although India is one nation, it consists of 29 States and 7 Territories, all in their own right could be (and in some ways probably are) separate nations. If the Delhi Commonwealth Games had long lasting outcomes, than at least it ignited a burning ambition for India to be successful on the world stage. The great challenges that came with organising the event also created a sense of realism amongst a small group of government insiders – that you can’t just expect that hosting a major event, hiring some foreign coaches and building a pool or a biomechanics lab automatically leads to Olympic success.

Greatly facilitated by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (@dfat) and Austrade (@AustradeIndia ) there has been an influx of foreign experts aiming to help build India’s elite sporting system(s), including myself and a number of my colleagues, and some State governments have started to realise that sport (participation) system foundations come before advancing the elite sport development and delivery system. Our work with the State government of Kerala (population 36 million) started with thinking about how Kerala athletes could win more medals at National and International events. However, our Kerala colleagues came to realise that working to create participation opportunities at the grassroots level was equally, if not more important. We are now about to start working with 50 former Kerala athletes every year who will receive training in various disciplines such as community event management, local facility management, foundational coaching, and marketing communication, before they enter into a guaranteed government job in local sport. The sporting system is built from the ground up rather than from the top down. Of course, working at the foundation does not stop one working (and translating knowledge) at the elite end of the spectrum, but for the system to grow as a whole, the young represent the future. A hugely important side effect of this approach is that it grows the skills base and employment opportunities in a nascent industry where parents still are reluctant to let their kids play sport because of the perceived lack of economic opportunity.

In the State of Punjab we are working on another project. Here we are focusing on young coaches across a number of (high potential) sports for Punjab, including hockey, athletics, volleyball, football and wrestling. These coaches have had basic training in India, but can benefit from more advanced coach education, and importantly, are young and open to approaching the coaching profession from a less traditional authoritarian perspective.  They learn how to better enthuse, engage and even market high level participation in sport to young Indians and how to use up to date sport science to manage training load, recovery and peak performance.

We have also engaged with the commercial part of the rapidly developing sport industry in India. During the past decade, multiple professional sporting leagues have been set up, to start competing with the once monopolistically powerful sport of cricket. Although cricket still rules the waves in India, kabaddi, football, hockey, tennis and badminton, to name a few, have all started professional competitions with various levels of commercial success. Our engagement with the owners and organisers of the Mumbai Marathon – Procam – has been an eye-opening success and delight. Procam (@procamrunning) worked with our team of 30+ student researchers from Mumbai-based ISSM (International Institute of Sport Management, @info_iism )to collect insights from marathon participants of all ages about their history of sport and physical activity participation. It provided us with a first insight into the physical activity behaviour of predominantly middle-class Indians, and it allowed us to triangulate this information with data from our other State based projects.   

There is so much more to tell and so much more to say about India, but for now, can we answer the question if India is the sleeping giant of world sport? Some early signs speak to the affirmative. Sports other than cricket are breaking spectator ground and elite sport facilities are being constructed to host them. Although there is no direct correlation between passive spectatorship and active participation, watching sport does educate young and middle aged Indians about the beauty and pleasure of engaging in sport. It also generates economic activity in and around sport that allows for reinvestment and employment. Our own work as a group of University researchers and consultants, even when this is at a small scale, bodes well for a broader realisation that the development of coaches, community facilities and participation will help build a sporting culture. This in turn will increase the pool of better prepared talented youngsters who in the near future, might become more competitive at the international level. However, as many other nations that have tried to ‘buy’ themselves sporting success by importing coaches and naturalising elite athletes have found out the hard way, there are no shortcuts to elite sporting success. There is no substitute for a culture of active community participation in sport, and where the wider community knows the benefits of and therefore practices a physically active lifestyle. If Indian policy makers can find a way to mobilise large cohorts of its massive population base, then indeed, a giant will awaken.



The Champions League semi-finals - first signs that AS Roma leads football into the digital age?

Paul Rogers (@paulrogers73) is the Head of Digital Media at AS Roma. Headquartered in Boston, he is spearheading the Italian football icon’s journey into digital. I was fortunate enough to be (again) chairing the @BOSSummit, Business of Sport Summit ( in Sydney last month. This event has become Australia’s pre-eminent knowledge and network event in the world of sport business. If you want to get a good lay of the land of where sport business is heading, and what the trends, issues and challenges are that drive the industry, BOSS brings together speakers and participants at the forefront of it. And Paul Rogers, a 14 year Liverpool Football Club veteran, is one of those.

His keynote on day 1 of the conference was exciting, refreshing and insightful. And it also showcased the workings of a football club that now is contending for Champions League glory, and also has its digital fan engagement on track. And as in any good business model, where a focus on the customer often is a great predictor of organisational success, I will be watching AS Roma with renewed interest in the semi-final (@ChampionsLeague). Why was Paul’s insight into the digital strategy of AS Roma so refreshing? Because he started with 10 reasons why they got it wrong! Allow me to share them with you, because I think they are immediately transferable to other (sport) businesses. So here are ten missteps that probably are not limited to AS Roma’s digital failures:

  1. Prioritise the website, direct all traffic there, and count success by page views
  2. Create content to increase page views
  3. Force people to visit the website
  4. Controlling which content to consume when and where
  5. Make people engage on all Roma social media platforms and repeat content across
  6. Using social media platforms as one-way broadcast channels rather than engage
  7. Failing to appreciate user generated content for fear of losing control
  8. Focusing on selling but not listening to the questions and feedback
  9. Asking for personal information but then not treating respondents as individuals
  10. Taking supporters for granted and then asking: how can you help Roma?

What Rogers made clear as a key component of his presentation was the age-old marketing adage – that the customer always comes first – continues to reign supreme. Easy to say, hard to execute. In sport, more than any other business, and in football more than any other sport, it is about me, the fan, and not you, the brand! Fans, members, aficionados, and in particular the younger (new) generation of football lovers, have moved way beyond visiting websites as a source of information, or more important, as a means of engagement with their club and their heroes. They love to be on social media, they are frustrated spending too much ‘old school’ time on a website. Their time is precious and if returns are not immediate it’d better be worth the wait… because otherwise they will punish you with their razor-sharp feedback wrath, and fading engagement. You can only make a first impression once. And beyond making epic impressions, clinical brands and unique value propositions are breaking down as anchors of trust and confidence in consumer decision making. Family, friends and slick bloggers are more trustworthy than established institutions because the former treat you with attention, respect and confirmation. So really, don’t ask me what I can do for you, but what can you actually do for me, to make it worth my while to continue supporting the organisation…?

To move beyond the (common) mistakes made by Roma and others in engaging digitally and successfully reconnecting with the fan, what can be done? Again, upon reflection, much of the best advice is simple, and derives from a standard University ‘marketing 101’ course. So here are 10 insights to get digital working for you:

  1. First of all, every decision must put the fans first.
  2. Beyond that, empower fans, or at least give them the impression that they drive the conversation, and that content consumption is within their sphere of influence.
  3. A favourite credo of mine is that ‘less is more’, and this also goes for getting to the information that fans want to consume, so… make it easier for fans to consume content.
  4. A picture tells more than a 1000 words, and nobody wants to read too much content online so tell the stories in the most visual way possible.
  5. Marketing is only partly about selling stuff, the best marketing often is about making people realise they ‘need’ something without them asking for it. In regard to digital content this means that it needs to find the fans rather than them looking for content.
  6. A fundamental truth – don’t produce content because you have to produce content…. Boring!
  7. Another fundamental truth, this one specific to social media – if you are the only one talking about the issue, then there is something wrong. Stated differently… nobody cares!
  8. And the flipside of that realisation is that organisations should only produce content that fans want to share with their own followers. No sharing means, no interest.
  9. The return on investment of digital (marketing) and content production is measured in engagement, not in likes or followership
  10. There probably are numerous other insights that can be provided by sport organisations all over the world, working hard to make their digital strategies work, but take this last one as a universal suggestion – publish content that interests your customers, not what you happen to like, love, value, or advocate!

I love chairing a great conference. Being in the Chair forces you to prepare deeply and think quickly on your feet when engaging with the speakers, the panels and the audience. It exposes you to many professionals who are at the top of their game, and who are willing and able to share their insights, their experience, and at rarer occasions, their ability to make complex matters simple and entertaining. Paul Rogers offered all of that at the Business of Sport Summit. With Rogers having been at Liverpool for 14 years and now the digital guru at Roma, I wonder…, is digital capability driving Champions League success? Whoever wins the Champions League semi-final, Paul will be smiling.

Value destruction in sport business - the case of Australian cricket

The land down under is built on the foundations of convict labour. Boats full of unwanted ‘criminals’ landed in Sydney and Melbourne just over 200 years ago to be put to work to build modern Australia – the rulers of England could sentence you to be deported to the Australian penal colony for stealing a loaf of bread. The convicts brought with them the British traditions, none of which more iconic than the game of cricket. And for the villains of Australia to beat the mother country at their own game, was to be the sweetest revenge. When this happened for the first time, a satirical obituary in The Sporting Times (1882) noted that ‘English cricket had died, and the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia’. It positioned Australia, it validated its existence, its value, its prowess and its right to exist, independently, and proudly. Cricket specifically, and sport in general has maintained that level of importance in the Australian psyche, and in the way that Australians perceive themselves within and sometimes against the rest of the world.   

I have been living in Australia for 24 years. I have never, ever seen the media feeding frenzy on a ‘scandal’ in sport, that is happening right now around the ball tampering admissions by the (former) Australian cricket captain Steve Smith and his leadership group. For those tuning in from around the world, ball tampering in cricket is the illegal practice of manipulating the shape and/or surface of the ball, so that it moves in unexpected directions, with the result that the batsman of the opposition gets (caught) out. Visual (camera) evidence of Australian bowler Cameron Bancroft stuffing tape down his pants led to the immediate admission by Steve Smith that the leadership group had discussed and agreed to ‘cheating’ through illegally manipulating the ball. Smith promised that ‘it would not happen again’….

Since the news broke two days ago… the International Cricket Council has condemned and punished; the Australian Sports Commission has condemned and judged; the Rajasthan Royals cricket team in the Indian Premier League have taken the captaincy away from Steve Smith; the coach of the Australian Cricket team has (almost) resigned from his position; the CEO of Cricket Australia has apologised and updated the Australian public in two open letters; he is on a plane to South Africa, following his Director of Integrity, and of course… English cricketers have used this opportunity to soften the humiliation of their recent Ashes defeat by implying that the Aussies are likely to have cheated during most recent Ashes encounters as well. The media coverage on this issue has utterly dominated the Australian news cycle for the past 48 hours, and will continue to do so for the next 48.

Why is this such a big issue? Let’s start at the Aussie battler’s perspective. Against all odds, the convicts beat the landed gentry (on their home soil) in 1882. Kings and Queens were beaten by commoners and strugglers. They did this by simply outplaying and outsmarting them. A fair go in a just contest that would test real and honest skills, rather than land and money trumping muscles and working hard to make ends meet. This attitude defines not only Australian sporting values, but it defines what it means to be Australian. Steve and the boys, naively, have violated these values in a way that is beyond belief, flabbergasting most Australians. How naïve, dumb, ignorant can you be – is what the public opinion tells us – to not understand that you simply cannot do this? Sure, cricketers and other sportsmen and sportswomen will tell you that winning is important. And that winning in elite sport, with huge performance pressures from coaches, federations, sponsors and the media makes it even harder not to fall victim to illegitimate ways of beating your opponent. But to not consider the range of far reaching consequences that cheating in cricket would have on the game itself, on Australia’s cultural values of having a fair go, play within the rules but play hard, and on all the stakeholders in the process – from the Prime Minister in his communications with other Commonwealth leaders, to Cricket Australia in their current media rights negotiations, and from the International Cricket Council to the players of the game, all of whom will be affected by the value destruction that this ‘incident’ is causing, is simply beyond belief.

The media rights will suffer from a short-term devaluation, if not a lasting long-term effect. Cricket Australia will scramble to regain control of the negotiations. They will try to stall, and wait for this scandal to leave the front and back pages of the papers, and for it to stop inciting the grunt of social media influencers whose anger will reverberate in the corridors media rights negotiation. Sponsors will question their commitment to the sport and to the governing bodies and individual players. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce weighted into the discussion by telling Cricket Australia to ‘deal with the issue as quick as possible’. The Qantas logo went around the world displayed on the team’s cap and Joyce made the sponsor’s position really clear, ‘Australia is all about a fair go ….and unfortunately our cricket team have let us down’.

Just over 6 months ago the Australian Cricket Players Association fought hard – by threatening to boycott the Ashes – for a fair deal for its players, also in context of the new media rights deal to be negotiated. Those very same players have destructed value that far outweighs the negotiated benefits for players in the long term, that would have been the result of the new media deal. And sadly, two of my favourite batsmen – Smith and Warner – at the forefront of bargaining a deal for their colleagues, will suffer most personally from the brand damage that has been inflicted. This damage extends to the (different versions of the) game, the federations including the ICC and Cricket Australia, and of course to their personal player brands. Smith, as a possible heir to the long-held throne of Bradman, and Warner as the little guy who can do batting magic in all versions of the game – Test, One-day and T20.

The ultimate sad irony of it all is that I believe that neither Smith, nor Warner or Lehmann ever meant to damage the game, or Australian cricket in general. They naively thought that they were just trying to ‘get on top’ of the opposition. That what happens on tour stays on tour. They were blinded by an utter desire to win, adrenaline, dopamine, chemistry in the brain – no rational minds in the dressing room. That if you push the boundaries within the rules, or just cross them but nobody finds out, we’ll be right. They will probably tell us that ball tampering is common in cricket, at Test level, at First Class level and in community cricket. Sure guys…

What they did not realise, naively and stupidly, is that sport in Australia, and cricket very specifically talks on behalf of a whole country. The Australian cricket team is the voice of a nation. They represent deeply engrained cultural values. They tell the rest of the world that ‘this is how we do things’. And Australia, the Prime Minister, the CEO of the Australian Sports Commission, the CEO of Cricket Australia, the CEO of Qantas, and descendants of the convicts who were sent here some 200 years ago, don’t want the world to think that Australian’s ‘cheat’ in order to win. Because the reality is, most of the time we don’t. I just hope that in time, we will give Smith and Warner a fair go. Because that also, is part of the Australian way of the world. They may never be captaining Australia again, but if you stuff up (big time), we will give you another chance. 

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