Can today’s business model for sports survive?

I am a huge sports fan. My husband is a golf pro, my oldest son played college and professional golf, my youngest son is playing Division 1 baseball and playing summer ball in the Cape Cod league. ESPN is our tv channel of choice. But the other day, I was thinking about sports, not as entertainment, but as a business. Since my passion is evolving business models that fuel accelerated growth, I starting thinking about the sports business model and how it would fare in the future. I am not sure that was a good idea. Read on and you will know what I mean. Please share your thoughts at the end of this blog.

Coaches live in a different world than the rest of us. It is a tough and demanding world. They HAVE to perform. And they have to be able to consistently perform. And “perform” means win—no excuses. That is a world of tough knocks. Doesn’t matter if you are good or not, a nice person or not, it just matters if you win.

And what about the athletes; are they hired for their values? No, just their ability to get the W. They don’t have to be smart, educated, or live life as a contributing member of society, as long as they can perform on a playing field. Rewards go to those that knock others “out of the lineup” for playing time.

Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of nice guys in sports. There are, and I have had the pleasure of meeting them. But they “work” in a different world than most of us. A coach I truly admire from afar is Tony Dungy. I have read many of his books, including Uncommon and intend to read his latest, The Mentor Leader. He appears to be above the fray and hold himself, as a result of his faith, to a different standard. Yet, he was able to win. A dream of mine is to meet him some day and ask him how he was able to do that. Is he the exception? I think so, I hope not.

So how is this business model out of step?

  • In most industries, as we evolve from the manufacturing age to the information/intellectual age, our businesses are becoming more collaborative. Within a given sports team, the management model is not collaborative, but autocratic, with decisions in the hands of very few; and a circle-the-wagon mentality as those decision makers get second guessed and “Monday morning quarterbacked” by fans (who admittedly, often have never played the sport but are “experts”) and the media.
  • Winning outstrips values. Since the W is everything, values get put into a tug of war. We see it everyday—substance abuse by players as they try to become bigger, stronger, faster; natural talent alone doesn’t always cut it anymore. We see coaches be abusive to players if they have an off night or are not winning. We are disappointed by organizations that put the win above ethics and break rules to attract and keep top players, like the Reggie Bushs’ of the world. The temptation to justify these acts in the name of team loyalty, or big money for a winning season, is just too strong for many. Players’ values can easily get distorted as they learn the world loves them for what they do when suited up, not for the person they are on the inside. The days when sports figures were role models for our children are long gone.
  • Behavior patterns that work in sports are not effective in most traditional businesses. There are some coaches that are genuinely nice people; others, over time, take their approach in the sports world to life and try to overpower others with whom they come in contact with. They can’t deal with disagreement or conflict—they are too used to my-way-or-the-highway control over situations. There are a lot of “I’s” in sports teams. According to Robert Parrish, a former Boston Celtic, recently interviewed, the biggest difference between the NBA and now is that it is not the Celtics vs. the Lakers but Kevin Garnett and the Celtics vs. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Although some teams have great chemistry, it does not appear to take the place of individual performance. The best player, as defined by the coach’s gut, wins the starter spot. Nice guys do indeed finish last, at times.
  • Economic value produced to society is not in line with rewards and financial compensations. We pay athletes and some coaches enough to feed small countries for years. We vote with our dollars, by what we freely spend, that these performers (and I have a son who I hope the world will pay handsomely some day to play in the pros) are worth more than teachers, firemen, and policemen. Really?

The result? Too many athletes in the criminal justice system (or do they just get the headlines and it seems like it?), too many coaches with stress induced health problems, and a business model that is outdated by today’s standards.

So, here is the question, “Will the business model of sports change any time soon in the same way that most other industries are evolving?” If the saying holds true, “change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing”, I think not, as there does not appear to be any significant dissatisfaction on the part of the consuming public or the government. What would it take before change occurs?

  • Repeated, frequent and significant criminal behavior on the part of athletes; enough to verify a cause and effect relationship. (Im)Moral behavior appears to be an exception since it already seems wide spread (or at least more visible), but often forgiven in exchange for strong athletic performance.
  • More women in management. Women have a reputation for being more collaborative in approach and seeking advice in decision making. However, this model rarely is employed by the first women who reach the top of a male dominated world as they are already different and don’t want to stand out too much.
  • A public outcry for the cost of supporting sports, whether it is the price of a day at the park or field, the taxes for the latest stadium update, or a consistent cry of injustice over what we spend on sports over schools.
  • A revolt by the participants of the sports world who say, “Enough is enough—we are people too!” They want to be more than machines, but respected as people, valued for their holistic contributions, and allowed to excel in multiple ways.

My personal take? None of these are likely to occur for a good long time. Maybe never. So we take the bad with the good. And we love it.

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