How Business Schools can redefine the purpose of big sporting events

 We are on the brink of major changes in professional sports. A new generation of professional athletes, sports directors and business leaders are beginning to connect the dots that could change the face of sporting events forever.

In past decades, ‘bigger is better’ seemed to be the leading mantra of large sporting events like the Olympic Games and the Football World Cup. Yet there is a rising concern amongst governments about the issues that come with high-stakes sporting events like these. Bribery, slave labour and sustainability challenges in the construction of stadiums, match fixing and doping scandals have become recurring topics in the conversations that take place around these events. Topics that don’t belong in what should be an atmosphere of sportsmanship, camaraderie and fair play. The famous saying, ‘Sport has the power to change the world’ is only valid when there is ‘credibility’ in this power. Big sporting events need to have their purpose redefined – and there are indicators that this process has already started.

There is a growing coalition of sportspeople with backgrounds in business, politics and education, who recognise the need for truly sustainable mega-events with a clear vision of social legacy. Today, innovative thinkers are looking into the possibilities of organising smaller, decentralised games and tournaments that reconnect people in society in a different way. This means looking for alternatives to top-down organisation, where governments and big multinational corporates literally define the playing field, and where citizens are defined as consumers, expressed in audience ratings and monetised through advertising and sponsor fees. Business Schools have a duty to properly arm future leaders who will make these big changes in sports leadership and organisation. Effective leadership in this sector must focus on integrity, credibility, sustainability and transferable and valuable skills. This has led Nyenrode Business Universiteit to add a compulsory Sports Leadership module to their MBA program.

At its roots in ancient Greece - during the Hellenistic period - the purpose of the Olympic Games was much broader than just sports. Sports were not just events in themselves, but a means to bring people together. Decentralising tournaments and reconnecting businesses and citizens through sports would have a positive and far more sustainable impact on society. The sports industry is already ramping up investment in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology, acknowledging their potential to disrupt spectatorship and, subsequently, making ‘decentralised games’ a serious alternative. Companies can make more of an impact if they work together with universities, community organisations, NGOs and local governments in organising sports events. People will recognise the role and responsibility individual firms assume, and how this will have a positive effect on their society. It will redefine the purpose of connecting people and organisations in a community, just like the Olympic Games in Hellenistic Greece were meant to.

In recent sporting events, money has often been directed away from badly needed domestic resources, such as the case in the 2016 Rio Olympics. There have been environmental concerns with stadiums and accommodation that are left vacant once the games are over. Yet companies could play a leading role in alleviating burdensome costs on governments, and creating alignment with a commonly defined purpose. Firms would have to find a new balance in this role and reconsider their traditional ways of funding, as well as fundamentally redefining their social responsibility by applying and sharing their knowledge, experiences and network. A more inclusive way of organising large-scale sporting events would be beneficial for local communities, both societally and economically. It could connect people and contribute to the well-being of everyone involved – isn’t that where sport really has the power to change the world?

 Bartel Berkhout MBA is the founder and director of Nyenrode Sports Inc., an international academic sports leadership development institute that is located at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands. It is developed for and by sports directors and managers in high performance sports environments. Bartel is also involved with Olympact, a non-profit foundation focusing on bringing positive change to the Olympic Games.