Late last week, the Globe & Mail (Canada) posted an article asking whether athletes who are essentially “working for Canada” should be paid. Leaving aside the question of “Should elite athletes be paid?” (and for the record, yes, as we long ago left all vestiges of amateur sport aside), begs the question how to pay them.
This prompted a few people to comment on the capacity of the sport organizations with which the athletes are affiliated.
Several of them, myself included, noted that not enough of Canada’s National Sport Organizations (or NSOs, and called National Governing Bodies in the U.S.) are run like businesses. And by that, we mean subscribing to a few basic principles that keep an organization operationally healthy and self-sustaining. Many non-profit organizations have taken similar principles to heart as they navigated the last 2 years funding roller-coaster, and NSOs would be wise to consider the same. We’ve elaborated here on our original article comments to offer a few stepping stones in this direction.
Diversify Your Revenue Streams
NSOs rely largely on government and international federation funding for their operations. As the number of sports continues to expand, and the Vancouver 2010 afterglow begins to fade, it would be wise to look to new avenues for income before the well runs dry. Turning to the corporate sector for greater support seems the natural next step, after all this is the M.O. of their cousins to the south, who are entirely privately funded.
Business has a natural affinity toward sport, and an investment in the sport organization provides threefold advantage over individual athlete endorsements:
§ the affiliation with the sport as a whole (both its characteristics and its participants at all levels),
§ the opportunity to ‘activate’ the sponsorship in many ways (events, media exposure and athlete engagement), and
§ the stability of performance over time and across an entire team of athletes.
Additionally, sponsorship with the organization also allows for ready spokesperson substitution- valuable “insurance” for a sponsor in the event of injury, lackluster performance, retirements or controversies (which makes the individual sponsorship game riskier for companies). Finally, NSO is also better positioned to negotiate on their athletes’ collective behalf (and sharing the benefits fairly).
But this may not be as simple to act on: few NSOs have a highly functioning marketing or partnership person/team equivalent to their coaching & technical personnel. With their baseline funding covered, it simply isn’t a priority. As a result, they are typically under-resourced in both manpower and skill sets (former athletes or fresh business school grads often take on this function) to open – and close – conversations with corporate partners.
Even when outsourced to a professional sports marketing firm, there is often insufficient focus or commitment from within the organization to service the sponsors (essentially hold up their end of the deal), making it a risky sell for the agency with questionable ROI for the business. By under-developing private funding, the organization is operating with fewer resources than they could have to realize the athletes’ full potential and the sports body’s overall goals.
Train and Retain the Best Talent
The sport system is set up to identify and develop talent on the performance side, but often provide little* or no training for matters beyond the field of play. On the management side, former athletes often fill the administrative roles, which works well only when they have the requisite skills and relevant business expertise to perform their role well.
By providing personal and professional development opportunities to both athletes and staff on a consistent basis, you’re developing the organizational ‘muscle’ to develop that additional revenue by creating additional value: stronger media presence, higher profile events, more professional communications. For athletes, media training, personal sponsorship cultivation and time management would be of great help. Management staff could likely benefit from workshops on human resources issues, social media strategies and project management.
None of this is out of reach of even a small, resource-challenged group – lots of materials are available online, through local continuing education offerings and private training companies – in fact, the latter two would probably consider providing their course as an in-kind sponsorship for a national level sport organization for reciprocal recognition. These are largely a function of leadership deciding that professional development is a priority, rather than an unfathomable luxury. In fact, opportunities like this are often a key element in attracting and retaining talent to an organization, which is an important consideration for an entity that generally doesn’t provide competitive salary, benefits or stock options.
Invest for Growth
Again, with operational funding as a given, there are a lot of convenient excuses for not setting the bar higher for athlete support and other areas: sponsorship, grassroots fundraising, athlete media training, event standards, and so on (“We’d like to do more, but we just don’t have the resources”). It may seem daunting, with thin budgets and skeletal staff, but the alternative is remain stagnant and leave your organization at risk for falling woefully behind peers and worse yet, competitors.
Even amidst the recent economic turbulence, most companies were looking at ways to retool their operations even if they couldn’t manage significant financial investment in their products or marketing. It’s not always about money; time is also an asset which can be invested to reap returns. Strong ideas with modest cash behind them can go surprisingly far.
A prime example that NSOs can tap right now is the expansion of their social media presence and its effective use toward their top one, two or three organizational priorities. Need to build up your sport’s presence? Reach the grassroots? Accelerate public donations? Social networks are the vehicle of choice. And you don’t need to be ‘fluent’ in Facebook or Twitter as many new age social media gurus would lead you to believe. With many team athletes are already active on the common networks (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) and some run personal blogs, so a lot of related content is already being generated and serves as a natural ‘plug & play’ network for the NSO. The primary task from the sport HQ involves drafting a strategy and some guidelines and turning everyone loose to amplify exposure, fundraising and grassroots connections for the sport.
Every ‘investment’ doesn’t have to be huge – but there should be one, and from a cost-benefit perspective, working the social media investment is extremely doable right now for every organization.
There have been interesting hints of progress in terms of leadership – most notably with the COC expanding the National Sport Federation Services group to address the non-technical aspects of NSO operations, and in the outspoken interest in professional development options at the Coaching Association of Canada’s CEO panel last fall. However leadership is only half of the equation. The organizations themselves must embrace a decidedly different mindset to benefit from both this leadership and any assistance that may be set before them. Freestyle Ski and Speedskating Canada are notable in their move to this kind of thinking.
Successful, well-respected companies often do several things on a continual basis to remain at the top of their game: secure talent, rely on more than one product and continually ask “what else can we do to grow and thrive?” Seems like a pretty good formula for success to me.
*Commendably, the Canadian Olympic Committee has been running an “Olympic Excellence Series” that touches on ‘coping with the intense atmosphere of Olympic competition’ since 2006, it is however limited to Olympic athletes on an invitation-only basis.
AthletesCAN, an independent and inclusive athlete advocacy organization provides an annual summit providing seminars and exchanges on a variety of offline topics including sport governance, board roles & responsibilities charitable work, public speaking. Membership in AthletesCAN is open to national, junior and development team athletes in Olympic, Paralympic and non-Olympic sports.