I never imagined I’d end up spending half my working week immersed in the world of sport. I stumbled into it via a serendipitous alignment of the stars in my mid 30s and have been privileged to parlay my enthusiasm for sport and my business knowledge into emotionally rewarding experiences for the past fifteen years.
The industry does that to you, and for you. Leaves me wondering what if: what if I’d discovered a way in sooner; what if sport was better at providing structured opportunities for beginners in the world of work; what if its very existence as an employer rather than simply an entertainment product was known to young people?
Speaking to groups of young people about sport, I find it easy to secure their engagement. A video or two of golden athletics moments, or of Britain’s wheelchair rugby team overcoming adversity to triumph in Tokyo usually does the trick. A few life lessons follow, about ambition, dedication, attention to detail, and daring to dream. Invariably the Q&A includes a question or two about working in sport. The more forward ask what you can earn – to which the answer is a probably unsatisfactory “it depends”.
This is a highly fragmented industry whose major employers usually equate to small public companies in scale if not in valuation. The ECB is widely considered to be bloated with 500 employees. Chelsea, valued at £2.5bn in its recent sale, has just over 400 staff. Premiership Rugby has just three dozen. Of course cricket, football and rugby employ many multiples of these numbers overall, and there are the myriad ‘picks and shovels’ businesses too that are wrapped around them.
But when you consider that many major financial businesses number their annual graduate intakes alone in the hundreds, you start to understand why routes into sports careers are so unstructured. And so frustrating for those trying to work out what doors to knock on.
Encouragingly, there are a growing number of academic institutions providing courses tailored to the business of sport, so that it’s not just sports science and medicine on offer to those keen to make a living from their sporting passion. Equally, there are increasing opportunities for tutored professional development targeted at those already in the industry. I periodically lecture at one designed for aspirant sports CEOs, for example.
In time, this developing educational infrastructure might help alleviate the apparent randomness experienced by those attempting to navigate the sports world. Only though if sporting enterprises themselves become more structured in the way in which they identify and develop talent. For now, there is still too much of who you know to get in, an expectation that learning on the job is the only education you will receive, and luck playing a disproportionate role in your advancement.
My advice to anyone wanting to get a foot in the door is the same whether school leaver, graduate, mid-life career changer or wannabe non-exec board member. Anywhere in the industry is better than nowhere. Give yourself the chance not only to learn but importantly to demonstrate your love. For, much like the arts, this is a world in which demonstrable passion carries great weight, often trumping pure technical smarts.
You will find lifers in many sporting organisations, but on the whole this is a much more transient industry than most. Partly this stems from the events circus, which pitches its tents, hosts a competition and then packs up. Temporary contracts are the order of the day here and the best people can find themselves circling the world from one event to another, often across a range of sports. Throw in the well-established rotation of high performance staff in many sports too and you can see why you’d be wise to have a grab bag permanently packed to work here.
What might surprise you is that while many advertised sports roles attract scores of applications – lots of them entirely unsuited to the post – others receive very few enquiries. They may be poorly advertised, possibly under-remunerated, or simply not in the perfect sweet-spot that the mass of aspirants are looking for. This is certainly true of volunteer board and committee roles in smaller organisations, but also of some entry level positions. Time to check your pride if you’re seeking a way into the chaos and put yourself forward.
The advice I give youngsters looking for a way in is do your homework, but don’t be a super fan. Knowing nothing and appearing to know too much can be equally dangerous. The same applies at all levels of the industry.
And if I had my own time again? I’d love to be a sporting director, a role requiring a mix of high performance understanding, strategic thinking and financial capability. Too late for me now, so I’ll have to restrict myself to shouting for and at my teams from the sidelines.
For the Youngsters
Last week’s Sport inc. rejecting the petition against Shell’s sponsorship of British Cycling is my third most read edition – indeed read more times than there are names on the petition. Which might tell me something I guess. (First two places are held by critiques of the ECB – no surprise there). This week I’m flagging two new campaigns which are unlikely to be at all divisive…
The cost of living crisis is biting all grassroots sports clubs. I’m certainly seeing widespread evidence of that myself. Get behind charity Sported’s new call to #KeepTheDoorsOpen. And The Well HQ, doing pioneering work in girls’ health, is calling for an end to damaging euphemisms in its #SayPeriod initiative. Especially important for young sportswomen.
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com