Anyone for a game of …? Governance in the sports sector

UK sport is facing a challenging – even daunting – 2015, particularly on the governance front.

We are known to be a nation obsessed with sport.  For many people, the sports ‘pages’ are their first port of call when opening a newspaper, or browsing online.   Sports events sometimes become the main headline – the women’s team triumphing at the Rugby World Cup, Lewis Hamilton winning the F1 World Championship, and Rory McIlroy’s major victories at the Open and US PGA, are just some of the highlights of 2014.

And back in 2012, the Olympics and Paralympics captured a – the – defining moment of British sporting excellence, as the nation and its athlete heroes became indivisible.

Of course, we are talking here about sport at the elite level, where most of us are spectators, but that is just one element of the bigger picture. From a wider public policy perspective, sport plays an even more important role in our lives, as participants, and as beneficiaries (particularly through better health, improved lifestyles, and lower medical costs for the NHS).

This is where governance comes into play in a way we almost certainly do not appreciate.

Last month I led two board effectiveness workshops at the Leadership Convention of the Sport and Recreation Alliance (SRA), the umbrella body for sport and recreation in the UK, representing 320 member organisations – all the way from the FA, to the Ramblers, and the Exercise Movement and Dance Partnership (   Under its new CEO, Emma Boggis, the SRA is campaigning on issues affecting its members, representing  their views to decision-makers, and promoting the interests of sport and recreation so that as many people as possible know about their work.

For their part, the SRA’s members are the governing bodies of sport and recreation. Their job is not only to run their sport or activity, but also promote participation and set the rules and conditions under which it takes place.

The strategic challenges facing these governing bodies are enormous.  They, and the organisations they oversee, are often reliant on the contributions of volunteers and, contrary to the image conveyed by TV sponsorship of professional sport, funding is not easily come by.  Depending on the sport, a governing body may also have to deal with matters – not necessarily of their own making – relating to high-profile and deeply contentious issues such as corruption, doping, match-fixing and other potentially destabilising activities which call the integrity of the sport into question.

The business model is also changing, with shifting consumer habits, notably the changing preferences of young people; demographic change, such as the growing numbers of elderly people, and the way they will ‘consume’ sport in the future; and subsequent issues relating to ‘stickability’ and (lack of) loyalty and commitment.

The governing bodies need to be able to address these big challenges while pursuing established priorities such as increasing participation. And yet, on the cusp of 2015, some will be doing so with a particular sense of foreboding.  As Leigh Thompson, SRA’s Policy Adviser has indicated, the parlous state of public finances will “pose a profound challenge to the future funding of sport and the design of sports policy”.  With Whitehall budgets continuing to be cut back, and the economy possibly faltering once more, policy-makers will be considering how to deliver sports-related outcomes – including improved public health – more efficiently and effectively.

Funding from private sources is no more assured either.

And while the governing bodies compete among themselves for whatever sponsorship, public or private, is available, they are also competing with other organisations, such as charities and local authorities.  Everyone is ‘fishing in the same pool’, and that pool appears to be shrinking, even as stakeholders’ demands on the sector increase.

Governing bodies have a choice – move forward, or stand still and get run over.  Or as Thompson puts it, “adapt or die”.

The sector’s governing bodies need to address this ultimatum, and that means developing the governance capability to make it through the challenges which lie ahead.  In particular, boards need to display the skills and competences, and behaviours, to oversee management’s work in devising a robust strategy, implementing it efficiently, managing the organisation’s risks, and safeguarding its reputation.  In particular, they need to be able to provide the evidence that they can be trusted to, and be considered capable of, delivering public policy goals which go beyond ‘sport for sport’s sake’.

Which is where good governance comes in.

An effective, and high-performing, governing body will deliver transparency and accountability to, and increase levels of confidence and trust among, stakeholders.  Where, critically, those stakeholders are funders, a well-regarded governing body will more likely be able to argue the case for funding to be maintained, or at least reduced less.  The opposite scenario is equally true – a governing body with poor governance and a weak reputation will find it has a significantly-reduced negotiating hand.

Good boards will also be able to work with their management teams to explore and exploit the opportunities which will also undoubtedly appear as the business model changes.

The sport sector needs to prepare for a future which will be markedly different from the world it inhabits today, with governance a strategically important part of the approach for building in sustainability, resilience, increased levels of participation and a clear and supportive relationship between sports at the grassroots, and elite competition.  The absence of such governance capability will see the UK fail to capitalise on the once-in-a-lifetime legacy of the Olympics and Paralympics which, for a nation so hooked on sport, would be a significant missed opportunity.