Sport Business Centre public seminar considers value of strategic thinking

This post was contributed by Nick Eisen, Business Engagement Reporter, Birkbeck School of Business, Economics and Informatics

Image courtesy of Andy Watson-Smith under CC via

Sport can play an important role in the UK’s health and prosperity. To fulfil that role the many different elements of UK sport must find a strategy around which to unite – and through which to engage individuals and organisations at all levels, local, national and international.

This message emerged in a public seminar organised by the Sport Business Centre in Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics.

Entitled public Affairs in Sport and Business: How to Influence the Influencers, the seminar took place on Monday 26 October at the British Medical Association (BMA) in Tavistock Square.

The evening was a forum for panellists and audience, including prominent representatives from various sports, to debate a subject given added urgency by the impending government spending review on 25 November, when cuts in many areas are likely, emphasising the challenge the sports community faces in communicating and gaining support to enable the contributions sports can make to society.

The event also demonstrated the Sport Business Centre’s role as a hub and meeting point for academics, students, industry professionals, members of the public and others, where they can discuss and develop ideas, initiatives and ongoing working relationships.

On the panel were:

What is public affairs?

The session began with a definition of terms (from Ben Andersen-Tuffnell). Public affairs were seen as the management of an organisation’s interaction with stakeholders, particularly regarding reputation or policy goals, which can set a tone for debates that may decide legislation the organisation must navigate if it is to prosper.

An effective public affairs strategy requires careful planning: identifying stakeholders, many of which may have conflicting interests, from local and regional to national and international levels; considering the influences upon and of each stakeholder (the loudest voices are not always the most influential); and tailoring bottom-up and top-down approaches to suit different circumstances and communicate the message.

That message has to be well prepared for different audiences, succinct, with clear aims and vision, and based on evidence. In turn, the process of communication has to be similarly well-planned and responsive to circumstances.

Tactics versus strategy

When the seminar considered this outline in terms of sport, the sector was seen to have prioritised tactics over strategy, short-term survival over long-term goals, one possible reason being the comparative difficulty in measuring the return on investment of a public affairs strategy with a 20 or 30-year view, the benefits of which might be easier to acknowledge than to quantify.

In pursuit of that longer-term view, an observation from the floor found support for the idea that sport could look to the House of Lords, recognised as a valuable source of expertise and experience (such as that of Paralympic Champion Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson or of Olympic Champion and Ambassador, Olympic Legacy, Lord Sebastian Coe), where the status of members has allowed debates to take longer-term perspectives and to offer more space for alternative views, less wedded to party politics and the short-term funding cycles of governments and the House of Commons.

Baroness Grey-Thompson and Lord Coe are just two of UK sport’s powerful supporters; and the seminar noted the sector’s considerable assets, in the form of celebrated, popular events and individuals, to help promote an overall strategy – even more important now, with fundamental change to sports funding expected after November’s government review and with the Rio Olympics in 2016.

To implement such a strategic goal the need was to emphasise the value of sport in promoting physical, emotional, intellectual, social, environmental and economic wellbeing via widespread participation in activities that could help provide positive alternatives to antisocial behaviour and nurture happier, healthier individuals. The positive profile of elite sport could be used to help increase such participation. The emphasis was therefore on top-level sporting excellence as a means to an end rather than end in itself.

Looking beyond the DCMS

Given that vision of sport as contributing to various aspects of health, the sector could focus on its relevance to many different areas apart from the obvious ones, and on establishing relationships with government departments other than the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), important though that is. The Department of Education is one of those other departments, with 80% of Sports Leaders UK’s remit focusing on working with schools and colleges, including helping young people use sport to develop leadership skills that can then be applied in work and other areas.

Another cited example was the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as the sports-related concept of active travel such as walking or cycling could be jointly promoted as reducing pollution from cars or buses and benefiting the environment as well as individuals’ health; and that link between appropriate sporting activity and health immediately suggests joint initiatives with the Department of Health and the NHS.

In terms of specific schemes, the role of Manchester City and its Etihad Campus project in regenerating a large area of Manchester was cited (by Dominic Goggins) as another example of sport’s wider social role. The regeneration is in turn set to reward the football club, with new links to local organisations and even China, following the inclusion of the campus on the Chinese itinerary for the country’s recent state visit.

State of play

While Etihad showed what could be achieved, it was also seen to exemplify the prominence of individual projects compared with an absence of an overall sports strategy, with projects existing in “silos” rather as part of a coordinated whole. Individual groups might have strategies, but not sport as one sector.

The seminar debated that, in this respect, sport differed from the arts, to which it looks by way of comparison, because sports bodies have not had to combine their efforts before, (funding changes are likely to alter this), and because it has only become professional recently, relative to sectors such as the arts.

So if there was a national sports strategy, what might it look like? The seminar debated that the strategic goal could be to help make Britain the most physically active nation in the world by 2020-2025. In this, members of the panel noted that the Sport and Recreation Alliance, the umbrella body for the national governing bodies of sport, might be able to play a more strategic role.

However, the feeling was that to embark on this would require a shift towards strategic thinking that may have started but still has a long way to go, that this start has come too late to be effective in the coming spending review, and that political support for such a strategy is currently low.

The UK’s gap between sporting vision and implementation was seen as significant and there was an observed need to learn from missed opportunities. In this context, while London 2012 was seen to show what coordination across many groups over a clear strategy could achieve, that success was partial.

For example, could the 500,000 people who had signed up in 2005 as volunteers for London 2012 have been given more training and involvement in sport in those seven years pre-2012, especially given UK sport’s reliance on volunteers?

Also related to 2012, an audience member remarked that the Olympic pool in Stratford was expensive to use and largely empty, with a school having to fundraise to pay for slots, rather than gaining central support and encouragement to use the pool.

Opportunities and challenges

The panellists’ presentations and subsequent question-and-answer session moved at a rapid pace, covering a great deal of ground in the allotted time and providing an initial platform for thought-provoking ideas.

The fact that the distinguished headquarters of the BMA was the venue for this Sport Business Centre event reflected the role of sport in promoting health and the grounds for cooperation between different bodies in promoting sport.

Overall, there was a sense that Britain’s sporting achievements offer inspiring opportunities to promote public health, and that the country faces considerable challenges in creating an environment to grasp those opportunities.

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