Aligning our sport system – A not so radical idea!

I have written numerous blogs on methods to advance the governance and leadership of Canadian sport. I, along with my colleagues at the Sport Law & Strategy Group, host hundreds of workshops, presentations, and webinars in boardrooms across the country and we feel privileged to do so. We are in the presence of deeply committed and well-intentioned volunteers and staff, who are longing for better ways to enhance their sport. During a recent risk management workshop, I was reminded of the adage ‘form follows function’. Given that the function of National Sport Organizations has changed dramatically over the past decade in particular, is it any wonder that sport leaders, both paid and unpaid, are frustrated with the current governance structure that often impedes the achievement of desired outcomes? Some of the sources of frustration include lack of transparency of Board decision making, tension between Staff and Board, not speaking with one voice on topics, issues related to managing conflict, divided loyalties when Directors wear too many hats, and jurisdictional issues between NSO, PTSO and Clubs.

Here's a radical idea.

A concept I’ve been speaking about over the past few years has begun to get some traction. Here’s what I’ve been toying with … the idea of having one Board govern the entire sport. While it might seem radical to many … some are meeting the concept with curiosity. What might sport look like today if we were to design it? Probably not the way it is currently structured. And for good reason. Sport was built on a federation model – more closely aligned with a parliamentary process than one that is structured to run businesses. Yet sport organizations are businesses, with burgeoning expectations of delivering a safe, inclusive, ethical and quality experience for participants from playground to podium. With increased expectations on ensuring good business and governance practices, and the need to meet growing legal requirements, sport leaders are pausing to more fully assess risks related to good governance.

Over the past year, I’ve explored the topic of good governance during the risk management workshops, what it means, and how we get there. A constant theme that emerges is the lack of alignment between NSO, PTSOs and Clubs. Given our current structure are we surprised? My recommendation to sport leaders is that we either change expectations around what a truly aligned system looks like or we change the system.

It’s that simple.

And it starts with conversations. A few NSO leaders have been exploring what this might look like and are facing resistance. Are we surprised when the current system distributes, nay, dilutes the power across hundreds, if not thousands of Directors?

Let’s take one example to flesh this out. Let’s use the Rule of 10. You have 10 Directors serving as fiduciaries for one NSO. That same NSO has 10 members (most have their PTSOs as their members). And let’s imagine that these PTSOs each have 10 Directors. Now, let’s expand that to 300 clubs, all of whom have 10 Directors each. Altogether we would have 3110 Directors for one sport. How are we going to build alignment when most sports are struggling to recruit and retain highly qualified Directors to serve as their fiduciaries?

Compounding this issue is the risk of sustainability. Most of the NSOs we work with are struggling with the lack of volunteers to sustain their current business model. Lack of coaches, officials, and Board-ready volunteers is quickly rising among the top 5 high level risks facing sport today as identified during the Risk Management Workshops. With 80% of our capacity coming from volunteers, unless we re-imagine a different path forward, we will be in a serious capacity crisis within the next 7 years.

The other point to consider is the changing relationship that the next generation has with volunteering. The ‘lifers’ … we all have them in every sport … will soon become extinct. The younger generation is looking to serve an organization with a clear purpose in mind – “what’s in it for me?” (which I believe is a healthy way to look at ensuring a fair and rewarding experience if we are to encourage people to donate their time, expertise, money) and “I want to ensure my values are aligned with the organization I’m serving”. Too often, misalignment occurs when there isn’t a clear sense of purpose, lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities, and too many cooks in the kitchen. Most organizations would agree this is the current state of sport.

So where to from here?

My first inclination is to define what we mean by an aligned system. In a recent workshop with an NSO and their PTSOs, we hosted a full day conversation on the topic of becoming more aligned. Here’s what we discovered, when describing an aligned sport system – what I am calling the 7 Ps of Alignment:

  • Planning – They spoke to the benefits of having a strategic vision for the entire sport, one that connected around shared values and agreed to common priorities that would assist the whole.
  • Policies – There would be a consistent set of policies supporting the sport. If we were to start aligning around one policy, it would be policies related to conduct and complaint management. Too much time, money, and good will is being wasted on ineffective management of complaints.
  • Philosophy – Values are systems of belief that impact the culture of organizations. These values set the organizational climate and set the conditions for how you want to achieve your strategic goals. In the absence of being aligned around a philosophy of management (I call this Management by Values), organizations are at the mercy of competing values and face risks related to effective decision-making, quality human resource management, good communications and erosion of trust.
  • Principles for Sport – The True Sport Principles were designed to connect Canadians’ expectations for the kind of sport we want (fair, inclusive, excellent and fun) with the lived experience on the field of play. Consider it a shared commitment that signals a collective vision for a quality sport experience. These Principles can serve as a Universal Sport Code that serve to fulfill our commitment to ensuring a safe and rewarding experience for all participants. Over 4300 organizations and people have signed onto the True Sport Movement which could serve to strengthen alignment across and within sport organizations.
  • Programs – Alignment around programs is already being expressed through each sport’s LTAD framework. Ensuring a quality progression for athletes helps to ensure we have the right offering across the spectrum of sport.
  • People – We spoke about the need to ensure that we have the right people on the bus moving in the right direction. Our high hope was to ensure that we aligned skill set with need … and passion with purpose. We envisioned having quality people who were trained, certified (as required) and qualified to carry out their mandates. We spoke to avoiding duplication of efforts as we are facing a depleted work and volunteer base.
  • Pathways – This is meant to describe the systems and structures that support our work. We designed a system and structure in the 1970s that made sense at the time. Today, that same system is not serving the needs of the businesses it helped to shape 50 years ago. An aligned system would ensure consistency in delivery, more effective decisions, and enhanced programming.

The threats to sport are real. The solutions complex. Unless we commit to examining this topic more fully, our ability to deliver on the hopes and aspirations of future sport participants, volunteers and staff, will remain unfulfilled.

For comments or suggestions, please contact Dina Bell-Laroche at DBL@sportlaw.ca or Steve Indig at SJI@sportlaw.ca.

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