Some Thoughts About Sport's Future

Published September 11, 2010

Over the last year as I have been consulting with sport organizations on governance and organizational change, I have encouraged people to make the effort to divorce themselves from their immediate daily worries and to think more long-term about the future. As sport leaders, we do too far too little of this. But I cannot think of a time that change in our sector has been as ubiquitous and pervasive as it is today.

For example, who would have thought a year ago that the North American automotive industry would collapse? Maybe if you were an automotive analyst you might have had a clue. But the rest of were really in the dark on this, just as we were in the dark on the whole economic recession that struck us in the Fall of 2008.

I also believe very strongly (and Ian Bird of Sport Matters will corroborate this view) that the landscape of sport is going to change dramatically come April 1, 2010. The last eight years has been preoccupied with the Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Games, and what comes after is anyone’s guess. Ian would suggest that the next ten months are an unparalleled opportunity for us to frame the future of sport.

My musings about the future were jump-started when hearing a radio program about six months ago featuring a futurist talking about the future of post-secondary education. I have two children just finishing university and one just about to start, so this is a topic that is not neutral for me. It was his prediction that within ten years, the “classroom lecture” as we all know it and as we all experienced it in our youth, will have disappeared. Technology, teaching pedagogy, and learning styles of today’s youth, will have all conspired to eliminate the need for a conventional university lecture. Who would think? This has potentially enormous consequences for the physical design, infrastructure and funding of universities, and for student life in general.

Let me share with you some trends that I know other sport leaders are thinking about right now:

Overall, sport is suffering from a decline in volunteerism, which is related to demographic changes, and which has resulted in a lack of what we at the Centre for Sport and Law call the ‘HQPs’ – ‘highly qualified persons’ (thanks to Bruce Deacon for coining this term initially). This is a critical issue in almost all sports.

Sport organizations in general do very poorly at alumni development and succession planning. Universities, on the other hand, are masters at this. My daughter graduated from the University of Michigan less than two weeks ago and she has already received an alumni telephone solicitation at our home! While I found this particular call slightly premature, why can we not, as a sport sector, learn from what universities excel at? Retaining your athletes after retirement, tapping into your participants connections and resources, keeping your existing volunteers engaged, and broadening your skilled volunteer base, are critically important tasks ahead.

Technology is rapidly outstripping our capacity to keep up. While we all use e-mail now, guess what? - our teenage and young adult sons and daughters do not. I am told that in as little as five years none of us will use email anymore, we will all be facebookers, myspacers, texters, twitterers, and other social networkers. This is a new reality …. The sword used to be mighty, then it was the pen, but now it is the tiny mouse!

There is a growing public appetite for environmental sustainability and this needs to be addressed by sport. Sport organizes events both big and small, internationally and locally, and is in every community and neighbourhood to some degree. Let me give you an example – take house league soccer, an 8 year old has a game at 6 PM, so a parent drives them to the game, the other parent stops at the game driving home from work, and the grandparents get in the car and go watch the game – one little kid, three cars!! Multiply that by 15 or by 30 to account for the rest of the team, and the other team – potentially dozens and dozens of cars! For one little house league soccer game! Sport can, and must, pay attention to environmental issues and the carbon footprint of our sport activities.

Finally, there are really interesting intergenerational issues occurring in the workplace. Don Tapscott, professor at the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto, has written about this recently in his book Grown Up Digital. He uses the term ‘Net Generation’ to describe the current crop of young workers. These are children who grew up in the internet age, have had their own email accounts and personal web pages since grade school, and did not grow up watching TV like children of our generation did.

As a result, their affinity for technology is uncanny. These workers are entering the workplace with confidence, creativity, more knowledge than we had, and a need for independence. We are learning that they crave meaning, learning opportunities, and work-life balance. They are a generation of workers who have an appetite for values and principles in the workplace, and are keen to embrace a philosophy of management by values. This is in contrast to prevailing management philosophies such as management by instruction (which underpins the manufacturing sector) and management by objectives (which is the prevailing management style in the sport sector). Don Tapscott suggests that successful organizations will be those who have already started to embrace and nurture this new generation of worker.

On this last issue of intergenerational differences, let me give the example of a colleague of mine. She is the ED of a small but successful NSO and she is fiftyish, like I am. Her two key employees are now aged 25 and 22. They come to their positions with degrees in sport management and a fair body of experience gained through internships and work placements in the sport industry. They challenge my colleague every day with their energy, creative ideas, and their unusual approaches to usual problems. In my view, this new generation bodes well for the future leadership of sport, and for finding new ways to deliver sport in this country.

And lastly, it is interesting to think about politics. There will be an election after the Vancouver Games (not before) and there may very well be a Liberal government. Politics is not my forte, but it is clear to anyone who reads a newspaper that change is in the air. Ian Bird has more to say on this, so stay in touch with what Sport Matters is doing!

Originally published: Centre for Sport and Law website (September 2010)

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