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These are challenging times in sport and active leisure and maintaining status quo is not an option.  We need to deliver more with less resources, have a greater focus on accountability and being business savvy, different communication with ever-more demanding customers and requests to liaise with the voluntary sector….here’s how embracing a new Community Sports Enterprise culture and skillset could help the sector adapt and move forward.

Many people in the sport and active leisure sector (probably too many?) do not really know how to react to the increased pressures they are facing. Too many just focus on ‘managing the facility’ or ‘doing sports development’ and tend not to engage with community partners and agencies from Health, Education, Police, Housing etc.  This becomes even more amazing when you then see what can be achieved when we become more relevant to people’s lives and we start speaking their language.  

One the biggest challenges for sports development and facility managers is how to react (or even be pro-active) when it comes to changes in people’s lifestyles, technology, political landscape and economic climate.  Too many people in the sport and active leisure sector somehow believe that the sector exists in a parallel world, relatively unconnected to people’s ‘real’ lives.  This is probably why so many innovations in sport are coming from outside the ‘establishment’, from people who see a need, develop the service, engage with people, overcome a myriad of bureaucratic hurdles and off they go!

 “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”

Charles Darwin

Based on my experience of working for some time with Innovation, Community and Enterprise within this sector I am now putting forward the notion of Sports Enterprise, a new way of thinking. 

Introducing Community Sports Enterprise: Facility management and sports development should merge into a new discipline called sports enterprise where the focus is on attracting and serving customers at a profit, whilst serving a sporting, communal and social purpose.

In community sports enterprise someone recognises a sports problem or opportunity and uses entrepreneurial principles to create, and manage a venture (internally or externally) to solve the problem and/or exploit the opportunity. Whereas a business entrepreneur measures performance in profit and return, a sports entrepreneur focuses on creating sports, social and community capital at a profit (the four Ss model).


The four S model –

the key to successful sports enterprise is to balance and optimise the four Ss

  • Sport and physical activity increases
  • Social – stronger bonding between individuals
  • Society – coming together through sport and social bonding
  • Surplus – ensuring financial sustainability by adding value at all levels

These four components must be completely interlinked if sports enterprise is to be successful.  In comparison, only on the odd occasion has traditional sports development focused on financial sustainability but somehow has expected that somebody should stump up the funding. At the same time, the commercial fitness sector has had a very strong sales/profit culture and it often appears that they only go down the CSR route because ‘it is a good thing to do’.

A key here is to recognise that sports enterprise is focused on the spirit of entrepreneurship within an organisation (also called intrapreneurship).  Whereas traditional entrepreneurship has been dominated by people who start up their enterprises (social or entrepreneurial), sports enterprise could often take place within existing organisations.

However, this requires that traditional sports organisations (NGBs, local authorities, clubs etc.) embrace the sports enterprise culture and adapt the 4 Ss model.  Otherwise, budding sports entrepreneurs will either fail or, if their passion and drive is strong enough, they will leave and start a new sports enterprise somewhere else (just look at the number of coaching agencies and sports camp organisers starting out).  Also, traditional sports organisations which fail to adopt the sports enterprise model run a serious risk of being sidelined and deemed a failure.

So the key for traditional sports organisations is to encourage visionary employees who think and act like sports entrepreneurs. Embrace them, listen to their ideas and do all you can to remove the obstacles in front of them, then you can move forward. 

Here are some key points to seriously consider when you want to become a successful sports entrepreneur:

You are in the experience business: I guess most people who read this would say they work in the sport and active leisure sector, but in reality your key role is to provide great sporting and customer experiences which people will want to return to. You do compete for people’s leisure time and money, so if you want to attract people away from the shopping centres, watching X-Factor, apathy etc. you must provide a better alternative.  So welcoming receptionists, the right social life, friendly, competent coaches/instructors and clean toilets are not just afterthoughts, they are key parts of the experience you provide.  As are reminder texts and the birthday card to everybody on your database (yes, I am serious).

Become business savvy: whatever your role and level within your organisation being good at sports development and/or facility management simply is no longer good enough.  You have to demonstrate that you are adding value and that you bring leadership and business skills to your job.

Can you calculate your membership retention rate? (Do you know it?) Are you familiar with the 8 steps to change or the concept and thinking behind social enterprises? Would you be able to give a compelling Powerpoint presentation to 25 potential sponsors/partners? Of course you can do all this and more; how else would you be able to really drive your job forward and take charge.

Help community sports clubs to become community sports enterprises, involve the voluntary sector:  some of our sports clubs and community groups could take on much bigger roles, take over the running of sports facilities and play key roles in the communities.  Work with them and remove obstacles. Regard the voluntary sector as a potential partner; there is great potential for councils to work alongside the voluntary sector. It wants clear, practical, relevant and reliable support (and some money) but often the bureaucracy, jargon and maze put in front people completely scares them away.

 Learn people’s language, have conversations – become the Community Ambassador: if you really want to engage with your communities simply go and listen and learn.  Don’t send out brown council envelopes with boring questionnaires, they scare people off.  Set up that Facebook page and start having online conversations and soon you will learn a lot.  Especially when people complain, because you can then innovate and improve. And then worry about serial complainers:  27% of the UK population has made a comment on a consumer website over the last 12 months; 60% were positive and 40% negative, says MORI.

Pollinate – learn and transfer ideas from others: A sports entrepreneur takes a good idea and makes it better. Go out there; v
isit at least six exciting sports enterprises every year to see how they do it.  Here are some of the best ones I’ve come across. I am sure there are many others where great sports enterprise is alive and kicking:

If you don’t like change,

you will really hate irrelevance

Be welcoming: The person who walks in through your doors for the first time has made a huge decision. Make sure somebody always meets and greets newcomers and then stay in contact with that person as a buddy until he/she has settled in.

Innovate – learn from your successes and your failures: Learning organisations keep innovating and learn more from their failures than their successes. Innovation is messy, risky, a pain, requires hard work and a bit of luck, but without it you will die.

Don’t be to be a victim: Keep learning, take control, be creative, follow up and invest your time in developing an open culture and keep improving your skills.

“A ship is safe in a harbour, but that’s not what ships are for” William Shedd

Svend Elkjaer, Founder Director, Sports Marketing Network, svend@smnuk.com, 01423 326 660