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More than a game

As the AFL kicks off for the 2019 season, it’s (big) business as usual.

For the next six months, Australian Football League (AFL) fans will be focused on fixtures, weekly bouts of win/loss fervour, and the all-important accumulation of points for a berth in the Grand Final.

But amongst the season’s fanfare and frustrations, it’s easy to forget that sport organisations like the AFL have only become a serious business industry in past 20 years.

The pressure to perform

While the transition began in the mid 1980s it took until the turn of the new millennium to gain a strong foothold says Professor David Shilbury, Deakin Business School’s Foundation Chair in Sport Management.

‘Typically, commercial pressures have jolted sport towards a more business-like approach – usually via broadcast rights deals and expectations that the sport business needed to professionalise and become more sophisticated to deal with increased money and accountability,’ he explains.

While it’s important to remember that sport was, and still is, a leisure pursuit, Prof. Shilbury says that professional sport for today’s athletes (and their managers) is a full-time job packed with pressures to perform.

‘Sport management is a career which can be very demanding in the high-profile world of pro sports, but also, sport typically attracts people wanting to immerse themselves in the sport culture.’

Over a 30-year academic teaching and research career, Prof. Shilbury has observed two significant changes in the way sport is managed: professionalisation and commercialisation.

‘In 2019, sport is managed like business with highly qualified sport managers, many of whom have come from our sport management programs at Deakin. There is more money in the big sports – and even the mid-range sports – that requires careful management. The culture of sport has changed from a pure leisure mindset to a mix between leisure and business – it’s something all sport managers, players, coaches, non -executive directors are aware of,’ he explains.

Passion makes a difference

So what distinguishes sport management from general business management?

Prof. Shilbury says the key differences lie in passion, emotion, volunteers and a leisure mindset.

Sport is predicated on rivalries and competition, and all sports enthusiasts support a team, a player and an outcome. Sport managers must work with this, as it comes with both a strength and weakness.’

He suggests that passionate sport fans can sometimes act irrationally and there’s risk of that spilling into boardrooms.

‘Non-executive directors are attracted to a sport board because they are passionate about their sport or team, and often, they form part of a cadre of volunteers that help deliver sport. This means the classic rational manager approach to business is hard to find in sport. Typically, as we often see in Melbourne during winter, sport outcomes are very important to people, more important than their own business or work.’

It’s crucial, he adds, especially with weekly competitions like the AFL, that the CEOs and senior managers retain a balanced outlook and disposition each Monday morning – regardless of a win or loss.

‘This is often required in the face of disgruntled supporters so sport managers need to learn how to take the emotion out of their work and deal with passionate fans.’

Player welfare and club culture

In the past two decades, one of big shifts across management in the AFL is the way players are treated – not only in remuneration but also their welfare and life after retirement says Prof. Shilbury.

‘The advent of player unions has also changed the power dynamics between national governing bodies and the players. The other big change is the pervasiveness of the AFL. All games are now broadcast, there’s a wide range of AFL-related TV programs and accredited journalists as well as more sophisticated marketing by the AFL, clubs and broadcasters.’

But with professional sport scandals aplenty – match fixing, doping and corruption – how much responsibility lies with sport managers for the culture of a club?

‘Ultimately, senior managers and non-executive directors shape the culture of sport as they make decisions in relation to how commercial a sport will be, how much money is paid to players, what major events they stage, and the formulation of a raft of policies that guide behaviours,’ says Prof. Shilbury.

Business tensions and beyond

He explains that for a sport manager, there is always going to be a ‘tension’ between the business of sport and fundamentals of sport, which is essentially a contest of equals according to a set of rules and a spirit of play.

‘It’s a question of strategy and reputation and you live and die on the decisions you make. If you get too commercial and too detached from the lifeblood of the game then your sport will suffer,’ he says.

‘But if you don’t follow a whole lot of those commercial opportunities your sport’s going to suffer too. If you take the example of the AFL, its job is to maximise sources of revenues and one of the reasons they do that – putting aside the need to pay players a certain amount – is to churn it back into the development of the game so people – both men and women – can play and enjoy it right across the country.’

Prof. Shilbury believes the management of sport will continue to evolve in tandem with society’s expectations.

‘For example, the modern day sport manager grapples with a raft of social issues which manifest themselves through sport, as they do in all areas of our society. Many mid-range sports are still grappling with the process of professionalisation as they search for new streams of revenue to keep pace with the bigger sports.’

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