The Future, With Thanks to David Beckham

The globalization of sport and what it means for MBA students

Like it or not, sport is now a globalized business, crossing cultures and national borders in its search for new audiences, new formats, and, of course, new money. It's not just football (or "soccer" if you must) that is on the move. Basketball, boxing, cricket, golf, Formula 1, ice hockey, baseball, rugby, tennis, everyone wants a piece of the action. From fight promoters to club owners, national federations to international governing councils, anyone who's calling the shots in the world of sport today is faced with the same simple proposition: expand or die.

It wasn't always like this. Talk to any English football fan about how the game has changed since the advent of the Premier League in the early 1990s and you're in for a serious, at times highly animated (and highly lubricated) discussion. Conversation will likely range from the overnight arrival of foreign players and fancy coaches with sharp suits and strangely modern ideas, to the stratospheric wages and higher ticket prices fans must now pay as result.

Sober your man up, however, and he might tell you a different story. For one thing, your he might be a she. He or she may have no knowledge of a time when things were any different, or simply not care to remember. This person is just as likely to be sipping a frothy cappuccino as a pint of brown ale, whilst picking gingerly not at a burger—precise origins unknown—but at the latest organic delight from the in-club delicatessen.

He or she may not even be British. For though your meeting could be taking place in London, Manchester, or Liverpool, you are in fact in New York. Or was it Beijing? Or Johannesburg? Perhaps most importantly, (s)he may argue the transformation of football is a good thing, for there is now a real possibility to follow clubs to the farthest reaches of the globe in search of ultimate glory.

By now your curry has gone cold and your eye begins to wander to the television screen in the corner. In Sao Paulo, the Berlin Bears have beat the Baltimore Ravens for the second year in a row. The Australian cricket team has lost their test match series with Namibia a staggering 10-0. And in Baghdad, Roger Federer, now 60, is going down fighting in his contest with the ghost of Billie Jean King.

What has driven the globalization of sport is the number and kind of people prepared to invest in it. Once upon a time, a football club might be owned by a geriatric industrialist from Sheffield or Milan; nowadays it is more likely an oil man from Irkutsk, or even McDonald's.

Most of the money used to finance the buying and selling of high-profile sporting ventures, however, is raised on credit. What makes banks so happy to lend is the almost certain guarantee that, given time, sports like football and basketball will be able to take advantage of growing international interest, in untapped new markets like China, India, and Hollywood.

Facilitating such large-scale expansion are the media corporations who own the local and global broadcast rights to the sports, bankrolling their continued success, and further encouraging sport's administrative bodies to take their games to very people who already pay for them. Already, almost all of the top-five clubs in England's Barclays Premier League are owned by foreign investors, whilst according to Forbes, English football clubs made up four of the top-ten richest teams in the world. In broadcasting rights alone, the leauge has raised more than 5.6 billion US dollars for 2007-2010.

So, what does this all mean for MBA students? Regardless of whether or not one has any interest in sport, it is impossible to deny sports ever-growing profile in the globalized economy. In the UK and US, business schools have already recognized this trend and attempted to incorporate sports management into their MBA curricula. You can now study a diverse range of sports finance, investment, and PR-related topics at places as diverse as Massachusetts Amherst, Oxford University's Saïd Business School, Liverpool, Instituto de Empresa, Imperial Tanaka, and, as of 2007, London's Cass Business School.

In Liverpool's "Football Industries MBA" program, students are encouraged to take an interdisciplinary approach. Along with compulsory courses like "Football: The Global Game" and "Managing Change" students can attend lectures and seminars in other academic departments to develop one's understanding of the social, cultural, and economic causes and effects of the changes sport is undergoing.

Like several such projects in Britain, Liverpool's program is backed by football's governing body, the Football Association (FA). Graduates have gone on to jobs at organizations as UEFA and FIFA, at clubs throughout Asia, Europe, and the Americas, at the Dutch FA, the Scottish Premier League, Deloitte's Sports Business Group, Yahoo! Sport, IMG, the Financial Times, and Nike.

The new BT Centre for Major Programme Management at Oxford Saïd aims to develop research and teaching about large-scale projects such as the Olympics and major infrastructure developments, including sports-related efforts at local regeneration. After all, London's 2012 Olympic bid was won not just on the quality of the city's sporting provisions, but also on the commitment shown towards energy efficiency and economic and environmental regeneration. Similarly, Arsenal FC plan to create 2,500 new jobs and 2,500 affordable homes in North London as part of their move across the road to the new Emirates Stadium (named after their corporate sponsors), thereby improving the living environment around the development.

Increasingly, these are factors which sports MBAs are having to consider as the industry seeks to redefine themselves and their place in relation both to their competitors and to local communities. From having once been seen a little more than just the games people play, sports have suddenly gotten a whole lot more serious.

Photo: Phillip Jackson / Flickr

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