Why sport needs professional leaders to guide its future

Professor Antonio Dávila, the management lead of AISTS’s Master of Advanced Studies course, explains how the increasing professionalisation of sports administration has led to the academy’s flagship programme being reimagined…

The governance of sport has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, with more organisations exploring different industries to recruit experts who can help them to embrace opportunities presented by the evolving media and marketing landscape in the digital age.

Federations, rights-holders and the wider ecosystem have caught up with the elite athletes out on the field of play by making sure that they have MVPs in the back office.

That is the reason why sports management has been positioned at the heart of AISTS’s flagship Master of Advanced Studies (MAS) in Sport Management and Technology degree course.

The Lausanne-based International Academy of Sport Science and Technology (AISTS) has made management one of two top-tier areas of study, along with technology, following a comprehensive review of the MAS course over the last two years.

Leading the management pillar of the syllabus is Antonio Dávila, a professor at the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Lausanne, who believes sports are increasingly recognising the advantages that come with bringing in highly qualified leaders.

“Historically, sport was run in an amateur way, but in the last 20 years it has become more professional across the board,” Dávila said. “Of course, at the top end you have organisations such as the Premier League that have been led at an advanced level for decades. But the wave has now moved through sport and we see professional managers leading sports such as field hockey and volleyball.

“Those running these sports have recognised the necessity of professionalised administration. They need managers who can help their sports and events to thrive in an era of digitalisation and NFTs. They need leaders who are familiar with considerations when it comes to stadium management, the utilisation of social media and creating value for sponsors.”

Sport as entertainment

Dávila believes sport in Europe is catching up with the US in its approach.

“The industry is recognising that professional sport has an important entertainment component , and that is a major reason for the changes,” he said. “In the US this has been a given for many years, but European sports are now making this transition to ensure they are offering events, competitions and a wider offering that is attractive to fans.

“This is true from the top down to those sports and events that do not make as much money. At that lower level, a professional management team can ensure more money comes in and that it is used wisely.”

Before joining AISTS and HEC Lausanne in 2021, Dávila was a professor at IESE Business School in Barcelona, a visiting professor at Harvard Business School, teaching in the MBA core curriculum, and a faculty member at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University. His teaching and research interests focus on the growth of start-ups, innovation management, sports management, and management control.

Dávila has taught sports management for around 15 years and been associated with AISTS for more than a decade.

“Moving to Lausanne was a big incentive as it’s the world capital of sport,” he added.

“We are looking forward to introducing the redesigned course to this year’s AISTS students. Much of the focus will be similar, but updated. There is now more emphasis on digitalisation and digital marketing, as we take a deeper look at the possibilities offered by areas such as big data and NFTs.”

Sport’s complex structure

The MAS programme runs for 15 months, starting in September and finishing the following December. The first eight months consist of intense in-school study and lectures led by the academy’s guest professors. From June to December, students are required to work for two months within an organisation either as an intern or employee or through an entrepreneurial undertaking. They must then submit a report based on their experience.

The management syllabus focuses on the most pertinent areas of enquiry, including industry structure, strategy, finance and accounting, marketing, operations and leadership. Dávila believes that understanding the structure of the industry is  a particularly significant aspect for sport’s future leaders.

He said: “In this section we will understand how the sport ecosystem works and all the different actors, of which there are many. It is a much more complex structure than almost any other sector.”

Students will be brought up to speed in these complex areas through e-learning modules which prepare them in advance for classroom learning.

“We want to give them the content of an MBA crammed into just a few months, so it’s essential that we make the most from both the classroom and e-learning,” he added. “Every student will find different things useful and rewarding. For some, it will be discovering the economics of organisations and for others it will looking at sponsorship activations.”

Sophisticated partners

Of course, while some academic subjects can be taught from a textbook, sports business is a living beast impacted by fresh developments, new practices and trends. To reflect this,  students will present to their classes on areas of particular interest. Dávila added: “It could be Barcelona selling media rights, a stadium project or even new trends in player scouting.”

AISTS is committed to ensuring that its flagship course is producing the leaders that sport needs in the future. With that in mind, Dávila believes the changes to the course ahead of the 2022 intake will be beneficial for the graduates and the sports ecosystem.

“For the graduates, it’s going to give them the skills they need to succeed in sports organisations in a changing world where they will work with more sophisticated partners,” he said, before citing the example of private equity giant CVC Capital Partners’ reported $300m (£248m/€286m) investment last year in the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB).

“In such discussions you need to understand how people think and work,” he added. “Sports organisations need people at the helm who are well trained in business models and strategies, not just working on intuition.

“Federations, rights-holders and businesses will benefit from the advanced skills that these AISTS graduates have gained from the course. These will be people who understand how to succeed in this changing world.”