Education has long been recognised as a critical driver for economic and social change, but professional sport has been slow to acknowledge the value of formal learning, or indeed to accept anything more than the most limited social responsibilities.
Times are changing, however. Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) and its commercial partner VSI have persuaded an elite band of professionals from football, cricket, rugby, netball, tennis and hockey to study for a Master’s degree in sporting directorship.
Manchester boasts perhaps the finest sport facilities of any city in the world never to have hosted the Olympic Games, and the university and VSI are committed to delivering 100 highly qualified leaders equipped with the skill sets needed to mastermind blue chip global sport franchises, but also with an eye to delivering a lasting legacy.
The wealthy owners of Manchester City FC have used their resources to build a winning team while working with Sir Howard Bernstein, the chief executive of Manchester City Council, to regenerate the east side of the city. “They have worked closely with the community and been at the heart of a stunning regeneration project,” says VSI director Tony Faulkner, “while at the same time enjoying more success on the pitch than at any time in their history. But it is fair to say that examples such as City are few and far between.”
Mr Faulkner and fellow director, Darren Royle, son of former England star and Premier League manager Joe Royle, identified the need for experienced sportspeople to be embraced at the highest level of governance and decision-making, but also recognised that a life spent playing or coaching often left little time for education.
VSI believes that a host of great sportspeople are either overlooked for key executive positions or perform badly in those positions because of a lack of formal education. “In so many sports a wealth of knowledge and experience is lost because beyond coaching there is no career roadmap,” Mr Royle says. “The boardroom was seen as the domain of businessmen and accountants.
“VSI identified a desperate need for key executive positions in sport to be filled by people who have not only performed at the highest level but who also enjoyed a passion for sport. We believe that great leaders will be the medium- and long-term custodians of sport’s best interests, with their eyes not just focused on the most recent on-field result.”
The views of Darren Royle and Tony Faulkner were confirmed by multiple owners and leaders of governing bodies who wanted elite performers moving from the playing field to the boardroom but who found only a limited talent pool. Galvanised by such widespread support for their beliefs, VSI approached the business school at MMU with a view to creating an academic qualification for sporting directors.
On the continent, it is commonplace for sports franchises to engage an individual as a statutory director with responsibility for the sporting operations. That individual would work with owners and fellow directors to create the vision and philosophy of the club, being instrumental in appointing the first-team coach and ultimately responsible for all sporting operations at the club.
MMU embraced the idea enthusiastically and worked to create an exclusive, invitation only Master’s qualification. “Sport is very important to the economy of Manchester,” says Professor Malcolm Press, the MMU vice-chancellor, “and we are delighted at the success of the Master’s degree in sporting directorship. It is a groundbreaking qualification and we see it going from strength to strength.”
Tony Faulkner is similarly enthusiastic. “It is a leadership programme, underpinned by neuroscience,” he says. “Understanding how the brain drives performance and behaviour is the glue that holds it all together.
“The university worked closely with VSI to produce a Master’s degree that was appropriate for individuals who have significant work and life experience. It is a part-time course because most of the two cohorts currently in place have high-profile full-time jobs.”
Among the first cohort is former England Test cricket star and one-day coach Ashley Giles, who is now in charge of Lancashire County Cricket Club where he has led a remarkable transformation in its fortunes, taking them from Division Two of the County Championship to the top of Division One, and with the T20 trophy proudly on display at their spectacularly modernised Old Trafford ground.
Mr Giles is scheduled to graduate in a few weeks’ time and admits that going back to the classroom has been a challenging experience. “You are taken out of your comfort zone,” he says, “but I feel I have really benefited from the experience. The academic side opens your mind to new ideas, but as much as anything else it has been working alongside the rest of the group that has been really important.
“I have been able to hear and see how other sports deal with issues, and you can’t help but learn so much from their experience.” Others currently studying include former Manchester United and England assistant manager Steve Round and Oxford United manager Michael Appleton. Both were among the attendees at second global summit of sporting directors which was held in April at the Mayfair Hotel in London.
“We are trying to create a movement of sport leaders,” Darren Royle says, “and 160 of the most influential sportspeople attended the summit.
“The knowledge exchange was invaluable with the likes of Andrew Strauss, director of cricket at the ECB, Andy Harrison, interim head of British Cycling, Rob Andrew, former professional rugby director of the RFU and Dan Ashworth, the Football Association technical director all enjoying a lively debate.”
VSI is convinced that change in sport can only come about through high-quality leadership and it is working with business leaders to fund that process – but always with one eye on how those leaders will ultimately deliver positive economic and social welfare change at grassroots level.
What does it mean? VSI chairman Andy McIntyre explains…
What impact has this Master’s degree in sporting directorship had on the profile of Manchester Metropolitan University?
AM: Extensive cross-media coverage over the last three years has cemented the university’s position as the global leader in executive sport education, with high-profile individuals travelling from as far afield as Africa, North America and the United Arab Emirates to study on the two-year, part-time programme. Senior figures from the Football Association, the Professional Footballers’ Association, the Rugby Football League, the Rugby Football Union, the England and Wales Cricket Board, British Cycling and sports coach UK have thrown their weight behind what they acknowledge to be a groundbreaking qualification.
Can you describe the profile of the existing cohort?
AM: An eclectic mix of high-profile individuals including former England cricket star and one-day coach Ashley Giles and former Manchester United FC and England assistant manager Steve Round are among those invited to study on the inaugural year of the programme. All those studying share the ambition to be strategic leaders in elite sport organisations.
How do I secure a place on the programme?
AM: As this is an exclusive programme, entry has thus far been on a strict invitation-only basis and individuals have typically presented themselves to their governing body or union which has, if appropriate, represented the candidate’s case to MMU’s commercial partner VSI. It is their decision as to whether an application should be forwarded to the university for consideration.
To what extent can these leaders impact on the economy and social welfare of the Northern powerhouse?
AM: Sport runs deep through the DNA of the Northern powerhouse cities, delivering a multi-million pound cash windfall. Great leaders will drive these economic returns even further while also exercising the sort of social responsibility that will finance grassroots sport and support campaigns to radically improve physical literacy across the age ranges. Government research suggests this will improve the health of the region, with an increase in skills among people and communities leading to greater hope and achievement.