Five Cultural Flaws To Combat In Amateur Sport

Capitis Consulting - Paul Varian MBA, C.Dir picture
Paul Varian MBA, C.Dir
Capitis Consulting | Article - Five Cultural Flaws To Combat In Amateur Sport

Every industry has its great bits, and it's pains in the butt.

And with amateur sport, many dream of working in it because they see so many great bits. Sport - we enjoy it as a pass-time, hobby or passion - to work in it, really? Get paid for this fun? Sign me up!

But for many who take this step, the underworld of frustrations that are thrown on them in amateur sport are a surprise and a frustration. Not what they expected, not always fun. Everyone seems annoyed with you and brings nothing but problems. There are never any resources to get things done. And you're expected to do anything and everything, regardless of what your job is.

So what creates these bad sides to working in amateur sport that the industry seems to shrug at and say 'just part of the gig'? Where does the culture of amateur sport go wrong without even noticing it, let alone combating to it?

Strap yourselves in! Because here come my top five cultural flaws in amateur sport I'm challenging the emerging executive leadership in the industry to fix!

#1: Cut Us A Break, We're Only Amateurs

I recall a President of a major national-level amateur sport governing body totally messing up a trophy presentation once. It was a big deal. The amateur sport had national TV coverage for the event, something they were lucky to get once or twice a year. All she had to do was say a few words about the two teams competing. She butchered it, couldn't even remember one of the teams' name. The sport's day in the sun was ruined, live on national TV. Speaking to her afterwards, her words ring in my head to this day. 'I had a senior moment. What do people expect? We're only amateurs'.

Not good enough. The very statement to this day annoys me, because it says so much about how little amateur sport sometimes expects of itself. As long as amateur sport thinks it can paper over mediocrity with this idea that we're not paid to do it, it will always struggle to attract real capital outside of volunteers.

Being 'amateur' might have cut it in the baby boomer generation, when the sense of duty to volunteer ruled the day. But the millennials are moving into the seats of power. Amateur sport needs to understand it's a consumerist world of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately out there. Modern sport consumers don't care if you're paid or not. They treat you the same as the company that sold them the cup of coffee in their hand as they speak to you. Don't excuse poor product or service with your amateur tag. You and McDonalds are the same in terms of what people expect for their dollar. Don't think you get a hall pass because you're amateur sport.

#2: Deadlines Are There To Be Moved

I started my career in the conference and event business. Deadlines are king. Miss one, you're in deep doo-doo. Miss another, you're looking for a new job.

Amateur sport, I found, tends to work at its own pace. And any pressure that is imposed on that pace quickly becomes chaotic rushing to get things done, often late and thrown together. Deadlines are rarely set, and if they are, they simply aren't taken seriously. If it looks like it's going to be missed, the deadline is simply moved or just ignored. Bureaucracy is blamed. No-one seems to say 'hang on, we can have that meeting tomorrow, not next week, no?' And the 'we're just amateurs' card is played without anyone saying anything. No-one gets called out for being just too damn slow. There is a culture of hiding behind the fact that, when it comes to the hard accountability of business reality, you wouldn't beat the field of puppies that amateur sport presents itself as.

Yes, it's a cultural thing. Amateur sport Boards aren't disciplined about meeting management, executive performance reviews, budget approval, etc. Executives can be sloppy about management reporting, staff performance management, planning rigour. And staff follow the examples set by their leadership. Inefficiency runs wild. Deadlines become just arbitrary dates that you move if they are no longer convenient.

#3: We Can't Change Because It's Too Hard

Hand in glove with this is the idea that nothing can be done because it's been tried before and, damn it, it's pointless trying again. It's too hard. Don't bother, just fall in.

Amateur sport collects people. Too few move in and out of the sector; there is no healthy breathing of intellectual capital in from commercial business and back out from amateur sport. Too few new ideas come in from outside, old norms are never challenged and retired. Some working in the industry have been there for twenty years or more and are frankly jaded and cynical. They shut down new ideas, free thinking and that wonderfully contagious enthusiasm for what could be. The industry culturally gets caught in a groundhog-day loop that doesn't change because it tells itself it's just too hard and won't work anyway.

#4: Overhead Is There To Be Eliminated

My favourite, and also my most hated. This idea that 'overhead' is the Death Star of amateur sport and must be destroyed. I get the underlying sentiment. Don't waste money on unnecessary things. Of course, this makes sense! But the idea that overhead is negligent mismanagement of money is a head-shaker to most business people reading this.

You see, amateur sport is obsessed with sport programs. A sport program is a worthy investment in its mind. But what is needed to market, financially-manage or administer that program is not. The politics of amateur sport says that any dollar not deployed directly to the sport program is waste and must be punished. The understanding that overhead actually supports the program and allows the organization to run properly and the program to exist flies over people's heads.

Too often, amateur sport Boards of Directors spend time seeing how they can eliminate their own overhead, like it's some kind of success. They are just eating their own legs. And they only realise when they are on stumps and other organizations are running past them how valuable and necessary that nasty overhead really is.

#5: Training Is A Glutinous Waste Of Money

Amateur sport staff are a questionable investment. Hiring them is bad enough. So training them? A complete 'no-no'. That is too often the view of amateur sport organizations. I've consulted to many and only ever seen a staff training line item in a few of their financial statements or budgets.

Aligned to the fear of overhead cost, amateur sport does not value the training and development of its human capital. Whether its coaches or administrators, its nowhere near what's needed. It means staff are often overworked but also inefficient and ineffective in some areas, particularly skilled business disciplines like marketing, sales, IT and human resources. They tend to be generalists, just trying to get by and learning skills on the fly as they go.

So there's my five! I hope I haven't offended anyone in pointing them out! But someone's got to address this. I don't see anyone tackling them; people just seem to think these cultural deficiencies are the norm. Just the charming reason why amateur sport is attractive to people and so connected to the community.

I disagree. It is time for the sector to start taking itself more seriously. It is 2017, not 1917. Consumers have expectations. Amateur sport is given no quarter. The age of volunteerism as we knew it thirty years ago is gone. It is time for the sector to modernize culturally. Accept staff are needed and must be constantly trained and developed. Respect that overhead runs your sport club, it doesn't destroy it. Enforce accountability and discipline around deadlines. Accept that targets in general productivity are as relevant and necessary in not-for-profit as in commercial business. Promote change as the non-negotiable force you must learn to manage - it's not a choice.

It's time for amateur sport to shake off these cultural dead weights! And it starts with executive leadership. Embody it in your operations, show your Boards what can be done, lead from the front!


Cultural change in amateur soccer is one of the many challenges amateur soccer executive leaders will be debating at ExecuSoccer, Canada's first seminar series specifically geared to Executive Directors, General Managers, Business Managers and Presidents of amateur soccer clubs. Four one-day seminars will tackle four key themes - Governance, Planning & Finance; Marketing, Communications & Revenue; Technical Oversight & Evaluation; Staff & Volunteer Leadership.