Business Book: Business And The Beautiful Game, by Theo Theobald and Cary Cooper

Comparing business with football: But are the comparisons worthwhile?
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The Independent Online

Media involvement and intrusion are clearly key in football and contribute substantially to the game's huge popularity. The media increasingly has an impact on the business scene too, on companies' financial performance, products or services and on industrial and consumer relations. But where's the scope for the kind of loyalty of Manchester United fans or Alex Ferguson's passion? We now know more about top business managers' transfer fees, salaries and the millions built up in their pension pots, although there are few examples of the Ferguson management style. Of course, this is easier when confined to 22 players rather than hundreds, or even thousands. This is when the smaller business scores!

In companies the captain or star player's role is similar to his opposite in football. Let's look at the appointment of the chief executive of Sainsburys or Boots. To the City they are the star players, brought in with a ''golden hello'' and expected to add value and make an early impact on company strategy, turnover and profits. Curiously, their top team players are hardly known.

The first thing that expensively acquired top players do for a club, as the authors point out, is to help win games. The second thing that clubs expect from their talent is that they will continue to draw crowds in week after week, increasing revenue. The addition of a new star player adds value for season ticket holders and significantly boosts merchandise revenues.

In football, a third party with a vested interest - the agents whose job it is to hype up their player's value - plays a big part. To the prospective buyer the value of a star player is what he can achieve now and in the future.

The authors clearly have a point when they say personnel managers in industry look at the world in the same way. Ambitious executives need to consider their worth and whether they are filling an essential gap. They must establish their market worth and start some astute self-marketing and promotion, with help from headhunters and executive search specialists.

The skills that the aspiring business manager can learn from football, we are told, are control, touch (or judgement), vision, awareness, resilience and fitness. Recruitment in both cases is based on what you've achieved in the past and what you can bring to the party now.

Graham Taylor, the ex-England boss and a prominent figure in club management, believes team discipline has to be balanced with individual creativity without being heavy-handed, and players need to know the structure and what is expected of them.

This could be the missing factor in any comparison with industry, except in well organised, managed and motivated smaller businesses which are more likely to be able to count on teamwork, passion, discipline and reward, if not on the scale associated with successful football teams.

In one respect there are increasing similarities. Every football team has its coaches and coaching is spreading in industry, helping senior individuals and others on the way up. Coaching in the Premiership has developed further, coping with different backgrounds, different teams and different nationalities.

In industry the coaching starts with on-the-job training as in football and continues up to retirement. The difference is minimal in that training isn't only about becoming star players but also to aid thinking, encourage curiosity, explore feelings, emotions and thoughts.

The attempt to establish a ''passion'' link between the beautiful game and business is clearly worthwhile but almost impossible. The problem is highlighted by Keith Edelman, managing director of Arsenal FC and a former chief executive of BHS. "Retail organisations would die," he says, "to have the kind of relationship with their customers as we have with our fans, but I think they might find when they'd got it they might wonder about it. For example if you increased the ticket price at Arsenal, people wouldn't like it but they would still pay up.

"In retail there is a much less intimate relationship, so people are less likely to complain because they know they have a free choice to go elsewhere. In a football environment they don't, their loyalty binds them to the club."

The authors bravely explore such issues as ambition, coaching, captaincy, management, discipline and skill, as well as passion and their relationship to Corporate life.

Perhaps we need more Alex Ferguson-like leaders, or much greater effort to achieve the kind of customer loyalty associated with football.