As three North American hockey stars start a sponsored MBA course in Newcastle, we ask why sport and business make such happy bedfellows.

Anyone with lingering suspicions that executive boardrooms are the preserve of hard-nosed individualists would do well to meet three of Newcastle Business School’s latest MBA recruits. Former Canadian international ice hockey player Ben Foley and North American league pros Derek Campbell and Mark Gouett recently enrolled on the course as part of a sponsorship deal brokered by their new club, the Mobilx Newcastle Vipers. The trio were lured to Newcastle by the offer of an all-expenses-paid MBA education worth £14,000. In return, they’ve taken salary cuts to bring the benefit of their years of topflight expertise on the ice to the Vipers, rising stars in Britain’s Elite League.

That MBA courses are going to such lengths to recruit high-calibre sports stars reflects the growing importance attached in business circles to promoting team-playing in management. Foley, a 30-year-old Harvard University sociology graduate from Ottawa who has played for numerous US sides, including Colorado Avalanche, sees a clear relationship between the cooperative skills he learnt in ice hockey and the politics of modern business. “Everything is a business these days – even hockey,” Foley says. “All our classmates are bank managers or working for the NHS, but effective communication and teamwork are as important in those fields as in ice hockey.”

Campbell, 27, says the benefits of having professional sportspeople enrolled on an MBA works both ways. Players bring the benefit of their team experience into the classroom, and in return receive vital schooling in leadership – another vital management skill: “Every team needs good organisation. Many things can be improved in the running of the teams I’ve played in –and the course has opened my eyes to this.” What attracted Campbell, Gouett and Foley to Newcastle was the flexible nature of the sponsorship package. To enable them to keep playing ice hockey alongside their studies, the school created a bespoke version of its part-time programme. Rather than spreading the degree over three years, as is the norm, they are being allowed to squeeze it into a nine month fast-track. For one player the course will bring instant rewards in the management sphere, too: the Newcastle Vipers are planning to offer the highest achiever a player manager post next season.

Newcastle’s new ice hockey partnership is not unique. In an effort to attract high flying talent from the – prestigious US and overseas leagues, a growing number of UK teams – including the Coventry, Sheffield, and Nottingham sides – are offering new signings the chance to study at local universities for free (though not all to take MBAs). A number of other schools also boast professional sports stars among their latest intakes. Kadmi Springer, 35, a former basketball player in the Israeli First Division, is reading for a full-time international MBA at Rotterdam’s RSM Erasmus University. Of the relationship between his studies and his sporting background, he says: “Sport provides a unique platform to exercise teamwork and leadership. My previous role as a team captain gave me valuable experience I find very applicable in the teams I face in the MBA.”

The link between sport and MBAs is a long-established one. Graduating with an executive MBA from Henley Management College catapulted former Test cricketer Hugh Morris into the managing director’s chair at the England and Wales Cricket Board. And PY Gerbeau erstwhile chief executive of the Millennium Dome, was an Olympic ice hockey player for his native France before a severe ankle injury curtailed his sports career. He then plumped for an MBA course at Sciences Po in Paris.

Now an MBA lecturer at both London Business School and Imperial College, in addition to running X-Leisure, Britain’s largest leisure entertainment company, his sporting experience has proved invaluable in business – not

“There’s not been a single day in 20 years in business when I haven’t used a reference or attitude related to being an athlete, and I bring it into my MBA lectures, too,” Gerbeau says. “The best football managers, like Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger, have an ability to cope with pressure and think strategically that would make them phenomenal business people.” Gerbeau is not the only MBA lecturer to draw explicit analogies between the cut and thrust of corporate governance and the world of sport.

Dr Mark de Rond, a reader in strategy and organisation at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School, spent two years training with the Cambridge Rowing Club for a research project focusing on the tensions between control and collaboration in both business and sporting environments. “It’s a secretive, ritual heavy organisation where Brideshead Revisited meets FightClub. It took me three months to negotiate access,” De Rond explains. “Its members are brilliant sportsmen – there’s a former Olympic gold medallist and two reigning world champions – but what makes them good also makes them difficult. “In rowing, the whole team needs to synchronise to beat its opponents, but the very people they are synchronising with are also competing with them. These kinds of tensions are common to both business and sport.”