Sporting MBAs: A winning combination

A sporting interest combined with an MBA can be great for networking, says Nic Paton
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is about pushing yourself to your limits, getting afraid and then managing that fear," explains former Kingston University MBA graduate Christophe Pignal-Jacquard.

No, he is not talking about the pressure of getting that final dissertation in on time. Rather he is extolling the joys of being a "Pink Viking" - a sailing society largely comprised of MBA alumni that can often be found out on the Solent or competing in regattas.

Anyone who has ever struck a deal or secured a pay rise on the golf course will know only too well that sport is, and has long been, an integral part of corporate life. But increasingly MBA students and business schools are recognising the value of using sporting activities to build networks, develop leadership skills, further their careers and even make individual fortunes.

What's more, the multi-million pound industries behind many of our modern day sports are becoming an ever more popular part of the MBA curriculum.

For Pignal-Jacquard, 30, sailing is both a passion and a hugely powerful way of developing bonds and building cameraderie. "Sailing is a team-based activity, but you are in a very confined space. It is dangerous and you are totally focused. When you are at sea and you are racing you create ties that are so strong in a very small amount of time," says the BP financial analyst.

There is also a strong social element. "We work hard and play hard. You have a busy day on the boat and then a very short night," he laughs, adding that the society also raises a lot of money for charity.

In the US the sports industry raked in an estimated $213bn (£120bn) last year and is such big business that many business schools now offer specialist sports industry MBAs or executive education to former sports professionals.

Just a few examples include San Diego State University, which runs an 18-month "Sports Business Management" MBA, MIT Sloan School of Management, which offers a course on "analytical sports management", and Arizona State University, which runs a Sports Business MBA.

Over here - with less than a month to go to the World Cup - it's a similar story. The Football League's £110m three-year deal with Sky and ITV, Manchester United being valued at £790m by the Glazer family last year and Roman Abramovich's £440m investment (so far) in Chelsea, all add up to football in particular having become such big business it can be no longer ignored by business schools, says Professor Chris Brady, associate dean of external relations at Cass.

"Sport has always been really important for business, but business schools have not been looking at it," admits Brady, who is also author of The 90 Minute Manager, a book that draws management lessons from the world of football.

Cass is now working with the English Football Association to launch a football industry executive MBA next year where the specialist MBA students will work alongside the generalists for the core elements and then split off. A similar MBA has been up and running for some time now at Liverpool University.

Other MBA graduates are recognising it is possible, with a bit of entrepreneurial flair, to combine twin passions for sport and business.

Gavin Bottrell, an MBA graduate of Aston Business School (and also an avid collector of antique golf clubs), has done just that by launching an MBA Golf Club last September.

The club, as its name suggests, aims to bring together current and ex-MBA students, including many chief executives, on the golf course, with members paying either £45 or £89 a year depending on their level of membership.

It runs coaching courses for novices and aims this year to hold a series of events, including the Global MBA Golf Championship this August (see box).

So far it has some 70 members, three quarters of whom are MBA alumni and a quarter current students, says Bottrell.

"It is all levels. We recently had 12 people from different business schools who had never touched a club before and wanted tuition to get them into the game. And then we have the chief executive of a large insurance company who is looking for a new hobby on retirement," he explains.

"There are approximately two and a half million MBAs in the world, and around 5 per cent of them are regular golfers," he adds.

The networking potential of being part of such an organisation is obvious but, also, simply being able to hold your own on the fairway can be vital anywhere.

"Golf is a hugely growing sport in developing economies such as China - in Shanghai there is one venue that has 10 courses on the one spot, for instance," says Bottrell.

The eventual plan is to develop "chapters" worldwide - already talks are underway about a South African arm and the club has links in the US and Lahore - giving members a ready network of like-minded enthusiasts to tee off with wherever they may be in the world.

Sport can have an important role to play in building leadership and managerial skills too, argues Valérie Gauthier, associate director of the MBA programme at HEC in Paris and an organiser of the annual MBA Tournament, also known as the MBA Olympics.

The tournament, which this year takes place from 25 to 28 May, brings together one of the largest annual gatherings of international business schools, with students taking part in 25 sports. An alumni version was launched last year by IESE.

Organising, running, funding and leading the tournament are included within the school's 16-month MBA programme, taking up half a day a week. "It is an integrated part of the curriculum, it is a student-run competition," stresses Valérie Gauthier.

'With sport you meet people you would not otherwise meet and share ideas'

Sport can be a great way to get yourself out of the narrow confines of MBA and business thinking, says Oxford blue, all-round sportsman and Saïd MBA student Chris Fearn.

"MBAs tend to get very focused on the people they live and work with, but sport allows you to put your head above the water and get involved in the university around you," he says.

Fearn, 29, is on the university volley ball team, is a keen sailor and, being Canadian, an enthusiastic winter sportsman. He has also played basketball in the MBA Olympics.

"You get to meet people who you would not otherwise meet, and you share ideas and create a bond. It can really give you a new perspective on things when you talk to other postgrads from completely different backgrounds," says Fearn, who will graduate this autumn.

"Also, being an Oxford blue has a certain exclusivity to it. I can put it on my CV and show I have combined the rigour of my MBA course with my achievements in sport," he explains. "I would definitely like to keep sport involved in my professional life if I can, although right now I am pretty focused on a career in management consultancy."

'The MBA brought investors on board'

It would be great to be able to say that former SDA Bocconi MBA graduate Mark von Westenholtz (above) started his bowling rink business because of his passion for sport.

But in fact it was more hard-nosed business acumen, and the traditional spotting of a gap in the market, that led him to launch the upmarket All Star Lanes in central London at the start of this year.

"I have loved bowling ever since I was a student but, to be honest, I am a fan at probably just the same level as my customer base, people who want to go out, do some bowling, have some cocktails, a meal and a great night," admits the 33-year-old entrepreneur, who completed his MBA at the Milan school back in 2002.

Nevertheless there is no doubting the value of his MBA in helping him set up the business. "I chose Bocconi because it offered a specialist business development course, and an MBA does give you a very rounded knowledge. But its real use was when it came to raising money," he explains.

"If you go to a reputable school - which Bocconi is - then potential investors will sit up and take you much more seriously. There is no magic formula for getting it right, but a lot of the investors came on board because of my MBA, and perhaps might not have invested without it," he says.

The company currently operates one rink and is now looking for a further two or three sites.

Sporting events

Sailing

14th Alumni Business Cup, 11-14 May, The Island of Porquerolles, French Riviera ( www.alumnibusinesscup.org)

Cranfield MBA Regatta, 30 June-2 July, The Solent, UK ( www.som.cranfield.ac.uk/som/mba/regatta/Reg06/CREW.htm)

Athletics

16th HEC MBA Tournament, 25-28 May, Paris, France ( www.mbat.org)

Golf

MBA Golf Championship, 9 August, Hertfordshire, and 16 September, Edinburgh, UK ( www.mbagolfclub.com)

MBA Ryder Cup, April, various schools (in 2006 at SDA Bocconi, Milan, Italy)

Rugby

Duke University Fuqua School of Business MBA Rugby World Championships, April, Durham, North Carolina, USA ( mbaa.fuqua.duke.edu/rugby/mba_world_cup.htm)

Football

Tuck MBA World Cup, April, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA ( www.tuck.dartmouth.edu)

Comments