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Sporting metaphors are everywhere in business but aren't always liked. Dr Jan-Michael Ross joins the game to show such language is not down and out, if you keep your eye on the ball 

The business world has long been fascinated by sport, inspired by a common currency of enthusiasm, leadership, competition and money. Business speak is famously peppered with sporting idioms: old hands “know the ropes”, teams start in “pole position” or are thrown “curveballs”. 

And managers are increasingly intrigued by what sports can reveal about leadership, rivalry, teamwork, diversity, motivation and more. What does a sudden fall of rain on a high-speed racetrack reveal about risk-taking among individual competitors? How can university chants at sporting events help socialise newcomers and stoke rivalry? What can the decisions of bridge players teach us about coping with uncertainty?  

But not all sporting insights neatly translate into simple management lessons, and critics question the relevance of this wisdom in the boardroom. Academics stand accused of oversimplifying theories or shoehorning sporting insights into a business context where they just don’t fit.   

Take the example of Canadian ice hockey star Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky’s tactics – “he skates to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been” – have repeatedly been quoted by decision makers and business leaders. But – as the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have shown – risks in the real world are unpredictable, and this analogy has limitations and requires more nuance. But there are sporting examples that do shed light on uncertainty, and we should leverage them. 

Using sporting data in management 

While there are many potential pitfalls in using sports information to enhance management science, we’d nonetheless do the business world a disservice to neglect such a rich source of insights. Sporting data is granular and readily available, its boundaries are clear, and it offers researchers the chance to make new links, formulate bold new theories and test existing concepts.  

In collaboration with Fabio Fonti from NEOMA Business School and Paolo Aversa from Bayes Business School, we’ve reviewed 249 management research papers drawing on sporting contexts published over the last 50 years to help management researchers in their work. 

This allows researchers to clear out the clutter and focus on key insights in a way that isn’t always possible in the real world

We’ve catalogued the key insights drawn from sports data to date. From areas as wide as leadership, reputation and status, through to motivation and unethical behaviour, researchers have already unpicked these sporting situations in order to apply wisdom more broadly.  

We believe the sporting world provides a fresh canvas free of entrenched beliefs which allows researchers to identify new links leading to novel theories. Dmitry Sharapov (Imperial College London) and I have done this in our earlier work, drawing on America’s Cup data to develop theories around imitation strategies that we then aim to test in a business context. Fresh and original situations could also help academic researchers step outside well-trodden areas and find new insights which are relevant across a mix of disciplines.  

Management insights (and managing insights) 

One criticism levelled at leveraging insights from competition is that, in a sporting contest, there is a clear winner and loser within a finite time, while in the real world, business continues without artificial time constraints.  

But as ever there are parallels: pharmaceutical companies famously raced to find a vaccine for COVID-19; sales staff might compete aggressively for promotion as a performance deadline looms – and a losing sports team might up the ante and take a few more risks towards the end of a match.

When you begin to look, there are many similar scenarios: the strategic secrecy, for instance, as seen in the the Ocean Race when yachts go into "stealth mode" to conceal their geographical position from competitors, akin to the secrecy of a consumer technology launch by the likes of Apple.  

What can go wrong? We’ve compiled a variety of strategies to help researchers ensure their work with sports data will yield robust management insights. This approach will help identify which scenarios and information are suitable for which context, and help to avoid certain traps, such as strategies being overly broad-brush, or limited in scope for fear of criticism.  

Sport is a laboratory for business 

And new areas are opening up. Over the years, sports data has been dismissed as predominantly male, often white. As the sporting world makes efforts to become more diverse and inclusive, this unlocks rich research opportunities. Thanks to the high-profile nature of top sports, success of diversity initiatives and their mechanism and execution are highly visible – and can illustrate what works and what doesn’t.  

We’ve seen the US women soccer team’s appeal for equal pay, and the success and recognition of England’s female footballers – where researchers will no doubt be investigating a lack of ethnic diversity. Even in the elite world of competitive sailing, there have been outstanding results: a female sailor with disability winning against other male and female able-bodied and para-athletes for instance.  

Academics stand accused of shoehorning sporting insights into a business context where they just don’t fit

Sport is a living laboratory. It has clear rules and fine-grained data, and this allows researchers to clear out the clutter and focus on key insights in a way that isn’t always possible in the real world. In some contests, competitors even have a say in setting or shaping the rules of the game, and this merits deeper investigation.  

Sport is also a universal language: vivid and more easily communicated to practitioners than the opaque language of conventional academic research. It’s a fast-moving field, which means research can take place more swiftly with information that is readily available. And data is abundant and becoming ever more so, thanks to advances in sensors and computing muscle. This is too good an opportunity to waste.     

This article draws on findings from “Using Sports Data to Advance Management Research: A Review and a Guide for Future Studies” by Fabio Fonti (NEOMA Business School), Jan-Michael Ross (Imperial College London) and Paola Aversa (Bayes Business School).

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Main image: bortonia / DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images.

Jan Ross

About Jan-Michael Ross

Associate Professor
Dr Jan-Michael Ross is Associate Professor of Strategy. His research focuses on the role of uncertainty and environmental changes for competitive dynamics, imitation strategies, and strategic investment decisions.

You can find the author's full profile, including publications, at their Imperial Professional Web Page

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