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Sports: Strategy for the front office

How sports organizations can create world-class strategies and achieve breakthrough results

In today’s environment, a well-defined strategy is paramount for sports organizations to engage fans while achieving business goals. Developing a cohesive strategy provides a unifying direction to unite a sports organization and its employees on ambitions and priorities, and lead to greater results than would otherwise be possible.

Strategic challenges for sports organizations

In today’s sports landscape, developing and communicating a clear, coherent, and integrated strategy has never been more important. And yet, most sports organizations struggle to clearly articulate their strategy in a way that employees, owners, fans, and partners can clearly understand—and more importantly, they struggle to convey a clear plan on how they will achieve their goals. Defining a strategy for sports organizations is unique and different from other traditional companies.

Differing goals and ambitions: The ostensible goal of for-profit or publicly traded corporations is to increase shareholder value. In addition to clarifying financial goals, professional sports teams must be focused on on-field success, governing bodies are occupied with growing the participation in and the legacy of their respective sports, and leagues must manage a portfolio of considerations (players, products, and channels) to grow their overall brand.

Unique challenges and competitive dynamics: Changing viewing and social media habits mean that there are more avenues than ever to reach fans—and more competition for teams and leagues to attract eyeballs. While traditional for-profit corporations typically consider competitors within the same or adjacent industries (such as retailers competing with each other for share of wallet), sports organizations are competing with a much broader array of competitors, who are all seeking to grow their share of consumer engagement—be it streaming services, entertainment platforms, or new technology companies. And sports organizations are often working with vastly different budgets—from the smallest of schools and universities to the largest sports franchises in the world.

Defining a strategy for sports organizations is unique and different from other traditional companies.

Strategy, defined

There are a few critical tenets of strategy imperative for sports organizations to understand:

  • Strategy is about making choices. To win, you must make choices to do some things and not others.
  • Strategy is about increasing your odds of success, not guaranteeing it. There is no “perfect” strategy.
  • The strategy development process combines rigor, creativity, and judgment. It involves generating and testing hypotheses.
  • All great strategies start with the organization’s most critical stakeholders— the “customers” (the fans, sponsors, media partners, advertisers, and players).
  • To be effective, a strategy must be clear and well-communicated—a sports organization’s employees are making hundreds of decisions every day that shape the future of the organization, and the strategy is their guide in making those decisions.

The game plan for creating a winning strategy

Answering a few critical, integrated questions can help provide clear direction and vision for the whole organization. Our Strategic Choice Cascade is a proven tool to express what an organization’s strategy is (or should be). It includes an integrated set of questions and choices that should be “solved” simultaneously through iterative exploration. At the core, five questions must be addressed.

  • What is our winning aspiration?
  • Where will we play?
  • How will we win?
  • What capabilities must we have?
  • What management systems do we need?

How to get started

Whether your sports organization has articulated a strategy or not, it’s never too late—or too early—to explore this critical process as a sports executive. The first step is to begin by expressing or “stress-testing” the organization’s current strategy through the series of questions outlined in the Strategic Choice Cascade. Next, a sports organization can develop strategic options and translate these into actionable strategies. Once complete, the organization can select the best strategic options by focusing on the ones that are most attractive and viable— and those that reinforce the organization’s overall mission and purpose. Finally, a sports organization can determine the actions needed to execute on the emergent strategy, including how success will be enabled. Over time, the Strategic Choice Cascade can be used to stress-test and reevaluate an organization’s strategy in order to remain responsive to continual change.

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