On when collaboration makes for the best competition

Back in the early 1990s I designed a new approach to archery. Tournaments at the time were based on a long line of archers shooting 144 arrows across four distances and at the end of the day someone would emerge with the highest score. You’d get updates every dozen shot, but they lagged. It wasn’t a spectator sport. I wrote in to an archery magazine with my proposition: match play. I even designed the layout of the field with cameras and scoreboards that updated after every arrow. It was no longer an anonymous and laborius six hour competition but a head-to-head competition where the winner progressed to the next round, just as in a tennis or snooker tournament. I took an idea from other sports and applied it to archery where tournament formats hadn’t changed in over 100 years. I have to be completely honest – I have no evidence that my article was read and acted on by someone in a position of influence in the sport, but anyone watching the Olympic archery tournement coverage from Tokyo will have seen the match-play format I described (if only I had kept a copy of my hand-written letter!).

One of the reasons I came up with this approach was because I had an idea of a pyramid in terms of how the sport – any sport – could grow. At the top of the pyramid, that small triangle, were the world-class, the best in field, the few who we all knew were the only ones likely to win a tournament over any given weekend. Each progressive layer of performance down the pyramid, the more archers there are (or at least, the more there should be). The further down you get, the more you move from semi-professional to competitive to recreational archers, those who simply do it for run and relaxation. At the bottom, therefore, is grass-roots sport.

My insight at the time was the realisation that you can only build the pyramid as high as the foundations you have in place. The more grass-roots archers, and the better the systems and structures of support (ie coaching, accessibility, knowledge commons, etc), the clearer the pathway to progress would be and the higher the pyramid could rise, meaning those at the top will perform even better. It is an inevitability with the increased number of participants increasing knowledge, competition and so on. The best get better the better the others around them are – just look at mens tennis this century.

How to bring in more people at the grass-roots level? Make the sport visible and accessible. Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves had just been a box office smash at the cinema. The Olympic flame at Barcelona 1992 was lit by an archer shooting a burning arrow. Archery was in our consciousness more than normal. How to capitalise upon this? Make it more visible at the elite level through head-to-head match-play that even the casual spectator could understand. Mane it more accessible at a grass-roots level through a range of marketing and promotional activities, and significant investment to support local clubs. 

In the US, the poster-child for capitalist competitive endeavour, we find the curious scenario of a sport generating $15bn in revenues based on the idea that the sport itself is the product rather than each individual team. I call the NFL curious because it is not solely founded on individualism and a dog-eat-dog attitude to success and failure, as with soccer in the English Premier League. Quite the opposite: it has a number of built-in checks and balances designed to ensure there is a competitive balance across all 32 teams. Within this system the best teams are still the best run organisations from top to bottom, from ownership to coaches to players to game-day concession staff.

If you end the season with the worst record in football, however, you get the first pick of all the college players turning professional (through a process called the NFL Draft, itself the most visible and public recruitment process in any industry). All teams operate within a salary cap which prevents the sport from descending into the same kind of farcical oligarch’s playground that has destroyed the allure of the English premier league for the casual fan. It limits the ability of the teams to buy up all the best players and so construct a super-team based on the depth of the owner’s pockets. It keeps all fans interested, even if long-suffering fans of the Jets, Browns and Bengals will testify to the notion that such attempts at egality won’t overcome inept ownership, poor scouting and selecting of players, or bad coaching.

In any sport you still need to get the basics right. But as all NFL fans know no-one sells hope (religion aside) like the NFL. Any team can win – and does win – on ‘any given Sunday’. The NFL as a business recognises its strength is in its collective product and that means it is only as strong as its weakest link. It’s why there are are only 32 professional teams (one team for every 10.4m people) compared to 92 soccer teams in England (one per 0.730m). Hence the various structural mechanisms to support the whole product, which contrive to keep it in the media eye, more than other sports, even during the seven months of the off-season.

Cricket, on the other hand, is heading in the other direction. It is not run as if it is a single product for the benefit of the game. It is increasingly run by, and for the benefit of, the ‘big three’ of India, Australia and England. Not only are there now four formats of the sport comprising 100-ball, 120-ball, 300-ball one-day formats and five-day Test Matches, but there is little coherence in how they are organised and run internationally. The NFL model would design in checks and balances for the benefit of the whole game, recognising that the stronger the weaker teams get, the stronger the overall product. In my framing, the weaker teams such as Bangladesh or Sri Lanka (at the moment) are further down the performance pyramid than the big three but above the developing nations where cricket is being played, such as some European and African countries.

As I saw with archery, this is vital for the simple reason that if there is no clear progression route from the entry point into the sport to the top of the pyramid, whether as an individual (as in archery), a team (as in the NFL) or a country (as in cricket), if you are denied access to the top tiers because the rules are rigged against you, then you have the opposite of a growing sport. You are precipitating stagnation, decline and irrelevance. Anything else that administrators tout as achievements is a smokescreen. 

It is the spectacle of those at the top of the pyramid performing at the highest level of competition that delights and enthrals, that attracts new people to any sport, drawn to the cut and thrust and emotional ride of a sporting conquest. If a competitive balance is maintained, all games, competitions and series offer this competitive possibility. If it isn’t, the product gets boring pretty quickly and new spectators, fans and players are not drawn to the game; worse, it becomes harder to retain existing ones.

So long as a sport is run through a process of each economic unit (whether a team or country) fighting for the best financial deal for themselves and not collaborating for the best deal for the sport as a whole the results will be sub-optimal to the success of the game. It is not enough to offer a fatalistic ‘money talks’ shrug. Sure, this may require some income redistribution and investment. Cricket needs to subsidise the sport in some of the less profitable countries and regions to be successful; world cricket needs fair competition between countries in the boardroom as well as the cricket field. The pyramid needs to be built with more consideration to all layers and the scaffolding that supports it. 

Of course, while sport offers an accessible example of these issues, they apply to any organisation and industry. Obfuscate the means of progression, cherry-pick the winners, misalign incentives and raise the barriers to entry and you have a sure-fire recipe for disaster. You don’t have to like your fellow collaborators to recognise and realise the value in working together. The five mafia families of New York knew this just as well as those starting the Co-operative movement in Manchester. In any endeavour it is the foundational practices that sow the seeds of success. The extent to which you are able to expand the bottom layer of the pyramid and offer clear routes to progress up it determine how high you can build it. 

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