Inspiring business with sport

Let’s talk sport. What does it have to teach us as we face the new reality of no cash, less credit and an economy turned inside-out? I’m a passionate sports fan from way back so I’ve been trying to work out what it is about sport that keeps me pumped about the teams I love, even when the going gets tough. If we could connect some of the amazing emotion and passion that sport inspires with business performance, what a fantastic competitive advantage we’d have. That was the rationale of the book I wrote with a bunch of academics called Peak Performance: Business Lessons from World’s Top Sports Organizations, but today I’m more interested in the fans who follow the sports gods.

Why is sport so important in the lives of so many people? I’ve got four thoughts to share.

1. Sport can be an important marker of our lives. There’s the everyday routine – and then there’s those memorable sport challenges, victories and defeats. I know if I want to date an event in the past, the easiest way is to do it is through what my kids were likely to have been doing, or through the great games and players of the period. A great example for me was the All Blacks v Springboks at Eden Park in 1997. I just watched it again on an Air New Zealand flight from LA. Fitzpatrick was a real leader.

2. Sport demands energy and participation. We’re never ‘just watching’ whether we’re at the ground or in a sports bar or settled on the couch. It is never about politely clapping when one of our heroes wins a point because they are our heroes and they matter to us. Some of the funniest comments I’ve ever heard have been directed at the hapless ref or opposing team, or even to the person sitting next to me. Michael Parkinson has a great story of being on the terraces of Barnsley FC as a fan reminded a newly signed player, “You’re about as much use as a chocolate teapot!”

3. Sport is collective. Sure, the stars are extraordinary individuals but they are engaged in a great collective enterprise. An article attacking the joys of being a fan, a spectator, a follower, suggested that the thrill of being part of a crowd was Darwinian: the more of us there are, the safer we feel. Tell that to someone working on the production line in Detroit! There is more to sport than simply being one of a large number of people engaged in doing the same thing. That’s important, but what matters most is what that experience inspires.

4. Sport inspires radical optimism. You know I love this idea if you read this blog and that is exactly what you tap into when you’re into sport. As a fan you’re following a dream you believe in because that is what the great sporting franchises offer: a dream, a story, a purpose to commit to and defend. The journey is as important as the destination. It’s great to win, of course, but the drama comes from the journey and radical optimism is the only way to accelerate that journey. You sure can’t do it with stats and training regimes and star purchases. Teams that consistently win never tap into that wild strain of optimism. We relax into being realists who get what they expect, and our teams start to seem machine-like. No one is a fan of a machine. We’re fans of supremely talented human beings that usually get it right and sometimes, heart-stoppingly, don’t.

And let’s not forget, when we are looking for role models, that the business of sports is one of the fastest growing in the US, and one of the largest. I read that it is valued at around $213 billion, which puts it around twice the size of the auto industry and seven times that of the movie industry! Then when you consider the fitness and health benefits – well, I rest my case.

New times call for new ideas about work and business and performance. If sport could inspire us to do the work we want to remember, to feel engaged and energetic, to take on radical optimism as our personal mantra, and to do all of that together, I believe we could transform business.

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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