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Dr Dan Parnell

FOOTBALL, SPORT, SOCIAL CHANGE, POLICY, MANAGEMENT

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April 2017

Sustainability vs Accessibility

Very pleased to be invited by Jack Zuckerman to discuss the impact of funding cuts to sport and leisure services on the BBC Look North programme aired on 16 April 2017. The programme focuses on cuts to a sport and leisure facility in Lincoln, but is an example of a national trend. A trend that has seen public services (i) re-organised, (ii) reduced or (iii) cut. One of the main issues for me is the narrative around sustainability. Not all public services are meant to be profit making or to break even. Some are just to support the health and well-being of our local communities. Often when sustainability is the focus, it comes at the cost of accessibility.

Sustainability vs Accessibility

This might just be a sports hall, but for those that use it, this will be so much more. Beyond the physical activity, it is the networks, the friendships, the social support and sense of community that adds true value to such communities of people who engage in activities together in these places.  In this case, and across the country, breaking even or being sustainable, creates further barriers, both financial and time, to the accessibility of such important sport/social/community places, for those who need it most, from our most deprived communities.

 

Some of our research that might be of interest:

Parnell, D., Spracklen, K., & Millward, P. (2016). Special Issue Introduction: Sport management issues in an era of austerity. European Sport Management Quarterly. DOI:10.1080/16184742.2016.1257552

Parnell, D., Cope, E., Bailey, R., & Widdop, P. (2016). Sport Policy and English Primary Physical Education: The role of professional football clubs in outsourcing. Sport in Society, DOI:10.1080/17430437.2016.1173911

Parnell, D., Millward, P., & Spracklen, K. (2015). Sport and austerity in the UK: An insight into Liverpool 2014. Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events, 7(2): 200-203. DOI: 10.1080/19407963.2014.968309

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He won’t pick the side, but the incoming Director of Football will be a key part of the team at Rangers

Here is the link to an interview I published with the Evening Times in Scotland – see here. Thanks to Christopher Jack for interview.

The article went in the Evening Times and Herald Scotland. The pdfs can be found here: Herald Scotland and Evening Times.

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Where do you find a Sporting Director?

Where do you find a Sporting Director?

Article originally published on The Football Collective here.

By Dr Dan Parnell and Dr Paul Widdop

Where do you find a Sporting Director in football? 

We have seen a growing media lens and attention given to the Sporting Director role in football (or Director of Football, Technical Director, Head of Football Operations as the role may also be known). Whether it’s Stuart Webber’s appointment at Norwich; Rangers pursuit for a new head of football operations; the emergence and success of Ross Wilson at Southampton; or ‘the Monchi move’ – the Sporting Director movement is gaining momentum. Whilst popular in Europe the role was often greeted with scepticism in Britain, but now it appears to be a panacea, curing all football clubs of their ills.

Our question is, where do you find a Sporting Director for your football club? We ask this because we don’t believe clubs are exploring all the available candidates, and as a result, the best talent available for such positions might be slipping through the recruitment net.

In a much cited academic paper on network connections, Economic Sociologist Mark Granovetter (1974) provided evidence that employment markets, such as finding Sporting Directors (or any kind of talent such as players for that matter), does not work as free and open competition, as laid out in neo-classical economic frameworks.

That is, any pursuit for talent depends on established ties to others; and behaviour is influenced by their social relationships.

In the case of the role of the Sporting Director, it is typically owners and CEOs that use their personal network to make contact with (i) potential employees, (ii) intermediaries and (iii) recruitment agencies.

However, within the everyday working environment of the owners and CEOs, they often rely on a network of strong ties/connections.

Why is this problematic?  Individuals who share strong ties to one another tend to be very similar in nature (the technical term for this is homophily).  Because of these strong ties, there is a significant amount of trust invested in the network and a source of what Sociologist Robert Putnam termed ‘bonding social capital’ (social networks between similar groups), which facilitates shared social norms, cooperative spirit, and trust.

Trust is important in this context in many ways, especially guarding against unethical or mischievous behaviour.  Networks of strong ties are important not least as a support mechanism.

Yet because of the nature of these strong ties, information (such as insight and recommendations on talented prospective Sporting Directors) which flows through the network tends to be often redundant as it is circulated many times. For example, if a juicy bit of gossip is being communicated through these strong ties you are likely to have been told it many times.

As such, whilst searching for a Sporting Director, a CEO or owner might overly rely on these strong ties resulting in the same information on the same names and faces, many times. Moreover, there are examples of where the same people are moving around the identical or similar roles.

In many ways one shift in the football pyramid of Sporting Directors, whether a transfer or sacking, creates an interconnected cascade effect of changes. However, it is clear from evidence we have collected, that recruitment agencies offer owners and CEOs similar names.

This is not to say that those individuals currently occupying, or who continue to be associated and forwarded for the Sporting Director role are not excellent executives or fit for purpose.  But it does mean that owners and CEOs are overlooking a (perhaps better) wealth of talent in the recruitment and due diligence process, simply as a result of being constrained by their network.

The issue of getting help to find talent

Who can blame owners and CEOs, they are working with a tinderbox marketplace, and relying on networks of trust is a rational choice, given the circumstances. They are already under significant pressure to lead a football club, without the added burden of (re)searching the football industry to find the best candidate for their club!  However, this reliance on strong ties is also how much of football operates, whether finding players, managers, sport scientists or medics.

As a result, owners and CEOs seek out recruitment agencies they trust to help find them talent. In this respect, it is fair to say, recruiters could do better.

Many in football reading this will acknowledge that key people, have the skills to do the Sporting Director role but don’t get considered. The role of acting as guardian over a football clubs sporting strategy is demanding so there is no surprise.

Moving forward: navigating the network to find the best talent

To move forward, we must return to Granovetter.  On the flip side of his research, evidence shows that it is in fact weak ties (ties to others outside the core group that reach out to other networks – see figure below), which are advantageous in economic activity, such as recruitment.

For Granovetter, these weak ties are a source of novel information and new network flows.  These weak ties can be advantageous because they bridge networks introducing new people, ideas, insight and information, that are otherwise unknown. It is these weak ties that have strategic importance.

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What does this mean for future Sporting Director recruitment?

Placed in the context of the Sporting Director, it means owners and CEOs (and recruitment agencies) whilst continuing to utilise their strong ties, must also explore avenues away from their core connections to uncover new people and talent capable of delivering successful sporting strategies in football clubs.

Over the past few months, we have increasingly connected with leaders and influences in the football industry (including owners and CEOs) seeking to recruit the right talent, specifically for the Sporting Directors role. We found that these leaders in the football system are capitalising on weak ties to deliver new people, ideas, information and insight to inform decision-making and recruitment. This is not the status quo.

Our challenge to those involved in the recruitment of Sporting Directors, is to not abandon their strong ties, but to also capitalise on their weak ties.  To reach out to unexpected connections and to consider casting their recruitment net further to find the existing talent in the industry. Talent who possess the capabilities and who now need the opportunity to break into this often closed environment and prove their worth.

Interview: Is Stuart Webber the right man to turn Norwich City’s fortunes around?

Interview with ITV, found here. 

Following the appointment of Stuart Webber as Norwich City’s new sporting director, we decided to find out more about a role that is still pretty unfamiliar to football fans in England.

We fired some questions at Dr Dan Parnell who is a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and has done extensive research into leadership and governance in sport.

  • What exactly does the role of a sporting director entail?

Dr Dan Parnell has done a lot of research into the role of the sporting director.
Dr Dan Parnell has done a lot of research into the role of the sporting director. Credit: Manchester Metropolitan University

“There is a bit of confusion around the role of the sporting director.

In Europe, where the genesis of the role first began, the sporting director oversees the sporting departments, reporting directly to the owners.

The departments under the leadership of the sporting director includes medical and sport science support, recruitment, the academy, Under-21s, and the first team.

The broad aim of the sporting director is to develop and deliver a strategic plan towards achieving success. In many cases this might include developing the strategic plan too!

This includes; recruiting and supporting the first team head coach; recruiting the best people to lead various departments; overseeing the academy and development teams; managing the movement of players or developing a high-performance culture across the departments.

Interestingly, in the UK we use various terms for the sporting director and set varied expectations.

In this respect, many view the sporting director as being in charge of recruitment. Indeed, many will be measured (hired and fired) on which players they recruit.

Our research tells us that the sporting director role is much more than this though and being able to recruit is only part of the job.”

  • What traits does a good sporting director need?

Txiki Begiristain has been Manchester City's sporting director since 2012.
Txiki Begiristain has been Manchester City’s sporting director since 2012. Credit: PA

“The sporting director is someone who the owners are investing in for the long-term.

The role requires the utmost due diligence, as the sporting director will be the custodian for the club’s sporting performance.

For us, this is the most important position in a football club.

The sporting director must have: Football industry knowledge, business and financial acumen, ability to lead and develop a high-performance culture, ability to develop and deliver a strategy both strategically and operationally, an understanding of good governance and an ability to manage change and innovation.

Importantly for football in the UK, you may note that recruitment is not a ‘must have’ here.

Our research shows that the sporting director should recruit the best person possible as a Head of Recruitment, to allow that person explicit focus as one of the key departments in the sporting strategy.”

  • Are Norwich right to change their structure and put their faith in a sporting director? Is it something that could catch on and what would you say to those who are sceptical?

It promises to be a summer of change at Carrow Road.
It promises to be a summer of change at Carrow Road. Credit: PA

“It appears that Norwich are taking a leap of faith. However, for many who understand the role, the club have an opportunity to protect their investment and bring on-field success through effective leadership and decision-making in the short, medium and long-term.

Clubs increasingly need to develop a competitive advantage. The sporting director can help develop a strategy to improve performance on and off the pitch.

This is not just about recruitment. It includes enacting more subtle strategies, which are not commonplace in football – such as clear communication lines between departments.

For example, ensuring the Head of Recruitment, First Team Manager, Head of Academy, Head of Performance/Sport Science, Under-21s Manager and the sporting director have frequent opportunities to discuss key areas such as performance and recruitment prospects.

Ultimately, the increased finances in football have heightened the need for clubs to strengthen their financial sustainability.

The sporting director role is a major part in protecting multi-million pound investments whilst also bringing further success and rewards.”

  • What will Stuart Webber’s short, medium and long-term tasks be at the club?

Norwich chairman Ed Balls was keen for the structure changes to take place.
Norwich chairman Ed Balls was keen for the structure changes to take place. Credit: PA

“In the short-term, promotion to the Premier League is clearly the main objective for next season. Before that though, he needs to recruit Alex Neil’s successor to give them the best possible chance of achieving that.

Looking further ahead, communication with fans will be vital. Robbie Brady has just been sold for a fee in the region of £12million, but the reality is that Stuart might only see £2million of this for transfers. This and other examples need to be communicated to the club’s fans.

There also needs to be shift in the culture. The comments by Cameron Jerome seem in the distant past, but they suggest a negative culture developing at Carrow Road. This needs attention and management to develop a positive high-performance culture as soon as possible.

In terms of the longer-term vision, creating a culture where there’s clear expectations and accountability will help achieve success.

Norwich do not want to yo-yo in and out of the Premier League.

Recruitment alone won’t achieve this. The sporting director must develop and deliver a clear sporting strategy for the club.”

  • Finally, do you know anything about Webber? Has he got the credentials to turn the club around?

Norwich have had a season to forget in The Championship.
Norwich have had a season to forget in The Championship. Credit: PA

“Stuart Webber is very well-regarded in football for his previous work. He received notable media acclaim for his role in bringing Raheem Sterling to Liverpool from QPR in 2010 for example.

Yet, that was at Liverpool (who, as an Everton fan, it hurts to admit are a global football powerhouse) and not Norwich.

However, working with both Damien Comolli and Frank McParland has definitely helped develop Stuart as a strong and diligent operator in recruitment.

It appears that Norwich do not just need a sporting director to act as a Head of Recruitment, but they also need someone who can deliver a sporting strategy that deals with the potential issues with low morale of staff, alongside delivering long-term success.

It remains to be seen whether Stuart is up to huge challenge ahead of him, but I certainly wish him the best of luck.”

Last updated Thu 6 Apr 2017

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