Sports Business Lessons from a Weekend of Sailing

americas_cup_2013In the last eighteen months there has been considerable coverage of the America’s Cup held in San Francisco. You may even know that it concluded with one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. The televised coverage on the NBC networks was spectacular viewing, and a triumph of the panoramic beauty of the San Francisco Bay converging with technology delivering never-before-seen on the boat coverage.

All of this leads to how I spent three days last weekend watching Sonoma State Executive MBA students learn to sail in San Diego. On each boat, skippers (many of whom have sailed in America’s Cup racing) were teaching sailing and ensuring the safety of the student teams. There was also a faculty member (like me) on the boat reinforcing business themes as the student teams de-briefed after each sailing exercise or race.

Watching people learn a new skill in an unfamiliar environment while being focused on competing against their classmates is interesting theater. There were many lessons learned, but a handful of them seem to apply directly to sports business professionals:

1) Respect the other sports. There is sometimes an inclination to only think certain sports are “important”. In the US, the NFL, MLB, NBA, Division I football and basketball are primary. But there are so many opportunities to expand your career options by taking skills honed in one sport and applying them in a new setting. One of the real treats of the trip was listening to the history of Americas’s Cup sponsorship. Remember, sports business is business first, sports second.

2) The key to successful communication is listening. While watching the students become indoctrinated in the tasks of sailing and rudimentary race strategy, it was interesting that there were times when multiple team members were talking over each other while sailing – inhibiting anyone on the boat from clearly understanding instructions. How often does this behavior occur in the fast paced environment of “game day”? Is your organization effectively communicating during high stress moments? If so, are all team members listening?

3) If you ask for an expert’s advice, listen to it. In a race on day three, the wind kicked up and the student team found itself in a situation it had not faced in the first two days on the water. The helmsmen quickly asked for the advice of the skipper (who is there for safety and training) and immediately implemented the advice with help from the student on the main sail, quickly steadying the vessel. In sports business, this situation is analogous to bringing in a consultant to help in a specific area of the enterprise. It does not matter how great the consultant is (or how expensive) what matters is the ability to implement the advice. Does your whole team respect the advice and properly implement it? If not, why not?

4) Be clear on how you define “winning”. At the outset of the weekend there is a lot of brave talk between the teams about winning a race on the last day. By the time the last day arrives, some sentiment has shifted to redefining winning. Is it doing better than in previous races? Is it communicating clearly and working as a team? Is it crossing the finish line first – meaning there can only be one “winning” team out of the seven participating? Similar questions can apply within the Sales Department of a sports team. Should a Sales Manager’s efforts be focused on the highest achievers? Are monetary rewards structured to encourage teamwork? Is there efficient sharing of information between experienced staff and relative newcomers?

Each of these points served as great sports business reminders for me, as I reflected back on the weekend. As always, any opinions on how the lessons resonate for you are appreciated in the Comments section below.