VITAL SIGNS: Compulsory games

VITAL SIGNS: Compulsory games - In his wonderful short story 'The Commercial', about a black American footballer competing in the market for TV commercial stardom, Tom Wolfe described the excitement that star sportsmen provoked among captains of industry.

by PETER YORK, in his persona as Peter Wallis, is managing directorof consultants SRU, e-mail: peter@sru.co.uk
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In his wonderful short story 'The Commercial', about a black American footballer competing in the market for TV commercial stardom, Tom Wolfe described the excitement that star sportsmen provoked among captains of industry. With sportsmen, CEOs felt themselves in the presence of real ur-maleness, men who'd been tested by standards more absolute than those of the stock market. Being the friend or sponsor of a great sportsman made them bigger, better people. It's this teenage hero-worship thing that makes sport such a huge business issue.

In the insecure world of commercial management, anything that makes everyday business seem more dignified, clever or sexy than it really is will command a premium in the airport business book market. These books aren't just about getting ahead, they're also about giving managers a reason to be, making them feel less resentful of artistic, media and public-sector types, who seem to enjoy greater popular admiration than most businessmen, particularly in Europe.

But there's a whole group of books that use sport as a metaphor for business, and a raft of management development techniques that use sporting celebrities and techniques to make it fun. Will Carling, for instance, makes his living from his 'motivational' consultancy, which explains business strategies as being just like manly rugby ones. And Mike Brearley, the thinking man's cricketer, now thrives as a business psychotherapist.

Sport, particularly football, provides a common language, a point of entry for national and international colleagues. When was it that every middle-class higher-educated man - and woman - in the country decided they were hugely interested in this formerly downmarket game, and passionately supported a team? Whenever, that was the point at which football became the measure of good blokiness in a corporation - and therefore compulsory for rising executive women.

In old-style corporations, where women knew their place (in personnel, or otherwise behind an IBM Golfball), sport had a paternalistic, bonding role as part of the long-service loyal culture. Those staple British Empire corporations owned sports fields all over the country, with an emphasis on cricket clubs as a more gentlemanly carry-on. Like school playing fields, they're all being sold off for the land values, now that sport means something different - about being a 'player', not a gent. And girls who want to be players have to be in on it.

In the player category belongs the whole marketing-speak business of sponsorship, attaching sporty values to your brand and creating huge opportunities for entertaining clients in boxes and pavilions, tents and enclosures - privileged spaces that clients hardly ever leave to look at the game. The sports of kings, toffs, plutocrats and Jammy Dodgers.

Latterly, firms have been more careful about what they sponsor. It makes sense for, say, Cartier or Dunhill to support polo and get famous faces around their brands, but less for Midlands manufacturing. Posh, expensive sports can look divisive in the wrong context.

Meanwhile, the sports impulse has followed another track ... health. Executive health is about something more meritocratic, more scientific - measured doses of good-for-you, like aerobics and gyms in the basement: individual stuff. The sports that go with this movement are competitive, one-on-one affairs like squash. New City style. The language here is not team-building but career-building, that of people who work out and change jobs every two and a half years.

Either way, sport is now central to the psychology and economics of business, to its added-value for fractious doubters who find it difficult to bond naturally without the ties of community, geography and shared skills that used to hold companies together. And for individuals who desperately need well-being rituals to reinforce their shaky self-belief. Sport really works on both counts, and intelligent CEOs and HR people have thought long and hard about it.

But there's now a problem with sport for businesses that claim to embrace all kinds of dissenters. Sport has become oppressive in the office for that large minority of women and men who aren't interested. It's as bad as compulsory membership of the Masons, the Rotary Club or the local Tories used to be. Like dress-down Friday, it's deeply conformist.

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