Sport is a profession, is it not? By this we mean that there are people who make a living out of it – people who have studied and worked hard, who have made the sport their life’s focus, and who “sell” their time and expertise to the profession of their choice. In everything except the academic qualifications required for entry, sport is pretty much like any other profession on the planet.
Right now, there are many “interesting issues” floating around various sporting codes around the world. These issues may be instructive to the corporate world, as big companies also learn how to deal with demanding “players” (talented staff) and “fans” (empowered customers). The analogy itself is worth spending a few moments pondering, as you consider what professional sports codes must do to attract and retain both players and fans. Some of those techniques would be helpful in the corporate space, too.
But I write this blog entry just after one of the most bizarre races of Formula 1’s half century history.

F1 is one of the world’s “most” professional sports. It takes huge money to even enter a race, let alone win one. So, as 14 of the 20 cars pulled into the pits before lap 1, the race descended into farce. Michelin, a tyre supplier for the 14 drivers, had made a massive miscalculation and brought the wrong tyres for the race. The simple version of a complicated story, is that they needed a change made to race course to slow the drivers down, or else their tyres might burst. No changes were made to the track, and so Michelin withdrew their tyres, leaving the drivers unable to race. The three teams who use Bridgestone tyres raced, and all drivers finished.
Bridgestone are seen as the inferior tyres – at least, they have been blamed for some poor results over the past few seasons. Its commonly believed that Ferrari win despite their Bridgestone tyres, rather than because of them. The race commentators (particularly James Allen) stupidly and disgustingly placed the blame for the farce on Ferrari and Jordan. This is not true – the blame belongs squarely, and entirely, on Michelin. It is a professional sport – they made a mistake – they will now bear the consequences.
The losers are the fans. The losers are the teams who use Michelin. The losers are Michelin. The loser is F1 as a sport.
The fall out from this race will be monumental – the discussions will rage, for years I am sure. But this is the nature of professions the world over. One major slip up can destroy you. Messing with your talent (the drivers and teams) and your customers (the fans) can be disastrous. But you cannot blame your competition. Nor can you beg for “rule changes”. You have to face the consequences of your actions, and deal with the fall out. Right now, Michelin’s website is uncontactable (I suspect a series of DoS attacks over the next few days will keep it out of action). The FIA, who control motor sport, have published the correspondence on its website. The Indianapolis motorway has already issued a response to fans – basically instructing them to contact Michelin, the FIA or F1 management. All of these entities will be scrambling to deal with the issues – lets see how they do…
At the same time, I spent this past weekend arguing with an ardent Liverpool supporter (who has now gotten his way as Liverpool have been granted access to the basement entry level of pre-qualifying for UEFA next year – see his blog entry on this). He was arguing that Glasier, the US mogul, who has purchased a controlling interest in Manchester United, will ruin the club and the sport. I believe that this American businessman is just making a good business decision, acquiring the world’s best sport’s brand. But my friend believes that unless he has a passion for soccer, he has no right to do so, and will make decisions that are not good soccer decisions. We’re probably both right, but if a sport is professional, then its professional. You make decisions based on shareholder returns, maximising profit, etc.
Don’t you?
Maybe that’s what’s wrong with business. When you don’t take passion into account, you get into trouble. When you place shareholder wealth above the passion of the “fans”, you lose your focus and eventually the fans vote with their feet. Strong brands might survive for a while (as both Man U and F1 will), but the passion of the fans is eroded, and the earning potential of the brand reduced. The same is possibly happening in the corporate world at the moment, as customers become more empowered, and are starting to exercise that power in interesting ways.
Watch this space. There’s a lot more to come in these stories.

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