President's Message - July 2017
In the last few days, several developments in the world of women’s sport have got me reminiscing. Last Sunday, England’s Women cricketers competed in the World Cup final and stormed to victory in one of the most exciting conclusions to a one day tournament the sport has witnessed. Then last night, England’s women’s football team produced a master-class in tactical awareness by beating a very competent French team 1-0 in their European Championships Quarter Final in the Netherlands to make it through to the semi-finals. Both of the aforementioned squads benefit from highly professional programmes based on significant and sustained investment by their National Governing Bodies in order to bring about the superb performances we are seeing. These results got me thinking about my sporting career and the key decisions required to achieve such results.
Just after the conclusion of the 2012 Paralympics in London, I was invited to Sopwell House Hotel here in St Albans to present at an offsite meeting of the Football Association’s Communications department. The team were keen to hear about my experiences as a blind international footballer and had a genuine desire to gain some insight as to what actions needed to be taken to move the sport forward in England. My main message to the group was that the Football Association needed to be clear as to whether it wanted its teams to participate or compete. I had just participated in the London 2012 games where 6 out of the 8 teams who qualified for the Paralympic tournament were full-time professionals. Put simply, they were career footballers who trained full-time and received the required level of investment to support their efforts. Whilst the level of investment had grown year on year since the blind football squad had been brought under the remit of the Football Association in 2000, a decision needed to be made: Remain with the status quo and merely participate or to compete by join the other top countries around the world in professionalising the sport in England. Thankfully, the latter course was taken and a huge commitment has been made by the Football Association over the last 5 years which sees the current England Blind Football team preparing for the European Championships in Berlin next month on the back of 5 years of investment in a full-time professional football programme and benefiting from the technical, physical and psychological advantages which have accrued as a result.
As in business, investment decisions such as those outlined above are necessarily made against strict criteria which can demonstrate an appropriate return on investment and women’s and disability sport are no exceptions to this. The commercial viability of such investment is critical in my view to ensuring the long term sustainability of such programmes. Commercially viable funding programmes are self-justifying rather than relying on the goodwill of forward thinking decision makers to maintain momentum. However, these things take time. Men’s professional football for instance has taken over 150 years to develop in to the highly lucrative sport it is today. I would argue that as with many business investment plans, the measurement of the return on investment both in terms of results and timescales needs to be realistic and take account of the relatively short history we have of doing the right thing. With sustained investment, I have no doubt that the commercial viability of disability and women’s sport will be proven but short-term decision making based on unrealistic criteria which fails to recognise the lack of historic investment in such sports has the potential to be catastrophic.
Whilst the discussion above concentrates on disability and women’s sport, the same certainly rings true for growing businesses pursuing an investment programme designed to achieve their growth aspirations. There is no doubt that businesses need to remain conscious of market conditions and act quickly to adjust to changes and new trends which may positively or negatively impact on the performance of the business. However, when launching new products and services or moving in to new geographies or markets, businesses who succeed in opening up such avenues of growth usually do so by creating and implementing a well-funded clearly thought out and executed investment plan. Such programmes generally have a long term goal with numerous benchmarks for success along the way with these milestones recognised as and when they occur. Whilst it is always tempting to think short term, I would argue that it is essential to plan long term and dream big if meaningful progress is to be achieved and if England’s Women footballers lift the trophy next Sunday, we will witness one of the greatest examples of this kind of investment approach truly delivering the goods.