Returning to Competition: Balancing short-term necessity with long-term vision

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As major sports leagues around the globe gradually ramp up their preparations to return to competition, the narrative surrounding them is shifting from a question of if they come back to exactly what elite sport will look like in a world defined by the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Certain measures such as empty arenas, frequent testing, and social distancing precautions are guaranteed to be a feature of sport’s ‘new normal’. However, beyond the logistical challenges of organizing games and practices, the crisis is also set to have a profound impact on the strategic planning done in boardrooms and front offices.

A Change of Strategic Focus?

As leagues and teams come out of lockdown they will be emerging into an economic reality radically different to the one they left behind. Although major competitions generate a large proportion of their revenue through broadcast deals, the absence of fans coming through the door will have a significant negative impact on their finances. According to CNBC, gate receipts constitute 36% of the NHL’s annual revenue, 30% of MLB’s and 22% of the NBA’s. The economic shock is likely to be acute and long-lasting.

While the projected financial shortfall is concerning in and of itself, it does raise some interesting questions around how franchises will adapt their approach to roster construction and strategic planning. In a post-crisis world where broadcast revenue will be even more essential to the short-term survival of teams than it was before, there could be a significant incentive for teams to sacrifice long-term rebuilding projects in favor of entering ‘win now’ mode.

Hypothetically, by assembling rosters designed to be immediately competitive, teams will hope to increase their share of national media attention and financially benefit from increased coverage. In a world where ticketing and other related revenues are significantly depressed, it would not be a surprise to see many teams – even those in the midst of significant rebuilding processes – quickly attempt to maximize interest in the on-court product to generate more income in the here and now.

Would such a scenario devalue the importance of the long-term thinking that many teams have made a cornerstone of their strategic planning? We’re yet to see exactly how this might play out, but it’s worth remembering that short-term necessity and long-term strategic thinking aren’t mutually exclusive.

Plan Like a Futurist

As Amy Webb notes in her Harvard Business Review article How to Do Strategic Planning Like a Futurist, it pays to think about the short- and long-term simultaneously. As Webb explains, she builds a cone-shaped framework for every planning project with four distinct categories: tactics (1-2 years), strategy (2-5 years), vision (5-10 years), and systems-level evolution (10+ years): 

“Instead of arbitrarily assigning goals on a quarterly or yearly timeline, use a cone instead. First identify highly probable events for which there’s already data or evidence, then work outward. Each section of the cone is a strategic approach, and it encompasses the one before it until you reach major systems-level evolution at your company.”

This approach allows organizations to be flexible in their response to events without losing a grip on their long-term vision. It’s fine to respond to unexpected events with reactive, tactical decisions that keep the wheels turning in the short-term, but those decisions need to feed into a broader framework that adjusts the organization’s long-term aims accordingly.

Organizational Agility

In the context of returning to competition following the coronavirus lockdown, addressing the present and the future simultaneously should give front offices the confidence to change tactics in the short- and medium-term (i.e. rebuild vs win now) while understanding how those actions will recalibrate the vision

As we’ve seen all too clearly in recent months, life is always messier and less predictable than we want it to be. As sports organizations adapt to a new reality, leaders should strive to build greater elasticity into their planning to ensure that they are agile enough to evolve in response to external events without losing sight of the future direction.

Interested in learning more about scenario planning? Click here to download our latest research paper, Scenario Planning in the Age of Covid-19

Image: Javier Allegue Barros/Unsplash