Back to the future: sport is an HR affair

It is all about people: this is the way I view business and especially sport. For this reason I have dedicated my professional life to human resources (HR) and sports management. I’d like to share some thoughts about the interaction of HR and sport, why it is relevant and what I do with my colleagues of the Sport Knowledge Center at SDA Bocconi School of Management.   

HR professionals have important roles and responsibilities in creating competitive advantage with the human capital in their organizations. They are able to support business goals, manage performance, leverage people potential and align strategy with individuals’ behaviors. Recent challenges in the HR field include: managing talent, improving leadership development, managing new generations, cultural and change transformation, and so on. 

These topics are also very relevant in sport, a sector that by definition is characterized by talent and leadership. Yet, when we consider people in the sporting context, it is often said that it is a “people business”, in particular an “athlete business” considering that most of the initiatives are linked to sport performances on the field.

For instance, in a sports club, it is the athletes who are the key to achieving results. Yet athletic performance doesn’t depend solely on technical/tactical factors that come into play on the field; organizational factors are critical as well. It follows that in the context of sports teams, behavioral aspects and group orientation are just as important as technical considerations. Applying theories on human resource development to the context of sport, we can see that the question of potential is even more relevant when we’re talking about athletes with special physical, cognitive or emotional skills.

For all these reasons, athletes’ performances depend on employees and managers that work for them to create the optimal conditions for their development. The team off-the-field works for the team-on-the-field. In this context, HR professionals must play a crucial role, applying state-of-the-art HR practices with a strategic approach, creating a competitive advantage. 

However, there are some key issues for HR and sport. HR professionals are not very common in sport, they do not cover strategic positions (most of the time they are in the Finance department), and they do not have a strong professional community like in the corporate world or other sectors. There are some reasons that can explain this low level of maturity. Firstly, sport organizations are small-medium size organizations, and don’t always have enough resource to invest in HR experts or the ability to attract these executives. Secondly, in sport, athletes are of such high importance that the majority of investment (or costs) is allocated to the technical department. HR professionals are seen as costs only useful for the team off-the-field and as a consequence not always relevant. Thirdly and lastly, sport federations and institutions do not require a high level of managers and employees. It is only recently that UEFA Financial Fair Play has put pressure on clubs to generate more revenue by optimizing the intangible assets they have, which has required a cultural transformation.

In the 80s the sports business needed lawyers for the agreements, in the 90s sponsorship managers to generate investment, and at the beginning of this century (00s) event managers and more recently (10s) media-rights managers have become the protagonists. In the coming years more HR professionals will enter sport. Back to the future, making sport a people affair once again.

Prof. Dino Ruta, Director Sport Knowledge Center at SDA Bocconi School of Management (

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