Now, more than ever, we need a revolution in sport governance
Code on diversity has many fine words but is doing little really to change the culture at the top
If we are being honest, most of us who have worked in sport at a senior level agree that its governance needs a radical overhaul. Our problem is a pretty obvious one: sport is still largely governed by a narrow and unrepresentative group, mostly male, mostly white and mostly older.
As a result, sport’s priorities have become horribly skewed, and too many chances missed for serious modernisation to get away from the sadly conservative and stale nature of much of sports governance.
Pressed to do more on diversity, UK Sport and Sport England have developed a governance code which says all the right things but, for me, is too target focused and lacks the recognition that, for change to be effective, it requires commitment to fundamental cultural change. Moreover, without the enforcement of proper financial penalties, any code is built on sand.
Some argue that appointing more diverse board members is tokenistic, and it can be, but I think it is more nuanced and complex than that. Of course, if we imagine that the battle is won when we appoint a couple of women or people from different ethnic backgrounds, then we are clearly idiots who should not be running a raffle.
Representation brings limited value unless there are board members of different gender, age, skin colour, religion, nationality, disability and class. So, it is not just about women on boards but women who can speak up and offer a distinctive women’s take on sport. The same applies for “BAME”, too often used as a casual, homogenous catch-all for 7.6million very different citizens with a range of experiences and perspectives.
For what feels like an age, I have been banging on about the business case for improving sports governance – as evidenced by the McKinsey report, a series of groundbreaking data sets which inarguably prove that diverse boards lead to better profitability in business. Its data shows that the most gender representative companies were 25 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability, while the case for ethnic diversity is more compelling still, with 36 per cent of companies more likely to be financially profitable.
Governance is often seen as the “boring” bit of sport, but it is also the most fundamental. Diverse governance is no panacea, but it is all about power and influence. Boards are where critical decisions are made, resources are allocated and where currently, women, BAME and disabled people are mostly absent.
So, what can be done? A decent start would be to stop talking about diversifying sports governance and get on with it. There are no excuses that we have not heard before. Informal relationships rule, underpinned mainly by white-to-white, male-to-male networks.
For me, the arguments against positive action look flimsier by the day and it is sadly comical to see sport trying to defend its recruitment, appointments, and promotions as being meritocratic.
Sport’s priorities have become horribly skewed, with chances to modernise missed
They are built by those already in power (unconsciously, or sometimes deliberately) to normalise the status quo. This marginalises people who are different – women and black as an example – judging them as lacking “experience”, “gravitas” or “profile”, or without “a proven track record”, a way of denying opportunities to new blood.
This year has rocked sport – from Covid-19 to Black Lives Matter and a series of shocking abuse scandals – 2020 should force us to imagine a fundamentally different governance model.
Whether that means adapting the US’s Title IX or the Rooney Rule, or enforcing quotas for sex and race, we need to expect faster action on modernising sports governance to make it properly fit for purpose. That process is now looking long overdue.