NGB Opinion

Member Insights: I don’t understand why anyone would want to run a National Governing Body.

June 1, 2023

In this Member Insight piece, Richard Brinkman, looks into life inside a national governing body and asks why anyone would want to run one?

It seems that whichever sport you look at the organisation responsible for running it is grappling with a major issue – if not many simultaneously. Finance/Revenue, Governance, Participation, Broadcast and visibility, Ethics, Wellbeing/Safe-guarding, and Gender issues are generally the major topics under scrutiny.

In truth, it is rather in the nature of NGBs to have an “existential crisis” on the go. Indeed, you can go back to well before the Second World War and observe, for example, the creation of Rugby League or the Football League or the Bodyline series, to see that issues of control, money, codification, geo-politics and “doing the right thing” have existed as long as governing bodies have. 

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Plus, of course, these areas have always made a titillating sub-plot for the media to augment the on-field action with. It is amazing how much more attention these issues get when results are not so good on the pitch, track, in the field or pool. And this is without touching on sport’s relationship with gambling!! There are some extraordinary tales relating to boxing and horse racing in particular dating back to the 19th Century that still resonate today.

And yet there appears to be a weightier gravitas to the issues at play currently. Never have so many people been able to hold NGBs to so much account – they have never previously been able to see the inner workings so well or question them so freely. And never before have there been such large sums of money at play – never have so many sports been attempting to keep such a deep and well-established “professional” level of sport afloat.

It is inevitable then that there have been a number of articles and podcasts over recent weeks examining and discussing the structure of NGBs – in particular, the creation of “skinny” governing bodies. In other words, the separation of responsibility for the elite “professional” end of the sport and the “grassroots” that seeks to drive participation and the health and social cohesion benefits that come with it. 

After all, this is the model that the more objective view of politicians and civil servants have thought preferable in the creation of Sport England and UK Sport. Given that these two bodies award significant sums to NGBs could there be merit in mirroring their focus?

Focus and clarity are the key words here. In addressing any issue or problem every successful endeavour starts by doing two things. The first is to establish a very clear “reason why”. What do they exist to do, what is it that gets them out of bed in the morning and gives them the energy and motivation to strive to do their best? The second is to have very defined and measurable goals. This helps to establish and maintain focus as the project progresses.

Unfortunately, for most NGBs history and a legacy of wanting to maintain control of as many aspects of their sport as they possibly can is not their friend in establishing a clear “reason why” and establishing defined and measurable goals.

Most governing bodies find themselves simultaneously trying to support both ends of the pyramid. The theory being that driving as much interest at the bottom as possible will turn into as many participating in our sport as we can get. Some of these will develop into highly committed participants ,and some of those will be talented enough to reach the top level. Of those, a few with the correct guidance, the right attitude and some god-given talent will be world class. If we have enough striving to transition from top-level to world class then we will have an attractive spectacle that people might pay to watch in person or (in one way or another) on a media platform. This will create enough money to attract the talent to keep striving (ie a competitive “professional” structure) whilst simultaneously attracting more into the bottom of the pyramid as curious and ambitious participants with an end-goal to work towards.

Even if this virtuous circle theory of “legacy inspiration” throughout the pyramid does hold water – and, personally, I am extremely sceptical; how many more people row after London 2012’s golds, how many more play tennis after Andy Murray won Wimbledon, how many more go on to play structured cricket (not Dynamos/All Stars) after attending The Hundred? – it creates huge issues in terms of having a clear “reason why” as an organisation and creating focussed, defined, measurable, (and therefore achievable) goals.

In this instance, of course, most NGBs spend a disproportionate amount of their time and resources on the smallest part of the pyramid at the top end because that is the most high-profile area. The elite end of the sport is where executive reputations are made and lost, it is where the news cycles focus. However, overly concentrating on this area quickly translates into becoming all about money and it is but a short-step from there to losing the “soul” of the sport and the goodwill of many of your staff and most of the volunteers that every sport relies on at the grassroots level. 

It is for this reason, then, that I am conceptually a supporter of the “skinny” NGB model. One only has to look at the annual reports of the FA, RFU, British Cycling or ECB to see the sheer breadth and range of issues that they are responsible for and trying to improve simultaneously. I do not envy them and they make an exceptionally good fist of it given limited budgets and resources. However, in reality they have very little chance of covering all the ground required successfully each year. This results in some weak reporting even with frequently marking their own homework as well as, on occasion, an excuse culture blaming other parties or events out of their control that does not reflect well.

The reason I caveat my support with “conceptually” is that the England rugby team should perform better if run by Premiership Rugby. The English football team likewise if run by the EPL. This would allow RFU and FA considerably more bandwidth to tackle the issues that effect the game as a whole whilst, theoretically, aligning national team interests more closely with the dominant club interests. 

However, in practice would I trust the owners of the leading Premier League clubs to not just further the interests of their clubs at the national team’s expense? Do we think that Premiership Rugby are best placed to administer the national team given what has happened to some of their constituent clubs recently? This is even before you begin to consider how the money would flow from national team interests back into the game at large. After all the EPL’s record when it comes to financial redistribution is questionable at best.

Recently, both British Swimming and British Cycling have appointed new CEOs so clearly, and thankfully, there are plenty who are still keen to run UK governing bodies. And, even better, both gentlemen are very impressive – talented, sensible, approachable and experienced operators. However, they are very different roles given British Swimming’s focus on high performance aquatics (with the home country governing bodies responsible for growing the sport) and British Cycling’s membership driven model encompassing everything from learning to ride to commuting to all forms of racing. I know which one I would give the best chance of quickest success – and it is purely down to having a clear “reason why” and the most focussed, defined and measurable goals.

It will not be easy given how entrenched structures and tradition are in sport – however, I do believe that slimmed down NGBs are the way to go if they can be engineered. This gives the best chance of creating the clarity of thought and focussed goals that will enable real progress on the “existential threats” that need urgent attention.

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NGB Opinion