Why Sports Are a Terrible Metaphor for Business
Here in the United States, we’re just days away from Super Bowl Sunday. The buzz around the biggest game in America’s biggest sport is, as always, about more than football. It’s also about business and leadership. Does the Patriots’s consistent excellence over the last 15 years offer insights on teamwork that transcend football? Does Bill Belichick’s unrivaled record speak to his skills not just as a coach but also as a leader from whom others can learn? Even as high-minded a publication as The Economist gets caught up every so often in the connections between sports and business. A few years back, writing about a team that was dominating a different kind of football, the magazine claimed that FC Barcelona, the renowned soccer club, “has provided a distinctive solution to some of the most contentious problems in management theory.” Wow!
So the question becomes: What can sports in general, and football in particular, teach us about competition and success, talent and teamwork, value and values? My answer, I’m afraid, is “not very much.” Sports, it turns out, are a terrible metaphor for business, and leaders who look to the gridiron or the soccer pitch for ideas about their work will be sorely disappointed.
Here’s what’s wrong with making analogies between sports and business.
The logic of competition and success is completely different. What makes football or basketball so exhilarating is that only one team wins at the end of a season. In the case of the Super Bowl, there is one world champion, and 31 NFL teams with crushed dreams and dispirited fans. For one team to win, every other team must lose. The logic of business competition is nothing like this. The most successful companies, those that win big and create the most economic value, worry less about crushing the competition than about delighting and amazing their customers. The very idea of zero-sum competition (for me to win, you must lose) feels like a relic from a long-ago era of business. Virtually every industry has room for plenty of different winners, each of which is great at serving a distinct piece of the market or a certain set of customers.
A few years ago, during the research for our book Mavericks at Work, Polly LaBarre and I spent time with Mike McCue, one of the great entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Here’s how he explained his approach to strategy and success: “Even in the face of massive competition, don’t think about the competition. Literally don’t think about them. Every time you’re in a meeting and you’re tempted to talk about a competitor, replace that thought with one about user feedbacks or surveys. Just think about the customer.”
The dynamics of talent and teamwork are completely different. You’d think business organizations would have lots to learn from high-performing sports teams such as the New England Patriots, but there are huge weaknesses in the comparisons, which makes the analogy virtually useless. Most important, “teamwork” in the NFL means teamwork among players whose careers are absurdly short and whose loyalties to any one team only last as long as the duration of their contracts. According to The Wall Street Journal, the average length of an NFL career is 2.66 years.
So the job of an NFL coach is to yell, threaten, and otherwise cajole maximum effort from players who have almost no expectation of sticking around for very long. What sane company would take that approach? Organizations that are building for the long term, that hope to attract, grow, and retain the best people in their fields, that wish to create an environment where great people do their best work year after year, have little to learn from the short-term, utterly disposable mentality that defines life in the NFL. Most football teams, to be brutally honest, are a collection of mercenaries ruled by a tyrant. That’s not how great business organizations work.
The creation of economic value is completely different. Even the most ardent sports fans are quick to agree with the idea that sports is a business. And the business of sports, it turns out, may offer even fewer lessons for business leaders than what happens on the field. Unlike most billion-dollar businesses, which are owned by shareholders and governed by a board of directors, nearly every NFL team is owned by a single individual, and they are accountable to virtually no one besides the other billionaire owners. The one notable exception is the Green Bay Packers, which are structured as a nonprofit organization and are run to benefit the community.
NFL owners have reaped vast riches over the last 20 years, negotiating huge television contracts, demanding big subsidies for taxpayers, and devising new ways to profit from the internet. Their hardball tactics have made them very wealthy — but very unpopular with fans. Remember that old expression “Don’t hate the player, hate the game”? Well, NFL fans (and fans of most sports, truth be told) love the players, but hate the owners. Sure, there are plenty of unpopular CEOs out there, but would any publicly traded company put up with a CEO who is as unpopular with its customers (fans) as, say, Chargers owner Alex Spanos is with the residents of San Diego, or as Rams owner Stan Kroenke is with the people of St. Louis?
And don’t even get fans started on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who may be the single most unpopular executive in all of sports. It’s hard to square the unprecedented popularity of football with the universal unpopularity of NFL owners, but that’s the business of sports — and another reason why sports are a lousy metaphor for business. It’s hard to learn many leadership lessons from an industry whose leaders are burned in effigy or booed at huge public gatherings.
So I hope everyone has a great time watching the Super Bowl. But the idea that what happens on the field (or in the team executives’ offices) teaches us anything about what should happen inside other organizations is misguided. It’s fun to be a student of the game, but let’s not kid ourselves that any lessons we learn from sports apply to our roles as company builders or business leaders.