Sport is not industry: bringing sport back to sport management | A summary

Hallgeir Gammelsæter
Molde University College, Specialized University of Logistics

For the past 20 years much of my research has centred on the commercialization of sport, and especially in association football. Through the years I have observed that not merely football but sport in general is referred to as an industry, mostly perhaps by pundits and researchers from Anglo-Saxon countries, but increasingly beyond these areas. This intrigued me, perhaps because my background and interest are not narrowly management, but comprises organization theory, political science, and sociology as well. Therefore, I was well aware that both sport and management are contested concepts, and that the vocabulary and the terms we use to account for human activity are not neutral. My concern was that sport in the sport management context is entirely being swathed in a market vocabulary and that this reflects a mindset with implications for how we see, treat, research, and teach sport management. The provocative title signals this concern and invite debate.

Managerialism and sport management

In the first part of the paper, I ask if Critical Management Studies (CMS) has resonated in the sub-field of sport management. CMS holds that mainstream management is embedded in the ideology of managerialism, in short; the belief that managers, because they possess scientifically derived management techniques that allegedly lead to beneficial outcomes for organisations, are qualified to monopolise decision-making processes in organisations. It follows that the task of management research is to equip management with scientific knowledge that refines these techniques. However, the CMS critique is that managerialism advances a market society where business-like and commercial practices and mindsets expand. If this is the case in sport management, there is a danger that what counts in sport is the external benefits of sport, for sponsors, owners, governments etc., while the perspective of the athlete and the sporting community around the athlete is ignored and forgotten.

Healthy sport management is constantly questioning and challenging Itself

From here I move on to a brief study on the concern for this topic in the sport management field. Does the community debate this or similar ontological topics? The empirical study shows that among the 1077 articles (excluding editorials, introductions, and book reviews) that was published in the three leading sport management journals (ESMQ, JSM, and SMR) in the 2010–2019 period, only 14 articles (1.3 percent) addressed features of the field as their main topic. The remaining focused on specific sport topics such as strategy, sponsorship, leadership, voluntarism etc. I also checked (using Google Scholar) if these 14 papers refer to one another, to measure is any intense debate took place. However, cross-citation is low. Only one author refers to more than one of the other papers.

It takes bigger studies to assess how the sport management field compares with other research fields, but all the same, it does not look as if sport management is constantly questioning and challenging itself, which is what we would expect from a healthy research field.

Sport is not its externalities

To bring sport back to sport management I suggest it would be a good start to assume that sport is a distinctive social activity, not merely a variety of industry to which we can apply only mainstream management theory. Today sport is typically valued for its many assumed positive side effects that spill over to the wider society, such as health, socialisation, economic development, community development, and national identity, as sport legitimations. Furthermore, earning huge amounts of money on performing, organising, broadcasting, and broking sport is being lauded, hence the booming sport industry.

However, sport is not a product of the sport industry. Sport precedes it, and while the sport industry feeds on our fascination for sport as a spectacle, ironically there is a risk that it sees neither the player nor the play. Therefore, if we as a discipline adopt the perspective of the industry and mainstream management, unchallenged, we run the risk of creating a sport management discipline that ignores the essence of doing sport. To avoid that, we need a more sport-focused theory of sport management.

Sport in the inter-institutional system

I am sure there are various ways to address the call for such a theory. My paper proposes we depart from the institutional logics perspective, which understands society as composed of multiple interdependent institutions, all of which entail a specific logic of what is good, right, and rational. Institutions demarcate their own organising principles, practices, and symbols, while institutional logics are the frames of reference that help actors make sense of their world and act according to these principles, practices, and symbols. I suggest we explore sport in a similar way, as an ideal-typical institution with competitive play being a value of its own at the centre of its logic. From this logic stems the pyramidal structure(s) of sport, the membership model, games, races and tournaments, trophies, awards, and sport’s autonomy and integrity.

By conceptualising sport as an institution, we may understand the organisational field of sport as the social spaces where sport plays out in diverse forms, influenced and formed by competing logics. The organisational field of sport has an anchor in the institution of sport, but there is competition over definitions and meanings of sport derived from agents in other institutions that sport depends on, such as the commercial market and public authorities. These typically exploit the external benefits of sport. In the paper, the use of the perspective is applied to sport topics such as the relevance of the Olympics, the nature of American and European models of sport and the fact that professional athletes develop from kids’ play.

Copyright © Hallgeir Gammelsæter 2021

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  1. I’ve just caught up with this excellent article that connects productively with Hans Lundberg’s recent book review:

    I do not work specifically in the area of sport management, but have long been concerned with the extent to which too many of its practitioners either see their role as working on behalf of commercial entities or in the interests of some of the more oppressive elements of the state.

    It would be very good to see more diverse voices in this initially small space that has opened up that is asking, “what and in whose interests is sport management for”?


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