Is governance in sport really that bad?

Dr Geoff Walters
Lecturer in Management and Postgraduate Programme Director 
Department of Management 
Birkbeck, University of London 

There is much debate concerning the issue of governance at the moment, with the sport industry receiving particular attention. For example, Hugh Robertson MP, Minister for Sport and the Olympics, recently sparked a fierce debate over how football is governed in this country. However, his comments also took in sport in general. He is widely quoted as saying: ‘The levels of corporate governance that apply to football lag far behind other sports, and other sports are by no means beacons in this regard’. The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is now nearing the end of its review of football governance and its findings and recommendations will make interesting reading. Whatever the outcome, though, it seems likely that the issue of governance across all sports will continue to be a high priority for the Coalition Government.

But governance is not just a concern for the Government and the media. In fact, it has been raised repeatedly within the sport sector itself. Many national governing bodies have pointed to uncertainty surrounding what is expected for organisations of different sizes and structures and have expressed a desire to know what different sports are doing. It is therefore essential to have as clear a picture as possible of the state of governance across sport. We need to know what the current approaches to governance are in different national governing bodies, where they see their strengths and weaknesses and how better governance arrangements might be put in place.

This is where research by the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre comes in.  In 2010, the Centre undertook survey research into governance at NGBs across the UK. All NGBs recognised by the four home country sports councils were invited to take part and, in the end, 60 responded.  The results showed that, despite concerns over standards of governance within sport, there were several areas in which UK NGBs adhered to best practice. For example, 93 per cent of NGBs had a strategy in place with 88 per cent of these indicating that the strategy covered at least the next three years. A very high proportion of NGBs engaged with stakeholders with a large majority (80 per cent) reporting that these engagement initiatives informed their decision making processes. Moreover approximately two-thirds of NGBs have stakeholder representation at board/committee level. Nevertheless, the survey also revealed that only a minority of NGBs put in place board induction and board training, only a small percent evaluate board performance, and only 50 per cent had plans to address funding gaps contained within their overall strategy; a critical issue in the face of government cuts to sport funding. These findings led to several recommendations about how governance could be improved in sport.
The findings from the 2010 research also fed into the development of the recently launched Voluntary Code of Governance for Sport, an initiative driven by the Sport and Recreation Alliance and endorsed by Hugh Robertson MP. The code represents a set of principles developed through consultation with a wide range of governing bodies and county sports partnerships. It demonstrates that governance is a continually evolving and ongoing challenge that all sport organisations must address.

Now, in 2011, the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre is undertaking further research into governance in sport. Following feedback from NGBs and a series of discussions with the Sport and Recreation Alliance, the Centre is keen to get the views of as many NGBs – large and small – as possible. The results of this year’s more in-depth survey should be of use to all NGBs. It will help them to see what general approaches to governance are being taken by organisations of different sizes. It will also look at ways in which governance might be improved or made easier. Moreover, it will help to provide an evidence base for sport as a whole, so it can demonstrate what is currently happening across the sector.

The survey covers a range of governance issues, such as board roles and responsibilities, board structure and composition and board strategy. It takes around 30 minutes to complete. All NGBs are invited to take part and it is really important to get as many responses as possible, in order to make the research itself as useful as possible. So far, over 50 NGBs have responded. Please follow the link to access the survey: