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InSport Education: The Online Business School for Sport

InSport Education: The Online Business School for Sport

Interview two for Jobs in Football’s Education Hub and I was lucky to have the opportunity to speak with an industry professional with over twenty years’ experience in Sports Marketing. Step forward Dan Parr, InSport Education’s Commercial Director. Boasting an impressive team of professionals within their faculty, including Lord Colin Moynihan and Dame Heather Rabbatts, InSport Education provides a high-quality education within the area of, ‘The Business of Sport.’

As with most things, we start at the beginning and with how and why InSport Education started its journey as an educational provider.

“The genesis of InSport Education came from football; we started by working with a couple of Premier League clubs to develop learning experiences specifically focused on the business of football. Arsenal were the first club we worked with and we ran educational programmes at the Emirates, whereby students could attend a two- or three-day residential course and learn from executives working at Arsenal, as well as other professionals from the football industry. The students really enjoyed the course and it opened their eyes to the many opportunities available in football. I think many of the students attended the course with the thought of a career as a player agent but after participating in the programme, they had a far better understanding of how the industry works and the myriad of opportunities that exist.

“Following this start, InSport Education grew to encompass other aspects of the business of sport.  So now, we are aren’t solely focused on programmes in football but it is a huge part of what we do. After all, football is a global game and is far the biggest sport in regard to global value. With that in mind, it forms a large chunk of the learning we offer.”

Dan is of course correct; football is very much a global game and monetary prominence and business practice is as important as the social impact it has on supporters and communities all around the world. It therefore, seems like a silly question to ask but from an educational perspective, what was the driving force for InSport Education to create their business with football as its starting point? 

“There is a lot of interest in football on an international level, particularly an interest in the Premier League, not just as a huge sporting organisation but as a massive media and entertainment business. We’ve run programmes specifically in the US, focused entirely on the international business of the Premier League and we’ve included speakers from various clubs, leagues and federations to talk to students about the international business of football.

“Football is the most popular sport in the world and the biggest business opportunity by every metric. Certainly in the UK and in Europe, it is the most popular sport in terms of how many people play it and watch it. Couple that element with the vast amounts of money circulating around the football industry, including the financial incentives of media and partnership rights, it eclipses every other sport. Several other sports will claim they have more viewers but the reality is, every Saturday and on lots of other days in-between, there are many football games taking place.

“Football has a global reach and realistically, it is probably the only sport with a global reach. We’ve had students participating in our programmes from the US, through to Hong Kong and the Middle East, Africa, India… When we talk about the business of sport – particularly in the UK – we tend to think about football and more specifically, the reach of the Premier League. We only have to look at the global story of the European Super League to start to realise how interested the world is in the UK football landscape – it’s extraordinary.

“So to start InSport Education with a focus on football was driven by practical business reality. To build an education platform in sport and more specifically in the business of sport, we asked ourselves, ‘What is the sport that most people are going to be interested in?’ The simple answer to that, was football.

It's interesting that Dan mentions the European Super League, as one of the topics I wanted to ask him on, was whether InSport Education is sometimes guided by the present events happening in the industry. Football alone, the historic moments in the last twelve to eighteen months has been prolific. From the breakaway European Super League, to the social media boycott and of course the pandemic, a spotlight has well and truly been shone onto the business side of the industry. What was perhaps previously just clusters of fans and supporter groups shining a light on business practice, suddenly turned into the world of football supporters coming together as one voice. And not just supporters but many football organisations and official bodies, all publicly putting their heads above the parapet to voice their disbelief and concern. It seemed as though, from the moment Liverpool and Tottenham hit the headlines with furloughing staff and Arsenal publicly announcing redundancies, there was a collective moment of, ‘Something isn’t right here.’ The interest and desire to pick apart the finer details of the football business world is now very much apparent so has this impacted InSport Education’s thoughts around topics for their future courses?

“The short answer is yes. We are developing different ideas for programmes all the time and for us, we have recognised that the big interest in sport for the last twelve months has been around private equity investment. This area of business has become a massive topic of conversation, in every sport and all across the world. Coincidentally, we were already developing a programme around private equity in sport but suddenly, along came the news of the European Super League and it accelerated the interest. We held a webinar the week that the news of the European Super League broke; we hold many webinars at InSport Education as a forum to discuss various subjects and maintain contact with our community. We had fantastic speakers from both the business and broadcast side of football, which provided a great representative view and we had the highest number of participants we have ever had for one of our webinars. Off the back of that, we decided to launch the Private Equity in Sport course a few days later. The European Super League idea has brought a lot of issues into the light, particularly for sports fans and more specifically, football fans. Therefore, expectedly, the course has a big football aspect to it; we have several speakers for this course who are professionals in the football industry.

“On the same note, we are looking at developing a programme around governance in sport, which again is a topic that has been bubbling along for many months, even years. The European Super League has again accelerated the interest in this area of the industry and people are asking questions about football ownership models and whether we need fan-led structures and a body that can oversee football in the UK.

“There have been a lot of questions come out of the crazy European Super League week and that will go on to shape football and the broader world of sport for some years to come.”

It’s clear that the Private Equity in Sport course delves into some of the finer points of business in sport but InSport Education also offers a Foundation in Sports Business course, including a free trial for students who are looking for a well-rounded insight into the sports business world. So who is the course designed for and what can students expect to gain?

“The Foundation in Sports Business course is designed for those individuals who are in the early stages of their career in sport or those who are looking to start a career in the sports industry. We have also developed the course with transitioning athletes in mind so athletes who are looking at their career path after they have finished playing their respective sport. Often, athletes want to keep within the sport industry post-playing career and the foundation course is a good place for them to start. On completion of the course, which is around eighteen hours of flexible, self-based learning and covers all aspects of sport business, our intention is that people gain a much better understanding of how sports business works and how all of the components fit together. That allows people to make better, informed decisions about whether they want to progress with a career in sport and if they do, what area is most appealing to them: Operations, Commercial, Media, Data and Analytics etc... We are also thinking about those men and women who may be looking at studying at university or other higher education courses; they may like the idea of sport but not be quite sure what it entails. The foundation course will again, give them a good understanding of the sector and enable them to make a balanced decision on whether to pursue a career in this direction.”

As somebody who studied Business Management, which encompassed so many business areas, from Economics and Corporate Strategy to Marketing and Human Resources, the foundation course makes absolute sense. To have the opportunity to learn about several key business areas of the industry is extremely valuable and as Dan says, will help to assist students in making a decision on whether pursuing a career in the sports industry is something they really want to do. But how does InSport Education stand out from the crowd in a market of education providers all vying for students to subscribe or enrol?

“A critical, key aspect – and one that we try to promote as our unique aspect – is that all of our learning content is delivered by experts who are working in sport. For example, if you want to learn about the finances of football, we have the former COO of Manchester United, who was also the COO of Inter Milan and the Executive Chairman at Blackpool, talking about the finance of football within a professional setting. He brings all of his experience and anecdotal insight, talking about this area of the industry in the context of finding a successor for Alex Ferguson and the sale of Wayne Rooney, for example. It makes the programme more interesting and relative; it’s the practical realities of the industry which helps with employability and in general, brings the learning to life.

“I believe the industry is evolving so quickly due to all sorts of factors and not just Covid, but looking at areas such as media and broadcast, social media, data and analytics… they are fundamentally changing the world of sport. If you are learning from people who are active in the industry, you are learning the most up to date, contemporary information. If you are at university and learning from a text book that is twelve months old, you are already a long way out of date. That’s the problem; there’s a lag between the industry and academia. However, if you are able to talk to, for example, two guys who are running a data and analytics company in sport, they can tell you what’s happening in sport right now.

“There are lots of longer-form academic programmes out there – the MBAs and Masters - and they serve a purpose. However, they take a long time to complete and they are expensive. Some of the programmes are also explicitly academically focused. What we provide is short-form, real-world, immersive programmes that will help build employability in the sector.

“We also help to connect people in the industry, create opportunities for students to connect directly with speakers and find mentoring opportunities too. We also have a community in which we share job opportunities. Ultimately, we want to be a genuine pathway into the sports sector and we have already had some success with that. For example, we had a young lady from the Middle East and a young man from Hong Kong, who both studied the foundation course. They went on to gain a mentoring opportunity with one of our speakers and they were able to connect with people about job opportunities in relation to their skillset. Eventually, this is what we want to do on a larger scale. We want to be in the position where we can say, ‘Come and participate in one of our courses and yes, you will learn a lot but we can also directly connect you with industry professionals and that may lead to some significant, genuine opportunities in the sector.’ We’ve already had some good results in this area, which is really satisfying.

“Another example of success with connecting individuals is the remote programme we ran for the University of Oregon on the ‘International Business of the Premier League.’ We worked with University of Oregon to build their Study Abroad programme and we are working with them at the moment too, on a two-week immersive course to take place in September. Hopefully, students will be able to travel from the US to London and spend two weeks visiting Premier League clubs, as well as different sports venues and seminars, learning about the international business of sport. Last year, we couldn’t run this programme in person but we put on a virtual programme instead, in which we had speakers from across the football spectrum, talking about all aspects of soccer. For example, we had the Head of Sponsorship for AIA (Tottenham Hotspur sponsor) and the Global Head of Sponsorship of Standard Chartered (Liverpool FC sponsor) speaking to the students.

“From that programme, we had a couple of students who we were able to connect directly with football clubs in the UK. I spoke to one of the students, who is a trainee sports lawyer, and he told me that the course was fantastic and he loved it but just as valuable, was the connection we helped him to make. He is a law student living in Arizona, who is desperate to work in the Premier League, and he now has three contacts for people working within Premier League clubs that he can email directly. Obviously, he’s got to go out and make that contact work but for us, being able to provide the connection and an opportunity for somebody to carry the connection forward, is great. People really value an introduction, especially when it is made in relation to their course – it’s a natural extension to taking a dialogue forward.

“Hopefully, that is an appealing aspect of our provision. We would love to be in a position where we can guarantee people roles in the industry but that’s not possible - nobody can do that at this stage given what’s happened during the pandemic. But eventually, we want to be in a scenario where we have a certain number of placements available to us in the sports industry in which we can place people in if they come through one of our programmes.

It’s clear that InSport Education use some fantastic speakers in their programmes and it is proving extremely successful in engaging with students and their retention of information. The fact that they are also able to connect students with such high-profile professionals is an additional bonus. We’ve all had tutors who, I am sorry to say, have the capacity to bore us into drifting off and equally, we’ve all had tutors who are so engaging that we’ve wished they were teaching us all of our lessons. Having an animated and characterful individual teaching from experience certainly goes a long way to encouraging the motivation to learn.

“All of our speakers have interesting stories to tell; that’s the difference. When the Head of Sponsorship at Standard Chartered was a speaker at one of our programmes, Liverpool had won the Premier League just four weeks prior. All of the students had watched Liverpool’s story unfolding through the season and the next minute, they had the architect of the whole sponsorship strategy in front of them, talking about why they did this and why they did that. Suddenly, the situation is present to them. If you can learn about what you’ve physically seen and read, it makes it a lot more interesting and the information is far easier to retain.

“We also have a fantastic team who all add something valuable and critical to InSport Education. We have Dr Rob Wilson, who is our Academic Director and a Head of Department at Sheffield Business School; he provides the academic rigour. We are chaired by Dame Heather Rabbatts, who is one of the leading voices on diversity, gender and ethnic representation in sport and we also have Lord Colin Moynihan on our team, who is the former UK Minister of Sport and the Chairman of the British Olympic Association. It is fantastic to have such incredible people on the faculty that can provide amazing insight, allowing us to produce programmes of real value and interest.”

What is prominent during the discussion, is that Dan’s personal experience within the sports industry shines through. The knowledge and passion are evident and there is a clear drive to help aspiring professionals into the sector. It’s a valuable trait and in such a competitive industry, the desire to help people make a connection, network and get a foot in the door is one that many appreciate, including myself.

“I’ve been lucky in my career to work with and learn from fantastic individuals; to learn how to build a career and manage the challenges. Everybody needs that type of input and support. You can’t gain an insight and a good level of experience on your own and whether you seek that support out or it’s readily provided to you, it’s hugely valuable. I spent twenty years in the sports marketing industry and it was difficult getting a start. Almost everybody working in the industry has got a story about how they got a break and somebody gave them a chance but it’s tough and it’s even harder now than it was when I was first starting out. As I said, if we at Insport Education can help people in whatever small way – even if it’s simply sharing job opportunities or making connections – we will absolutely do so.

“All of our guest speakers, faculty and content contributors feel the same; they are engaged and are happy to help people. It has never been more important either – the sports sector is facing massive headwinds and there are huge changes going on – and it’s a challenging environment. In some ways, the challenges have brought the best out of people and I have certainly seen amazing amounts of cooperation, collaboration, openness and willingness from people to help other individuals and businesses. It’s amazing to see how people and the industry as a whole, has reacted in a way which has seen so many people reach out to help each other.”

InSport Education, as Dan admits, is still in its infancy but the interest and positive feedback is quite clearly there already. We had touched upon the potential of a course in governance in the sports industry but are there are any other courses being planned? And what is the end goal for the educational provider?

“We are trying to develop things in a number of ways. I think we are lucky; we work in an industry that people are interested in. When you meet someone and you tell them that you work in sport, they find it interesting. They think you spend your life hanging out with David Beckham, which isn’t really the case but still, it’s an interesting industry and people are excited about it. So, we want to create courses that are open to everyone. The Private Equity in Sport Course is a good example, as there are a lot of people out there who don’t work in sport but are interested in the business of sport.

“We are also looking at broader topics and while the Foundation of Sport Business course covers lots of areas – which is great – we may take one particular area of that course e.g., sports marketing and do something a little deeper on that. We will gauge the responses from participants and see where the interest lies. We talked about the area of governance but we are also looking into the area of Human Rights, which again is hugely topical, as well as sustainability in sport. We want to equip people with as much information and knowledge as we can which in turn, allows them to develop their own policies or ideas and ultimately, helps the industry to move forward. We can argue that all of the issues around football, racism and the lack of diversity is an extension of human rights – it’s a very emotive, sensitive topic which effects every sport.

“Safeguarding is also something we are looking at, which again is huge in all team sports. They are all incredibly sensitive subject matters but they need to be discussed and more importantly, there needs to be learning and education around those issues; you can’t have your head in the sand. For example, it’s not enough for brands to say, ‘We are just a sponsor; we have nothing to do with it.’ That isn’t enough; they are intrinsically linked with sports organisations and they need to be knowledgeable about such matters.

“Lastly, we are also looking at sport specific programmes – the foundation course has speakers from golf, cricket, the Olympics, rugby, football, tennis… but we are talking about maybe doing something specifically on the business of rugby, which is a sport that is growing very, very quickly. We are lucky that we are nimble and can act quickly, producing programmes in response to what the market is interested in and needs; it’s what is driving our decision-making at the moment.”

It’s been an interesting and insightful discussion with Dan and it is clear that InSport Education is a fantastic education provider for those individuals hoping to pursue a career in the sports industry. With a list of elite speakers involved in their programmes and a faculty who have a wealth of experience to drive the development of new courses, I am interested to see how InSport Education continues to evolve and what exciting learning opportunities they offer in the near future. The final word is left to Dan and anything he wishes to add.

“The key things for us are that people know we are employer-led, real world, accessible (from a pricing and user-friendly platform perspective) and flexible. We aren’t here to replace MBAs and Masters – we are here to augment them and bring context, richness and depth to learning in the sports industry through those who are at the sharp end of the sector. Hopefully, that’s of interest and value, whether you are coming out of school and thinking about a career in sport or you are mid-career and interested in learning about something contemporary, such as private equity in sport. We are trying to provide learning for as many people as we can.

“It is also important to note that we are very much about education, rather than conferencing. You can attend various panel events and it’s all very interesting but realistically, what do you learn from those events in terms of the tools you can go on to use? With our programmes, we aim for people to learn the fundamental information points and feel as though they want to drive that theory into practice. That really is a key differentiation between InSport Education and the conference events that anyone can attend.”


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