What businesses can learn from teamwork at the World Cup

Written by Nicole W. Forrester, Ryerson University. Photo credit AP Photo/Frank Augstein. Originally published in The Conversation.

Mario Mandzukic celebrates during Croatia’s victory over England in the World Cup semifinal. Croatia’s emphasis of team over individual goals was crucial to its success.

Sport and business often seem to share common ground when it comes to performance. It’s not uncommon for businesses to use sports metaphors such as “down for the count,” “the ball’s in their court,” or “full court press.” As an Olympian, I’m often invited to speak at corporate events to inspire employees on setting goals or resiliency.

But only recently has there been a burgeoning body of researchers in the field of sport psychology and organizational psychology exploring the parallels between sports and businesses.

One study compared and contrasted the perceived factors of organizational success from the viewpoints of leaders in the fields of sport and business. The results revealed sport and business leaders identified more similar factors (e.g., leadership, communication and team cohesion) than differences.

Many parallels exist between sports and business when it comes to success. The recent FIFA World Cup provides a unique opportunity to examine some of these parallels and provide lessons for both business and sport.

Few would have predicted France versus Croatia in the final match. If you glanced at the FIFA world rankings a week before the first match, you may have anticipated the 2018 World Cup champion to be Germany or Brazil, respectively ranked first and second.

It would have also been easy to assume the two teams with the greatest players in the game — Argentina with Lionel Messi and Portugal with Cristiano Ronaldo — might also be contenders for the title.

However, true to the nature of sport, this year’s World Cup delivered unpredictable results.

The Team, The Team, The Team

“No man is more important than The Team. No coach is more important than The Team. The Team, The Team, The Team, and if we think that way, all of us, everything that you do, you take into consideration what effect does it have on my Team?”
Bo Schembechler, former University of Michigan football coach

One of the most powerful lessons from the 2018 World Cup is the positive relationship team cohesion had with performance.

More than 40 years ago, Canadian sports psychologist Albert Carron wrote that team cohesion is “a dynamic process which is reflected in the tendency for a group to stick together and remain united in the pursuit of its goals and objectives.” It still holds true today.

The Canadian women’s hockey team that won gold at the 2014 Olympics. Successful Olympic teams have cited unity and trust as key components of a winning effort. Photo credit AP Photo/Petr David Josek.

There’s evidence that better team cohesion results in better performance, and better performance results in better team cohesion.

Studies on Olympians in team sports have identified team unity and trust among the most important factors for success, while teams that failed to achieve their expected results attributed it to planning and team cohesion problems.

Belgium surprised many World Cup fans by making it to the semifinals and eventually winning the third-place match. Team manager Roberto Martinez attributed Belgium’s success to “the notion of being a team. Individual skills and talent are important, but in these tournaments, it’s absolutely necessary to play as a team.”

Shared goals

Integral to team cohesion is a shared goal among all group members.

While each team consists of individuals with different roles and interests, their individual goals must support the team goal and not supersede it. Teams will struggle when an individual within the team places their needs above the rest.

Recognizing the importance of the team’s needs, Croatia’s coach, Zlatko Dalic, made a difficult decision when he sent striker Nikola Kalinic home after their opening game in the World Cup. Kalinic had refused to go on the field in the 85th minute of the game, saying he had back pain. However, it’s believed he may have been demonstrating his displeasure for being benched in the game.

Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic watching his players warming up before the World Cup final against France. Photo credit AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis.

Acknowledging some problems in the camp, Dalic refused to elaborate or discuss Kalinic, simply stating “…since I need my players fit and ready to play, I have made this decision.

In this example, the coach took action to preserve the team chemistry and commitment to their shared goal by removing a player who appeared to place his own wants ahead of the team. Croatia was an example of a team in which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

When team members understand their role as it relates to the team goal, it can assist with buy-in and commitment. In business, it has been found to be associated with greater job satisfaction.

The importance of resiliency

Researchers have established resiliency to be a characteristic demonstrated by successful athletes and teams. A British study in 2015 of a rugby union World Cup-winning team found team resilience to be supported by five main psychosocial processes: Transformational leadership, shared team leadership, team learning, social identity and positive emotions.

This was also a theme cited by soccer analysts in the 2018 World Cup — most notably when Belgium overcame a 2-0 deficit to defeat Japan in the quarter-final match. Belgium scored three goals in the final 30 minutes. Such a comeback means the players stayed focused and avoided getting down on themselves. Additionally, controlling one’s composure and providing positive feedback to teammates can further bolster the teams’ collective confidence.

Anchored in their pursuit of excellence, it is easy to see the link between sport and business. Understanding your role on a team, aligning behind a common objective and putting team goals ahead of individual needs are strategies that work on the field of play — in the boardroom.

Video gamers may soon be paid more than top pro athletes

Written by Louis-Etienne Dubois & Laurel Walzak, Ryerson University. Photo credit Ubisoft. Originally published in The Conversation.

The Finnish R6 eSports proleague team, winners of Rainbow Six Pro League Championship in Sao Paulo.

Your interest in sports may have started out as a hobby when you were just a kid. You were better at it than others, and some even said you were gifted. Maybe you had a chance to develop into a professional athlete.

Colleges would soon line up to extend full scholarships. If you pushed hard enough, practised countless hours and kept a cool head, lucrative contracts and international fame awaited.

This fantasy plays out for many North American kids who dream of “making it to the big leagues.”

Whether they play hockey, football or basketball, even the most remote possibility of turning their love of the game into a respected career is worth sacrificing for.

Enter video games.

In less than a decade, the realm of professional sport has been taken by storm by the rise of eSports (short for electronic sports). These video game events now compete with — and in some cases outperform — traditional sports leagues for live viewership and advertising dollars.

For the top eSports players, this means sponsorship contracts, endorsements, prize money and yes, global stardom.

Games on TV still command high ad dollars

This week, dozens of professional video game players will descend on Toronto during NXNE, an annual music and arts festival, to compete in different games for prizes of up to US$1,000. Not a bad payday, perhaps, but still chump change in the eSports scene.

For example, Dota 2, a popular battle arena game published by Valve, recently handed out US$20 million to its top players during its finale.

What does this mean for traditional sports? And sports TV viewership?

The lasting broadcast success of sports leagues games can be explained by the fact that they are meant to be shared happenings and are best experienced live. As such, they have been resilient to disruptions within the media landscape and somewhat spared by the advent of on-demand streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

The ability to capture a sizeable number of “eyeballs,” long enough and at a precise time, is the reason why professional sports leagues still command huge TV rights and advertising dollars.

In the past few years, the “Big Four” North American sports leagues have all struck new deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Shifts in sports culture

Some leagues like Major League Baseball, and their once subsidiary Advanced Media division (MLBAM), have long embraced technological innovations to enhance audiences’ experience.

Meanwhile, media and telecommunication giants have been slower to catch on.

In 2016, John Skipper, then president of ESPN, referring to cable TV packages said: “We are still engaged in the most successful business model in the history of media, and see no reason to abandon it.”

This attitude, at the time, was not only symptomatic of a lag or inability to adopt technological innovations, but also raised concerns about the company’s future.

But the decline of the traditional linear broadcast, and the risk of losing relevancy in this digital, broadband and tech savvy media landscape is inevitable, and forces these media giants to question their traditional business models and to focus on online audiences.

Along with this shift, a new, popular and expansive trend for the new generation has emerged – eSports.

Whether eSports are actual sports or not is a whole other debate; however, the emergence of the global video game competition field demands attention and strategic investment.

Why eSports is doing so well

As a spectator sport, video games generate viewership at least on par with professional leagues.

Take, for instance, 2016’s League of Legends tournament that drew 36 million viewers, five million more than the NBA Finals, in front of a sellout crowd at the famous Bird Nest stadium in China.

eSports events regularly draw sellout crowds like major professional sports leagues. Photo credit Ubisoft.

eSports mimic traditional sports leagues principles: Exciting content, likeable stars, catchy team names, slow motion highlights, intense competition and an uncertain outcome.

These video games attract audiences as they are no longer simply designed to be played, but increasingly to be visually pleasing for audiences.

Age-wise, compared to traditional sports that struggle to diversify their audience demographics, eSports have successfully attracted younger viewers.

The fan base is pretty young, with 61 per cent of fans falling in the 18-34 age range. Young men, in particular, are a desirable market for many advertisers.

eSports attracts advertisers

The economic outlook for video gaming sports is staggering. According to NewZoo, eSports “on its current trajectory is estimated to reach US$1.4 billion by 2020.” And a “more optimistic scenario places revenues at US$2.4 billion.”

Companies like Red Bull, Coca-Cola and Samsung, all usual suspects when it comes to advertising and young people, are flocking to eSports.

In recent years, eSports has made efforts to monetize across traditional revenue streams, such as merchandise sales, subscriptions plans, ticket sales and broadcast rights. It is, once again, taking a page straight out traditional sports leagues’ playbook.

So, what can established leagues and media giants do? Given the choice between fighting eSports or joining them, many appear to have chosen the latter. Recall ESPN resisting change in 2016. Then fast forward to their recent strategic investments in the digital platform BAMTech, once MLB Advanced Media, in order to launch ESPN streaming services.

As a result, Disney, the 100 per cent owner of ESPN, now has a say in League of Legends streaming because its publisher Riot Games had signed a seven-year US$350 million dollar broadcast deal with BAMTech.

FIFA just partnered with Electronic Arts on a online tournament that drew 20 million players and 30 million viewers. Also hoping to create platform synergies and to reach new audiences, Amazon acquired Twitch in 2014, the leading game streaming service.

These examples show that eSports are not just popular with gamers, but also among sports leagues and media giants. Both stand to learn from each other. No wonder Activision’s CEO said that he wanted to “become the ESPN of eSports.

This popularity also opens up more opportunities to compete on the professional level and earn huge endorsements, prize money and salaries just like LeBron James, Serena Williams, Danica Patrick or Sidney Crosby.

In fact, higher education eSports programs are already launching across the country and college scholarships are now commonplace, further acknowledging the economic viability and social acceptability of this phenomenon.

And with talks of introducing eSports in the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, Canada’s “Own the Podium” program may soon have to follow suit.

In any case, it turns out that our parents were wrong all along: You can stay glued to your console in the basement all day and still make it pro.