Opinion | Friday, 15th February 2019

Football sporting director role not fully understood

Dr Dan Parnell on the latest sporting director research and defining the position

The role of the Sporting Director in football remains shrouded in mystery
The role of the Sporting Director in football remains shrouded in mystery

Originally published on Association of Sporting Directors

By Dr Dan Parnell, Senior Lecturer in Sports Business at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Over the past two decades, football has developed into a hyper-commodified multimillion-pound industry involving a range of stakeholders from investors, global media, sponsorships and supporters.

One strategy aimed at creating more sustainable football operations, embraced in European football but received more reluctantly in English football, is the recruitment of a Sporting Director. Despite more and more clubs adopting this strategy, the role of the Sporting Director remains shrouded in mystery. The lack of clarity associated with the role has created issues within football clubs for managers, CEOs and owners. In some cases, it has also created confusion with the fans and media. These problems can potentially be easily fixed. 

Role ambiguity can be defined as the lack of clarity in understanding the actions to be taken to achieve proposed individual goals.

The role of the Sporting Director is somewhat ambiguously understood, but broadly, the Sporting Director can be described as a senior executive with a sports specific management remit. Within the culture of British football, the role of the Sporting Director is particularly mysterious and causes much debate amongst fans and the sports media.

Recent research on the Sporting Director outlined some interesting findings related to the title and job role of Sporting Directors. Below is an extract from the Sporting Directors involved in the research:

“It’s ok to have the Sporting Director title, but when everyone thinks you have the full role and you don’t, it can cause trouble. If the press and fans, or even just the lads in the academy think you have an influence on recruitment [i.e., transfer in and out of players], when you don’t, then basically your heads on the line.

At my last club, because no-one really knew who was in charge of transfers it ended up with other clubs and agents [i.e., intermediaries] getting caught between me, the Chairman and the first team manager. It was a bit embarrassing and not good for business. This stuff has to come from the top and needs to be communicated."

Jason, Head of Football Operations, Football League Club

“Titles in the football industry can be confusing but providing that the functions and responsibilities are clearly understood within all of the football structure of the club then the title becomes less important. The titles only differ because of a lack of understanding or confusion about the implementation of the role.

The biggest challenge is that the industry gains a better understanding of the role. Boards and Owners appear to have difficulty understanding […]. More help for the Board/Owner to understand the requirements will be necessary to achieve this."

David, Director of Football, Premier League Club

"There are many titles and yet there is little consistency in job descriptions. In my case I am Vice chairman of Football. I believe my job description is more important than the title. I also believe I am by definition the true Sporting Director…

[…] The Sporting Director ‘Directs the Sport’ and that should be everything to do with the sport. Using and selling players, hiring and firing managers and coaches, setting targets and objectives within the culture values and philosophy of the club and providing guardianship of that culture and those values.

Where sports performance is concerned the true Sporting Director is the ultimate decision maker and the holds responsibility and accountability for that performance. I think many incumbents of the role under this or any of the other titles rarely have this full level of responsibility. They are rarely Board Level Directors and most often the big decisions regarding players and coaches and budgets are made by other Executives ( CEO’s) or Owners / Chairpersons. Big decisions made by inexperienced or non-sporting directors."

Carl, Vice Chairman of Football, Premier League Club

Differences in title, role and how it is communicated can create issues internally, externally, with fans, media or even other clubs seeking to undertake a transfer. Lack of clarity in decision-making, job role and communication could have consequences for job satisfaction and subsequently organisational performance.

Externally this could point towards misunderstanding by the CEOs, Boards and / or Chairman, undermining their authority and leadership of the club, especially those responsible for recruiting Sporting Directors. Further, this could hamper football transfer business, one of the key aspects of the Sporting Director role.

Research states that poor communication and blurred lines of roles and responsibilities are the main triggers for stress, role duplication and repetition, which results in the failure of the organisation to achieve its strategic aims and objectives. Ultimately, role ambiguity can affect performance (of the individual and ultimately the club!).

Despite the research (and reason) that supports the need for clarity in job role, given the haphazard and unpredictable nature of the football environment, any flexible job role could be associated positively with a low bureaucracy and ‘fast-moving’ organisation.

However, Sporting Directors must be aware – the lack of role clarity (identity, shared visions, and behaviours)  – may result in an environment or ‘team’ of individuals, with multiple and variable motivation who may be more focussed on performance irrelevant and self-interested agendas, than a performance focused common purpose (see Cruickshank and Collins, 2015; Drust, O’Boyle and Gillett, 2018).

Key messages for Sporting Directors and football leaders:

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