Interview: Football clubs look outside of sports for senior management talent

12 February 2020

Peter Moore
Photo: Getty Images CEO of Liverpool FC, Peter Moore, is one of those top guys in the Premier League being headhunted from outside the football industry. He left a role as CCO at Electronic Arts, EA, in 2017 to join Liverpool.

The biggest football clubs have reached a size and scale that, when it comes to hiring senior management, the rest of the football industry is less relevant than it once was.

Instead, the clubs have started to look outside, not just of football, but sports in general, for new executive talents.

These people bring in essential skill sets not usually found in football, with Manchester United, Juventus, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Chelsea all among those who have already made outside hires.

Jesper Elkjær Jensen

New people are starting to inhabit the executive offices at some of the world's biggest football clubs.

Top jobs are no longer reserved for people with a history in the sport. Instead, clubs are looking for people with specific skill sets - skill sets which traditionally have not been sought by the clubs, tells Chad Biagini, president of Nolan Partners, a firm which specialises in retained executive search within sports, media and entertainment.

"For the past handful of years, clubs have started to look outside of sports for the talent they need. In fact, more than 50 per cent of the hires we made in partnership with major clubs these last five years have been people we recruited from outside of sport," says Biagini.

When you look at sports, no club is big enough for someone who is not a 'strategic-doer' - they have to be strategic, to perform tasks, as well as make decisions - in some large organisations, you are doing only strategy or sitting in meetings making decisions all day"

Nolan Partners represents more than half of the clubs in the Premier League, more than half of the teams in the MLS, as well as the top clubs in France, Italy, North America and broader Europe. 

"These clubs need executives who can lead departments that sometimes employ nearly as many people as the entire front office of clubs within the same league. The big clubs boast several hundred million fans. When you have that type of scale, there are few other clubs with similar global business objectives," Biagini says.

He adds that this is the case for the top clubs of not just the Premier League, but the Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A and - to some degree - the French Ligue 1.

Several English clubs have made outside hires

In recent years, several clubs in the European top flights have been doing just that - looking to other industries in the search for the right executive talents.

Among these are Manchester United, who found their director of communications, Charlie Brooks, at Nike. Chelsea's CEO, Guy Laurence, was also found outside of sports at Rogers Communications, though he had previously been a director at a North American sports franchise. Juventus' MD of APAC hails from Ferrari and Google, and at Liverpool, the VP of licensing, Paul Hepworth, came from NBC Universal and DreamWorks Animation. 

According to Chad Biagini, it is not just the increased scale of the bigger clubs that has influenced the need for them to look outside, not just of football, but the sports industry in general, for new executive talents - it is also because the challenges that football executives have to tackle have started to change.

Man Utd
Photo: Getty Images Man Utd's vice-chairman Ed Woodward came from the investment banking industry. The last couple of years the club have also recruited outside football - among these are director of communications, Charlie Brooks, who came from Nike, and the club's head of corporate and commercial communications, Andrew Ward, who is a former journalist with the Financial Times.

"In the cases where we look to other industries, we help the club by diagnosing what they are trying to accomplish and who they need to hire to achieve it - i.e. is it someone who can build a data and analytics function for the club's hundreds of millions of fans? Is it someone with a track record of cultivating strategic partners across Asia and the Middle East? 

"In those cases, we might look at what other industries do with excellence such as retail, ecommerce, fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), hospitality, and technology," he says.

Football clubs are not like other businesses

In recent searches, Nolan Partners has recruited people for different roles at sports teams from Disney, AT&T, Spotify, Yahoo!, Adidas, and Gatorade, because, according to Chad Biagini, "our clients needed leaders who brought certain key skill sets that are more prominent and classically trained outside of sports."

But, even with the perfect skill set, people from outside of sports are not always the perfect fit.

"A sports team is certainly a very different business than a FTSE 250 or Fortune 500 company," Biagini says.

"The sports industry has seen plenty of outside people fail, usually because the organisation either didn't understand what they were looking for in the first place, or the person did not adapt into the smaller business that is a sports team.

"When you look at sports, no club is big enough for someone who is not a 'strategic-doer' - they have to be strategic, to perform tasks, as well as make decisions - in some large organisations, you are doing only strategy or sitting in meetings making decisions all day. 

"In sports, you have got to get the right people - those who can do both the strategic and the tactical."

Outside talents can have a tremendous impact on club - and league

Still, Chad Biagini generally believes the influx of talents from other industries has had a very positive impact on the sports industry, including football.

"When you get the right person, they can have a tremendous positive impact on a club, because they bring skills and experiences that are different from the rest of the management team," he says, adding that the influx of outside talents will not just benefit the individual clubs, but eventually it will benefit the league as a whole.

However, initially the biggest clubs may get further ahead of the rest of the clubs, as they, due to their greater financial capacities, which continues to outgrow the mid- and lower-tier clubs, are able to recruit better and more expensive people.

"I am a firm believer that a rising tide lifts all boats. So, although a big club might get bigger in the short term because they brought on more highly skilled executives, there is going to be growth through osmosis as the smaller clubs are now able to closely witness how the big club are changing and improving," Biagini says.

"Short term, I think it helps the big club gain a competitive advantage. Long term, I believe it will benefit the entire ecosystem - the league, the sport, and the clubs."