World Cup 2018: What Can Business Learn From Soccer?

Business and soccer have more in common than you might think

What do scoring goals in soccer and designing successful business models have in common?

Gary Lineker, England striker of the 1980s, once said: ‘Soccer is a simple game. 22 players chase a ball for 90 minutes and, in the end, the Germans win.’ England fans might think he’s not far off.

In reality, soccer is more complex than that. Soccer itself is big business. There’s even an MBA program on soccer—the University of Liverpool’s Football Industries MBA is the top-ranked sports MBA in the UK.

Now, in the lead up to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, two lecturers from WU Executive Academy in Vienna—Thomas Funke and Thorsten Lambertus—have taken a closer look at the links between soccer and innovative business models.

“Once you take a closer look, you will realize that there are some fundamentally important things you should pay attention to before taking to the pitch if you want to win,” Thomas, serial entrepreneur and co-director of TechQuartier Frankfurt, explains. “The good news is you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to do that. And this also applies to developing business models.”

Here’s Thomas and Thorsten’s three steps to achieving success in soccer and in business:


1. Define your strategy but be flexible in your tactics

In soccer, a wide variety of entirely different strategies can lead to success, including, for example, the ‘tiki-taka’ style of the Spaniards; having an airtight defense and relying on swift counter-attacks like the Italians; short passing and much movement; or trying to keep possession of the ball for as long as possible.

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When it comes to developing new business models, the right strategy makes all the difference between success and failure. “That is not to say, however, that you should not be as flexible as possible during the game,” says Thomas. “There are countless variations of the 4-4-2 formation, and adjustments can quickly be made as circumstances change. Your business model has to be just as flexible. You need to perceive evolving realities and predictable events that occur over time as opportunities and capitalize on them.”

2. Decide on a pattern

Prior to a game of soccer, the names and playing positions of the individual team members are a well-kept secret. “The formation—the playing pattern—provides the opposing team with valuable information as to your strategy on the pitch, directly influencing the other side's tactics,” Thomas explains.

In the context of business modeling, patterns play a key role too. They are not only an invaluable source of inspiration during conceptualization but also the logic behind the arrangement of a company's building blocks. Customer data, for instance, is widely regarded as the new “black gold” of today, and even more so, tomorrow. Frequently, however, we do not even know that companies base their main sources of revenue on customer data and that the entire logic of their business models is, hence, geared towards this pattern.

3. Line up your team

How well the members of your team collaborate and get on with one another has a direct influence on whether or not your strategy will be successful.

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“In soccer, all 11 players depend directly on one another,” Thorsten, a senior team member at Fraunhofer Company Building & Venture Incubation, explains. “While Real Madrid builds its strategy on the pitch around Cristiano Ronaldo, it would never be able to succeed without its holding midfielder. When it comes to developing business models, the situation is no different.

“In any team, the members need to be assigned certain functional roles, such as striker, defender or goalkeeper. At the end of the day, the big picture, the social roles and the collaboration of the team in implementing the business model make the difference that really matters.”

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