Business principles applied in Sport. A British Canoeing perspective

Mark Taffler commercial manager at British Canoeing explains how their organisation have adopted savvy business principles to shape their growth strategy.

Overtime, as sport has professionalised and more money has been pumped in, it has increasingly borrowed techniques from the world of business to optimise exposure, increase revenues and generate public participation. In short, the two have merged.

In the UK, this transition is most obvious in football, where the best players now receive tens of millions of pounds each year in salaries, bonuses and endorsements. Many of the top teams either have large private investments or are listed on global stock markets they are viewed not just as a football club but very much as a money making entity.

A team’s success or failure has a serious impact on their parent company’s financial future, its ability to recruit and retain talented staff, and whether it has the right to access the top cup competitions with big-money rewards.

To varying degrees these pressures are felt by the governing bodies of every major sport. They must demonstrate success and impact to generate private investment as well as government funding, not to mention maintaining a high-profile to entice new participants.

It’s a challenge I face every day at British Canoeing. As commercial manager, part of my job is to work with businesses to build the profile of canoeing in the UK, to highlight its benefits and increase engagement in the sport.

Canoeing is one of the biggest ‘minority’ sports in the country with 1.5 million people going canoeing each year. In terms of ultimate goals, we have two hats: one is helping elite athletes at the top of the tree to achieve medal wins at the Olympic Games and other major fixtures.

The other is to drive participation and encourage more people at the grass roots level to go canoeing. We know it is a great thing to do, it’s easy to access and very enjoyable, and we need to sell the benefits to as wide an audience as possible.

To achieve these goals we have to know our market in fine detail and before we agree a partnership or run a campaign we must crystallise what the likely benefits will be – financial or otherwise – and the positive impact these will have on our audience, in essence we are now operating exactly like a business would.

For this reason, one of the main ways we have adopted cutting-edge business principles is through our use of data and sophisticated analytics. We recently updated our database, having invested a lot of work into the project, and we are now able to really segment and target specific customer groups in the same way a large corporate brand can.

By understanding our data we are more valuable to a commercial partner, we can pin-point marketing campaigns and we can communicate better, both to people who already partake in the sport and those prospects whom we want to encourage in.

In terms of return on investment (ROI), the measures are often quite complex. Government goals include getting people more active; there is the success of participants in international competitions and also the total number of people getting involved.

Participation is measured in a very stringent metric of average performance surveys (APS), which take place each year. It literally comes down to how many people have got into a canoe in the last 12 months.

We run marketing campaigns and direct drives to increase membership, for example through outbound calls to lapsed members. Having good reliable data helps us create metrics and identify what success looks like before we even get started.

There is always room for improvement in what we do, but we have a strengthening relationship with our corporate partners and through these ties we are adopting new ways of working and developing the sport internally and externally.

There are a thousand sports across the UK that vie for government funding and corporate investment. We know that the most popular ones, such as football, will take the lion’s share of that, so we must adopt a strategic stance on how we earn our share.

We can learn a lot from business, no doubt. As long as we continue to have the best interests of the canoeing community at heart, then we should keep on doing so. It is a journey and it’s one I personally relish, working with different stakeholders – commercial and otherwise – to reach the most desirable outcomes for the sport.