​First Innovate Sports, Then Society

Source:Prof. Liisa VälikangasDate:2019-04-02

About the Author

Liisa Välikangas

Professor Liisa Välikangas teaches innovation management at Aalto University and Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, Finland. She is affiliated with EMLyon Business School in France.  Prof. Välikangas is known for her publications in strategic renewal and resilience (including The Resilient Organization, McGraw-Hill, 2010 and The Quest for Resilience, Harvard Business Review, 2003) and innovation management (Strategic Innovation, Pearson/Financial Times Press, 2015). She is Senior Editor of Management and Organization Review, a journal focused on China and emerging markets, published by Cambridge University Press. Her next book is The Grand Sustainability Challenge: The Wicked Learning Workbook forthcoming by Routledge.

Sports is about individual achievement but also about belonging. This duality may explain why sports as an industry is thriving. Where else can you explore the limits of yourself while bonding with teammates?

The US sports market is estimated near 100 billion USD while the worldwide industry is five times larger. China – excluded in worldwide estimates – is one of the fastest growing areas with an emergent middle class. China is also hosting the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

My research interest is innovating management. Innovation is at the core of the sports business and its professionalization.

Companies, leagues, cities are exploring novel ways of harnessing innovation and emergent technologies. Recently FC Barcelona, reaching annual revenues of over 1 billion USD last year, opened an innovation hub that uses data analytics toward perfecting match strategies but also benefitting from best player intelligence.

Immersive technologies such as augmented and virtual reality are engaging fans to interact with players, contribute and co-experience the game. The player-fan relationship is becoming personal (FanBoost) while game highlights may be crowdsourced (#epicplay). An eChampions League shows star footballers playing the virtual game.  Such eSports together with online streaming media platforms are growing fast with audiences counted in hundreds of millions. Alibaba Sports Group, part of the Chinese Internet giant, is leading the pursuit for the Asian Olympic games inclusion.

Different aspects of life and work are being “gamified”, infused with competitive elements to create engagement and add excitement. A Finnish sports clothing company Reima has designed an app for children (ReimaGo) that promotes active lifestyle in a game-like environment: the more the kids move, the more their characters advance in the game. (Parents may join too.)

Digital probes - combining hybrid worlds and fan communities - are being used to imagine and explore new motorsports opportunities in Formula E. According to the research by Sirkka Jarvenpaa and Willem Standaert, Formula E has involved fans to imagine entirely new kinds of competitions. Such inventive probing also surfaces fan reactions and the sports’ taken-for-granted assumptions that may be limiting to its engagement.

Why does sports innovation matter? In many areas, beyond the ones mentioned above, sports management is leading the exploration of what is possible and what is technologically feasible. Its innovations are experimenting the edge of human and team performance and spilling over to other fields including health and entertainment, big data and computing technologies, urban planning, and clothing.  Sports industry is increasingly a major consumer of digital technologies. It is shaping the innovation practices in its open innovation hubs, lead-user engagement and in the discovery of novelty through strategic crowdsourcing. Combining reality and virtual play is pioneering hybrid worlds.

How can innovation researchers develop theoretical understandings and articulate new innovation practices based on sports and innovation? Where are sports leading, or bleeding, the edge?

From the perspective of society as a whole,  there are a number of thematic areas of interest for new understandings. First, it is certainly important to fight the unbecoming behavior that an excessive competitive drive and the ethos of winning at any cost may produce. Big monies tempt corruption and collusion. Backroom dealing is out. This is also an area for innovation: How can sports organizations better institutionalize trust and fairness? Opening up for fans may be a good first step.

Promising research arenas include:

  1. Emergence of novelty in sports management: For example, how are fans brought to participate in the game? Formula E’s digital probing is path-breaking. Or inviting audience to vote which of the hockey players should go to bench at a particular moment? Is the community around the particular sport developing new performance improvements (e.g. racing, kayaking)? How do new technological practices such as biohacking or biologically inspired engineering called bionics produce new kinds of performance?
  2. Inclusion of the sports communities whether athletes, fans, business companies, supporting organizations, clubs or governments in the innovation activities that take the sport and its excitement further. For example, what are cities doing to support sports and lifestyle/tourism around sports experiences? Shanghai seeks to accelerate the development of the sports industry and be a leading urban innovator in its Centre for Eurasian Sports Industry. New Zealand offers extreme sports travel insurance for those traveling in the country. Want to go skiing in the middle of the city? Head to Helsinki.
  3. Sports and Sustainability: How can sports help protect the environment? Holding the attention of hundreds of millions of people, how to engage everyone’s contribution? Support the inclusion and build a feeling of belonging to the society? Games such as “Catalyst for Change” developed by the Rockefeller Institution and the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, CA have experimented on ways to reduce poverty together.

People feel good after their team wins. Such joy of winning ought to be leveraged to develop empowerment and a stake in caring for our common future.  Researchers, players, businesses and urban governments have an important role to play.