After three exciting and eventful years as Chief Executive of London Sport, Pete Fitzboydon is moving on to pastures new. Pete has overseen the transformation of the organisation, with early inroads made towards the target of getting one million more Londoners active by 2020, and establishing London Sport as a thought leader on technology and open data in sport. Here he writes exclusively for ConnectSport on what he thinks needs to happen next.
When Government and Sport England unveiled new sport strategies in late 2015 and early 2016, one instruction ran through the core, more clearly than any other: collaboration.
At a time when the sport sector was presented with a new challenge – to think beyond the central precept of participation towards a broader set of outcomes – it seemed clear that a new, collective approach was the roadmap we were being asked to follow.
A year and a half on, as I prepare to leave the public-funded sport sector that I have been a part of for almost my whole working career, it seems to me that we have barely scratched the surface of the sorts of collaboration that would create long-term change. In my three years leading London Sport, I have heard national governing bodies call other NGBs their competitors; sport facilities that think their main markets is in attracting customers from other sport facilities; alienation of private sport and leisure companies; and local bodies that inadvertently create unnecessary complexity for consumers.
Imagine what we could achieve if we simply took a step back and realised that our real ‘enemy’ are the activities that compete for people’s free leisure time such as shopping centres, cinemas, pubs and restaurants…. and too often they win! Competing with each other for a bigger share of a diminishing market clearly isn’t the way forward; working together to grow the market clearly is. We do face competition. We do face threats. But these competitors aren’t our peers in sport. Our competitors are the other industry sectors and the winners will be those that cater better to the leisure needs of everyday consumers.
Sport doesn’t have any divine right to thrive. To ‘win’ we need to work together properly; not a tokenistic ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ but proper joined-at-the-hip working: shared staff, collective marketing, sharing of data, and joint investment. Only then will we have enough clout to take on the true competitors and win, using the ethos of a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’.
There are green shoots. The OpenActive movement, for example, was nothing more than an idea; it now comprises more than 70 organisations around the country promoting the use of opportunity data (sessions people can take part in to help people get active). There are new innovations helping to shift the dial, too: London Sport’s pioneering work with care homes to develop adapted sport opportunities for older adults have challenged the status quo around who sport is designed for, while our work with the Mayor of London and London & Partners around technology innovation has the potential to do for sport what CityMapper, Uber and myriad other revolutionary tech developments did for the travel industry.
Too often, though, our sector acts like a closed shop. We talk about partnership, but treat those same partners as competitors. We champion openness, but present sport as a sector dominated by red tape and industry jargon. We deliver a product that changes people’s lives, but spend too much time catering to the customers that are already feeling the benefit.
We can be better. When sport works well, it is almost unstoppable in its ability to make people feel good, enjoy themselves and positively impact their lives. When we work together effectively, we create experiences that are unforgettable. Sometimes, they can even be life-changing. And the tools are there to do more. We have the right ambitions, the right support and the right people to ensure that sport will be a critical part of people’s lives for generations to come.
As I prepare to leave this part of the sport sector, I do so believing firmly that we are moving in the right direction but far too slowly. This is a time for ambition and open-mindedness; and if leaders come to the table with the same mindset of working openly together, we will play a role in changing society, and people’s lives, for the better. That’s something worth fighting for; more than that, it’s something worth collaborating for.