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Human capital and the future success of sport: zoom on THE SPOT 2023 fishbowl

From international and national governing bodies to clubs, leagues, unions, sports apparel, broadcasting to sports agencies – the sport industry is broad and complex. It also represents one of the biggest talent engines in the world powered by athletes, coaches, administrators, executives, media, journalists and many more. But what culture, leadership, and talent will help the sports industry remain relevant and compete for attention among consumers of the future? What can former athletes contribute beyond the playing field?

Human capital and the future success of sport was the focus of discussions during one of the highly interactive “fishbowl” sessions at THE SPOT 2023, earlier this month. Outlining key trends that are shaping the world of sport today and reflecting on the skill set and representation needed in the sport sector, a diverse panel of industry speakers and former athletes shared compelling experiences and views on developing and leveraging sports’ human capital for a sustainable future of sport.

Moderated by three-time Olympian Ana Jelusic Black and former Athlete, Entrepreneur and Coach Kyle Israel, the panel featured perspectives and insights from Mayi Cruz Blanco, The Adecco Group’s Managing Director for Sports Practice and Partnerships Programmes; David Grevemberg, Centre for Sport & Human Rights (CSHR) Chief Innovation and Partnerships Officer; Lily Xu Lijia, Sailing Olympic gold medallist for China; Bill Powell, investor and Black Lab Sports Managing Director; Rowena Samarasinhe, GENsport Founder; and Jeroen Straathof, European Para Championships 2023 Tournament Director.

Here is a round-up of some of the key take-aways from the panel.

1. Develop sport’s in-house human capital

Ensuring that the sport industry has the capability through its workforce to stay relevant and compete for attention among consumers of the future is essential. As Mayi Cruz Blanco cautioned: “By 2025, 50% of the world population will need upskilling, in terms of data and digital literacy. We need to bring sports organisations to that future.” In an ever-changing world influenced by geo-politics, natural phenomena, technology evolutions, and financial challenges, sport leaders and its workforce need to develop core skills beyond the sports-related expertise. From acquiring crucial soft skills, such as: leading through uncertainty, emotional intelligence, diplomacy and communication, resilience, creativity – to more technical competences like the use of data analytics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality.

One strategy that Blanco suggested sports organisations can explore to boost their human capital and create sustainable success is investing in education, digital literacy, and training programmes. These programmes can be designed to help employees develop the skills and knowledge necessary to stay ahead of industry trends and effectively respond to changes. This can include training on emerging technologies, leadership development, and opportunities for cross-functional learning.

2. Invest in athletes as employees

As a category, athletes make-up a critical component of the sport industry’s human capital. And yet, as the panel pointed out, too often the voice of athletes remains under-represented within sport organisations and company boards. Integrating athletes into the future workforce and understanding how to best prepare them to transition from sport to business was deemed essential. As former speed skater and cyclist Jeroen Straathof stressed: “It is important that organisations see an athlete as a person with skills”, bringing a mindset, a voice, and competences that organisations need to remain competitive.

Former quarterback Kyle Israel shared his lived experience of transitioning to a life off the field of play. He spoke honestly of some of the inherent and unseen challenges of that transition including the trauma in losing the identity and purpose which had dictated much of his life as an athlete. Organisations are then encouraged to create dual-career support programmes and develop athletes as employees while the industry should shift mindset and “sell life purpose” rather than “lifestyles” to tap into the athlete talent pool.

As Sailing Olympic gold medallist Lily Xu Lijia added: “Athletes have many transferable skills” but may need guidance to translate those skills from one environment to another. Coming from China, she highlighted how “learning English” and having “a multinational experience really helped” her to survive in the western world and transition into her “second career in sport media”.

3. Think more broadly and represent the entire world

In a world that is constantly evolving, the ability to challenge each other’s thinking and to disrupt the norm is how we can truly effect change. Diverse decision-making, bringing different groups into the sports industry and having diverse teams was seen then as necessary for any future success. “[Sport is] a global industry, but if you look at federations, it’s very much a Western ideology which predominates”, pointed out Rowena Samarasinhe, which begs the question of just how diverse and global the sport industry is. “We need to represent the entire world.”

For Samarasinhe: “Diverse thinking is central to the success of sport, and the key is empowering the people we engage to think more broadly.” Organisations can no longer make token efforts but need to develop clear and prioritised strategies and allocate meaningful spend to them if they are to remain relevant and retain a consumer that is becoming more and more selective, prioritising ethics, sustainability, and governance in making their selection.

Supporting these points, Bill Powell in turn added that: “Some of the most culturally diverse teams are the ones grabbing onto exponentially growing technology” which can contribute to success as a shift is observed in how the next generation consumes both sport and technology.

4. Adopt an athlete mindset and rethink leadership

Creating a culture of innovation and collaboration was another factor seen as crucial for boosting human capital and generating sustainable success in sports. This includes encouraging creativity and risk-taking, fostering open communication and teamwork, rewarding success, and rethinking leadership and what it means to be a leader today. While it may seem counter-intuitive, the panel emphasised the importance for organisations and leaders to embrace failures and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow, and to adopt an athlete mindset. “Leadership is also about the strength that comes with being vulnerable” stated Mayi Cruz Blanco, emphasising that it was about having people who think boldly, who are not afraid to fail, who go beyond the norm.

“You need people in your organisation who think in possibilities” added Jeoren Straathof. “Create a team that looks to the future.” David Grevemberg (CSHR) in turn noted: “You want to give people voice and agency. As leaders, we are there to listen.” If organisations do not listen, they risk becoming irrelevant especially for the next generation of consumers who is proving more confident, less forgiving, and more demanding of authenticity.


Human capital may be a broad topic, but ultimately, it’s about people – and connecting with and as people. Developing sport’s human capital, moving from a reactive to a proactive strategy, with a human-centric approach and sourcing talent with the right skills are in sum paramount for a sustainable future of sport. Success on and off the field of play will depend on having talented and skilled diverse teams helping drive innovation, competition, revenues, and excellence. An open invitation was extended to all leaders, organisations, and businesses present to think differently when it comes to leadership, talent, and integrating athletes into the workforce. As reiterated by the panel from the outset, sustainability is not just about the environment. It is also about organisations, individuals, and sports sustaining themselves, remaining relevant and not being phased out. So, listen, make room for mistakes, and most importantly, learn from those mistakes to be and do better.