Evolution of the Sporting Director
The sporting director is a unique position within football as it is a relatively new development yet seen as crucial to effective football operations. The appointment of a sporting director is as strategically important for many football clubs as a first team manager. However, the responsibilities of this role are still often assigned to individuals with varying job titles such as Technical Director, Director of Football & Head of Football Administration.
As the role of the sporting director becomes increasingly more prominent, the position further evolves and the methods of implementation become more varied. In the final session of the season for its members, the Association of Sporting Directors looked in more detail at how the role has evolved since its inception and what further developments may be expected.
Origins and Development of the Sporting Director
Sporting directors have existed in various capacities in football club models before its modern development, particularly in mainland Europe. The movement of European sporting directors to Premier League clubs was a catalyst for the role’s development and specification within the English game. Frank Arnesen was the Sporting Director of PSV Eindhoven for a decade before moving to Tottenham Hotspur in 2004. When he left one year later to join Chelsea, he was replaced by Damien Comolli who had previously been the sporting director of Saint-Étienne.
Meanwhile in English football, individuals were responsible for the management of similar areas but with different job titles. Mike Rigg, founder of the Association of Sporting Directors (ASD), was the Technical Director of the Football Association of Wales (FAW) between 1995 and 2001 and has since operated as Sporting Director at several Premier League clubs. He sees the most significant changes in the role as:
“The advanced responsibilities that Sporting Directors are now accountable for. When I began in the role it was solely focused on effective player recruitment with a small team of scouts. Now there are requirements to have wider expertise in areas like negotiation, data, and psychology.”
Rigg highlights the importance of technological advancements over recent years. There are now digital platforms to support player recruitment analysis such as Hudl’s platform Wyscout which were not available at the role’s inception. This has seen club scouting operations become more efficient and allows a more effective access to new markets. While in the past a scout would be required to travel long distances to observe talented players in other countries, they can now download a series of matches and watch the most relevant clips.
Les Reed was Technical Director of the Football Association (The FA) between 2002 and 2004 and then from 2019 to 2020. He believes that two of the most pivotal developments in the role of Sporting Director were:
“The transition of certain football responsibilities from the manager or head coach to the sporting director, and the transition of certain strategic responsibilities from the CEO or managing director to the sporting director.”
Traditionally, football managers were responsible for the on-pitch training and performance of the team as well as the recruitment of playing and non-playing staff. Initial appointments of sporting directors caused tension with some managers in English football due to the perceived overlap of responsibilities.
Reed and Rigg agreed it is crucial for sporting directors to effectively manage their relationships with club executives and head coaches to provide clarity to all the relevant stakeholders. It is not unheard of for club staff to want more association with sporting operations when on-pitch performances are positive and then to disassociate from those same responsibilities if results become negative. Relationship management and communication with a club owner, president or CEO is particularly important to sporting strategy. There are many internal and external factors which may influence the club management’s vision so it is crucial to have clarity across the organisation. Rigg believes that:
“One thing determines the strategy of a football club: it’s ownership. It is crucial to understand what the owners want and need from the club strategically. There can be many considerations such as on-pitch performance, silverware, and revenue generation. In my experience, the club strategy can be different depending on who you ask internally so it is imperative to have clarity on this.”
Club management models can vary greatly in how they implement a sporting director. Beyond the job title itself, responsibilities of individuals in the same position often change from club to club. This was a topic of research by Dr Dan Parnell (CEO, Association of Sporting Directors) where role perceptions and ambiguity was analysed with leading sporting directors. There is also a divergence in where a sporting director fits within the senior management structure. Reed believes that a common determinant of success is:
“Where the sporting director sits on the ladder of influence. This is a leadership role and if it is fully embraced by a club then it should sit within the board of directors just like a commercial director. The sporting director should be able to represent the club’s football operations and effectively support the first team manager. This model clearly sets the parameters for how the role will function now and in the future.”
This was echoed in research undertaken in 2018 published by Parnell and colleagues. It is unclear whether the continued maturation of the sporting director role will diversify implementation methods. It is also unclear if a preferred model will emerge. However, the strategic importance of the role to club sporting success has become clearer. Sporting directors are now expected to oversee a broader range of football operations and have access to specialist insight. Communicating this clearly across a club, particularly at senior management level, is key to delivering an effective sporting strategy.
A number of Association of Sporting Director members recently wrote a book chapter on Working as a Sporting Director in the prestigious Science and Soccer book. You can read the chapter here and learn more about the challenges associated with the evolution, innovation, and implementation of the role.
Assistant Sporting Director Model
A recent development around the role is the employment of Assistant Sporting Directors. Given the increasing complexity of first team football and the growing number of roles within sporting operations, clubs are looking to stronger models of support and leadership. There are several examples of individuals progressing from Assistant Sporting Director roles such as Julian Ward and David Weir at Liverpool FC and Brighton & Hove Albion FC respectively. The additional advantage of this is predetermined succession planning should a club’s Sporting Director leave their role. Such internal promotions mean that the replacing individual already understands the club’s vision and philosophy. These assistant Sporting Directors are also best placed to continue best practices already in place and identify opportunities for further development.
Neil Adams was appointed Assistant Sporting Director at Norwich City in September 2021. This was a promotion from loan manager, having previously worked as first team manager, academy coach and a player with over 200 appearances for the club. He has an in-depth perspective on internal club operations due to his range of professional experiences. Adams’ role sees him working closely with Stuart Webber, the club’s former Sporting Director, as well as staff across other departments. Talking about the sporting director model at Norwich City, Adams explained:
“Our remit is to manage the football side of the club and to ensure that the team performs to the best of its ability. However, we must know other areas of operations. So we are involved in technical meetings, finance meetings, commercial meetings & board meetings as well. Of course, the club has experts, leaders and heads of departments that will lead those areas but it is important that we are across all departments of the club.”
This demonstrates the importance of clear responsibilities and positioning of a sporting director in the management structure of a club, highlighted by Les Reed. The addition of an assistant sporting director is seen as a logical addition to sporting leadership intended to support high performance. The benefits of this role depend on the strategic direction of the club in which it is being implemented. In the case of Norwich City, Adams reasoned that:
“Every manager has an assistant manager, so a Sporting Director should also. Stuart [Webber] asked me to transition into the role because of my experience in football and the club specifically. One of the greatest benefits for him is that he can entrust a decision maker to be based at the club if he needs to be elsewhere dealing with equally important matters. It gives him flexibility to effectively carry out his role without being physically tied to the club. For example, like travelling abroad to watch players live.”
One of the key benefits for clubs adopting a sporting director model is the appointment of a specialist to manage football strategy and operations. In many cases, the range of such responsibilities can be so extensive that burdening all of this on just one individual is not effective. As the role becomes more valued, candidates who excel in their roles will be targeted for recruitment at rival clubs. Employing an assistant sporting director mitigates the risk to organisational stability in such situations. These strategic benefits may see an increase in clubs adopting this approach.
Sporting Director Education
As mentioned by Mike Rigg, there has been significant development in the formal education available around the sporting director role. This ranges from professional development courses to postgraduate degrees. One of the industry leading providers of this specialist education is The FA who offer their Level 5 Technical Directors course. Each edition of the programme runs for 20 months and its delivery is aligned with that of the UEFA Pro License as both courses are the most advanced in their educational pathways. These specialist courses are managed and overseen by Phil Church, Senior Professional Game Coach Development Lead at The FA. He explains the premise of the Technical Directors course as:
“A leadership and management programme centred around one specific role. We have positioned that around four themes; developing a culture, leading high performing teams, leading in the boardroom & driving the future game.”
Participants enhance their understanding of what it means to be a strategic sports leader. The course is competency-based and looks to improve the required skills that a successful sporting director should have such as critical thinking and effective decision making. The Technical Directors course includes study visits to high performance environments in football and other sports. Insight from non-football examples comes from learning experiences with sports teams like Red Bull Racing from Formula 1, Harlequins from Premiership Rugby & the New York Giants from NFL as well as businesses like Boston Consulting Group and Sony. This reflects the strategic importance of the sporting director to football clubs as organisations and the increasingly diverse range of responsibilities those in the role have.
As the adoption of sporting director models increases across football so does the number of individuals working in this area. Throughout the delivery of the FA’s Technical Directors course, Church has observed a growing need for professional support networks for those in such roles. He believes that:
“There is certainly an informal community of practice and support for coaches and managers that individuals can lean on after completing their coaching licenses. I don’t see that yet in the world of sporting directors but it is growing. I think there is a great opportunity here because there is a demand for these networks. The power of community action and peer to peer learning will help drive the advancement of the role and the people working in it.”
As the number of individuals completing specialist programmes increases, so does the need for networks to support, connect and develop individuals working in sporting director positions. It is crucial to the maturation of the role that those with the relevant insight and experience are brought together as informal alumni to share their learnings with one another.
In response to the increasing demand from our members, and the wider football industry, to better understand the Sporting Director role and raise awareness of the strategic impact the role delivers globally, the Association of Sporting Directors has recently launched the first in a pathway of specialist educational courses.
The first short course, titled ‘Introduction to the role of the Sporting Director’, is informed by leaders in the game and academic experts with industry insight from those such as John Murtough and Andy O’Boyle (Manchester United FC) and Brian Marwood (Manchester City FC).
To find further information on the programme or to enrol onto the first course, please visit ASD| https://asd.mimentorportal.com/
Future Development of the Sporting Director
In a relatively short period of time, the role of sporting director has emerged and gone through significant development. What began with a small number of individuals pioneering the position has moved to a stage of maturity. Resources are now available to support those looking to work effectively in the role. At the forefront of this are specialist education and professional communities which continue to develop.
The football industry will certainly see further changes to the role as more clubs adopt the sporting director model and more individuals transition into the position. It is important to be aware of these developments so that they can be reflected in sporting directorship-related education and resources, and in turn the professional competencies of those working in the role.
Mike Rigg, founder of the Association of Sporting Directors, believes that there are two themes to be consider. The first is relationship management across sporting operations, particularly with other club executives. Sporting directors are now faced with the demands of having specialist knowledge in their field and being up to date on developments in the industry. However, this demand is felt across football so clubs are responding by recruiting specialists with experience from other sports to manage areas such as business development, marketing & legal operations. These are executives who may not be familiar with the technicalities of football yet are responsible for departments where there may be overlap with sporting operations. So it is critical to strategic success that sporting directors can clearly communicate their specialist knowledge to those who’s forte may be in other areas.
The second theme is specialism. Rigg shared a piece of wisdom with the membership network which is that:
“You cannot be everything to everyone. There is a train of thought that a sporting director must control everything. But you cannot be the technical specialist, the performance specialist & the negotiation specialist. Sporting directors must be self-aware and specialise in their strengths.”
As the role of the sporting director has developed the range of operations for which it is responsible has grown. It is almost impossible to manage all aspects of a sporting strategy without sacrificing performance in at least one area. This can detract from the value an individual can offer an organisation because they cannot dedicate themselves to their areas of expertise.
This relates directly to the adoption of assistant sporting directors like Neil Adams at Norwich City. It also reinforces the logic of some clubs that employ individuals with specialist knowledge and experience in particularly narrow areas of focus. An example of a development in this area is sporting directors recruiting scouts dedicated to specific player positions. This in the same way they recruit scouts dedicated to specific geographical regions.
The Association of Sporting Directors
The Association of Sporting Directors (ASD) was founded to foster a community which individuals can leverage to support, connect, and develop themselves. Acknowledging the importance of specialist education, the ASD is aligned with The FA’s Technical Directors course who are at the forefront of education within the English game.
One of the aims of the ASD is to continually improve to best serve the membership network. This includes providing a platform for sporting directors to build strong relationships and trust with their contemporaries. Since its founding, the ASD has fostered a collective of hundreds of individuals bringing experience from across the globe. As both ambiguity and diversity remain around the role this network provides crucial and previously unavailable insight to sporting directors and the wider football industry.
However, the ASD has a number of developments to look forward to as part of its commitment to improvement. In 2023, the ASD launched the first of a series of educational courses. This has been developed in line with feedback from members and the ASD Technical Committee to address areas of personal development needed to effectively work as a sporting director. Subsequent courses will be developed and published periodically throughout the year and beyond.
In addition to specialist education around the role, several pieces of literature are to be published. Several academic research papers are planned to provide evidence-based insight into the sporting director role. The aforementioned chapter in the Science of Soccer book is also the work of a number of ASD members. The Association of Sporting Directors is contributing to these works and creating educational resources as part of its objective to support, connect and develop sporting directors.
The sporting director model is now seen in many football clubs due to the strategic success it can create on and off the pitch. Despite some continuing ambiguity around the role, it has developed significantly since its inception. The importance of resources such as specialist education and professional communities for sporting directors to lean on cannot be understated.
To find further information on the Association of Sporting Directors’ education programme or to enrol onto the first course, please visit
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