Global Training For A Professional Sports League

The commissioner of a major professional sports league had a vision of building a global brand and was looking for a training solution to help with the international expansion of the organization.

Professional sports are actively trying to build their global footprint and brand, yet they continuously stumble over differences in business practices, cultural norms, and political issues. Here is a case study where one league used training to overcome these barriers to global expansion.

THE CHALLENGE

The phone rang and the caller said, “We’re trying to go global, and we are having problems. Can you help?”

This a frequent question from organizations facing the complexity of taking a successful domestic product or service onto the global stage. However, this call had an unusual sense of urgency. The inquiry came from the special assistant to the commissioner of a major professional sports league. The league’s commissioner had a vision of building a global brand and was looking for a training solution to help with the international expansion of the league. They needed to “think globally,” so they could expand their broadcasting and merchandizing footprint and eventually have a global league. The caller explained that the program offered by the first consulting company he hired was a disaster and his job was on the line.

The organization had encountered unexpected challenges with its first set of international activities. For example, it had two exhibition games in Asia and sold out all of the merchandise it brought overseas an hour before the first game began. For two consecutive days, it had no branded gear to sell during games, resulting in significantly large losses in potential revenue.

The commissioner wanted training that would provide a roadmap for him and his top 20 executives on how to succeed globally. They needed to become aware of the key factors that could undermine their success. Those attending the training were a few retired All-Star players, as well as the commissioner’s cabinet, comprising primarily lawyers from Ivy League law schools (most with MBAs)—some of the “best and brightest” people the league could hire.

A challenge in training these accomplished leaders was that the factors that brought them success in the U.S. could easily blind them to the unseen customs and business practices in countries most important to their global expansion. The biggest challenge for the success of the program was that almost everyone came to the training thinking this would be a waste of their time. By nature they had a competitive, almost confrontational, mindset and a good bit of skepticism about their need for intercultural business training.

TRAINING SOLUTION

To overcome their unrealistic overconfidence, the training began with a simulation in which the participants had to play a competitive card game where many of the players would fail even though they were playing by the rules they thought were correct. As participants began to lose, they became visibly upset, even pounding the table. But they could not vocalize their frustration since the rules of the game required it to be played in silence. The simulation was a variation of the game, Barnga. The fact that these successful people would lose at something got their attention. They quickly learned that the rules of the game of global business can vary significantly and that they were likely to judge these differences negatively, which could result in unfavorable consequences for the league’s global expansion.

While processing the simulation, the commissioner, who had a reputation for being abrasive, got up and told the group he initially thought he “was stupid for hiring this guy to teach us a card game,” but as the game progressed, he was “shocked” into realizing that the behavior manifested in the game was exactly what they needed to examine to be successful globally. In processing the simulation, the participants discussed what they learned from the game and how it would apply to their global goals. For example, they realized that their aggressive and assertive style would be counter-productive in most of the Asian countries they wanted to enter. They learned how to apply an intercultural analysis model that could help them prevent jumping to conclusions and instead respectfully inquire when they experienced behaviors or communication they might have otherwise judged negatively.

TOPICAL PRESENTATION AND RELATED ACTIVITIES

Once the participants were open to learning, it became much easier to explore relevant topics, beginning with an analysis of roadblocks to global success. This included several case studies in which leading U.S. companies failed at global expansion, an analysis of what went wrong, and group discussions of how this applied to their global initiative. Participants were asked to write down any actions on a form that was collected and consolidated at the end of the program.

Participants then were asked to complete a crosscultural diagnostic tool that helped them identify their preferred cultural style on eight core cultural tendencies that have been found to be most critical when working across cultures.

Once they had their profile scores, they could apply them to the next topics to be discussed, which included:

  1. How to Do a Cultural Scan
  2. Communication Styles: Verbal, non-verbal, slang, translation tips, speed and pacing, electronic communication tips, direct vs. indirect communication styles
  3. Marketing Globally: Sales techniques, decision- making, quality, images, usage of social media and cultural factors in marketing
  4. Managing Global Relationships: Recruitment norms; motivating global employees, including rewards and recognition; superior-subordinate relationships; risk taking; individualism vs. group orientation; managing virtually and across time zones
  5. Global Business Protocols: Negotiation styles, decision-making, how to build trust, forms of agreement, socializing
  6. Creating a Global Brand
  7. Action Planning: Specific steps each leader and team would take to promote successful global expansion

CONCLUSIONS AND OUTCOMES

The participants became aware of their myopic, ethnocentric approach to global business and enthusiastically committed to a global mindset, which they implemented immediately. The mood of the participants went from skepticism to collective excitement. Shortly after this training program, the league created an All-Star team, which competed with players from countries around the globe and was watched by millions of viewers. The annual league All-Star game was broadcast in China with a special viewing by Chinese leaders hosted by league executives.

Today, there are more than 1 billion unique viewers of games broadcast in 150-plus countries in 30-plus languages; more than a third of the visitors to their Website are from outside North America; and more than 20 percent of players come from 40-plus countries. The league has become a true global brand, increasing profits exponentially. The league also is seen as a model organization responsible for building relationships across cultures and differences.

Please share any case studies where training led to global business success for use in future columns with me via e-mail at: ngoodman@global-dynamics.com.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at ngoodman@globaldynamics.com. For more information, visit http://www.globaldynamics.com.

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