With speculation growing around the appointment of a Sporting Director at Manchester United, fcbusiness spoke to Tony Faulkner, co-founder of VSI and the hugely successful VSI Msc in Sports Directorship about why the role is becoming such an important part at the modern day football club.

In 2012, whilst in a performance role at Manchester City FC and consulting with sports teams in the US, Tony began researching the role of the Sporting Director and how it was perceived across sports both in the UK and around the world. His findings led to the design, content and implementation of the VSI Msc in Sports Directorship course in collaboration with the University of Salford Business School.


“I’ve worked in professional sport, primarily football for twenty years,” Tony explained. “I remember all too well back in the 1990’s when the manager of a football club ran the club, they did the lot, not because they were equipped to do so, more because they could.


“In those days football clubs weren’t run like a business, the manager commonly had a small team of direct reports and the level of infrastructure supporting the performance of the team was minimal compared to football of today.


“I’ve recently worked in a number of clubs where the manager could have upwards of fifty to sixty direct reports, and the amount, and complexity of information they are expected to consume on a daily basis is akin to running a business.”


So why is this the case? Tony’s research found:

– The sporting director is in vogue at present


– Owners require a return on their investment


– Howard Wilkinson’s report to the LMA back in 2014


– Younger managers and managers from outside the UK better understand how to maximise their talents


– Media outlets who are more educated as to what the role of the Sporting Director is


– Courses to accredit and promote Sporting Directors


Critical to the findings is that no set definition to the role of the Sporting Director exists and often there is confusion over title and the duties performed under that.


For example, sports organisations employ have long employed Technical Directors or Performance Directors or Operations Directors. However, when you delve deeper into the job description of such roles they can often be confusingly similar or completely different.


Tony added: “Through my PhD, VSI have endeavoured, through the Masters in Sporting Directorship, to collaborate with global sport to define the role of the Sporting Director.”


Defining the role: What the research suggests:

– Is the guardian of the organisation’s vision and strategy aligned to the sporting department

– Is a statutory Director of the organisation

– Reports directly to the CEO


They should be primarily responsible and accountable for:

– Appointing the head coach and setting the expectations for the coach to adhere to


– Providing high level support and challenges to aid the coach’s performance


– Recruiting all staff across the sporting department


– Build the culture across the sporting department


– Set and deliver a sporting strategy


– Manage sporting department budgets


– Oversee academy and youth programmes that function within the organisation


– Communicate to external stakeholders on agreed aspects of the organisation’s strategic vision


– Apply governance where required


It’s essential that in order to impact this role positively the Sporting Director must be equipped with the correct skills and critically, the emotional and mental capacity.


The Sporting Director must:

– Understand their innate leadership style and have the ability to exert that leadership according to the situation


– Understand when to manage as opposed to lead and have the management skills appropriate for working in a senior role


– Have developed coaching skills which enable them to differentiate between leadership and management. There are many times when a Sporting Director will need to coach a member of staff in order to achieve greater performance


The Sporting Director Myth

There is a common misconception that in order to operate as a Sporting Director within a specific sport you must have that sports specific knowledge. According to my research this is not the case and is exactly why VSI established the MSC in Sports Directorship to encourage delegates from differing backgrounds to join the programme.


There are many examples of industry specialists moving from one sector to another because of the skills and capabilities they possess. As stated before being a Sporting Director is akin to running a business.


It may help if you don’t have industry expertise!

A view expressed by a number of current and ex-head coaches and managers was:




Tony explains the thinking behind this commonly held view. “If a Sporting Director is not a qualified coach then in the mind of the manager he is less of a threat as he cannot take their position if results are poor – although this way of thinking does not lend positively to the impact a qualified Sporting Director can have,” he said.


“It does however, support why a Sporting Director does not need to have sport specific knowledge or may in some instances be better placed having arrived from a differing industry. With this in mind I have to stress what is most important is the Sporting Director is equipped with the skills and capacity already mentioned.”


The Role Of The Catalyst

Research has also highlighted how the Sporting Director’s role is akin to that of a catalyst. Acting as catalyst, the Sporting Director’s role is to speed up the reaction time between two management functions, thus creating the desired end product. Primarily the Sporting Director drives performance in each employee by speeding up the reaction between the employee’s talents and the sports organisation’s goals.


A great Sporting Director must be able to do four things well:

– Select a staff based on skills and talents


– Define and set the expectations required for individual and organisational performance


– Understand the individual motives of their employee’s


– Create the right environment for development


Moving forward, understanding how Sporting Directors can continue to impact strategic performance in sporting organisations needs to be better understood. This will establish a credible and professionally accepted position that will drive the demand for individuals who possess the correct knowledge and skill set.


As VSI continue to research this role within sports clubs globally its clear what the market requires from their strategic leaders. It’s also clear how educating a new breed of strategic leaders differs from traditional education and what this process will look like in the very near future.


Image: PA Images