Omar Berrada, EU Business School alumnus and COO of Manchester City F.C., was the most recent guest in our series of exclusive Learning From Leaders conferences. In an insightful conversation with Peter Vanham, author of “Before I Was CEO”, Omar explained how the sports industry has been affected by COVID-19, shared City Football Group’s strategy for growth and offered tips to students hoping to build a successful career in the sports industry.
It was a pleasure to welcome Omar back to share his expertise with the EU community. Here, we’ve captured some of the most pertinent insights from this fascinating discussion.
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Sports Industry
Unsurprisingly, Omar described 2020’s season as “strange and challenging”. The most important thing, he said, is that Manchester City F.C. has managed to preserve jobs and protect their people. The team is playing, albeit with no spectators in the stadium. This new dynamic has forced the club to get creative about how they engage with their fans. Digital strategy has become much more important, and the club has focused on generating more digital content so fans can continue to follow and feel a connection with their club and the game.
Being unable to interact in person has not just impacted the spectator side of the sport. The pandemic forced the club’s sports science team to exercise their creativity to develop new ways of keeping the team fit and healthy. Broadcasting and sponsorship deals – for example with the airline Etihad – have also had to adapt, which has necessitated working closely with partners to determine how they can continue to collaborate and to forge new paths forward.
The impact has certainly not been all negative. Founded as a community club 125 years ago, Omar explained how Manchester City F.C. reacted to the pandemic by supporting the NHS, local hospitals and initiatives, which in the process has reinforced their connection to their community.
A Strategy for Growth
Manchester City F.C., unlike most football clubs, is part of an international organization: City Football Group (CFG). The group owns and holds stakes in clubs in 10 countries, including Japan, China and India. Their international presence has been a valuable asset for navigating the challenges of the global health crisis – not least because their partners in China and other parts of Asia forewarned them of how the situation was evolving, giving them time to prepare.
City Football Group’s distinct strategy was born from ambition and a desire to overtake their competitors. It has developed a physical presence in key strategic markets around the world by acquiring clubs in order to build strong relationships with international fans and sponsors by giving them a local touchpoint through which they could connect to the club, while also identifying and training new talent. The group has always been resolutely focused on football, choosing not to diversify across a range of sports. They are interested in the growth potential of esports, but from a purely football perspective.
CFG is still growing; they managed to acquire two new clubs, one in France and one in Belgium, during lockdown, without ever stepping foot in those two countries. An example of how quickly we can adapt, Omar reflected. One club in which CFG is acquiring a stake is Mumbai City F.C. Omar described India as a “sleeping giant” when it comes to football. Data analysis suggests that the younger generation is starting to shift their attention from cricket to football in this country and interest in the sport is growing quickly.
Similarly, Omar is passionate about the potential within women’s football. CFG has two successful women’s teams, Manchester City Women’s F.C. and a team in Melbourne, Australia. Omar is also on the FA’s board of the women’s super league, where discussions are continually focused on how to improve and grow the game.
Data has become increasingly important to the sports industry: it can illuminate potential new markets and is also becoming fundamental in day-to-day operations. Understanding fans better, creating more meaningful experiences, structuring club membership offers and pricing tickets, preventing injury, identifying talent and determining which players to buy can all be achieved and enhanced through the careful use of data. Artificial intelligence, Omar confirmed, will become essential to the continued success of sports clubs both on and off the pitch, as a complement to human talent.
Career Advice for Success in Sports and Beyond
Alongside illuminating insights into the sports industry, Omar shared helpful reflections on his career and gave advice to students who are thinking about their next step.
1. Follow Your Passion
This advice has been repeated by each of our Learning From Leaders guests, all of whom agree that finding work that you love doing is essential. Being passionate about what you do will give you the energy to weather stress and times of crisis, and the ambition to learn and improve.
Omar had already started an engineering degree at a university in Massachusetts when he realized it was not the right path for him. He decided instead to go to Europe and, on the advice of a friend, enrolled at EU Business School. Having the opportunity to move between campuses in Europe was, he said, the aspect that made up his mind. Omar spent his third year in Barcelona. Having intended to live in the city for one year, he stayed for fifteen. After graduating from EU, he was offered an internship with Honda. However, at the time he was fascinated by the internet, a booming industry going through rapid growth. So, he stepped away from the career that was laid out before him and took a risk by accepting a job at World Online. It was an accelerated experience; the industry went through boom and bust within five years. After the market crash, the company was rescued by Tiscali who were able to build it back up, and for whom Omar continued to work. “A common theme of my career has been to take risks and to try things and to be part of a journey. And the journey can go well, it can go badly, but you get to learn and experience things”, he reflected, adding that he “would definitely do it again if I could”.
Omar went on to follow his passion to work in the sports industry, an option he had never even considered when at university. His passion has enabled Omar to manage the pressure of working for diverse stakeholders and to get through times of crisis because he feels privileged to work in the industry. Waking up every day feeling passionate about what he is doing and knowing that his work and his company is having a positive impact on people’s lives – for example, football has been a way to escape for people throughout the pandemic – has motivated him and made him feel proud.
2. Grow and Nurture Your Professional Network
Describing his career trajectory and the perhaps improbable jump from internet startup to successful football club, Omar commented: “there was a factor of luck in my career”. Yet as the conversation progressed, he clarified this with the advice to build and nurture a professional network, “because you never know who is going to be the person that may offer you the opportunity of your professional career.” His former boss at Tiscali left became the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) for Barcelona F.C. and later invited Omar to join him.
Networking “has to be consistent across your career”, he advised. When starting out, attend key industry events, reach out to people via LinkedIn and other digital platforms but make sure that there is a mutual benefit and that you continue to nurture the relationships you develop.
3. Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
Omar urged students and alumni attending the conference to be bold and not be afraid of stepping outside of their comfort zone.
Despite being happy at Barcelona F.C., when Omar was contacted by a recruiter about a role at Manchester City that matched his skillset, he decided to apply. The team had just been acquired by the current owners, they were ambitious and were investing heavily both on and off the pitch. It was a great opportunity. However, in 2011 Barcelona F.C. was an incredibly successful club in comparison to Manchester F.C., which was nothing like the world-renowned club it is today. Moving to Manchester was not just leaving a city and a job that he loved, but also stepping away from a career to take a risk. Yet “there was just something about the journey that really attracted me and made me want to try something new, and to challenge myself in a different environment and a different setting”, he explained.
At Barcelona, his role as head of sponsorship had been reasonably easy: the team was doing incredibly well and sponsors were eager to work with them. However, when Omar first moved to Manchester City F.C. there were brands that wouldn’t work with the club. This forced Omar to be creative and find different ways to approach them. It was a fantastic professional development experience: “Selling a product that everybody wants is relatively easy. Selling a product that people don’t quite understand yet takes a bit more innovation.”
“To the extent that you can, challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone because it is going to make you grow personally and professionally, and it is going to allow you to reach your full potential”, Omar advised. While it might not always work out, at least you will continue to learn, grow and develop.
Perseverance also turned out to be a key attribute for Omar. One year into the role at Manchester City he nearly left. He was offered a job at a sports agency in Switzerland that on paper was a much better opportunity: more money and more responsibility. Having initially accepted the role, he changed his mind at the last minute because he remembered what it was that made him take the role at Manchester City F.C. in the first place: he wanted to challenge himself. And being steadfast in that decision was obviously the right choice. Omar has been at Manchester City for nine years, steadily progressing his career in an industry that he loves.
4. Research to Find a Role in Sports That’s Right for You
Students in attendance were keen to discover tips from Omar for how to get into the sports industry specifically.
Omar noted that students today are fortunate because degrees in sports management now exist; they were not widely available when he was at university and offer a path to working in the industry. However, this is not the only route into sports. There are many different career opportunities within the industry and it can be helpful to look at how big companies have been hiring and what skills they require. For example, Omar shared, more data analyst and data scientist positions have been coming up recently. This trend looks set to continue; artificial intelligence and other technological innovations are becoming fundamental to the industry. Becoming a specialist in these areas, Omar said, will make you a more attractive candidate to all sports companies. Similarly, as sports clubs have had to find ways around current restrictions to engage with fans, creative digital skills whether in experiences or content, are also valuable assets for entering the industry.
In terms of soft skills and competencies, Omar shared that City Football Group, especially in light of the pandemic and the disruption that it has caused, values the following attributes in their recruits: the ability to adapt to different departments, countries and cultures; transferable skills and flexibility; willingness to learn, upskill and possibly pivot within the company. Uncertainty has become one of the defining characteristics of the past year and this is why recruiters, not just in sport but across industries, are seeking employees who demonstrate during the hiring process that they can be agile and work where they are needed. “We have seen over the past few years that first, anything can happen, and second, you have to be ready to adapt to changing circumstances very quickly”, Omar confirmed.
Study to Succeed in Sports
At EU Business School we offer programs from our Bachelor in Sports Management to our MBA in Sports Management that will set you up for success in the sports industry. Explore our programs, discover our international learning environment and start moving towards the career of your dreams today.