A Three-Legged Stool


John Walmsley

I like analogy.  And if I had to describe BaseballSoftballUK’s model, it would be as a three-legged stool.  The advantages, as many will know, are that such stools sit steady on whatever surface you place them.

The three ‘legs’ are (in no particular order):

1. What the government is prepared to fund to meet its own strategies and policies.
2. The needs of baseball and softball in this country.
3. The capabilities and capacity of the BSUK workforce to deliver.

My role as BSUK Chair is often to keep these three in some sense of balance.  It’s not easy and sometimes it’s not perfect.  But I think it’s a useful and simple model that just about anyone can understand.

Unpacking each of those elements further….

Governments change, policies change, funds change.  BSUK engages primarily with Sport England, the government agency that for many years has had a remit towards grassroots (non-elite) sport.  But now (policy shift!) Sport England is more about activity than just sport, which could be addressed by people (say) actively gardening or joining a gym (gyms are good, but they are activity, not sport).  Sport England thinks in four-year planning cycles.  This provides some medium-term stability for the organisations it funds, but risks creating rigidity.  It also puts bodies through a “bid phase” every fourth year.

Here’s an example of policy change.  Sport England, addressing shifting governmental priorities, has moved around the lower age level that it funds for sport development.  It was 5 years old and up (2005-09), then 16+ (2009-13), then 14+ (2013-17) and now back to 5+ (2017-21).  Other substantial funds were available for younger children in the eight years 2009-17, but not through what Sport England provided to national governing bodies of sport.

Funds come from a mix of Treasury and Lottery sources.  The former has been held back through austerity since 2010.  The latter continues to see annual reductions as fewer people buy Lottery tickets, meaning ‘good causes’ really do receive less money.  Government ‘spent large’ on sport from 2005 to 2013, investing heavily in London 2012.  With a cohort of medal-winning sports, it then did the same for Rio 2016.  That may not be a sustainable model, and recently, BSUK led baseball and softball to join with other non-funded sports to make a new case to UK Sport, the agency that funds Olympic and Paralympic sport at elite level, that ‘Every Sport Matters’ and that every Olympic and Paralympic sport should receive at least a baseline level of funding for its elite programmes so its athletes have at least a chance of Olympic qualification and competition.

Turning to the second leg – what baseball and softball need….

BSUK works with leaders of both sports to understand the strategic needs and plans of the British Baseball and Softball Federations.  Linked to the four-year public funding cycle, in each of 2008, 2012 and 2016 BSUK actively polled views through participant surveys (650+ responses in 2016), through focus groups, through talking to leadership.  All this helps understand what’s happening on the ground, and what changes we need to make.

There are many dimensions the sports might wish to develop, and baseball and softball may have different goals, but typically we find they are aligned around wanting more people to play their sports more often.  Other dimensions (not mutually exclusive, but competing for scant resources) could be elite leagues or beginner’s baseball/softball.  It could be a tight geographic focus, to reduce travel time and create a ‘hotbed’ of activity.  It could be investment in a range of enablers – better coaching, better fields etc.

The final leg is the capabilities and capacity of the BSUK workforce.

Workforce means the paid staff, but also casual workers and volunteers.  As with any business, we can flex workforce, but timescales may vary.  An example is that in 2007-09, Sport England provided extra funding for a programme called ‘Club & Coach’, which allowed us to hire paid staff to get on the field to teach people to play (hit, throw, run etc).  So we hired people with that skill set.

In the next funding round Sport England moved away from that model; they wanted to fund organisations that could facilitate others to do the coaching.  So we had to make changes to our staffing model and to our skills and capabilities.  We’re just like any other business, reacting to change but also attempting to pre-empt some of it.

In closing, do we get the balance right all the time?  No, we don’t.  Sometimes we must focus primarily on what Sport England (and increasingly UK Sport) want, and this was particularly the case in 2016 and early 2017 when we were seeking funds for the next four years.

We also must look at what the sports need.

Finally, we must provide our workforce with meaningful opportunities (for careers, for paid work and for volunteering) but also ensure their skills and capacity can achieve what the other two ‘legs’ need.

tagged under: development, chair, funding, board, governance

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About John Walmsley

John Walmsley

John was chair of BaseballSoftballUK from 2011 to 2017, a non-executive directorship. He is a past-secretary of the British Baseball Federation (2007-09) and past-president at Richmond Baseball and Softball Club (2006-10), in Surrey. John enjoys coaching and developing people, both in sport and in business. John and his partner Robyn split their time between Surrey and Lancashire. John is an executive with a global consulting and technology company, where he focuses on the commercial management of large-scale engagements.

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