This week, I’ve spoken with the former Head of 1st Team and Academy Football Operations at Arsenal FC and the previous Independent Board Director at Basketball England. Ameesh has had an interesting sports career that transcended from a corporate career. However, his passion for sport proved too strong, which finds him discussing his career journey with me.
Question 1: Ameesh, it’s a pleasure to have you on Ash’s Sports Talk. Let’s kick this off by understanding how your sports industry career began?
Thanks for having me on. It’s been a long journey that started 15 years ago. I’d just turned 30, was enjoying life and my corporate career, but I asked myself what more could I achieve in life. I wanted to do something I was passionate about and break new ground. Sports business got stuck in my head during this process as it was uncharted territory at the time. So, I created a life plan on a spreadsheet to map out my approach to transition from the corporate world to the sports world.
To get there, I began building a network to get to know people from the inside, which turned out to be a ten-year journey. In 2012, I joined Basketball England’s board for two years and decided to swap the basketball court for the football pitch by joining Arsenal in 2015.
Question 2: You’ve had an unconventional route into the industry from working at Mitchells & Butlers and Barclays Bank as well as gaining an MBA at London Business School. What can you share about the power of transferable skills from a traditional route into the sports sector?
From my perspective, sport is a mixture of art, science and leadership. Not everyone can coach a team or help a player reach their maximum potential. Similarly, no one person can coach and be a master of digital, sponsorship, business development etc. The industry needs broad leadership as nobody can be an expert in everything; so organisations should focus on bringing a balanced skill-set together.
To work at the higher-end of sport from non-sporting background, you need to earn credibility and prove you can adapt your business skills in the right way. It was challenging coming into Arsenal’s training ground from working at a global bank in Canary Wharf! Although, once I learnt more about the environment and its challenges, I was able to build a bridge between sport and the corporate world. I came to sport from the corporate sector, and was able to successfully earn credibility at the training gound and in the Boardroom – that made me unique.
Sport is an intense industry from a scheduling, emotional and global scrutiny point of view. Therefore, planning for the organisation to effectively navigate that intensity and volatility was something I became quickly recognised for, alongside utilising business management processes to enable good decisions even when the pressure was on.
Question 3: I’d like to re-visit your time at Basketball England while you were their Independent Board Director. What did your role involve, and how did this inspire your co-found BBALL UK?
I joined Basketball England as a Non-Executive Director. I had recently left Barclays Bank and was doing an MBA at the time. The board tasked me to lead a strategic review of the sport and provide recommendations on how to create a sustainable British basketball eco-system so it could recognise its huge potential in the UK.
I consulted with the main stakeholders in basketball including the British Basketball League, club owners, National Governing Bodies, Sport England, UK Sport and a number of influential grassroots organisations.
The review found that the dysfunctional relationships between all the key bodies in British Basketball was due to them all competing for the same scarce government funding and recommended the raising of private investment to achieve financial sustainability of the British Basketball pyramid – grassroots, professional clubs and league, and elite level (Team GB) – which could then act as a platform for growth in revenues to reinvest back into the sport.
I was appointed interim co-CEO of Basketball England (while a new CEO was recruited) leading the NGB’s 30-staff organisation, carrying out a people audit and operating model review; presenting Basketball England’s funding application to Sport England; appointed as a Board Director of the British Basketball Federation to support the creation of a new governance structure; and building relationships with the professional club owners and the league to raise private equity investment.
When the new CEO was appointed, I was asked to give transition support which gave me six months to improve my basketball knowledge, and it had huge potential.
This is where BBALL UK came to life. I started working on a commercial proposition to maximise basketball’s social, commercial, entertainment and sporting potential. I then co-founded a start-up to raise investment for Basketball. Unfortunately, the key stakeholders in British Basketball didn’t have the appetite for change or to realise the investment so it didn’t go any further, which led me to join Arsenal.
Question 4: Moving onto your time at Arsenal FC. What were your responsibilities, and what were the fundamental values that saw you stay there for five years?
My first role at Arsenal was working with sporting and technical heads to improve the academy further. The competition and quality of academies have improved vastly in the last 20 years. There’s been a tremendous amount of investment in academies because they’re under the financial fair play thresholds, and if you can scout and develop the right players, they can prove very lucrative long-term assets. Arsenal’s academy approach was to create a strong pipeline of talented players for the first team so it was a really interesting time to join them.
A big part of my work was to facilitate the creation and implementation of a new academy strategy that focused on players’ holistic development rather than just technical development. I was responsible for creating a more collaborative culture that involved building a new fit for purpose operations function to ensure technical areas could truly maximise their impact on player development. I also supported the re-development of the club’s training ground. I had a more generalist role compared to other staff specialising in technical and sporting functions, while also creating a bridge between the football and corporate departments. This helped create a more ‘Arsenal’ approach rather than an approach based on individuals.
When Arsenal went through a change at the first-team level, I was promoted the first-team and worked closely with the Technical Director, 1st Team Manager and the Corporate and Commercial team to support the elite programme. I was responsible for Team, Player, Commercial and Media, Training and Matchday Operations which saw me travel with the team every day and manage players off the pitch. This meant I worked closely with senior management to ensure players met their broader responsibilities to the club.
From a values perspective, Arsenal has a set of values – Be Together, Act With Class and Always Move Forward. I believed these were strong values and from a personal development standpoint, I was given an opportunituy to make a positive contribution to the sporting side of the club in senior roles (rather than on the corporate side) which is an opportunity that hasn’t been afforded to many people from ethnic minorities in this country. I was proud to be one of the first to do this and I hope that it means that many more will follow.
Question 5: From an operational standpoint, what synergies and contrasts do basketball and football have with each other? Plus, do you feel one sport could benefit significantly if it adopted something from the other?
They’re professional sports that both face the challenge to effectively manage the sector’s intensity and the need to constantly perform outstandingly. They both receive enormous media profiles which get scrutinised daily, which creates a substantial amount of emotion. It’s like working for Apple, and there’s a new product launch every week.
Regarding contrasts, The NBA and NFL both make more revenue than the Premier League. The NBA teams player salaries are a higher proportion of their income than at Premier League clubs. NBA teams can afford to do that because their business operations cost less and are more efficient than at Premier League clubs. This demonstrates that there is more room for efficiencies in football and that football can learn from the NBA and US sports.
There’s a tendency to hire many specialists across the board in football, with a particular bias to people with football qualifications and playing backgrounds. This often deprives attention away from the bigger picture. That’s an opportunity where football can become more efficient – in terms of decision making, layers of people, integrating sporting and corporate disciplines – by having people with a more balanced and broader skillset in their organisations.
Question 6: With any successful sports career, there comes an array of challenges. Would you mind sharing some of the adversities you’ve faced during your sports career? Also, how did these experiences mould you into a more resilient asset?
It’s really tough having a sports career because it’s an uncertain place. Fundamentally, there are 90 professional football club businesses in the country that employ between 60-600 people. The number of jobs are pretty limited, making getting into the industry difficult, especially if you don’t have a playing or coaching background.
I’d love to say you can find lots of jobs online, and if you’re talented and keep applying, you’ll get a position. However, this wasn’t the case for me. Instead, the key was networking. I spent ten years getting to know people who helped me land my first role. And I had spent quite some time volunteering and earning far less than I did in Banking to do this. Your network will eventually get to know your skills and capabilities, which could influence them to refer you for a position that’s coming up. That’s how it worked for me.
Getting in is hard enough, but staying in the industry is also challenging. Unless you give yourself time to soak in the environment, you can come unstuck quite quickly. Don’t worry about making an impact straight away; instead, focus on building relationships. It’s about building empathy with the environment and the people who have spent their whole career in it. Be prepared for people not liking your input straight away, and be prepared for the nastiness that may follow.
Thriving in sport is even tougher. The odds are against you. Therefore, build relationships, work to a high standard, build your profile, your brand name and your network.
Also, ask why you want this. There will be a lot of downs in your journey so your resilience comes from having a bigger goal than yourself. For me, I’d love to succeed in sport to make it a smoother process for the new generation of talented and capable sports enthusiasts to come into the industry – particularly from diverse backgrounds. To play my part in creating more meritocracy in the sports industry, that’s the bigger goal that keeps me motivated despite the challenging journey.
Question 7: Ameesh, reflecting on this discussion, what is your killer piece of advice for someone wanting to pursue a career in sport?
Patience and relationships. Be prepared to make life sacrifices as the industry operates seven days a week and 11 months a year. Sport is an uncertain career too. If you thrive in uncertain circumstances, in adversity and have resilience, then the industry could for you. However, if you’re here because of it’s prestige and glamour, then it’s not for you. You’ll feel burnt out too quickly. Working in sport is a life experience that takes a lot of patience and hard work.
Wow, what an authentic and inspiring interview with Ameesh. Many talk about the joy of working in sport, but it’s essential to recognise the adversities during your adventure. However, there’s always a chance to transcend those adversities into positives that can make you a more vital asset not only in sport, but in your life journey.