This week, I chatted with the Chief Operating Officer of UCFB’s Global Institute of Sport, James McKeown. James has had a long career in sport, seeing him work with The NBA, the Olympics, British Athletics, the Melbourne Commonwealth Games, and more. In this blog, you’ll discover how James’ passion started, what makes an effective leader, alongside how much more potential is in place for sport and education.
Question 1: James, it’s fantastic to have you on Ash’s Sports Talk. How did your sports career start?
You could say my sports career started when I was seven at my first ‘Aussie rules’ football match – a trip to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and I never looked back since!
I eventually moved to the UK when I was 18 and studied sports science at Loughborough University. At this point, I knew I wanted to work in the industry. My first career break saw me go back to Australia to pursue an incredible internship at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. My first graduate role saw me work for a sports PR agency in London, and I still have the sports bug to this day!
Question 2: I see you’ve had a diverse career in sport; your work has stretched across football, the NBA, MMA, the Olympics and more. What critical perspectives have you gained from each sport?
I’ve been fortunate to work across different geographies and brands in sport, giving me a real multi-dimensional understanding. Understanding transferable business models, marketing methods, performance strategies, fan behaviours and cultural differences have been valuable. Without working on that wide range of sports, I wouldn’t have the transferable knowledge.
Working in football in particular, it’s the fans’ passion and how much their teams means to them that stands out. Sports like MMA and Olympic sports are just incredible examples of the commitment required from an athlete to perfecting their craft.
In working for the NBA, you can’t fail to acknowledge their expertise at blending sport with entertainment. Even recently, their venture into NFTs and virtual trading cards are so innovative and fan-focused.
Question 3: From your diverse experiences, are there insights that sports could learn from one another?
You’ve got to have a cultural appreciation of where you are. The NBA are absolute trailblazers in the USA; it’s so good not only to see the players stand up for social justice, but the owners were very open too. The connection between the NBA and social issues is something football leagues can learn from.
Sports fans are becoming more discerning about their club’s culture and ownership. Therefore, building connections through morals and values is something that has made the NBA so successful.
I often tell my students that sport is rapidly growing and the norm in 10-20 years is very unpredictable. Most of the time, young people are driving that change.
Question 4: What’re your thoughts on the sustainability of influencer/creator led-sport being driven by young people?
It’s the evolution of sport and entertainment colliding; it’s the future, the recent past and present. As sport becomes more commercial, it attracts the best people to work in the industry. I think entertainment-led sport will keep growing, but the quality of the sport needs to be high. Otherwise, it will lose consumers.
Question 5: Moving onto your time at UCFB, let’s hear about your story there as you’ve had multiple positions. How did you eventually become Chief Operating Officer (COO) of their Global Institute of Sport?
Initially, I was their marketing manager, moved to their head of global marketing & communications and now the COO of global operations. Seeing the growth of UCFB has been an incredible ride that has been truly driven by passion.
In all of my roles and across any sector, if you understand your product (in my case, the education is the product) and then communicate the product well to your customer (to the student), you’ll do well in life. At UCFB, we’ve got amazing campuses at Wembley, the Etihad and global hubs across Miami, New York, Toronto, Melbourne and Atlanta. That’s our product, and I had to make sure the message was communicated correctly worldwide. Since I joined in 2014, and with the support of a fantastic team, we’ve grown from having 350 students to 2,500 worldwide.
Question 6: Being COO for just under a year, what have been the essential lessons you’ve learnt about leadership in sport?
The customer is king, in and out of sport. If you do right by your customer, your reputation will succeed. At UCFB, our leadership team truly care for our students and their careers as graduates.
In my role, I’m required to have an inside understanding of operations, finance, HR, marketing, facilities, events, education and much more. But ultimately, as long as your customer is happy and you measure that, you’ll do well.
You also don’t have to be the best at everything, and you should trust those who have those with other skills than you to support you wherever possible. We have excellent heads of department who are amazing to work with. Empower your people, and they will do you proud.
Question 7: Over your seven years at UCFB, how have you seen education in sport develop? Plus, what further developments do you think are needed to best support sports students?
I’m glad that sport is finally being hugely acknowledged in higher education, especially in the countries we’re involved in. This is fantastic for the industry as better quality graduates will be produced, meaning sports businesses will be elevated to enhance the fan and athlete experience and industry developments.
One of our true values is innovation, making sure we’re best preparing graduates for the sports industry. We’re making education more careers focused rather than just textbooks and regurgitating theory in exam form. A massive priority of ours is providing workshops for personal development skills, building partnerships with industry and creating networking opportunities for work experience.
Question 8: With any successful career, there come multiple challenges. How have you developed from confronting adversity in sport?
2020 was a sad year and a prime example of how sport isn’t recession-proof. I was devastated to see many great people in sport put onto furlough, and it is a massive challenge many have faced. I’ve been through restructures and consultations where my job’s been on the line. However, if you can look at these challenges as a learning lesson, it helps you build perspective.
The biggest challenge I faced was the NBA ‘lockout’, where the league shut down for a few months in 2011, resulting in me losing my job. It was a nervous time, but I was fortunate to find myself working at British Athletics within a few weeks, working with Olympians at a wonderful organisation. There are always positives and opportunities that challenges present, which will only help you become a better leader.
Question 9: James, reflecting on this discussion, what is your best piece of advice for someone wanting to make a career in sport?
Simply be a good person. Be nice, be polite, say please and thank you. Be someone pleasant to be around; people remember friendly people. Karma will hopefully come back to serve you!
Incredible, this was such a powerful interview from James. His authenticity, supportiveness and honesty genuinely reflect on how his career in sport has been so progressive. What was the main lesson you’ve taken away from James’ journey into sport?