Sporty business

Sporty business

Star athletes have always been the centre of attention in the sports world. Now, researchers at the University of Alberta are shining a spotlight on a different playing field-where business is the main attraction
September 1, 2004
As an 11 year-old, Milena Parent remembers watching Elizabeth Manley skate to Olympic glory and a silver medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. That's when she promised herself that, one day, she'd also win a medal at the Olympics.

Today, the University of Alberta researcher still carries her Olympic torch—but with a grown-up twist. She doesn't dream of skating in them, she dreams of running them—as the Executive Director of an Olympic organizing committee.

For Parent, her Olympic dream meant switching from athletics to academia. It also meant looking past the hype and glamour of sports, and instead focusing on the business and management side. As an accomplished figure skater and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alberta's International Institute for the Study of Sport Management, Parent is part of an emerging field of study where Canada has established an early lead. The Institute's researchers are working on different ways to untangle the relationship between money and sports—to get a better look at sports as an industry.

The timing couldn't be better. According to a 2003 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey, the global sports market is expected to increase from $38.5 billion in 2002 to $46.7 billion in 2007. In Canada alone, sports are worth around $8 billion a year, according to Statistic Canada.

But business isn't the only area where sports are making an impact. In the last 25 years, there have been huge changes in the cultural and political importance of sports. As a cultural phenomenon, it pervades many aspects of our lives, from the television we watch to the fashions we wear. And as a political tool, sports have become a way for countries to conduct diplomacy or to demonstrate strength.

Like other countries, Canada has also witnessed the growth of its sports industry-there are dozens of cities with professional sports teams and franchises, the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games will be held in Vancouver, and a large number of Canadian companies contribute to the sports-related economy by producing goods and services like sail boats and fitness instruction. Sports have also become increasingly important for the tourism industry.

As the sports industy has changed, the voluntary, public, and professional organizations supporting it have also changed, adopting more business-like operating structures. Parent's work concentrates on how to use a business-like approach to managing and organizing large events, especially those that use public money.

For example, she is shedding light on how an organizing committee manages the various stakeholders involved in a specific event. This is a huge task, and Parent's research has shown that critical mistakes are often made at key points in an organizing committee's journey from bidding to host a game to the closing ceremonies. Parent points out that Toronto's bid for the 2008 Olympics largely ignored local activists opposed to the games. Later on, the bid committee had to divert valuable resources when its opponents grabbed the spotlight. By contrast, Vancouver brought opponents into the process early on, so the bid committee was better able to focus on winning the games.

With so many stakeholders involved, Parent's work shows that maintaining a strict focus is key. Consider that in the case of the 2010 Winter Olympics, stakeholders include the Government of Canada, the Province of British Columbia, the City of Vancouver, the Resort Municipality of Whistler, the Canadian Olympic Committee, 14,000 volunteers, as well as 90 companies, corporations, and organizations. To sort out and analyze these complex relationships, Parent's academic credentials strike a balance between business studies and sport management. Her work stems in part from her experience as the technical officials co-ordinator at the 2001 Francophonie Games in Ottawa.

This marriage of business and sports in a research setting is the brainchild of Trevor Slack, who heads the International Institute for the Study of Sport Management institute and is the author of a new book, The Commercialisation of Sport, being published in fall 2004. Slack hopes that the book will complement the Institute's work in helping people understand sport and look at it as critically and analytically as they would any other industry.

Slack's leadership has put the University of Alberta in the game, and students and researchers from around the world are coming to study. Graduating from the Institute will give them the credentials they need to make an impact in today's multi-billion dollar sports industry.


Sports are a source of fun and entertainment for millions of Canadians. But they're also big business that attracts serious academic research.

To get a better handle on the business behind sport, researchers at the University of Alberta's International Institute for the Study of Sport Management are looking for the answers to a number of important questions. How is public money used in amateur sports? To what degree is it used in professional sports? How is sponsorship affecting sports? If they can find the answers, they hope they can help Canadians better understand how the business of sports works and how much it deserves our national support.

Canadians are already engaged in a debate about how we want to support professional sports with our tax dollars. In 2001, the federal government faced constant pressure from the NHL for subsidies to offset the financial hardships caused by high player salaries, a low Canadian dollar, and U.S. tax breaks for competing American teams. A $12-million aid package, to be divided among the six Canadian teams, was unveiled by the federal government and then quickly shelved in the face of public anger.

But taxpayers seem prepared to support amateur sports like never before. Sport Canada, the branch of the federal government responsible for fostering and promoting sports in Canada, saw its 2004-2005 budget increase to a record $120 million. And government money for sports is expected to increase rather than decrease as the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver approach.

Already the B.C. government and the Government of Canada have kicked in almost $20 million for the 2010 Olympics, while also pledging to split $620 million to build and upgrade facilities and other infrastructure.


Through Sport Canada, the Government of Canada provides funding for research at the University of Alberta's International Institute for the Study of Sport Management. This financial support is part of Sport Canada's mission to develop the Canadian sports system—to help strengthen the contribution that sports makes to Canadian identity, culture, and society.

The Institute also receives funding and support from the Government of Alberta through the Alberta Sport, Recreation, Parks and Wildlife Foundation.

Learn More

The North American Society for Sport Management and the European Association of Sport Management both promote research and professional development in sports management.

Read the Journal of Sport Management.

Read the European Sport Management Quarterly.

Learn more about the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.