How Collaboration Leads To Innovation

By Adam Grossman

Last week, FC Barcelona signed a “collaboration agreement” with Georgetown University to “explore possible avenues of cooperation within the framework of the Barça Innovation Hub.” Barcelona’s decision to explore this partnership provides an interesting new dynamic to a sports industry focused on innovation.

More specifically, teams in the United States including the Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia 76ers, Dallas Cowboys, and Minnesota Vikings have established sports accelerators to spur innovation from startup companies. Barcelona, however, is one of the first teams to establish an innovation presence outside of its homemarket. In addition, the team decided to focus on an academic rather than commercial relationship to establish this presence.

The strategy behind establishing an innovation presence is clear. Barcelona has specifically been looking to grow its fan base and revenues in the United States. The team already has an office in New York City, has received approval for an expansion team in the National Women’s Soccer League for the 2018 season, and has developed six soccer academies in the U.S. Its new relationship with Georgetown will also further increase the visibility of its International Champions Cup match versus Manchester United in July in Washington D.C., where Georgetown is located.

The collaboration through Georgetown and its master's in Sports Industry Management program is potentially more interesting. Students in Masters of Sports Administration (MSA) programs are becoming increasingly interested in entrepreneurship. In particular, innovation in technology, including machine learning, artificial intelligence, virtual / augmented reality, wearable devices, and analytics provide many exciting opportunities for new companies. This is one reason I developed the “Entrepreneurship In Sports” class for Northwestern University; American University has a similar course.

At the same time, starting a company has significant risk. Some of the challenges include finding clients, developing products, securing financing, and hiring talent (among the many challenges). For many students in MSA programs, these hurdles make pursuing a new venture extremely difficult. Even the prospect of entering an accelerator program, where young companies exchange equity in exchange for financial capital and mentorship, does not always mitigate the opportunity cost of finding a more stable job. This means that teams could miss out on the benefits from the new products and services developed by emerging companies.

Barcelona’s relationship with Georgetown reduces this risk because it enables students to develop new ventures through its innovation while still in school. Because most MSA programs operate in a school of professional / continuing studies, students can keep their current jobs while pursuing new ventures. Students then have access to Barça Innovation Hub resources to help deal with the challenges of starting a company and potentially can turn one of the biggest sports organization into one of its first clients. In turn, the club is able to “innovate, generate, attract, manage and share knowledge.”  More specifically, Barcelona can incubate new ventures started by future industry leaders at a top MSA program and make investments in the most promising companies without having to commit financial capital.

Win-win is an overused cliché, particularly when applying it to a relationship in the sports industry. The collaboration between Barcelona and Georgetown, however, does perfectly represent a relationship in which both sides should generate significant value.