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Why Winning In College Athletics Doesn’t Always Mean Being The Best

By Jason Belzer
7 min read

There is a pervasive misconception in college athletics that has hindered many programs’ ability to create sustained success – that the very essence of competition requires there to be a winner and a loser. While we endeavor to instill a belief within our student-athletes that they must be at their best at all times if they intend to triumph over their foes, in the business world, such a philosophy couldn’t be further from the truth.  When it comes to building prosperous teams and organizations in almost any context, there is simply no such thing as “the best.”


To illustrate, let us for a moment step away from college athletics and into a seemingly mundane industry like grocery stores. While you are likely aware of the distinction between the types of products your local Kroger might carry as compared to say a Whole Foods, the average shopper likely assumes that both stores have similar layouts. In reality, every supermarket chain configures their stores in different ways. For example, higher end super markets tend to place their produce sections near the entrances of their stores so as to immediately communicate the freshness of their products to shoppers. On the other hand, value chains like Walmart will often place their bakery sections closer to the front of the stores so as to create a sensory and salivary experience upon entering (and force you to buy your toddler a cupcake before leaving). There is no best way to layout a store because each chain aims to create different experiences for their target customers.


If we can agree that there is no such thing as the “best” grocery store layout, then we can apply the same principle to just about any area of business. Wherever we look, we begin to realize that being the best is a narrative that serves to satisfy only our own notions of achievement. There is no best movie for your family to watch. There is no best restaurant for you to dine in. There is no best way to sell season tickets, and there certainly is no best way to run a college athletics program.


Whether we want to admit it or not, our football team can be successful even if our arch rival is too. Winning in college athletics is not a zero-sum game because it follows the same rules as any other industry – rivals can both co-exist and thrive together if they appreciate that there is no one best way to compete with one another. Yet administrators and coaches almost universally assume that their program’s success can only come at the cost of their adversaries. Even more so, the industry does nothing but feed fuel into this notion by constantly forcing schools to benchmark themselves against one another. Didn’t finish in the Top 25? Must have had been a down year. They ranked where in the Directors’ Cup? Shame, shame, shame.


But if we’re not supposed to measure ourselves against our rivals, then how do we become better? According to Harvard Business School professor and renowned business strategist Michael Porter, it starts with competing to be unique. As discussed previously, organizations that focus on identifying and exploiting a superior value proposition almost always fare better than those who are too busy worrying about what their competition is doing. Once you understand that you can’t attract every type of student athlete, nor can compete at a high level in every single sport, then you start the process of achieving the results that are actually within your reach.


Nevertheless, while you may think that you understand how buzz wordy concepts like “competitive advantage” and “unique value proposition” work, chances are you don’t. Management consultant Joan Magretta, who wrote the definitive book on Porter’s work, spent time with senior executives from dozens of Fortune 500 companies and in the process discovered that even the most in-tune and educated of the group wrongly assumed that their elaborate business plans actually constituted a viable differentiation strategy. Magretta’s core findings can be narrowed into three common mistakes executives make.



Assuming your value proposition is also your strategy.


While the core of your department’s strategic approach should be the identification of your unique value proposition, just marketing your UVP to potential customers (i.e. student-athletes) doesn’t constitute a strategy. The combination of benefits that make up or value proposition are only as good as the value chain you have created to actually deliver on that value. There are plenty of schools that can make an argument that they offer world-class facilities, the highest ranked academic programs and any number of other selling points. But as we’ve already learned, you can’t compete on best because your rivals can offer the best too.Athletic programs that are successful in establishing a competitive advantage learn to deliver distinctive value through a distinctive value chain. All aspects of their student-athlete experience – from in the class room to the field of play – are inherently different than that which other institution’s offer. Effective strategies are governed by any number of interconnected choices, but do not depend on a single core competence because it is simply not enough to sustain a competitive advantage. Ironically, the best way to know you actually have a good strategy is that there is a select group of student-athletes who want nothing to do with your institution. Don’t be afraid to make people unhappy, it means you’re doing something right.


Assuming your value proposition is simply “what you’re good at.”


Just because you have the highest APR score in your conference, the newest training facility or the hottest young coach at the helm of your basketball team doesn’t automatically mean that any of these constitute a unique value proposition. Your program may be strong in certain areas, but it’s pretty much guaranteed that you are overrating just how capable you really are. When it comes to executing strategy correctly, the only thing that actually constitutes a strength is something that your athletics program will be able to do better than any other institution for the foreseeable future. Don’t get caught in the trap of leveraging the things you think you’re good at to build a strategy unless you know exactly why and how you can be better at it than your competitors. Besides, having a competitive advantage has nothing to do with beating your rivals and everything to do with offering unique value to your customers.


According to Kevin Blue, Director of Athletics at UC Davis and a former professor of Business Strategy In Sports at the University of San Francisco, “Sustainably successful college sports programs are able to create a defensible competitive advantage in something that they are inherently able to be excellent at, while simply trying to mitigate weakness in areas where they may be inherently disadvantaged. The idea is to leverage strength while only expending enough resources to neutralize weakness. Some inherent strengths, such as academic reputation of the university, are more stable and defensible than others – such as facilities, which have essentially been commoditized.”


Thinking that “winning championships” or “100% graduation rates” are a strategy


Many administrators and coaches mistake action (recruiting, building, etc.) and goals (win X number of games, signing Y number of blue chip recruits) with strategy. According to Magretta, “strategy as defined by Porter is the set of integrated choices that outlines how you will achieve superior performance in the face of competition. It’s not the goal [e.g. be ranked in the Top 25], nor is it a specific action [e.g. build a new practice facility]. It’s the positioning you choose that will result in achieving the goal; the actions are the path you take to realize the positioning.” Don’t assume you have a strategy just because you’ve identified what you want your program to achieve. That being said, if you really do have a strategy (and thus have correctly identified your UVP) it will eventually show up in however you’ve chosen to measure your bottom line.“College sports organizations all have aspirations and goals that are relatively similar. Accordingly, the essence of strategy in college sports is not the identification of these desirable outcomes, but rather the identification of the best path – of multiple possible paths – to follow in pursuit of them. Identifying the appropriate path to follow forward depends on the organizations inherent strengths, weaknesses, and the dynamics of the environment,” explains Blue.


In the end, it is important to remember that having a strategic plan only works if it makes it absolutely clear what your organization will and will not do. Trade-offs are inherent to strategy and competitive advantage – if you truly appreciate that you can’t be the best at everything then you have to be willing to give up on forcing unachievable objectives. While having flexibility certainly seems like a good idea, it also likely means your organization will never actually become good at anything. Finally, once you do identify your UVP and formulate a strategy, you must not underestimate the importance of actually executing your plan, as even the most brilliant strategy fails without competent leadership.