sport as value creator for entrepreneurship - a perspective for creating multi-values in entrepreneurship through sport by elite sport organizations

Ben Hattink is a PhD student in the department for Entrepreneurship, Strategy, and Innovation Management. His supervisor is prof.dr. A.J. Groen from the Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences.

Sport has been a consuming interest of many people for many years – both active athletes and passive sports fans. Sport is now considered to be a discipline: within the sporting world there are professional associations and interest groups of sports professionals, and sports education is carried out at different levels for a diversity of professional functions. There are scientists who are involved in sport and there are ministers who head up departments of sport. There are also entrepreneurs – people who see opportunities and possibilities in the world of sport to create added value in an innovative way and on the basis of effective business models. So-called sport entrepreneurship is shaped by new initiatives relating to products/services, markets, transactions, and systems in the world of sports. One of these entrepreneurial initiatives is the collaboration between an (elite) sports organization and its business partners that engages start-up companies to create value together.

These initiatives involve individual (entrepreneurial) persons, organizations, groups of organizations, and cooperating (groups of) organizations, often within a regional setting. This research attempts to provide these initiatives with a scientific framework that introduces the concept of a sport entrepreneurial ecosystem (SEES). In the process it becomes clear what an SEES is and what successful principles apply to creating such a system innovation. The framework is meant to contribute to practice with the increasing combination of sport and entrepreneurship through initiatives such as an SEES.

Sport can be considered as a social phenomenon that can create a diversity of values. As far as the entrepreneurial process is concerned, creating value is also a central theme. This research therefore focuses on the entrepreneurial process in the context of the world of sports. It appears that a diversity of values can be created through the combination of sport and the entrepreneurial process. A literature review is undertaken to investigate what is already known about the combination of sport and entrepreneurship in relation to the concept of sport entrepreneurship.

Next, an investigation is undertaken into how the development to and from an SEES can be located within processes of sport entrepreneurship and what the distinguishing features of such a system are. System characteristics are important, and special focus is placed on the role of sport within an SEES in the pursuit of multi value creation at a number of multi levels: individual/organization, organizational group, and the SEES as a whole.

Finally, a question is how to transfer the acquired knowledge into practice, i.e. educating young, aspiring, entrepreneurial sports professionals to play an important role in creating and maintaining an SEES.

Research approach

Sport and entrepreneurship both have a focus on action processes and are both firmly rooted in everyday practice – a practice characterized by continuous dynamics and a focus on results and values. With regard to the research at hand, this led to opting for an approach where theory and practice come together around complex problems – the engaged scholarship approach.

This approach involves a relevant problem formulation, which is anchored in practice and where those dealing with the problem are also involved in the research. This exploratory study conducts three embedded case studies in which an elite sports organization, in collaboration with its business partners (usually organized in a business club), has taken an initiative that could lead to an SEES in the Dutch regions of Groningen-city, Friesland-Heerenveen, and Gelderland-Achterhoek. Parties actively involved in the research include representatives of the sports organization, representatives of business partners (profit and nonprofit), including local government, (higher) education and starting entrepreneurs/start-ups.

Based on the problem of how to realize a working SEES, the creation, expansion, and justification of a social system theoretical process model is formulated. This conceptual model is followed by empirical research with an abductive and inductive approach. Partly due to the exploratory nature of this study, a wide variety of methods and techniques have been used, with stakeholders providing a great deal of multitude of information. For the case studies, information was collected over a period ranging from six months to a year per case. Quantitative and qualitative research was carried out, use was made of questionnaires, social network analyses, interviews, document analyses, participation, group discussions, and diary analyses on the conditions, entrepreneurial activities, and results of an SEES in development. Specific attention has been given to the kind of values that are created by sport, as a mechanism, within the context of an SEES.

Based on the acquired knowledge, a transfer has been made to a practical stream, which investigates what role a (starting) sports professional can play in the development and realization of an SEES. A design approach was used for this. A number of design criteria were formulated with the help of practical professionals for the realization of a learning arrangement for (starting) sports professionals that contribute to the development and realization of an SEES.


Sport entrepreneurship appears to be in its infancy in academic literature. A variety of research themes have been identified in the literature review relating to sport entrepreneurship. The entrepreneurial process is dealt with by most articles. Sport is linked to this process in various ways, which are categorized in a manner not previously encountered. The following categories are distinguished: i) entrepreneurship in sport, with active sport as a leading activity in the supply of products or services, ii) entrepreneurship with sport, where sport is a supporting element in the supply of products and services, iii) entrepreneurship for sport, where sport is facilitated or optimized as an objective, and finally iv) entrepreneurship through sport, where sport acts as a catalyst to support and make activities of entrepreneurs possible. Initiatives leading to an SEES can be classified under the latter category. An SEES is regarded as a self-maintaining and evolving system (innovation) of cooperation of interconnected entrepreneurial actors, entrepreneurial organizations, and other helix institutes with a sports organization as a basis that formally and informally coalesces to connect, mediate and govern the performance of the individuals and groups within the SEES and the SEES itself. This occurs within a local/regional entrepreneurial environment, in which multi (shared) values are created through sport in favour of the cooperating stakeholders in multiple relations at multiple levels (the individual organization, the SEES, and its local region). The system seen as an innovation has an incremental character, because it stems from the existing context between an elite sport organization and business partners, usually organized in a business club.

The research approach yielded a large amount of information, most of which was self-reinforcing. The sports organization, acting as a basis for an SEES must ensure that certain conditions are met, such as a stable and sound administration/ management that has and maintains relationships with the various helix systems in the region and is open to an impulse towards regional development. Regional development appears to be an important driver for business partners to support an SEES. Start-ups focus on expanding their networks. All these starting points serve and can lead to participation in an SEES and multi value creation for those involved.

Once the initiative has been started by the sports organization, an important role is assigned to the socalled operational coordinator who, on behalf of the sports organization, gives practical shape to the initiative, preferably together with a guiding group consisting of representatives of sports organizations, business partners, and start-ups. One of the most important tasks is to initiate and organize entrepreneurial activities. These activities usually take place before, during, and/or after the end of elite sports match, but can also be organized separately from such events.

Creative and interactive working formats are important for these activities, where sport is assigned a number of explicit roles or functions. The role of sport appears to be particularly important to ensure an experience through which contact is easily created (the experience function). This also applies to the identification function, in which those involved can easily identify themselves with and feel connected to athletes, a team, and/or a specific sports setting. Sport also has a metaphor function. As a metaphor, sport provides clarification of certain situations, ideas, approaches, or knowledge through which some gain an understanding or insight into the interpretations of others. Finally, it appears that sport can create trust among those involved (SME-business partners and start ups) and the relationships of those involved with other organizations outside the SEES, since SEES partners become trusted because they are suppliers or partners of an (regional well known) elite sports organization, i.e. the reference function. Based on indicators, explicated within the conditions, activities and results, it is possible to estimate whether the SEES being created is likely to survive and can create lasting multiple values. To date, there is only one case that can be said to function as a fully-fledged SEES. Apparently it is not an easy thing to realize an SEES. In order to further professionalize the world of sports, investigations were also undertaken into how a (starting) sport professional who wants to work as an operational coordinator can best be prepared by a learning arrangement. This design is based on existing educational formats for sports professionals and consists of a learning and development line, in which cooperation with practice can be worked from a situation of entrepreneurial orientation or mindset (stand-up) to start-up, where complexity will increase due to the involvement of several people, organizations, and interests. This constitutes a prelude to working in and with an SEES.


Categorizing the combination of sport and the entrepreneurial process assists in providing an overview of the number of approaches. It also clearly defines the focus of this research on entrepreneurship through sport.

The approach advocated within engaged scholarship leads to theoretical and practical implications based on the findings of this research. The theory of entrepreneurial ecosystems is enriched with knowledge from a unique micro perspective and new domain: sport. Bringing together different (science) disciplines, the social system theory (instrumentally) is adjusted and made more concrete within the combination of sport and entrepreneurship.

A concrete interpretation is given to the shift ‘from ego to eco’, whose objective is to set a context of reducing self-interest and goals when thinking and acting in silos towards a coherent whole of individuals and organizations, each of which is able to go its own way but in a joint balance, which ensures the continued existence of a desired context (development). This approach emerges in the research relating to the sports organization, business partners, start-ups and other helix parties within and around a functioning SEES. A transfer from ego to eco can also be made for example within sciences (or any other domain), with the combination and enrichment of various science disciplines and the sustained and tight relationship between theory and practice.

By relating a mix of theories to each other, a multidisciplinary approach is guaranteed, and an SEES is both placed in a broader perspective and clearly defined. A more systematic understanding of the actors involved in an incremental system innovation such as an SEES is achieved through the concrete approach of three case studies in practice. However, each case study follows a different route and has a different result in the realization of an SEES and the realization of value creation. Moreover, certain similarities have been identified between the various case studies, which makes more general statements possible. Knowledge-intensive entrepreneurship is therefore introduced within the domain of sport entrepreneurship.

In specific terms, role/function descriptions of sport have emerged in the value creating process. It is important for sports professionals to know these roles/functions of sport in a described context in order to make good use of them in the near future to contribute to multiple values with sport as a value creator. The knowledge gathered in this research can form concrete learning content for a learning arrangement as designed. The degree of conciseness with which this part of the research is presented must make it possible for such a learning arrangement to be implemented in the near future.

The unique combination of sport and entrepreneurship, knowledge, and possible learning arrangements should challenge sports professionals in the near future to lift the domain of sport entrepreneurship in all its facets to a higher level in theory and especially in practice. The concept of knowledge-intensive education is thus also given shape in relation to the sport entrepreneurship domain.

Sport organizations can themselves take the initiative to work on an SEES and thereby play a major role in regional development. If the various business partners and start-up organizations play an active role in this respect, such an initiative will not merely be a flash in the pan or a stand-alone (sports) project(s), but will rather have a real (multi valued) impact in the region and ensure continuity, as would be expected of a regular ecosystem.