To invest in The Zimbabwe Gems or not? The business of sports culture

By Chris Chenga

At some point, every Zimbabwean wonders: “Why isn’t there money in our sports?”

The curiosity has become more pertinent as sports business worldwide has exploded to contribute to national economies, and pay off handsomely for invest corporations, and individuals.

A popular answer to this question has been one word, “administration”.

This word leaves an insufficient, maybe imprecise, explanation. A further cause for the detachment of sports and business in Zimbabwe is another word, “culture”.

Let’s reflect on the bond of business and sports worldwide.

When icons of corporate arenas have written books to explain their dominance, there is regular mention of their favourite sports teams. In many top academia programs, curriculums now include field trips to sport team camps, and invitations sent to renowned athletes to speak to hopeful future business winners. What’s at the core of the attachment?

In Zimbabwe, elite executives typically have posters or sports literature in their offices. Take a look just behind their shoulders the next time I interview one on television.

The fundamental appeal that draws business is sports culture! Sports culture is how institutions or teams do things; their way of doing things! Sports culture is made up of deliberate practices, customs, and beliefs.

It is sports culture that executives and entrepreneurs look to, either to imitate or to integrate into their own businesses! In the US, job candidates who mention John Wooden or Vince Lombardi in interviews add a few points to their chances of getting hired. It’s because Wooden and Lombardi evoke a cherished culture.

The affinity to sports culture is what entices companies and individuals to invest in or buy clubs. It goes both ways. Investors like Roman Abramovich (Chelsea) and FSG (Liverpool) invest to infuse their own culture into a club. This is the riskier motive. Conversely, the less risky, and more common transaction, is when investors put money behind an already promising culture.

Zimbabwean investors are likely to be drawn by the latter transaction. Asked their preference between infusing their own culture, or backing an already impressionable one, Zimbabwean businesses and individuals would pick the latter.

Why can’t we find sponsors?

So, when we ponder, why isn’t there money in sports, what is the verdict on sports culture to entice investors? It’s not about administration, alone. There’s great administration at your local grocery business. Sports culture, done right, offers more.

Incidentally, I have recently had the privilege to examine the national netball team’s culture. The Gems went to the World Cup in 2019 in Liverpool, and it would be a fault not to reference the team as the foremost case study of sports culture in Zimbabwe.

It just so happens that the team is reorienting itself to a new way of doing things. This is a deliberate response to circumstance. A number of players have since left the game since the 2019 World Cup. COVID also forced a duration of separation between players.

Indeed, there is no money in netball for the Gems. Make no mistake, the ladies understand their deprived state. They want more, but many are conditioned to extract more out of little.

In an intimate session with renowned Life Coach and Trainer, Munya Takawira, the team opened up about what makes them tick as individuals. The exercise was intended to appreciate varied backgrounds. It became clear that extracting more from very little is common for these young women.

This is a culture of harnessing opportunity. Whether it was finding time after herding cattle (yes, a girl did this) to go to the city and play at netball clinics, or walking from Kuwadzana to Dzivarasekwa just before night-time to go to netball camp, these ladies took the smallest opportunities to capture their netball careers.

I am yet to see how this opportunism will reflect in gameplay, but most are focused on the opportunity of qualifying for the World Cup to bring better welfare.

The Felistas school of leadership

I often study Felisitus Kwangwa, the captain.

Leadership is emitted in different forms, verbal, physical contact, authority, and other means. Felisitus conveys leadership in gestures of humanity towards her teammates. She holds the door open as the team enters the gym. She helps dress a teammate with a scrimmage jersey. During intermissions at practice, Felisitus hands a teammate the ball to shoot. She rebounds the shot as well.

These gestures seem atypical of hierarchical cultures. They would often be interpreted as subservient. I suppose this is her own way of commandeering a culture. Indeed, she does not impose it on her team, rather, she leaves freedom for her teammates to reflect on the value of her conduct.

I have read about this cultural practice in a book titled Legacy:15 Lessons in Leadership by James Kerr, about the All Blacks, the New Zealand rugby team. After a test game, two players, the captain and most capped player, sweep the dressing room after their postgame interviews are done. I don’t know if this is where Felisitus got her conduct from.

Self-governance seems the preferred culture, and most players seem to have embraced the accountability it demands. Head Coach Mutsauki and Vice Coach Shinya often hang back during drills and scrimmage. They set the instruction. It is left to the players to figure out how best the instruction is to be executed.

Sharon Bwanali, who recently returned from injury, initially seemed an exception. Many days I arrived at camp to find her doing her own drills. These are intended to help her to catch up to everybody else’s current standard. I noticed that coaches drew back when she began, leaving her alone to do the work.

And indeed, where she felt overwhelmed by an exercise, she hardly set eyes on the coaches. Her glances always were to her teammates. She hid her agony often in expressions of humour, but the fear of letting down her teammates was clear. After a few days, it was her teammates who affirmed to the coaches that Sharon was ready to join the rest of the squad. I was enchanted by this.

The habits of winners

Once, I was invited to dine with the Gems. As I sat with the technical staff on one side, I noticed at the end of supper that no player left their table of seven, until everyone was done. Again, this didn’t seem enforced. The technical staff didn’t pay any kind to the dining habits of the team; they were self-governed. Within the team, mundane acts like excusing themselves after supper are done as a unit.

For now, I think this is what it all comes down to with the Gems, as they forge a distinct culture of their own. Each individual wants to prove to be and stay indispensable to the way things work around here.

It breeds competition. Spots are still to be determined on the final squad.

I asked assistant coach, Simba Mlambo, what they are looking for in the final selections.

“How does a Gem help a teammate perform?” he replied.

I would have dismissed his response as a generic speech, but the team camp is secluded to the outside world; sometimes too much. There is no television, limited Wi-Fi, and no magazines or the literature on sports culture that you find on your executive's bookcase. So, the culture here seems to be authentically under construction.

Whether or not the Gems create a culture to get them to national acclaim as they did in 2019 will be seen over time. Even that would be an achievement. Sports culture is notoriously impressionable on business when it comes to short-termism. When teams like the Gems fail to qualify for the World Cup, the squad and it’s developing culture will be blown up.

But Alex Ferguson always says the Manchester United board was patient with him early on. Today, businesses study Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. Yet, after his first four years, the basketball fraternity thought the team should look to another centrepiece.

That’s the conundrum between sports and business. It takes time to develop a culture, and businesses hardly invest until a culture is proven.