Sports franchises mirror masjids and Muslim organizations in a number of ways. They have passionate fan bases (communities). People feel ownership over the franchise (masjid) they support. Franchises are constantly dealing with leadership issues, player development, and financial flexibility – all while maintaining a respectable level of success. When things go wrong, they get blasted out all over social media and everyone has an opinion on what happened and why. People’s motives are called into question. Owners are blamed for things such as putting one goal (financial profits) over another, like the development of a championship team. With that in mind here’s 6 important lessons that we can learn from sports franchises.
1. Hold onto your best talent.
Superstars may not be able to carry a franchise on their own – it takes a team effort – but losing one can be devastating. In 1995 the Orlando Magic made the NBA finals with a young team featuring Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway. After losing Shaq to the Lakers via free agency, the team was not able to make it to the finals again until 2009 – 15 years later. After losing Lebron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers went from a record of 61-21 and a trip to the conference finals to a record of 19-63 (good for 2nd to last place in the entire league).
Sometimes you might feel your superstars are under-delivering, or not progressing fast enough. The problem is they often don’t get enough credit for simply keeping you afloat. You only miss them when they’re gone, and you’ll miss them dearly. Talented people often have a domino effect. If you get good talent, more will follow. If you lose it, you’ll also lose not just the superstars, but the stars who supported them as well.
Always keep the team dynamics in mind. Sometimes an ‘A’ player may be a cancer and the team will cut him despite his immense talent (see: Owens, Terrell). A team full of ‘B’ players who inspire each other can be far more successful in these cases.
2. If you don’t keep improving, others will pass you by.
Just because you enjoy a run of success doesn’t make it okay to become complacent. Once you succeed, everyone else will try to match and beat your standard. If you can’t push yourself higher, then others will pass you by. This is why even championship teams have to re-tool and improve.
It’s great if your organization puts on a great event, class, seminar, or workshop. To be truly successful, you have to challenge yourself and hold yourself to a higher standard to keep improving. If you don’t improve, you will alienate your fan base. In more tangible terms, this means that your attendance will drop, and so will your financial revenues (fundraising).
3. Salary cap.
Salary caps are a funny thing in professional sports. Taking basketball as a general example, the teams all have the same cap. Yet, every year there are teams that are perennial winners and perennial losers. There are teams with reputations for underpaying and not willing to chase after talented players. And then there are teams that have a reputation for doing anything and everything possible to get the right guys as much money as they possibly can to put themselves in a position to win.
Limited finances are a reality of the world we live in. What most organizations lack are two things: 1) A Budget, 2) Priorities. I recently saw an Islamic position advertised for a director role that required a college degree and more than 3 years of experience, but the advertised salary was barely entry level pay. We can’t fool ourselves into thinking that we can continually underpay and still get good talent. To get a person who can perform at the level we need, we must be aware of the market value of those skills, talents, and experience. Once it is identified, it is important to budget accordingly. This might mean making some cuts, and this is where priorities come into play.
Some teams will focus on winning and pay the players the asking price. Some teams will focus on running a profitable team only, even if it means losing. To me, the latter example is the same as an Islamic organization that invests in physical infrastructure before human resources.
Winning teams are able to sometimes spend more because they make up extra money through other means like television deals and advertising. It’s not an entirely unrealistic thought to think that once people see a winning product, and see results, that they won’t appreciate by way of spending more money out of their own pockets as well. Winning teams sell tickets and merchandise. Winning organizations more easily raise funds.
4. Superstar talent is developed.
Some of the most valuable assets to a sports franchise are its young prospects or draft picks. The reason is because of their potential. They take these young players and develop them. They invest in them. They have them learn the system so that they can be successful. People like Tom Brady and Aaron Rogers weren’t just overnight sensations. For the record, Aaron Rogers was a #24 overall pick, and Tom Brady was drafted in the 6th round. This means that coming into it, every single team in the league passed on Brady 5 times. But they took him in, developed him, and he served as a backup for a number of years before finally breaking through.
Our communities are deluded by the YouTube effect. They see a certain dynamic personality online, and feel like they can just go out and hire someone like that. Unfortunately, this means they’re left sitting around for years waiting on that one person to show up and save them. That superstar Imam is not walking through your door.
This causes communities to disregard the young talent they actually have at their disposal. They’re not patient enough to invest in them. This can be done by sponsoring them to get their Islamic education. It can be done by involving them in the masjid administration. It can be done by having them mentor with the elders and experienced Imams in their locale. It just takes some time and commitment. It pains me to think how many superstars have been lost because no one worked to develop their potential.
5. Succession plan and mentorship.
This comes back to having a vision. Teams are constantly developing new personnel. Many popular head coaches (think community leaders) were unknown to the general public. They developed as assistant coaches first, developed a reputation, and then moved up. Some teams will publicly anoint a successor to their coach. The same is true of players. Teams will sometimes go out and sign a veteran player simply for his leadership and mentorship capabilities. They may have been able to get a more talented person instead, but will bring in the veteran for his influence over the chemistry and development of a team.
For difficult positions (quarterback, point guard) a young star is often mentored by an older player. This is how our imam position should be. Young talent should be identified and developed and mentored to grow into the position that the community (team) needs. Moreover, as a community develops younger talent, it is more likely that they will stay loyal to their community rather than bolt and perpetuate the revolving door reputation many places have.
We have to stop looking for quick fixes and dealing with our communities with only short term vision. Many times a board will not look past its own term. Where is the focus on training their successors? This is especially important in MSA’s where they are forced to overhaul their key members every couple of years. It is even more important in masjids where the responsibility of the spiritual development of an entire community is at stake. Long term strategies need to be in place along with the legwork necessary to have a plan for sustained long-term growth and success.
6. No one is more important than the game.
The bottom line in sports is winning. And yet, sports teams will cut players who give them the best chance to win for external reasons (see: Haynesworth, Albert). It is a team sport, and once an individual puts himself above that, the entire team will fail.
It doesn’t matter how good you are. It doesn’t matter how talented you are. It doesn’t matter how sincere you are. It doesn’t matter how well intentioned you are. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. The moment you begin to believe that about yourself is the moment your work stops being about serving and starts being about yourself.
No matter what your level of work or involvement, it is imperative to always keep the higher purpose, the higher goal, the higher reward in mind.