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Volume 22 No. 19
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Investing in player performance supports a team’s bottom line

High-performing professional sports teams make more money for the franchise. As the head of physical performance and sports medicine for the Golden State Warriors during last year’s record-breaking season, I found some of the numbers to be staggering. The Warriors are estimated to have brought in $10 million per home game during the 2016 playoffs and $20 million for Game 7 of the Finals. The value of a second consecutive championship title would have been an estimated $300 million.

Owning a sports team is no longer seen as a rich man’s hobby that is akin to pouring money down the drain. While these are extraordinarily big investments, if managed correctly, they can have an even bigger return. In the past few years, U.S. teams have started responding to the massive potential for extra cash flow by taking team performance even more seriously.

Before coming stateside to work for the Warriors, I had similar roles with elite teams in my native Australia where head of physical performance has been a common title for the last decade. In the past four years, I’ve observed that American teams are implementing similar strategic direction and coordination within the training programs to vastly increase their impact on team performance.

Investing in leadership for physical performance can generate additional revenue and avoid wasteful expenses. While there has been a rush to employ these roles, some teams are still trying to work out how to use performance strategy experts within their organizational structure.

What is the impact of performance strategy?

A widely used example of how to make a difference is in the area of injuries, especially to star players. I did a bit of research into the wide-scale impact of physical performance on a team’s bottom line. SportsBusiness Journal reports that injuries are a team’s fourth largest expense after payroll, facilities and marketing. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, injuries also waste payroll: In 2015, MLB franchises spent over $700 million on player salaries for the season’s 30,000 missed games.

Steph Curry, dunking at the All-Star Game, embraces emerging trends in fitness and preparation.
There are hidden costs to an injured star player. The team is less likely to win, which decreases ticket sales as fans lose enthusiasm for live games. At the same time, the player rakes in a big salary while contributing nothing. A strategic performance program can help mitigate these costly injuries.

It may be tempting to imagine that changes in training strategy will only lead to marginal gains — that sports are tough and demanding so players will have to take a few hits. To some degree this is true, but it should not be an excuse for complacency.

When I managed the Brisbane Lions, a national level team in the Australian Football League, we were able to see how changes in our performance strategy directly affected injuries, as pelvic-related soft tissue injuries decreased from 113 games in a season to only 23 the following year.

The first step in the process was to determine what was an acceptable rate of injury, as some are unavoidable when you deal in collision sports. As the head of performance, it was my responsibility to analyze whether we were operating at an acceptable standard or not. When it came to identifying the causes and the solutions, I brought in leading experts and consultants to help us in our investigations. Bringing in these outsiders to judge our program was a challenging and confronting process for some, but it was essential to identify the right steps to reduce injuries.

Following this analysis, we made significant changes in our operating methods including injury treatment practices, strength training methods, coach and trainer education, injury rehabilitation and player load. It was challenging to design those changes and implement them, but the results show that it was worth the effort. The final stage was to ensure that we were continually implementing these new practices; it is easy to slip back into old habits and practices while telling yourself you are doing everything new.

Reducing injuries meant we were able to keep our best players on the field. We went from finishing outside the playoffs in 2008 to making it through to the second round of the playoffs in 2009. Not only did we improve on-field performance, but increased revenue quickly followed. Better playing led to larger crowds, more fan enthusiasm and greater gate takings. Increased exposure also lead to more sponsorship and marketing opportunities.

Why performance strategy is coming to American sports

Physical performance experts can help prevent and minimize injuries by designing training programs that emphasize proper form. Expert oversight of the recovery process helps athletes regain strength and skill as quickly as possible. A well-integrated and coordinated physical performance and sports medicine team can make a significant difference to the level of player availability and, therefore, team performance. By investing in leadership to look at the big picture, efforts stay synchronized while training and coaching staff can focus on their domains.

A performance director needs to be proactive by continually searching for new and innovative performance methods, and needs to be able to react to situations and implement changes. Again, critical evaluation is necessary to determine sound methods and products. As a physical performance expert, I track emerging fields closely. Training for neuromuscular connection is a trend that shows unexplored potential. In the face of emerging trends like Steph Curry’s strobe drills to headphones that prime the motor cortex to learn, trainers should be taking the connection between the brain and body very seriously.

It is undeniable that player performance is linked to financial performance, and I have seen it in my work with individual teams. The ability to manage and coordinate these teams, and critically evaluate all preparation processes, allows teams the opportunities to maximize their playing talent and improve their chance of success. In the end, team success boosts team finances.

Lachlan Penfold is head of physical performance and sports medicine at Halo Neuroscience.