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The Importance of Specialized Boards in Sport Governance

Today's national sports organizations ("NSOs") operate in a world with significant legal, regulatory, financial and human resource challenges. The NSOs manage significant budgets and are increasingly the target of investigations and litigation which may not be covered - or are only partially covered - by their insurance policies. It is important in today's environment for NSOs and other sports organizations to carefully consider the skills and education of board members to increase board competencies.

Traditionally in Canada and elsewhere, many if not most sports organizations were governed by representative boards. The board members were selected through elections or nominations at the provincial/territorial or regional level and were often based on individuals' experiences in sport rather than other knowledge or skills.

There has been a move away from this model in more recent years, especially among the larger and more specific NSOs. There is good reason for this. Although these NSOs still hire external consultants, accountants, lawyers and HR professionals, they are better suited to handle the complex issues faced by sports organizations today. Boards with diverse knowledge and backgrounds are better able to proactively manage risks, improve internal practices and govern independently. They are also more likely to avoid conflicts of interest that can arise by board members also having various active and sometimes significant roles within the sport.

Some common features of these boards include:

  • a general call for nominations that outlines the specific skills required of the board;

  • a nominating committee that reviews the applications or organizes them for a vote at an AGM; and

  • rotating term limits to ensure board turnover as well as continuation of institutional knowledge.

A concern of some NSOs is that a move towards a specialized board would mean a loss of experience and knowledge that comes from individuals who are involved in the sport "on the ground." This concern is often exaggerated as often the individuals who are interested in serving on these boards are individuals who have previous experience with the sport, or sport generally, who are looking for ways to give back.

Another common concern is that a more specialized board would result in a lack of regional representation and influence. This concern can be overcome by requiring a certain number of board members to originate from each region and to recruit and advertise accordingly.

I hope to see continued development of specialized boards in the Canadian sports system moving forward.

Erin Durant

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