Johan Cruyff Institute CEO Märiel Koerhuis: “Footballers taking greater interest in education”

· by World Football Summit

World Football Summit speaks exclusively with Märiel Koerhuis, CEO at the Johan Cruyff Institute, about the need for education among professional athletes and the opportunities that the football industry has to offer. This interview features in the latest edition of WFS Digest, our insider’s guide to the latest and most relevant thoughts and practises from within the football industry. You can subscribe to WFS Digest HERE.

For more than two decades, Johan Cruyff Institute has been training athletes, managers and other professionals to become leaders in the global sports industry. Since the Dutch football legend launched his vision in 1999 with 35 athletes in the city of Amsterdam, the educational centre that bears his name has become a global benchmark, having trained more than 9,000 students from all five continents in academic programmes – both on-site and online – in sports management, marketing, sponsorship and coaching.

With centres in the Netherlands, Spain, Peru and Mexico, the institute commissions its programmes to sports industry professionals who combine teaching and research with their professional practice, developing a wide range of real cases, concepts, exercises and study materials for real professional development.

The Johan Cruyff Institute continues to be the academic partner par excellence of World Football Summit, a platform with which it has collaborated since the first edition of its international congress (2016). Koerhuis spoke to us to explain the reasons for this long-standing partnership and to analyse the main educational trends in the industry over the past decade.

“The rules of the game have changed completely, and everything is developing around the fan experience”

World Football Summit: One of the words of the moment, as we all know, is ‘disruption’. How does an institution like yours adapt to an industry that is changing so much and so fast?

Märiel Koerhuis: The key for us is to be very connected to the sports industry, not only in Spain, but also internationally. We know how the sports ecosystem is changing: the new models of content creation, content distribution, monetary flows, the new development that athletes themselves are taking on by becoming content creators and influencers. The rules of the game have changed completely, and everything is developing around the fan experience; therefore, the way for an educational institution and its curricula to be up to the challenge is to be very connected to the industry.

Johan himself always said that knowledge that is created per se is worthless: it’s the application of knowledge that has value and knowing where to find the information. Study plans have to apply this and put it into practice, including and explaining things that someone who has never worked in the sports industry can’t. Incorporate people who have worked within the industry, either as consultants or because they have created their own company or they manage a sports club, or they work in a digital marketing department at one of the big brands. These are the professionals, when they have a teaching vocation, who can best transmit the knowledge that tomorrow’s professionals need. After 20 years of training sports professionals, we have a large pool of talented alumni and, due to our highly personalised methodology, they feel a strong bond with the values of the Johan Cruyff Institute and are part of the community. Therefore, when we need a guest speaker or want to organise a round table on talent in the sports industry, it’s often our alumni who share their experiences.

WFS: We understand that this monitoring of the industry is done through partnerships with different sports properties?

Koerhuis: Indeed, you can do that if you can collaborate with federations, leagues, clubs, sports companies and start-ups. We currently have 130 collaboration agreements with sports entities at an international level. All universities have this objective that we call the ‘third mission’, which is the transfer of knowledge and also of talent. We need the sports industry for internships for our students, for job opportunities. For them to get a taste of how a sports club works. There is a ‘win-win’ between companies and sports entities and the Johan Cruyff Institute. We help each other because we have knowledge and talent.

The mechanism works because we work in a very personalised, adapted and applied way. We’re not a big university; we have 94 training programmes – from very small courses to official masters – but everything is sport related. This makes us a player with easy access to the industry, but it has cost us a lot, it’s a been a tough journey. There are no shortcuts. 

WFS: Johan Cruyff’s original wish when he set up the institute was to protect players after finishing their career. Was it because he had seen his teammates who had not been as successful as him suffer, or because he thought that every footballer, even the best of them, should prepare for the next stage of their life?

Koerhuis: I think it was a bit of both. In his close environment he saw some cases of athletes who had been very successful, but then they got injured and it was all over. Others also failed on their way up, because many think they are going to be number one and then they are not. These players sacrifice a lot, including their studies, and in the end, they have neither one thing nor the other. And there are others who have been very successful, who have earned a very decent amount of money, but then have not known how to manage it due to lack of education.

Johan had a very clear vision: the sports industry has to be further professionalised. Not only in football; he saw that in the Olympic Committee and the federations, there was a lack of professionalism even among the managers themselves. He said that the person who can best manage this type of institution is the one who has the heart of an athlete, because sport is so peculiar that it’s necessary to understand what happens in the locker room and on the field. If you’ve gone through that experience, you have a competence that, with good knowledge and training, makes you the best leader for sports organisations. There’s still a long way to go in the development of professionalisation, you see it more and more with the introduction of technology – it’s an increasingly complex environment to manage. But yes, the initial idea was: “Watch out, if you get injured or retire and you haven’t prepared, your life is over.”

It should be added that we’re talking about football here, but there are also many athletes from minority sports who will never be able to make a living from their sport. And they have it even more complicated, because they want to dedicate themselves to it, but they know that they can’t make a living from it, but they don’t have enough time to prepare for it. That’s what we are here for, to help them.

WFS: Beyond the number of students, is there any notable change between the students 20 years ago and those of today? The first graduating class were all sportsmen and women, but now there are people who want to work in the industry without going through sport.

Koerhuis: We started with a student body that was 100% elite sportsmen and women. But at some point, we began to notice that not only sportsmen and women were interested in our training, but also people who had studied Business Administration or Law, for example, and wanted to work in the sports industry. Now 25% of our students are elite sportsmen and women, but 75% of our students are not. What they’re all very clear about is their passion for sport: either they’re already working in the sport industry and need further qualification, or they have the ambition to develop their career in the sector.

Another difference is that in recent years there has been a growing interest in education among professional footballers. The way we manage the training and help them in that learning process, especially with the possibility of online courses which offers enormous flexibility to the athletes. Bojan is one example that comes to mind, he came to his graduation here in Barcelona last year, and there are others who are about to finish. The fact that we have been virtualising education for 13 years has also globalised our community; we have students from China, the Middle East, Latin America…. we’re reaching more and more people everyday.

WFS: What are the main skills that the football industry demands from young aspiring executives today?

Koerhuis: Knowledge in technical skills is a must: financial management, technology skills, augmented reality. But what’s lacking, according to some studies, is people who know how to work in teams and feel comfortable in multidisciplinary and multicultural environments. English and Spanish are no longer an add-on, for example, but a commodity. There’s a lack of people who know how to manage projects, who understand not only what they’re working on at a specialised level, but who see the bigger picture and have common sense. There are many professionals who may be very good in their specialised area, but don’t understand the link between pieces and how the sports ecosystem is structured. That ability to understand, and also to listen to, the reality of the people you are working with, to be able to manage projects and to have leadership skills, are all ‘soft skills’ that are increasingly in demand by companies.

WFS: LaLiga and the Asociación de Mujeres Ejecutivas del Deporte (AEMED) recently conducted a study in Spanish universities and found that only 13% of the students of sports masters are women. What are the causes of this disparity?

Koerhuis: We collaborated in this study, but we do not see a clear trend. It’s very interesting, because this year we have had little female participation, but in other years it’s been much higher. It’s not easy to find the reasons. I think it’s a challenge we have, because women’s leadership, especially in football, can contribute so much more. We have promoted the participation of women at academic institutions, but also in the different leagues. We have the Cruyff Athlete Fund, which is our scholarship fund for athletes, and there we have a series of criteria for women, minority sports or athletes who have just retired. We promote education for women and I foresee that in one or two years this percentage of 13% will have reached 20-25%, I’m very optimistic in this sense.

WFS: So, these figures are not so worrying, in the sense that there is still a glass ceiling for women in the industry?

Koerhuis: I’m very optimistic because I’m seeing that the sportswomen themselves, and the important role of women’s football, serve as role models. Both the current players and those who are retiring are clear on the need for education, among other things because of necessity, because they don’t have the same income as male footballers. And they are very motivated to study. That’s why I’m convinced that with the rise of women’s football, as well as its professionalisation, more and more female students will be needed. At the managerial level I also see reasons for hope, because I see more and more female managers coming into the industry from other sectors. There are more and more qualified women with experience in the world of sport.

WFS: What changes do you anticipate in sports education in the coming years?

Koerhuis: I think we’re going to have more flexible itineraries, because we need educational programs adapted to the needs of the industry itself. Topics more related to digital marketing and fan engagement, to enrich the fan experience with artificial intelligence or augmented reality, and the opportunities that blockchain will offer. Mental health is also very important: this is an area, due to the relevance of sport in people’s physical and mental wellbeing, that will be key. Finally, I would also like to mention eSports; we’ve been following the growth of this sector for years and we have several initiatives in mind to reach different audiences.

WFS: Why do you think events like the World Football Summit are useful in spreading your message?

Koerhuis: For an institution like ours, which has been involved with WFS since its first edition, it’s very is important for networking, to know first-hand what is happening in the football industry, to meet the relevant agents and decision makers not only in Spain, but also at an international level.

It’s also important for our students to have direct contact with professional football world. We are forging this industry together: media, agents, leagues, competitions, academic institutions, platforms for content creation and distribution. Our mission at the Johan Cruyff Institute is to contribute to the further professionalisation of football.

This interview features in the latest edition of WFS Digest, our insider’s guide to the latest and most relevant thoughts and practises from within the football industry. You can subscribe to WFS Digest HERE.