“Our way of being, our way of envisioning education, of wanting to make a difference in the sports industry, is very similar to the way Johan made a difference in sport and in society,” says Mariël Koerhuis, general manager of Johan Cruyff Institute, the academic legacy of Johan Cruyff
The big difference between a dreamer and an entrepreneur is the courage to put your idea into practice. The big difference between an athlete and a genius is the determination to be the best and transform rivalry into respect. And the big difference between standing out from your generation and becoming an icon is the generosity to share everything you know and build your legacy for those who come after you. Johan Cruyff was a dreamer, an entrepreneur, a sportsman, a genius and an icon, and his legacy has proven to be eternal. Doubts nestled in Johan’s mind just long enough to find a perfect solution. And all his initiatives respond to a personal experience and a nonconformist mind that, together with his tremendous leadership, always project a better future. Johan Cruyff Institute is the academic legacy of Johan Cruyff made in his image and likeness, the idea he envisioned and implemented more than 20 years ago in a small group of 35 athletes who dared to demonstrate that neither sport is incompatible with professional training, nor should athletes be deprived of a productive future, no matter how demanding and self-centered their sporting career may be.
“For Johan, it was very important to find a way for athletes to combine sport with their studies, because he had seen in his very close environment many examples of athletes who were very successful when they were an athlete, always outstanding, the center of everyone’s attention, making money and earning their living with their sport, but once they had an injury or finished their sports career, all of a sudden, they were nobody anymore and they fell into a black hole, and they had money problems. So he thought that if he could find a way for athletes to be able to study while they were developing their sporting career, to prepare themselves, to be trained and to know how the world of sport is structured and how it should be managed, it would give them the possibility of having a productive life once they retired. This was, in fact, the purpose that he had when he created Johan Cruyff Institute,” explains Mariël Koerhuis, general manager of this institution.
“Johan had seen in his very close environment many examples of athletes who were very successful, always outstanding, the center of everyone’s attention, making money and earning their living with their sport, but once they had an injury or finished their sports career, they were nobody anymore and they fell into a black hole, and they had money problems. That’s why he created Johan Cruyff Institute”
Johan Cruyff Institute has already trained more than 9,000 professionals from the sports industry, attracted by Johan’s initial idea of breaking with the establishment and making a difference. It is no longer only athletes and former athletes, but also graduates and professionals from this industry and other sectors who have trusted our programs to lead the changes that sport management demands at all levels. The world of sport has evolved a great deal in the last two decades and will continue to do so at an ever-increasing pace. This academic institution has also been growing, not only inspired by what its founder was, but also aware of the responsibility it undertakes to remain faithful to all that Johan represented as a person and as an athlete.
One must go back to its origins and look to the future to understand Johan Cruyff Institute‘s contribution to the sports industry. That is precisely what Mariël Koerhuis does in this interview. Her words recall Johan the person and his work, as she talks about the uniqueness of this institution and the values it represents.
Graduation days were always marked in Johan’s diary. He loved to see the new generations that year after year enter the sports industry to make it a little better, because he recognized in them that same illusion he saw in the first 35 athletes who believed in his initiative.
Those who did not know Johan can now discover him from anywhere in the world through his academic legacy, a globalized institution that continues to keep the same essence as when he founded it, with a much broader horizon.
If you had Johan in front of you now, how would you explain to him how his institute has changed over the years, and what it has become?
I would explain to him that what he started 20 years ago was actually a very small program, an official bachelor’s degree in sport marketing in Amsterdam in partnership with the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam and with a group of 35 athletes, which was an initiative. And a first idea has grown now to be a globalized learning organization, currently with 94 programs in very different areas, not only sport marketing, but also in sport management, football business, and coaching.
And from a very small class of 35 only athletes we are now more than 9,000 sport professionals and alumni that have taken a study program at Johan Cruyff Institute with a broad extensive network of educational institutions in The Netherlands, vocational training programs for Johan Cruyff College, with academies, Johan Cruyff Academies in The Netherlands and with institutes, Johan Cruyff Institutes, postgraduate education and executive education in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Peru and Mexico, and with an extensive virtual campus, also. So, the first idea that he had 20 years ago has developed to be a recognized academic institution, not only offering study programs and learning solutions to athletes but also to sport professionals and corporate institutions, so federations and clubs. It’s now a complete academic institution with a global network and still maintaining the essence and the purpose with which he founded Johan Cruyff Institute, which remains still in place.
“Johan Cruyff Institute is now a complete academic institution with a global network and still maintaining the essence and the purpose with which Johan founded it 20 years ago”
What drove Johan to create Johan Cruyff Institute?
Actually, Johan had two big concerns about society. One concern was how can we improve quality of life for kids and young people with different capacities and disabilities, which actually led him to create the Johan Cruyff Foundation, and the other big concern that he had was how can we make possible for athletes who are very passionate about their sports career to develop dual careers, so they study while they are developing their professional sports career. He thought it was very important because he had seen many examples in his very close environment of athletes that were very successful when they were an athlete, always outstanding, in the middle of the attention of everybody, making money and earning their lives with their sports, but once they had an injury or finished their sports career, all of a sudden, they were nobody anymore and they fell into a black hole, and they had money problems. So, he said, well, if we can find a way for those athletes that they can study while they are developing their sports career, so they can prepare themselves and qualify themselves, and know how the world of sports is structured and how it should be managed, then you give them a possibility to have a productive life once they finish. This was actually the purpose that he had when he created Johan Cruyff Institute.
Johan Cruyff Institute is an international academic institution based on a very particular way of training. What makes it different from the rest of business schools?
First of all, we were founded by a sportsman, so the philosophy of sports, the fact that all the materials we use, the methodology we use, which is very much focused on competitive team spirit, is sports. So, the real-life cases that we use in classes, the experiential learning tools that we use are based on sports, it’s all 100% sports oriented. At the same time, and I would say a little bit like Johan was, competitive on the one hand, and demanding on the other hand, but also caring.
“We are a little bit like Johan was, competitive on the one hand, and demanding on the other hand, but also caring”
So, the students are really guided by our tutors, by the professors, also by the management supporting staff in a very personalized way. We care about the students. If they are athletes and have a very demanding training or competition schedules, we adapt their learning program in a very flexible way and care about their personal and professional situations. And then we very much make them responsible for their own learning process, so the methodology we use is very much focused on the idea that the students are at the center of their own learning process and they have to take up that responsibility themselves. That’s what makes us different besides the fact that we are very much connected to the sports industry. This enables students to experience real-life situations in the sports industry and also to extend their network within the sports industry. These are the aspects that make us different from any other academic institution or any other business school.
On what pillars do you build a brand like Johan Cruyff Institute so it can remain faithful to all that Johan represented in the world of sport?
That question brings me back to the person, Johan Cruyff, and remember the way he was. He was a person who made a difference within football but in the sports industry in general, and later on also in society. Everywhere he went he caught attention because he had a very strong opinion himself, he was straightforward, he had a different way of looking at reality, he was rebellious, curious, always interested and caring. And at the same time, he was very professional, very demanding and focused on excellence in his sport, football. So, I would say that his DNA and the way he was, is also who we are as an organization, as Johan Cruyff Institute.
“Everywhere Johan went he caught attention because he had a very strong opinion himself, he was straightforward, he had a different way of looking at reality, he was rebellious, curious, always interested and caring. And at the same time, he was very professional, very demanding and focused on excellence in his sport, football. His DNA and the way he was, is also who we are as an organization, as Johan Cruyff Institute”
We are curious, we are a learning organization, we feel proud of working here with a strong team spirit. Yes, competitive, but at the same time socially engaged. So, the way we are, the way we envision education, the way we want to make a difference in the sports industry is very much also how he made a difference in sports, when he was a sportsman, when he was a coach. The brands are built on values, is not our image, it’s our identity, so that’s what we stand for.
There is something in the world of sport that will always be in need, and it’s making athletes’ transition to a new career viable. What message you would like to transmit to them to put an end to their fear of preparing for their future as soon as possible?
It’s logical. Athletes are very passionate about their sport. They make a lot of sacrifices to develop their sports career and they are all convinced that they will become number one. I would say that, of course, the aim is to become number one but, perhaps, they can also learn a little bit from other experiences, from not-that-good experiences from other athletes that had problems because they didn’t prepare themselves while they were developing their sports career. And on the other hand, I would say also, I hope you are going to feel inspired by those athletes that whilst they are being successful—there are many examples of sportsmen and sportswomen—they are already developing their own businesses, or have been able to do a bachelor’s degree and combine both careers. They are successful people and they have perspective in life once they have finished their sports career. And I would also say that it’s fun to study something that you like and if your sport is your passion, what else would you study if it’s not sport management, or football business, or marketing, or sponsorship, or coaching? You are going to enjoy it and, as people normally say, there are no stupid questions, there are stupid answers. The athletes within the class are not outstanding, they are just one of the classmates, and they join a group of classmates and students who all want to do the same thing: learn about how sport is managed and to create for themselves also a future within the sports industry.
“Athletes make a lot of sacrifices to develop their sports career and they are all convinced that they will become number one. But, perhaps, they can also learn a little bit from other experiences, from not-that-good experiences from other athletes that had problems because they didn’t prepare themselves while they were developing their sports career”
How do you manage to transfer Johan’s initial vision to the new generations of sport management leaders?
I would say focusing on sound leadership, on what is needed nowadays in the sports industry, which is still knowing the reality and understanding the reality of the performers, the players, the athletes, and taking up also that experience to be able to manage sports organizations. Johan always said ‘who best to manage sport organizations than someone who has the heart of an athlete?’
The new generations and the new way of how the sports industry is now being transformed is very much focused on innovation, on being practical, on thinking out of the box. Those elements of leadership that Johan Cruyff had in his sports career, and later on in his professional career, are very characteristic in the way younger generations can envision their future.
One of Johan’s mottos was, ‘you can’t do it alone, we have to do it together’. Working with other academic institutions, clubs, sport companies and international sport organizations has been part of Johan Cruyff Institute’s growth and success. Tell us about this international networking nowadays.
As any academic institution, having a good connection to the industry is very important. Any university or business school has to have good connections to the industry in order to enable the transfer of knowledge and the transfer of talent. It’s part of our essence. For a sports organization like we are, specialized in education in sport management, it is essential to have connections to the sports industry. It means that we have to know what is going on at the sports clubs, at governance level, what is happening within the international organisms, the federations, the players’ associations. We need this input from what is going on in the industry in order to be able to build good programs and to offer our students a very up-to-date knowledge about what you have to know if you want to manage a sports organization. The other way around, it’s also important for sports organizations to have talented people, for example our students or alumni, who are able to do an internship, who can take up job opportunities or new projects within these sports organizations. So, we have a win-win here between the sports industry, the students and Johan Cruyff Institute.
“The new generations and the new way of how the sports industry is now being transformed is very much focused on innovation, on being practical, on thinking out of the box. Those elements of leadership that Johan Cruyff had in his sports career, and later on in his professional career, are very characteristic in the way younger generations can envision their future”
How did you do that?
Over the last years, we have been extending our network of connections within the sports industry tremendously. We have now more than 300 partnerships with sport entities all over the world, through which we can enable this knowledge and talent transfer. For the students, it’s important to—within the classroom or within the session—have somebody in a senior position within a sports club talking about their own experiences and how they, for example, create a strategy on fan engagement. And to know this first-hand, from a professional, is important, and to go to the sports organizations and make onsite visits is important. So, you really get a sense of what you have to be able to manage and get these best practices in order to develop your own career.
“Sport management has changed a lot over the last years and we are developing content and programs which can also respond to this need, new topics like innovation, governance, digital marketing. All the time, we are seeing more technology-based content within our curriculums because they are essential for the sports of the future”
How does Johan Cruyff Institute view sport management today? And what changes are expected in the coming years?
Sport management has changed a lot over the last years and I would say it has even been accelerated by Covid-19. If we think about sport management or the sports industry a few years ago, it was like a very plain ecosystem where we had some governance being in person, merchandising, sports marketing, we had the community sports, TV rights, but it was a very plain structure.
What we have seen, and mainly by the introduction of technology, is that the whole ecosystem has changed and that the importance of both the athletes themselves having more protagonism and creating their own content, on the one hand; and on the other hand, the media rights owners which are gaining in importance within the ecosystem tremendously. The importance also of professional leagues and their corporate strategies and development of corporate growth within the international competitions is a very exciting and very changing and demanding ecosystem. It means that also Johan Cruyff Institute, we ourselves have to develop content and programs which can also respond to this need, because the professionals who are going to study with us and who are going to work within the sports industry need to know about how this is to be managed. I think that the breakthrough has been disruptive technology.
At the same time also, the new generations coming up that we talked earlier about, well we have to be aware that sport is going to be and already is being consumed in a very different way. It’s a very exciting industry and it also means that as for our study programs we have been introducing some topics like innovation within sports, governance within sports, digital marketing within sports. And, all the time, we are seeing more technology-based content within our curriculums because they are essential for the sports of the future.