5 Higher Ed Lessons from the World Cup

Learning from the world's greatest sporting event.

June 30, 2014

Have you also been sucked into the World Cup vortex?  

I vote that every college president declare match times as work times, gather the campus around giant screens, and watch the games together. The price in missed classes and postsecondary productivity would be well-balanced by the gains in campus unity.

The World Cup could also be a higher ed teachable moment. Imagine a campus conversation about what the World Cup can teach higher ed.

Here are my 5 (half serious, half fun) thoughts on what U.S. higher ed can learn from the World Cup:

Lesson 1 - Global Market:

The audience for the World Cup is both global and staggering. According to MediaWeek, some matches get over an 80% market share (meaning over 8 in 10 people are watching) in games in which their home team is playing.

This is global demand at its most extreme. No single nation dominates viewership, as fans are spread throughout world.

Will U.S. higher ed go this way in the future? The number of international students studying at U.S. institutions has grown to almost 820,000 (up from 564,000 7 years ago), but they still make up less than 4 percent of all students.

Does the international World Cup audience show us that the international demand for U.S. higher education could be much higher?  Does the sheer numbers of people willing and able to travel to Brazil to watch their teams indicate that there may be large numbers of learners that could travel to the U.S. to learn?  

Have we done enough to explore low-residency blended programs that would allow short visits to our campuses to study combined with rigorous online coursework?

Lesson 2 - Global Talent:

One of the joys of watching the World Cup is hearing about where all the players on the national teams play professionally.   Very few seem to play in their home countries.  Argentinians play in Spain, Germans play in Portugal, English play in Russia, Mexicans in Germany. 

The sense is that that no top team in the Premier Leagues of pro soccer could survive on only local national talent.

Why should we be any different in higher ed?

Do we do enough to find and retain the top international talent at our U.S. colleges and universities?  

Lesson 3 - A Team Focus:

The World Cup has its share of superstars.  We hear lots about Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, and Dempsey.  

But soccer is the total team game.  Superstars score lots of goals, but they don’t score the majority of goals.  Everything depends on seamless teamwork, and every single position is vital for success.  If any team focused solely on recruiting and supporting its superstars, and neglected the other positions on the field, the result would be quick elimination from the tournament.

The lesson may be that we need our academic superstars, but that higher ed (like soccer) is a team sport.  This is becoming more true, I think, has may core mission related activities of academia grow in both complexity and quality.  It takes a team of faculty, learning designers, librarians, media specialists, and technology experts to put together a world class online or blended learning program.   

Will it take a similar team to work with faculty to re-design our largest enrollment introductory courses in order to create a more personalized and supportive learning experience?

Lesson 4 - New Challengers:

The last two World Cup winners, Spain and Italy, did not make it to the round of 16.  A list of World Cup winners from the past shows the same teams popping up again and again (Brazil has won 5 times), you get the sense that the competition today is wide open.

The trajectory of the World Cup seems to be more competition, not less.  A diffusion in the quality of teams, and ever increasing likelihood that some new team will claim the top spot.  

Incumbency in the top positions, at least in the world of the World Cup, is no guarantee of future success.

Will we see something similar happen in higher ed?  

Can we envision a time where new challengers unseat long-standing incumbents for the top spots?  

Lesson 5 - Retaining Core Values While Embracing Technological Change:

How have you been watching The World Cup?  

I’ve watched every match that I can on my laptop.  Streaming.  

This is a necessity in my household, as we don’t get cable, satellite, or over-the-air TV.  It is streaming or nothing.  And for the most part, my World Cup streaming experience has been really good.  

It seems that I’m not alone.  Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the Cup has already had about 5 million digital viewers.

The last U.S. game had over 1.7 million concurrent U.S. online viewers.   

These numbers will only grow as more people in the rich world cut the cord, and more people in emerging economies leapfrog past old technologies and go directly to mobile and web connectivity.

The lesson here for U.S. higher education is not about any particular technology, but about how we can stay consistent with our core values and practices while simultaneously embracing change.  

The advent of World Cup streaming has not changes what is amazing about the World Cup.  Streaming has only made World Cup viewing available to a proportion of the population that would otherwise not be able to participate.  

What are your (half-serious) ideas for what U.S. higher education can learn from the World Cup?


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top