What the World Cup can teach us about creating a global business

The biggest sporting event in the world is upon us. 32 qualifying nations are headed to Russia with the dream of winning the World Cup. Almost half the world (3.2 billion people) tune in to watch the matches and cheer on their favorite teams, with viewers from every continent and country in the world—even Antarctica.

FIFA’s internationalization strategy is unparalleled; they’re arguably the world leaders in reaching a global fanbase. That sentiment extends to the leading soccer (“football”, to most of the world) teams. Take Manchester United, who has 750 million global fans - about 10% of the entire global population. And, FC Barcelona who has 500M, with 100 million followers on Facebook and tens of millions more on Twitter.

The worldwide appeal of soccer and the brand power of the teams make the leading clubs big business. FC Barcelona (Barça to the fans) for example, aims to become the first club of any sport on the planet to earn $1.23 billion in revenue a year.

These international sports powerhouses can teach us all something when it comes to building a global business, specifically the power of using a Language Strategy to connect players with the world. These strategies extend far beyond the world of FIFA, with sports leagues worldwide recognizing the impact of language on their organizations.

3 key takeaways:

Recognize the importance of language

The 32 different nations represented at the World Cup bring with them 15 different languages. The ability to communicate throughout the event extends beyond the players—with referees needing the ability to call games in a language understood by the teams, and event staff creating a seamless experience for the multilingual fans.

Translation and interpretation is vital during the event, as is a precedent for English being the main language used during games. FIFA referees take English courses to learn the basics of what they need to know to communicate on the field. Off the field, up to 4,000 volunteers have passed online Russian language training with this year’s games being hosted in Moscow. And, on the flipside, local ticket collectors have taken English-training to prepare for foreign tourists.

Without a Language Strategy—a cohesive plan that allows players, coaches, and staff to fully and authentically engage with each other and fans—FIFA would not have had the global success it has had. And, the World Cup would not be the worldwide phenomenon it is today.

Invest in the players

Sports teams across the world are seeing the value in investing in their players beyond their typical training sessions. Breaking down communication barriers between team members is essential to their success, and teams who are implementing language training are seeing big benefits. And, it isn’t just top of mind for FIFA.

In MLB, the SF Giants have increased spend in language training and assimilation programs for their players by 400% over the past decade. Within the league there are countless examples; like, Yankee Gleyber Torres, a native-Spanish speaker, whose inability to give post-game interviews in English was holding him back from his full big-league potential, or the Cincinatti Reds who are now offering English lessons to all their players.

In sports, non-verbal communication is undoubtedly a huge way players communicate with each other, but being able to express themselves through language and connect with their teammates makes the team more successful as a whole. To this point, Michael Owens of the Real Madrid admitted that language barriers jeopardized his career with the team, when he was unable to speak in their native Spanish. Or this lighter example that pokes a bit of fun at MLB players Masahiro Tanaka (a native Japanese speaker) and Gary Sanchez (a native Spanish speaker) needing translators to make lunch plans.

Many of these players have expressed how much language training has impacted their game in a positive way. Hector Sanchez of the SF Giants claims his improved English skills are right up there with his biggest achievements on the field— including catching Lincecum’s history-making no-hitter.

Build a global team

It goes without saying, building the best team on and off the field (court, rink, etc.) is key for any sports team. For clubs like FC Barcelona and Manchester United it’s not just about having enough money to compete at the highest level and afford the best players—it’s about creating a unique culture and identity that attracts and keeps the best-of-the-best.

Building a successful global business is also about creating long-term relationships with international partners—something FC Barcelona has been particularly savvy at, securing the support of many of the world’s top brands. A team with a global mindset, that’s rich in cultural diversity will allow these types of relationships to prosper. By being able to communicate with team members, and international contacts opens up a world of possibilities (literally).

A Language Strategy is important for both attracting and keeping your top talent, and forging global relationships. Language learning not only removes communication barriers and connects your team, it also creates a culture of innovative thinking and an environment where people feel valued. When it comes to partnerships, and expanding into new markets, a language strategy can turn cultural barriers into bridges, and helps create unique opportunities—like Barça’s recent NYC headquarters expansion.

In sports (and in any business), a well executed Language Strategy is key to international success.