Can Harvard Business School Bend It Like Beckham?

Can Harvard bend it like Beckham

Has Harvard Business School caught travel fever? Since the MBA program decided last year to send all 900 first-year MBA students to the four corners of the world on Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (Field), there seems to be no stopping the school’s newly discovered thirst for global experience.

This time the field of business, and the real-world scenarios encountered from Cape Town to Chongqing, is being replaced by the field of sport and the MBA-world’s version of the Olympics in the bucolic outskirts of Paris. The school is fielding a team at the MBA Tournament, an annual event staged by the French business school HEC Paris.

This is the first time a U.S. business school will take part in the tournament, which begins on May 9 and involves more than 1,500 participants from 15 top European business schools. Events range from rock climbing and rowing to cricket and cross-country, and given the business school penchant for networking, there are numerous themed events that will give students the chance to dress up like James Bond at a Casino evening, or Joni Mitchell at a Woodstock party.

Which event will the Harvard team be competing in? Perhaps something solidly American, such as basketball, baseball, or dodgeball? No, far too easy. Harvard will be playing soccer.

Of course, mighty Harvard has never really hidden its view that it is the elite of the elite, but isn’t this taking self-confidence a little too far? After all, they are going to be up against teams from such schools as HEC Paris itself, the Netherlands’ RSM Erasmus, and Spain’s IE Business School, in countries where soccer (or football as the locals call it) has been the national religion for more than a century.

Before the European business schools rub their hands in anticipation of dishing out a lesson to their U.S. cousins, they should check their Olympic history. It is the U.S. women’s national soccer team, after all, that walked off with four of the past five Olympic gold medals. And the last time the Summer Olympics were held in Paris, in 1924, the U.S. team walked away with the lion’s share of the medals, nearly half of them gold.

The other lesson from this tournament is for the student organizers, who have been applying marketing ideas learned in the MBA classroom to attract corporate sponsors, design a new logo and event mascot, and of course entice the Harvard Business School. They would do well to learn from one of the highest earners in sport, who also recently made the journey to Paris from the U.S. to play soccer.

David Beckham joined the lavishly funded Paris Saint Germain football team in January, after five years with the Los Angeles Galaxy. The soccer superstar earned a total of $50.6 million last year, mostly from commercial endorsements. As one of the HEC Paris marketing professors, Jean-Noël Kapferer, points out, Beckham is not just a player; he is a brand, which means his real value goes well beyond anything he actually does on the pitch.

Perhaps the Harvard team wants to demonstrate that the same applies to them.

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