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My favourite sports books.....

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

The greatest sports books of all time

Mark Thompson is the COO of Burnley Football and a voracious reader of sports books. So we asked him to share his Top 10 favourite sports books of all time. It's a cracking list......

Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team & A Dream – Buzz Bissinger

A compelling story around the expectations placed on 17 year old boys in the pressure cooker that is high school football in Texas. The greatness of the book though is how it draws out the stories of a community – relationships, racial issues, politics, economic and social challenges. I first read this book whilst living in a post-apartheid South Africa that faced some of the same challenges so it immediately drew me in and I’ve rarely gone a couple of years without coming back to the book.

Friday Nights Lights

Running with The Kenyans – Adharanand Finn

I spent my formative years in Kenya and therefore the author’s move to Kenya and his family’s efforts to assimilate brought back a huge amount of nostalgia. The book is about discovering the secret of how a small region in Iten/Eldoret churns out world-class distance runners. The book is set out as a discovery into training, altitude, diet but became as much about community and social mobility. I have really enjoyed the author’s other books about running culture in countries like Japan.

Running With The Kenyans book cover

A Good Walk Spoiled – John Feinstein

I’ve read and enjoyed almost all Feinstein’s deep-dives into the sports industry, particularly those on college basketball where his love for the game and its athletes shines brightest. As a pro golf fan though, if I had to pick one I’d go back to his look into the characters on the PGA Tour in an era just before Tiger Woods changed the economics of the sport. The structure of golf allows for an incredibly varied set of stories and this book pulled that out better than anything else I’ve read.

A Good Walk Spoiled book cover

Living on the Volcano - Michael Calvin

In a normal year, half or more of the 92 clubs in the football league will change their managers. That lack of job security plus the endless scrutiny the individuals in the roles face must make it one of the most challenging jobs in society to handle. The author of this book manages to draw some incredibly revealing insights out of some of the highest profile managers in the game. It offers a fascinating insight into the psyche required to survive and thrive in the pressure pot. Michael Calvin’s book are all worth a read.

Living On The Volcano book cover

Lebron, Inc – Brian Windhorst

Lebron has over-delivered on the court against almost impossibly high expectations ever since appearing on the front cover of Sports Illustrated aged 16. His career off-the-court is however perhaps even more fascinating, impressive and still in its early stages. He has been at the forefront of so many shifts in the increasing power of the athlete, whether in squad composition, shunning endorsements for equity investments, moving across the value chain into the entertainment space and using his platforms for social change. This book reads very well from an author whose career has tracked LeBron’s. Lebron’s eventual autobiography will be some read!

LEBRON INC. book cover

Why We Kneel, How We Rise – Michael Holding

Almost certainly the most compelling book to capture and summarise the challenges sport has faced in being truly inclusive. It is at times uncomfortable reading as someone whose gender, skin colour and socio-economic background has afforded advantages in life others have not had. The sports industry is not alone in being behind the curve in inclusivity (gender, race), but this will challenge you to consider what you can do to help. Note the lack of gender diversity (authors, subjects) in my Top 10 books as an example.

Michael Holding's book - Why We Kneel, How We Rise

A New Innings – Manoj Badale, Simon Hughes

There is no doubt the IPL has been one of sports great success stories over the past 20 years. I get approached by a lot of people wanting to break into the sports industry and this is the book I increasingly tell people to buy to further their knowledge and thinking. It’s a textbook of the sports business in action and touches on all the major on and off field drivers in a very structured manner.

A New Innings book cover

Moneyball – Michael Lewis (and other data-driven books)

An obvious one I still included (unlike “Open” and “Shoe Dog”). Billie Beane and Michael Lewis changed our industry with this story and book. A manual in how to rationalise decision-making through data and the courage to see it through. If you want a complement to this, I recently enjoyed Rory Smith’s “Expected Goals”. If Moneyball was about the mechanics, “Expected Goals” was a great insight into the challenges of culturally embedding a new way of thinking into a sport (football) that historically has resisted it. “Hitting Against the Spin” (Nathan Leamon, Ben Jones) also was an excellent insight into how cricket is working through its Moneyball moment particularly with the increased attention on short formats.

Moneyball book cover

Playground of the Gods – Ian Stafford

We all start out wanting to be a sports star. At some stage you realise you aren’t going to be one, but the author was able to live out that dream in a mad year testing himself out against the worlds best across many disciplines (e.g. boxing with Roy Jones, squash with Jansher Khan). Oddly, I actually saw him train with the Springboks during this at my school in Johannesburg. It was a fascinating insight into the mindset of sports stars long before social media, the Players Tribune and Netflix/Amazon made it a part of our daily schedule.

Playground of the Gods book cover

Rise – Siya Kolisi

In the sports industry there is often a lot of back-slapping for impact on society that probably should be greater. Due to its challenges, sports leaders in SA are forced, whether they welcome it or not, to have their eyes wide open. Kolisi’s addresses his countries’ and his own challenges beautifully in an incredibly honest account of his rise and occasional falls from Zwide township to becoming the first black captain of the Boks and a Rugby World Cup winner. It is no surprise this version of the Boks under his leadership are the most popular there has been both home and abroad. A true idol.

RISE book cover

Mark Thompson is the COO of Burnley Football Club.

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