Sportsology Search: Analyzing the Latest Human Capital Trends in Pro Sports

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At Sportsology we have a dedicated executive search team that is continually analyzing the latest trends in human capital and talent management from professional sports. From hiring trends and search patterns, to the emergence of new executive roles, the team’s role is to support clients with the insights they need to source the best front office talent.

Recently, the team has been looking at average tenure and time to hire data for general manager/president and head coach roles across the five major leagues (MLB, MLS, NBA, NFL, NHL). Assessing information from the last five seasons, we can reveal a number of insights into the latest trends in hiring and executive search at the highest levels of sport.

Leadership Trends

The Narrow Tenure Gap

One of the clearest trends we can see in the data is that, on average, GMs and presidents are not staying in their roles much longer than head coaches.

Since 2015, the average tenure for a GM/president has been 2.64 years, with Head Coach tenures being fractionally shorter at 2.02 years. Of course, there are a range of factors at play in every specific context, but we can draw some tentative conclusions from the patterns that are emerging.

Given that the evaluation of coaching performance is more heavily weighted towards short-term results, we would expect the turnover of head coaches to be far higher than that of executives. However, even though there have been 202 head coach changes to 125 among GMs and presidents since 2015, the average tenures are only around six months apart.

This trend suggests that there is still a relatively low level of commitment to long-term strategic vision among sports organizations. If franchises are regularly changing their front office leadership, then they are potentially subjecting themselves to significant cultural and strategic upheaval on a regular basis. If executives are to establish consistent and sustainable long-term plans for the direction of their organizations, then they need to be trusted and given time to implement their ideas.

It’s significant that, at 3.5 years, MLB has the longest average tenure for GM/president roles (almost a full year more than the NFL and NHL at 2.7 years). In many ways this is not surprising. Baseball has a long-established reputation for innovative front office management, with GMs being entrusted with long-term, analytics-driven rebuilding projects such as those seen at the Oakland A’s, Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros over the last two decades. 

Of course, in an ideal world every team would have a clearly defined vision and a front office leadership team with the time and skills to execute it, but sometimes contextual factors don’t allow for that. That said, at Sportsology we would always encourage teams to take time to codify their organizational DNA and define their strategic goals to better align staff and give executives the best possible conditions in which to operate. 

If more organizations go through that process, then we should start to see a bigger differentiation between the tenures of head coaches and those of GMs and presidents in the coming years. 

Time to Hire and Tenure

The other key point worthy of comment is related to the time it takes to hire for GM/president roles across the five sports.

As we can see in the data, there is little correlation between time to hire and average tenure. MLS and the NBA have the longest time to hire at 35 days each, but have the lowest average tenures for GMs and presidents. The NFL and NHL, meanwhile, have average time to hire figures of just 18 days and 12 days respectively, yet have the joint second-longest average tenure at 2.7 years. On the surface, it would appear that there is no connection between a long, considered search, and success in the role (if we’re happy to accept that long tenure generall equals some degree of success).

The message here is that there is no established rule of thumb when it comes to the time it should take to complete the due diligence process and hire the right person for a role. Over the last year we’ve helped teams with executive hiring processes that have lasted as few as 12 days and as many as 100; the key isn’t the length of the due diligence process, it’s how well-defined the role, responsibilities and expectations are before the process begins.

If an organization embarks on the hiring process with only a vague idea of the type of profile and experience they are looking for, then it’s likely that they will end up with a poor fit for the role, no matter how long it takes. Conversely, a team that knows exactly what it is looking for will find it far easier to identify suitable candidates. Even if the mechanics of the process take a lot of time, their chances of finding a good fit are much improved.

Our executive search team will be publishing a number of articles and research papers on human capital trends over the coming months. Keep an eye on the Sportsology website for that content, or get in touch with the team directly if you have any specific projects that we can support.

Notes on the data: 

– All data covers five seasons within each league and refers to executives and coaches who were hired and/or fired during that period

– NBA and NHL tenure is recorded up to 12th March 2020

– NFL tenure is recorded up to 2nd February 2020

– MLS tenure is recorded up to the beginning of the 2020 season

– Head Coach data excludes interim coaches

Interested in reading more from the Sportsology research team? Our latest paper, The Dangerous Myth of the Unicorn Leader, is available to download for free.

Image: Drew Beamer/Unsplash

Graphic: Sportsology