The coronavirus pandemic has had a profound financial and structural impact on professional sports, with organizations having to make significant adaptations to negotiate the existential threats posed by the crisis over the last year.
Following the successful completion of several major leagues and other global sporting events in COVID-secure conditions, we decided to gauge the opinions of sports leaders as to how the pandemic has changed their organizations – and their own attitudes to the sports industry – in recent months.
To do this, we circulated a survey to a select group of executives and coaches at leading franchises across a range of major sports. Their responses deliver an insight into the way teams have responded to the coronavirus crisis and how they are trying to take best practices from this time to stand them in good stead in the future.
It’s no secret that crises necessitate quick and clear decision making. When placed under stress, it’s important that organizations understand which functions need to be prioritized and protected in order to survive in the short-term.
One of our questions asked respondents to rank a number of functions in order of priority for their organizations during the pandemic. The responses highlighted the transcendent importance of people and organizational health. In fact, 89% of respondents ranked ‘People’ as the most important category, with ‘Organizational Health’ being the only other option to receive first place votes. Understandably, given the financial uncertainty caused by the crisis, M&A has fallen down the list of priorities, with 78% of respondents placing it last of the available options.
Functions in priority order:
- Organizational health
Of course, despite a resolve to protect their people, a reduction in headcount has been a sad, if inevitable, outcome of these financially straightened times. However, there is some cause for optimism, with the majority (55%) of respondents expecting their organizations’ post-pandemic headcount to be 80-100% of what it was pre-coronavirus. Furthermore, 22% of respondents believe that their staff numbers will actually see net growth over the course of the pandemic, with their organizations set to emerge from the crisis with an increased headcount.
When it comes to the long-term financial effects of the pandemic, our respondents offer a relatively optimistic view of how quickly the economy of professional sports could recover, providing the pandemic has eased significantly by Spring 2021.
56% of respondents stated their expectation that the financial landscape would be back to ‘normal’ by 2025, with 44% expecting a return by 2022. None of those surveyed expected a return to the financial status quo within a year, nor did any think it would take longer than five years.
The survey also asked which long-term effects of the pandemic the respondents were most worried about. Their responses paint a picture of a wide range of concerns, chiefly the fear that the public’s confidence in large gatherings will have been damaged by the crisis.
Another concern was the worry that organizations would continue to do everything remotely, even when no longer required, something which a handful of our respondents believed could lead to poorer collaboration and communication in the long-term. Additionally, one of our respondents said that they were worried about short memories; that the valuable lessons learned from the pandemic would be quickly forgotten as teams rushed back to the status quo (whenever that becomes possible).
Opportunities for Growth
Interestingly, despite the far-reaching consequences of the pandemic, just over half of our respondents said that they view the crisis as the greatest challenge of their careers to date. In fact, the consensus from the survey was that the situation will deliver significant growth and innovation opportunities. When asked ‘Do you expect COVID-19 to ultimately present major opportunities for growth and innovation in sport?’, all respondents answered affirmatively, with 88% also stating that their organizations have the resources and appetite to pursue those opportunities.
Many leaders have already seen the beginnings of important changes and fresh innovations that have been catalyzed by the pandemic. When asked about the organizational benefits that had been directly or indirectly caused by the pandemic, several respondents referenced increased organizational agility, cross-departmental collaboration, comfort with remote working, leaner systems, and more cohesive cultures.
When asked to name the single effect from the pandemic that will have the longest-lasting positive impact on professional sports, the answers covered a range of themes from improved understanding of evidence-based medicine, to the building of deeper personal connections between athletes and staff. Another effect that appeared in several answers was a reduction in travel which is clearly being viewed as a positive outcome should scheduling changes become a semi-permanent feature of major sports over the next 12-24 months.
Finally, we asked our respondents to rate their organization’s response to the pandemic out of five (one being poor, five being exemplary). Many rated their responses relatively highly, with the survey average standing at 3.9. So overall, while sports organizations have been faced with major, unprecedented challenges this year, the executives we surveyed are largely optimistic about the recovery of the industry and the potential to learn and grow from the issues that have been navigated in recent months.
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