It has been widely reported that sports teams, venue owners and the companies who service them have struggled to find stadium workers since reopening doors to fans. But it’s not just the hourly, front-line positions that the industry has had a hard time filling. “The Great Resignation”—a term broadly used to describe the trend of Americans quitting their jobs in hopes of finding greener employment pastures—has contributed to the supply-demand imbalance that exists for entry level and mid-level (think: $75,000 and up) employees in sports-industry offices. Pandemic-induced layoffs, a lack of flexibility in the jobs and an increase in competition for talent from outside of the industry have also contributed to the seller’s market that currently exists. Len Perna (chairman and CEO, TurnkeyZRG) said it has reached a point where there is now “some stress around trying to find [lower] level people [for] the business teams.”
JWS’ Take: The pandemic can be partially blamed for causing the abundance of unfilled sports jobs. As Lou DePaoli (managing director, executive search and team consulting, General Sports Worldwide) said: “[Teams] had a lot of change during COVID—whether they furloughed [staff, had to] let people go [or] people left on their own. Whatever the reason, front-office staffs have been diminished over the past 19 months.”
Now clubs are looking to backfill many of those positions. DePaoli and Scott Carmichael (founder and CEO, Prodigy Search) both said teams are doing the most hiring for their ticket sales, sponsorship sales and business analytics departments, and that other roles have been much slower to return as teams focus on revenue generation and the analytics to help drive the revenue efforts.
But the Great Resignation is responsible, at least in part, for a shallower talent pool that is making it harder to fill some open roles. Some former employees have left their roles (some on their own accord; others forced by circumstance) for opportunities where the work-life balance is better and pay is greater.
Perna believes pro sports’ demanding game schedule is driving many people away (some teams require all employees to be at every home game). “It’s a big commitment,” he said. “You really need to be passionate [about the job] and want to do it. The next generation of youngsters entering the workforce, a fewer percentage of them want to work 50-hour weeks and then, on top of that, be at all the home games. It’s a part of the job in sports that doesn’t exist if you’re working in any other industry.”
The anecdotal data supports that narrative. While “there are still many people interested in wanting to get into sports, or [seeking] a new role within the industry,” DePaoli says, they are now “being much more selective about which organizations they want to work for. Having respected leaders, a development culture, [offering] a good life-work balance, and providing a diverse, safe work environment are all very important items for candidates when evaluating opportunities.”
With candidates being more selective than in the past, it is taking longer for teams to fill roles (which is why they’re leaning more heavily on search firms). DePaoli noted that fewer people are willing to relocate for an entry- or mid-level job than before the pandemic. “In the 27-plus years I have been in the sports industry, it was accepted that people were very mobile and willing to move around the country to where the jobs were. Now we are seeing people less inclined to do so, and preferring to stay closer to ‘home’ than in the past.”
And some of those qualified candidates, who would have applied for roles in sports in the past, no longer will because the positions lack the flexibility desired. People are saying, “If I can’t work remotely, in a [largely] hybrid model, then I may not be interested in pursuing that certain opportunity,” Carmichael said.
Teams are also finding increased competition for talent over the last half decade. “There’s a lot more competition from technology,” Perna said. “There is a lot more competition from the media side. There’s a lot more competition from Wall Street [and] finance. All of these roles are now being considered by people who are passionate about sports, who would have come straight into sports, but are now taking a look at doing other things that pay more money, offer long-term equity opportunities, etc.”
The increased competition for talent has led to rising wages. “It’s driving the market up and [those being recruited] are benefiting from it.” Carmichael said. For example, one of his clients recently lost an analytics employee to another club willing to pay an additional $75,000 to handle the same responsibilities.
Historically speaking, there has been an abundance of people wanting to get their foot in the door with a pro sports team. So, many organizations have been able to pay their entry-level employees less than market rate.
That is changing as the leverage shifts. “The low compensation is being adjusted by most teams,” DePaoli said. “Teams are starting to realize they need to pay better on the front end. They realize that most people aren’t willing to go in and start at what in some cases might be minimum wage plus commission for a sales job.” As a result, they have brought compensation in line with other jobs in the marketplace.
While the Great Resignation has contributed to a hiring imbalance at the mid-level and down in sports organizations, it has not had much, if any, effect on the VP level and up. “At the executive level, I don’t see a wave of people quitting their sports careers,” Perna said. And any roles that may have come available continue to be filled with relative ease at salaries close to or at the market rate.
Salaries have risen on the pro side, but Karen Weaver (graduate faculty and academic director at University of Pennsylvania) said it is her sense that those in the trenches (think: social, in-house media, sales, communications) on the college side have watched “their income stay flat. They [are] just happy not to have been laid off or furloughed.” (Sportico’s new college sports finance database will not have 2020-21 academic year data until early 2022).
Of course, that is despite the rising expectations and responsibilities associated with the jobs. “We keep growing the number of activities [and milestones] that we want to celebrate and recognize,” Weaver said. “The pressure is on [to do it] for every athlete in the program. And yet the staff size doesn’t change.”
In fact, at some schools, the staff has shrunk. “A lot of jobs [remain] unfilled due to cost containment efforts,” she said.
(This has been updated to clarify salaries for mid-level office employees in the first paragraph.)