The U.S. economy added a record 4.8 million jobs in June (after adding 2.7 million in May) as businesses shuttered by the coronavirus gradually re-opened their doors. But despite the NBA, NHL and MLB all actively preparing for a return to the court/ice/field (and the NFL planning to start as scheduled in September) it remains a precarious time to be an employee of a pro sports team. As reality sets in that stadiums and arenas will be at less than capacity for the foreseeable future, clubs are actively working to identify alternative means of driving revenue and fan engagement (think: VR, digital media). Chad Biagini said that fundamental shift in approach is bound to create “significant turnover” amongst team employees over the next 18 months. The President of Nolan Partners, a sports and entertainment executive search firm, explained that “now, more than ever, owners of pro sports organizations need leaders who can create and sell assets beyond tickets and in-stadium signage, and it’s likely many will find that their existing sales and marketing teams are not equipped for that imperative.”
Our Take: Clubs across the big four sports leagues have been hesitant to make decisions on human capital over the last several months without knowing what a post-COVID-19 world might look like. Now that the major U.S. leagues have all announced plans to restart their seasons and teams have a feel for how the pandemic will impact their businesses moving forward, Biagini says he is “starting to see sports organizations act on employment decisions.” While the transition to a more digital/social approach will certainly have its casualties—teams won’t need nearly as many ticket sales reps to bang the phones—it should also result in new opportunities and a positive evolution of some existing roles. It’s reasonable to assume parts of the workforce will also be reallocated.
CMO is one position that Asher Simons (CAA Executive Search) expects to be re-thought. “[Team marketing departments] need to be engaging better, with a younger, different demographic of people” and that requires having personnel with the ability to leverage digital and social channels. Biagini agreed: “Historically, so much of the job’s focus [at least within the world of professional sports] has been on engaging the local marketplace. But without an ability to bring fans to the venue, there is now a real need to treat these teams as brands and to manage them as such.”
While teams have long desired to get better at selling digitally, most have never been willing to invest the resources to do it. The initiative has always been viewed as cost-prohibitive because it was either an additional expenditure on top of ticket sales group salaries or because the opportunity cost—if it didn’t work out—was too great. But Biagini says the sports hiatus has changed the mindset within many organizations. “Clubs now realize there is going to be a period where they won’t be selling all of their hard inventory and that they can use the time to learn where their customers are digitally and to get good at segmentation, targeting and positioning,” he said.
Biagini also sees corporate partnership roles being revamped, as teams discover a “need for a more strategic approach to sponsorships than selling signs and spots. There’s also an opportunity to start thinking broader in terms of marketplace as some leagues are beginning to allow clubs to sell internationally.”
Over the last couple of weeks, Nolan Partners has launched executive searches for a pair of Heads of Diversity and Inclusion positions and a Chief People Officer role. As pro sports organizations seek to provide a better experience for current employees and look to attract the “absolute best talent”—particularly now that they’re working to recover from the pandemic-induced losses—Biagini says there’s been an increased focus on human capital oversight. Simons suggested that trend actually started pre-pandemic, before the current social movement really gained momentum, but agreed that it is one certain to continue moving forward.
Health and Safety specialists are also expected to be in demand in a post-COVID world. Simons said that individuals capable of offering insight on “how to get individuals safely back into the building” have become particularly valuable to pro sports organizations.
Over the last three or four years, domestic pro sports teams have increasingly looked outside of the sports world for talent. Both Simons and Biagini expect that trend will accelerate in COVID’s wake as the need for broader skill sets becomes obvious. Hospitality, gaming and enterprise technology are among the sectors primed to be raided as they’re among the industries leading the way in digital, social and brand management (areas teams want to get better at) and business verticals where a significant number of professionals have been displaced.
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