Today’s guest columnists are Matt Huml of the University of Cincinnati and Elizabeth Taylor of Temple University.
Working in college athletics is a demanding career, whether in the sports information department, as an athletic trainer or in fundraising, just to name a few areas. But over the last 18 months, there has been a concerning number of employees leaving the industry.
We have heard college athletics employees talking about friends and valued colleagues who reached their breaking points and decided to seek out other career options. However, I (Dr. Huml) didn’t decide to examine it further until I spent time talking with someone who had recently left a job in college sports. The person mentioned that when she left, there was only a handful of people still working in the athletic department who had been there when she started five years before.
Some scholars are sounding the alarm about the challenging work dynamics in the college sport industry, which are pushing people to consider other careers (see Huml et al., 2021; Taylor et al., 2019; Weight et al., 2021). One of the early takeaways from this research: There’s surprisingly little information publicly available on athletic department employee trends, such as industry size, attrition, growth rates or retention rates.
Data like this could help athletic departments see how they compare to the rest of the industry and assist them in interventions to help retain more of their employees. There are also compelling reasons to see if there are retention differences across NCAA divisions or based on industry characteristics, such as HBCUs, religious institutions or urban/rural settings.
We were fortunate to have a large data set of college athletic department employee information from fall 2019 and spring 2020. This allowed us to collect updated information from late spring and early summer 2022 and compare the new staff directories with the old employee data, giving us a snapshot of retention rates of around a two-year period. We randomly selected 50 Division I, 20 Division II and 20 Division III athletic departments to see which employees were still working in the same departments.
For a reference point, we researched employee trends across similar businesses (corporate or high-level sport) and found the annual turnover rate was 15%, or a 27.75% rate over a two-year period. That number is also similar to the annual turnover rate within higher education (14.2%).
Our research showed that D-I athletic departments had an average turnover rate of 48% over the two-year period—almost double the expected corporate and higher-education two-year turnover rate. Turnover rate ranged as low as 21.9% (Iowa) and as high as 72.5% (Western Carolina). Within the sample, Power Five athletic departments had a noticeably lower turnover rate compared to other Division I programs. Division III athletic departments fared better than D-I but were still well above national trends from similar industries, with their average turnover rate at 43.7%.
Another concerning stat was the negative growth rate, meaning there were fewer people employed in the industry in 2022 compared to late 2019/early 2020. The worst turnover rate belonged to Division II athletic departments, who reported an average of 58.1% turnover rate and a -10% growth rate.
Overall, findings show a turnover rate within college sport that was significantly worse than similar industries, providing further evidence of arduous college sport working conditions. Here are a few reasons why this may be.
First, upper-level administration employees—those with associate, deputy and athletic director titles—were firmly entrenched in their athletic departments and represented a very low turnover rate. These folks have established a high-pay, high-job-security position with independent schedule control. It’s likely these administrators can defer or delegate some of the worst job characteristics or have even learned to accept workaholic tendencies and burnout as a necessary evil for working within the industry. (This aligns with the results of Huml et al., 2021: Positive work engagement turns into workaholism within college athletics.)
That means the employees lower on the organizational chart are experiencing extreme turnover rates. Indeed, this provides more tangible evidence to Weight’s 2021 findings about lower-rung employees having higher levels of burnout and workaholism than higher-level employees.
Another reason for high turnover in athletic departments stems from turnover of head coaches, especially the football head coach. There is immense pressure on athletic programs to field a successful football program, and when that team is not performing well, it puts many jobs at risk across the athletic department. Additionally, when a new head football coach is hired, he usually has the power to choose folks for positions across the department; many employees’ jobs are possibly contingent on the football coach’s employment.
At the Division II and III levels, athletic departments in public institutions had higher turnover rates (and lower growth rates) than their private school colleagues. It’s possible COVID-19 influenced these differences, since public institutions could have seen a funding reduction, requiring the athletic department to make difficult personnel decisions related to furloughs or terminations. In comparison, private institutions used increased investment in athletics as a tool for increasing their university’s enrollment, especially for universities with smaller annual enrollments.
Our project is simple but noteworthy, because it provides one of the first measurements of college sport turnover and industry growth rates. The lack of college sport industry employment data could be due to athletic departments not being concerned about attrition rates and having to replace largely middle- and lower-rung employees constantly. It also could be that significant coaching churn would give the industry a “black eye” regarding buyouts and lack of consistent hiring practices. These findings also back up the ongoing discussion about folks leaving the profession. It raises concerns about the direction of the college sport employee experience, particularly for those who recently started in the profession and future employees entering an environment designed to not support them.
We plan to continue to explore these concerns further by sending out a survey to many athletic department employees designed to assess the prevalence of groups of toxic employees and their impact on other’s work experiences.
Matt Huml, an assistant professor in the sport administration program at the University of Cincinnati, researches human resources in college sports. Elizabeth Taylor is an assistant professor at Temple University, whose work focuses on diversity and inclusion in sports.