Shortly after WorkInSports released their inaugural State of Sports Hiring Report, I went into the personal side of where things stand in college athletics with the 2021-22 season underway in earnest around the country. Earlier this week, Brian Clapp dove into the weeds of the takeaways from the report in the WorkInSports Podcast, and this piece offers a continued examination of working in the college athletics landscape as its 2021-22 schedule is well underway.
While flexibility and the ability to do the job remotely are becoming topics employers and employees are more strongly considering now, compared to before the pandemic, sports are inherently an event-based industry. That means sports will always require an on-site presence to run properly. Which is why it’s unsurprising that of the 32.5% of respondents in the State of Sports Hiring Report’s survey who were unemployed and searching for a job, only 6.6% desire a more flexible work schedule. Simply put, if you want to work in sports, you accept having little say in your schedule, due mainly to the volume of events and their non-traditional hours.
The fact that sporting events are still happening and are, for the most part, remote-proof does not mean that there haven’t been changes in how sporting events are run to give athletes, coaches, fans, and workers the best possible chance to keep the show going. My discussions with staff supervisors at the University of Oklahoma, University of Auburn, and my alma mater, Central Michigan University, drove home a theme of forced innovation. Those schools made it through last year’s challenges and are doing the same to this year’s schedule in their own unique ways.
Putting on a successful gameday experience takes an agile event management staff that has detailed protocols for any possible scenario happening. This allows everyone to act accordingly to issues that inevitably arise behind the scenes. A shortlist of responsibilities under the purview of college event management staff includes scheduling officials, securing locker room facilities for visiting teams, arranging practice times, hiring and assigning gameday staff, and much more.
Mike Beirne, Oklahoma’s Assistant AD for Event Management, and his staff utilized the COVID-19-induced pause in the schedule to knock out a list of projects that were on the backburner. They then went to work ensuring the Sooners would be able to accommodate a new reality when the Big 12 committed to playing football and a relatively normal athletic schedule. The reality was not without some bumps in the road, but their protocols helped bring them to ultimately hosting a successful Women’s College World Series with no fan restrictions in the spring.
The information gleaned from the college athletics employees in this series regarding how they navigated an athletics season compromised by COVID-19 was interesting on its own, but incomplete with how things scale going into 2021-22. Continuing with Oklahoma’s example, that forced innovation led to the incorporation of some technology into spots that could probably have dealt with these innovations sooner (no pun intended) to minimize touchpoints between fans and staff while giving them a memorable experience.
While only 6.6% of our unemployed State of Sports Hiring Report survey respondents indicated a desire for a more flexible work schedule as a primary driver of their search, flexibility is on the radar of job seekers within the sports industry. Among our survey respondents, 25.9% believe difficulty finding positions with flexible scheduling options will impact their online job search efforts in the coming months.
Without the flood of humanity at tailgates they were accustomed to, Auburn University’s marketing and fan engagement staff applied flexibility to their tactics to connect to its fanbase. Even at full stadium capacity, focusing solely on the events meant omitting communication to the largest segment of the Tigers’ fanbase. Auburn’s Assistant AD for Marketing and Fan Engagement Dan Heck’s staff leaned into those opportunities to make people who couldn’t partake in events feel connected to their favorite program.
Inertia is a powerful obstacle in any industry, and sports are no exception. When bombarded with work coming from numerous sources, it is easier to do things that have been done for a long time because “that’s the way it’s always been done.” What the pandemic did for those still in athletics was pause the stream of events and allow people to evaluate the effectiveness of what they were putting forward.
At Central Michigan, that evaluation was a holistic approach to all areas of the athletic department, both from an event and day-to-day standpoint that is continuing today.
Even with the necessity of being around events, some employers, such as Oklahoma, are showing flexibility in creating a more modern working environment that does include the ability to do some of the work from home, as presenteeism is less important than getting the job done. That flexibility works both ways, however, and is crucial to making an impact working in the sports industry today.
Author’s Note: Chad Twaro spent 12 years working as an Athletic Communications professional with four schools before the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. He reached out to contacts from various points of his career to provide perspectives from college athletics professionals who navigated an unorthodox 2020-21 school year and the lessons they are applying for the 2021-22 season.