Five Key Outlooks For Amateur Sport In 2022 – Straight From My Gut!
Readers of my articles will know that I am usually loath to make statements, conclusions or predictions that aren’t based on evidence, fact and strong rationale. But today, in my first article for 2022, I’m going to throw all that away, back myself, and boldly make some predictions that I have for the amateur sport system in 2022, informed largely from my gut.
In fairness, I’d like to think it’s a good gut. I’m in regular touch with what is going on in this industry – it’s my livelihood after all. But am I going to be quoting industry experts or waving research papers at you to support what I am going to predict for the year ahead for sport in the words that follow here? No. This one is all from the niggling notion, un-scratchable itch or the ‘general sense’ that I have.
Take it or leave it, here it goes!
1) The strong return to play will continue in summer 2022
This time last year, I wouldn’t have believed I’d be making this prediction. In fact, the opposite; I was flat-out worried about post-covid return to play and amateur sport participants’ appetite for it. Surveying that I and some of my proactive sport governing body clients were undertaking at the time were pointing to approximately one in five amateur sport participants not returning. The consistency across the data sets, across different sports and geographical jurisdictions, was daunting and worrying. Covid-19 was going to kill sport participation, I feared.
Thankfully, the advent and deployment of vaccines in 2021 appears to have changed this. It seems that, since Covid-19 vaccines have arrived and are now widely deployed, the general public has confidence participating in, and importantly putting its youth in, community-level amateur sport. People have come back to play, and in some cases, in greater numbers than before the pandemic hit.
Signs of this started to emerge in the second half of 2021, when sport clubs started to look more like what they used to in 2019, in terms of their ability to freely program. When sport programs were up and running again, people came back to play. And by Fall 2021, soccer clubs in British Columbia, Canada were reporting an increase in registrations of 10%-15% on pre-pandemic levels.
This fundamental return to play hasn’t been linear or standardized everywhere. Obviously return rates have depended on the continuously changing public health restrictions in certain jurisdictions (Ontario, Canada, was still heavily locked down in 2021 when parts of the USA were fully open for business), the nature of the sport, the nature of the participant (youth has returned in far greater numbers that adult) and so much more.
But in spite of Omicron spoiling the party somewhat in early 2022, expect this robust return of amateur sport participants, particularly our youth, to bounce enthusiastically into the spring and summer as public confidence in health and safety in participation continues to strengthen.
2) The scarcity of volunteers will continue, particularly with grassroots-level coaches
Volunteerism was an issue before Covid-19 hit. But it’s becoming a crisis now. The lack of community-level volunteer coaches returning or stepping forward in 2021 was a particularly bad problem. I don’t have data to back it up, but I can tell you that every sport club manager I spoke to reported it as their biggest challenge in return to play, way ahead of health and safety protocols, facilities availability or participant return-to-play.
The problem looks set to continue in 2022, due to a combination of factors, not least of which, of course, is that this pandemic just keeps rumbling on and it appears to be affecting volunteers differently from the athletes, players and their parents.
The pandemic has turned people’s routines on their heads and the idea of committing to a volunteer activity for certain days every week for months on end just isn’t cutting it with some casual volunteer coaches. The uncertainty of it all is making people naturally gun-shy about committing to anything at all. Others are busy working, looking after kids and just trying to get by. Some still have lingering safety concerns (‘my aged mother-in-law lives with us; I can’t take the risk of this virus getting inside our household’.) Others just don’t want to commit to anything right now. One coach said to me that they had decided not to coach this year because the family wanted flexibility to get on a plane at a moment’s notice and take a vacation overseas, something they hadn’t done for three years.
The bottom line is, at the casual volunteer end of the coaching scale, coaching is something a worrying number of volunteers are simply not prepared to prioritize when stood against their other life priorities that Covid-19 has pushed ahead.
But we can’t just blame in all on Covid-19 – it’s bigger than that, and we know it. The struggle to make volunteerism ends meet is a problem that has been hanging around amateur sport for years now, and is only getting worse, with or without our spikey blue and red ball-like friend and all its variants. Many consider volunteerism to be the biggest existential threat of any kind to amateur sport moving forward and amateur sport needs to take a new approach to it, rather than just trying to peddle harder with the same approach on the issue.
The bottom line is that the issue of lack of volunteers isn’t going away. Covid-19 just kicked it along a few years for us to push it from nuisance, to problem, to impending crisis.
Expect another tough year in 2022 recruiting volunteer coaches. And maybe start thinking about longer term solutions to this problem that, at this point, the amateur sport system doesn’t seem to have any answers for at a systemic level.
3) The availability of match officials will be the biggest barrier to the recovery for many competitive amateur sports
This obviously isn’t an issue across all sports, particularly in very young age groups where the focus is on fun and play and rules are modified or sometimes not really strictly enforced at all. But in many competitive sports, particularly team sports, it was a serious problem in 2021 and look set to continue in 2022.
Last year, match officials walked away in their droves. For example, some leagues and jurisdictions in Ontario Soccer reported 50% attrition in their match officials in 2021, which directly impacted their ability to properly run their competition programs.
I saw it first hand. My daughter is a soccer match official. I could have cloned twenty of her and still wouldn’t have been able to cover all the match assignments she was being offered from all around the Greater Toronto Area. It was hell for the poor referee assignors, some of whom has to cast aside their assigning duties, pick up a whistle and jump in to officiate an uncovered game.
While I hope this is not repeated in 2022, it’s hard to see how it won’t be. I can’t see what will magically bring all of these officials back and, with the best will in the world, there is no way the sport system can train, accredit and deploy that many rookie officials to cover such huge capacity gaps, so quickly.
I am not sure what the answer is, but expect this important area of sport that is often taken for granted or overlooked to be a problem area again in 2022.
4) It will be a candidate’s market in the area of executive management expertise
One of the sad but seemingly inevitable impacts of the pandemic on the amateur sport system has been the toll it has taken on its executive brain trust.
Initially, in the panic of the shutdowns, many Executive Directors and Directors of Coaching were let go by their sport employers. Others left over time, exhausted with the impossible task of leading a community-facing organization in the chaos and uncertainty of on-off lockdowns and public health restrictions that seemed to slip on sand from month-to-month. Those that are left look beaten down and some just can’t recover from it all and continue to leave, even though they are through the worst of it. Regrettably, many are leaving the sport system altogether.
I know many of these people and am proud to call some of them friends. I was once one myself. It pains me to see this attrition, not just because these are all really good people, but also because they are going to be so damn hard to replace. It is so hard to attract strong leadership to amateur sport, in competition with the commercial sector’s salaries and the public sector’s pensions and benefits. It’s even harder to find people that not only understand the nuances, idiosyncrasies and quirks in amateur sport, but also embrace and even like them.
We cannot afford to continue to lose the precious metal that executive sport leadership is like this. You simply can’t replace it with another warm body. And it takes years to train and develop.
So sport Boards who may be reading this - guard your executive HR assets. Good executive sport leaders are hot commodities right now and this isn’t going to change in 2022. Already early on in this year, the executive sport employment market is hot as sport organizations start trying to hire back the leadership they lost in 2021 and 2020 and are finding candidates aren’t lining up to fill in application forms.
Expect this executive talent war to continue and deepen throughout the year and into 2023, as the enormity of the impact of the Great Resignation reveals itself and truly kicks in.
5) The amateur sport funding model will shape-shift - no assumptions should be made
Here’s an interesting one that I hope you are already carefully considering as a sport organization, as a core part of your routine management of risk. Can sport organizations continue to rely on the traditional funding model, that has been disrupted by Covid-19?
Traditionally, sport clubs at community level do the vast majority of their total revenues through fee-based revenue lines – usually in the region of 70%-80% of their total revenues. That’s to say revenue their earn from registrations fees charged on the skew of sport programs they offer their community. The very fundamentals of what they are there to do.
The remainder is generally made up of government grants (which are more significant and sustainable in certain jurisdictions, compared to others) and corporate sponsorship. Some clubs manage to cobble together some fundraising and donation-based revenue, but it’s generally pitifully low compared to what other not-for-profit industries are able to routinely raise, including some that are close to home like the arts.
2020 and 2021 threw amateur sport’s traditional revenue models into disarray. In heavily locked-down jurisdictions, fee-based revenue plummeted, but government grants sky-rocketed as government assistance programs kicked in. Corporate sponsorship dropped, but some organizations saw donors step up unexpectedly. Revenue mix in a complete flat spin.
Where this levels out is probably one of the big mysteries for 2022. But for those of you trying to work it out, I’m leave you with these two thoughts to ponder.
Firstly, if you are reliant on community-level government grants to support your core operations, be careful how long you choose to ride that gravy train. Governments have been shelling out to prop up local business and the economy for two years now and it’s clearly unsustainable. At some point, the taps going to turn off and government is going reset its operating cost base to start the process of hauling back these deficits, that likely won’t be complete until long after we are all pushing up daisies. ‘Nice to have’ granting programs to community-level sport and recreation will likely take a bullet, and a long term one. So prepare to wave goodbye to government grants as a dependable, robust revenue line for community sport. If it doesn’t get punted, it’ll certainly be severely deflated.
Secondly, now is a good time to have some serious conversations with your corporate sponsors. Corporate sponsorship fell by 50% in 2020, but did return in 2021 with return to play, and will continue to in 2022. But what form will it take? Throughout the pandemic, sponsorship has pivoted to supporting causes heavily geared to youth mental health, EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) and employee welfare. Throwing a corporate logo on your team jersey and getting the sponsor to work it all out isn’t the right approach for 2022. You need to know where your sponsors’ heads are at as we head into 2022. What is the cause that is driving value for them? Is it different from what they have been supporting over the last two pandemic years? Sit down with them, work it out, and ensure your sponsorship offerings are tightly aligned. Because 2022 is set to be a year when sponsors’ wants and needs continues to develop around a shifting, community-driven value-add.
Paul Varian is the President of Capitis Consulting Inc., a boutique management consultancy focused on adding value in and around the amateur sport Boardroom, and author of Amazon #1 Best Selling Soccer Management Book ‘Don’t Blame The Soccer Parents’. Visit www.capitisconsulting.ca for more and follow Paul on Twitter at @paulvarian or on LinkedIn at Paul Varian.
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