Five Things To Pivot To When Your Sport Club Can’t Do Sport!

Capitis Consulting - Paul Varian MBA, C.Dir picture
Paul Varian MBA, C.Dir

With sports clubs unable to run normal sports activities, many are at a loss at how to remain of value to their players and parents. Some are pivoting to non-sport activities to keep a familiar community connection.

Open. Closed. Open with some people. Open but outside. Closed inside. Open inside but only these activities. On. Off. On. Off.

This Covid thing is a head-wrecker for all of us, but particularly those running amateur sports organizations. Since March of this year, the amateur sports industry has been trying to find a way to manage through this public health crisis; striving to continue providing the gift of sport to those who love it – particularly the kids – while being responsible and keeping safety first. It’s been tough to say the least.

And despite rays of light being shone from the advancement of a number of vaccine possibilities, we all know that – vaccine or not – Covid-19 is going to be a big factor in 2021 for any sports organization. We have to continue to get used to it.

So what to do? If we can’t play sports, we can’t play sports. And, well, that’s pretty much what sports clubs do. It’s written right there on the tin.

Well, let’s take a deep breath and thing about things for a moment here. What exactly is it you do, sports clubs? Yes I know, I just said it. You run sports programs. But really, beyond that. What do you do or, more specifically, what do your sports programs do?

Most amateur sports clubs operate at community level and are usually heavily youth-orientated. They are dominated by two main societal groups – kids (especially those aged 6-12 years old) and their parents. They come to you to participate in sports, but the true reason is deeper than that.

Grab a sample of the parents of kids in sport and survey them. Your results will doubtless yield the same as the dozens of such surveys I’ve conducted. Parents put their kids in amateur sports so they can engage in an active, healthy lifestyle, make new friends and have some fun. Not always in that order, but your survey will almost certainly top out with those three.

Wellness, social connection and fun. That’s the value you provide, that you capture with a sports program.

With all that in mind, here’s the core (and perhaps the only) question you have to ask yourself right now, as an amateur sports club. If we turn off the sports programs (as we have, for the large part, had to), can we still provide this trifecta of core value?

If the answer is no, you’re probably best shutting up shop, hanging the ‘Closed’ sign on the door for now and waiting this out until we’ve all been jabbed with a reliably-proven vaccine.

But before you lock that clubhouse door, stop for a moment. Many sports clubs I speak to right now are very worried about whether or not the parents and their kids will be still waiting patiently there when they unlock the door again. Maybe they’ll have moved on; found the value you served them with elsewhere. Maybe they won’t need sport anymore, even if it is now available and safe. Is that a risk you can take?

Wellness, social connection and fun. Let’s start by understanding that this is what your sports club is about, and that sport is simply your weapon of choice to get people there. So what if you replaced the sport part with something else? Aren’t you still essentially adding the value you did before?

Sure, if might feel a bid odd to be a sports club that isn’t offering conventional sports activities. But what of 2020 can you see that has been conventional? There’s no flour in the store because everyone’s baking bread. We’re choosing boxed wine over bottles. We’re buying medical masks for friends as gifts, like they are fashion accessories. Oh, and the outgoing President of the Unites States has locked himself in the White House and is refusing to come out. Conventional this-is-how-it’s-always-been-done-around-here thinking is out of the window for 2020, and will likely remain there for much of 2021 too.

So forget about what you conventionally did in 2019. Try to free up your mind and explore what you need to do now to keep filling that value gap. Wellness, social connection, fun.

Here are five things you might want to consider programming into your sports club’s activities, to help bridge the value connection.

1. E-Sports

Research shows that e-sports is growing at a faster rate than any conventional sport and is now comparable or even larger in market size than many individual sports on a global scale. In certain regions, particularly South America, it is becoming dominant. However, cursory testing I have done of the attractiveness of e-sports among conventional sport clubs suggest that the amateur sports industry sees it as being a threat, more than an opportunity.

Truth be told, the industry has its head in the sand on this one. E-sports isn’t going anywhere and is likely to be fueled by the normalization that Covid-19 has created in online activities, ranging from school education to grocery shopping. Sports clubs can deny that e-sports is relevant all they like. But the fact is this; the kids are already there. And if it’s a choice between the game console or the hockey skates, the kids are picking up the console.

But now the kids don’t even have to make the choice. Covid-19 has taken the skates away. The console remains. Alone, with no opposition.

So maybe it’s time sports clubs dropped their guards and finally started embracing e-sports as a necessary surrogate to conventional sports, while the latter is metaphorically on ice. No, it’s not ideal. But if the kids are going to be in front of a screen anyway, wouldn’t it be better that it’s sports instead of Tik Tok?

Dr Norm O’Reilly is the Director of the Institute of Business Sport & Leadership at Guelph University in Ontario, Canada. He’s conducted impressive research in recent years on major trends and global dynamics in the sports industry at large, including the rising phenomenon of e-sports. He believes it has a place.

“Our research indicates that e-sports can be an opportunity for a few, but not most, from a revenue side,’ O’Reilly says. “However, from an engagement of your youth players, it can be huge. Create a platform on FIFA video-game for your U12 soccer players to join and play together. Set up a night for your bantam hockey team to have a remote NHL 21 tournament. Have your swim club try online cycling as a group. Kids want to compete and play. In many sports, they are only practicing. E-sports can help you engage.”

O’Reilly is right. Even if you can’t run your soccer or hockey club’s normal programs, you can still simulate the thrill of team sports, camaraderie of teammate experience, rivalry of opposition, albeit through a game console. So contact your neighbouring clubs, especially the ones you love to hate. Set up an e-sports league in the sport of your club. Arrange your players into the same real-life teams they would be in it on ice, on field, on court or on deck. Let them have at it! Social interaction and fun. Your core value-add. Just a different way.

2. Community Volunteering

Some clubs have started doing this before Covid-19 was born, but it’s become more relevant and important than ever before. Start from the assumption that most amateur sports clubs are the inherent property of the communities they draw their athletes, coaches and volunteers from. Take that thought further and it seems natural that these clubs should be systematically giving back to the communities that allow them to exist at all. Mix in a generous dollop of Covid chaos that removes normal sport and leaves people – kids especially – with nothing to do and you’ve got a great reason to focus on community support in your club.

No, people didn’t sign their kids up for sports for them to go and do social work in the community. But the world didn’t sign up for Covid-19, and the people in need at your local foodbank didn’t sign up for poverty and hardship either. So take this opportunity to underscore the values that your sports club probably promotes around respect, integrity, commitment and community mindedness and set your athletes and volunteers to work helping your community. I’ll bet your community needs them right now more than ever.

If you want an example in this, look no further than Waterloo Minor Soccer Club (WMSC) outside of Toronto, Ontario. Even though the club can still operate limited soccer programs, they are moving to full-on position themselves as a genuine partner to their community, sport or no sport. They’ve created a partnership with a local charity called Food 4 Kids, that provides meals for students on the weekends. They also have a fundraising program named Coffee 4 Kids; WMSC volunteers help them by putting the food packages together but also selling coffee.

“We are very proud of what we do off the field and strive to be a good community partner,” says the club’s Executive Director, Paul Burns.

“In these times when normal soccer activities simply aren’t possible as we would like, it's actually given us as opportunity to try some new things. The key for us is keeping the club in the minds and lives of our players and parents. That doesn’t change for us, even if it is changing shape right now.”

Contact your local food bank, animal shelter or family help centre. See what you can do to help. Get your people out, as far as Covid-19 restrictions will allow. Your community will thank you, as will your sport parents, who will be dying to see their kids not only out of the house, but doing something constructive and worthwhile. A bit of exercise, hanging out with friends and feeling good about themselves while doing so. Wellness. Social connection. Fun. Your core value-add. Just a different way.

3. Game / Performance Analysis

Okay, you can’t play sports at the moment. But who’s to say you can’t talk about it? Here’s a chance to actually embrace the online world that has been forced on us and move some of your sports programming from ‘doing’ to ‘analyzing’ and from ‘training’ to ‘learning’.

At higher levels of athletic development, competition analysis becomes a normal part of athletic program design. But why can’t everyone be exposed to it, if they want? If you can’t coach in-person, on-field or on-ice, start teaching on-screen.

Establish weekly game or competition review meetings between your coaches and their teams. Get online together and watch pivotal games, races, or competitions. Analyze the play collectively. Get everyone to input. Point out things your athletes won’t have noticed. At the very least, have fun as a group watching the sport that you all love and yearn to participate in.

Take the opportunity to check in with people. How are they doing at school? How is their home life? Are they getting to see their friends? Do they have people to talk to, or turn to? In sports clubs, coaches are often key figures in the lives of the young people who participate in what they do.

“I don’t know how I’d have got through my youth if it wasn’t for sports,” one KidSport recipient once said to me. A grown adult now, he’s received financial support from this wonderful charity that helps remove financial barriers to kids’ participation in sport. “I honestly don’t think I’d be here today if it wasn’t for what sports gave me.”

Know your broader societal role, especially in the lives of vulnerable or at-risk youth. Don’t let that crucial role you play get turned off with the sports programs. Find a different way to keep the connection. It can be something as simple as watching a hockey game online together with teammates. Wellness. Social interaction. Fun. Your core value-add. Just a different way.

4. Personal Fitness Training

This is one that many amateur sports clubs worked out quite quickly in the initial lockdown of Spring 2020, but it appears to have withered away over the rest of the year, presumably as sports clubs believe they are about to be returning to normal sports operations.

You’re in the sports business. So physical fitness should be as central to you as the paper roll in the toilet roll we saw soccer clubs teaching kids to juggle back in April.

With many commercial gyms and fitness centres unable to offer normal fitness programs, the physical fitness space is one that is simply waiting for you to occupy. It’s also a great way to continue to engage your coaching staff and training staff (if you have them).

Design individual fitness programs, not just for your athletes, but for the people around them too! If you’re a youth sports club, target the parents too. Help people get in shape in their own basements and living rooms. The programs should be easy to design and deliver through basic web-based meeting technology.

Sure, this isn’t a unique idea, and plenty may be doing it already. But if you aren’t as well, why on Earth not? As a sports club, people will be expecting you to be offering this at a bare minimum. It’s also one of the few new non-sport programs or initiatives that you may be able to reasonably monetize, as people are well used to paying for fitness programs.

An obvious one, but don’t let that lull you into feeling it’s not worth it or been done before. Take every opportunity to connect with your community. Fitness is front and centre. Wellness. Social connection. Fun. Your core value-add. Just a different way.

5. Leadership & Personal Development

Finally, think about what you can do to help people continue to grow and develop, outside of your use of sport. Remember, particularly if you are in the youth sports business, you are in the business of the development of people through sport, not the arbitrary provision of programs. Take this to its natural conclusion and you’ll hopefully realize that you can continue to develop people if you choose, with or without the sport.

There are loads of things you can do here. Oakville Soccer Club in Toronto’s west end have a brilliant scholarship program in place, that offers bursary grants to outstanding kids who have passed through their programs and demonstrated strong leadership, academic performance and committed civic participation. The scholarships are awarded at a formal luncheon with a keynote leadership address. It's nothing to do with soccer – all about the kids and what they have grown to become. If you don’t have such a program, why not take this opportunity to start one?

Others are taking different approaches. Waterloo Minor Soccer Club have launched a BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Speaker Series. The project is centred around diversity and inclusion in the sporting world and how sport organizers must be more cognizant of the mental health struggles that BIPOC (Black Indigenous or Persons of Colour) or LGBTQ+ athletes and individuals in the sporting community face. The monthly Speakers Series features notable figures in the sporting community from Canada and abroad and tackles the mental health struggles that athletes and others routinely face, and how to overcome them.

Whatever issue around personal development you choose, make sure you take on something. Even if the sport stops, your athletes’ lives don’t, and neither do the challenges they face. If you can’t do sport, don’t turn your pockets inside-out and say ‘sorry, you’re on your own’ to them. Pivot! Find new ways to help develop them. Start small, with one or two initiatives, and build from there. Reach out to them. Be their crutch, not just their coach or ‘fun pass-time’. Wellness. Social connection. Fun. Your core value-add. Just a different way.

Paul Varian is the President of Capitis Consulting Inc., a boutique management consultancy focused on adding value in and around the amateur sport Boardroom. Visit for more and follow Paul on Twitter at @paulvarian or on LinkedIn at Paul Varian.