Seven Ways Covid-19 Might Be Impacting Your Sports Club For The Better
Covid-19 has been Hell. There’s no denying it. But some sports clubs, in spite of all the chaos and destruction, have noted some distinctive ways that the global health crisis has actually created opportunity or changed them for the better. I managed to list more than ten. But let’s start by looking at these seven.
1. Better parent behaviour at games and sports competition
Amateur sport has long been stereotyped by many as being over-competitive, aggressive and combative. And that’s just the parents. While much of the recreational side of amateur sport is not this way, there is undoubtedly elements of sport where there is truth to this idea. It’s particularly bad in competitive forms of youth sports. But there are signs that Covid-19 has curbed this.
While there are still those who don’t want to accept that restrictions and new processes are in place to protect the health of the general public, many amateur soccer clubs are reporting an improvement in the general behaviour of spectators at training and whatever competition has been allowed to take place.
‘It feels like everyone is just grateful to have the opportunity to be playing,’ the Executive Director of one Ontario-based youth soccer club told me. ‘Suddenly the result of the game doesn’t seem to be a life-or-death situation for people anymore. The pandemic has been quite sobering and it’s had a positive impact on the playing environment in many ways.’
2. A chance to explore new ways of doing things
Amateur sport generally doesn’t embrace change well. There is an underlying rules-based culture that prevents people from experimentation or exploring new ways because the system fundamentally prefers that people fall in, not try things out.
Covid-19 has turned that on its head. Suddenly the old way is not an option. The only option is to find a different way. This has pushed clubs to explore new creative options that, to their surprise, sometimes work well and are worth continuing with if normality ever returns.
Take volunteerism. The life blood of amateur sport. In amateur soccer, coaches of youth soccer have traditionally been parents of the kids playing. But this has been so, not because parents are necessarily the best coaches, but because they are the people most likely to step up and do it for free. They coach because they are available, willing and cost effective, not because they are necessarily technically proficient.
With the gradual decline in volunteerism in general, the viability of this model has been eroding for a while now. But Covid-19 has really put the boot in. ‘I just had two of my best coaches step back because Covid-19 means they now have to work evenings and can’t coach,’ the Technical Director of one youth soccer club in the prairies told me.
But clubs are now taking the plunge and actually finding ways around this because, well, there’s no choice. One youth soccer club tells me that they have started turning to their older competitive youth players (whose competition is cancelled anyway) to coach and are paying them a stipend for their services. The result is a group of better-trained coaches who know the game (as they play it at a high level), can relate to kids (because they are youths themselves) and are dependable as they are now compensated. Indeed, the club reports that the cost of paying these young coaches is less than the staff overhead that would normally be deployed chasing reluctant parents around to convince them to volunteer to coach.
Better coaches, who are relevant to kids and cost less. All thanks to Covid-19. Without it, it’s unlikely this club, or any other, would routinely experiment like this with something as fundamentally sacred as the volunteer coach. Covid-19 made them, to their betterment.
3. A new respect for capital reserves
Maintaining a healthy cushion of savings on the Balance Sheet is something I’ve been preaching to amateur sport clubs for year. But it usually falls on deaf ears. It’s good fiscal practice to have wealth to the value of at least three months worth of a sports club’s normal operating cost built up in savings (or ‘reserves’). This way, if something came along that meant the club couldn’t raise any revenue (not that this could ever happen, right?), it could still manage through for at least another quarter.
Sadly, the majority of sports clubs I deal with do not have this capital protection and instead program as much as possible, pushing costs to the hilt and living hand-to-mouth, saving nothing. You see, it’s a strange political faux-pas for amateur sports organizations to exhibit financial strength. Instead, they are expected to deploy every cent possible to running programs, often offered at unsustainability low prices, and bathe in the freezing pool of routine financial distress.
The inherent risk in this approach has finally bitten and its been a Jaws-like munch. Let’s go back to soccer again, as an example. Ontario Soccer is reporting that 57% of their clubs and academies have shuttered for the year, and some permanently. Although dollars isn’t the only reason (inability to insure against Covid-19 risk is a big issue), many haven’t had the reserve capacity to withstand the extra cost that Covid-19 protocols require if they were to try to operate. It’s been better to shut up shop, to everyone’s detriment.
Those that have been less cavalier with their fiscal policy are being rewarded with more choice of direction, including the ability to retain their key brain trust. Doubtless, the lesson Covid-19 has taught the amateur sport sector in financial risk, where building capital reserves is sensible, not greedy, will help sports clubs understand the importance of prioritizing financial security over squeezing one more program out of an operating budget.
4. Finding out who the leaders really are
This is a big one. Ask to be shown who the leaders are and, in normal circumstances, we point to people with leader-like job titles. But throw people into the extremity of a crisis, and its amazing how your true leaders emerge and your pretenders disintegrate or run away, regardless of job title.
‘It’s been a real wheat-and-chaff moment for our staff team,’ one sports club Executive Director told me. ‘Some people have really struggled with the pandemic emotionally and also found it challenging to be productive working from home. But for others, the crisis seems to have just brought the best out in them, without them even realizing it. It’s been most enlightening to see what people are really made of when things get tough.’
Covid-19 has ruthlessly shone a spotlight on sports organizations’ staff capability. With no corners to hide in, the unmotivated and unproductive have been exposed, while the leaders have glowed bright. For many organizations, it’s taken the crisis we call Covid-19 to show them weaknesses and strengths in their people that they never saw before.
5. Showing the community how important sport really is
There is no denying it – life without sport sucks.
Never before has the tap on sport participation literally been suddenly turned off as it was in March 2020 and it has to date only been turned back on to a dribble. This pandemic has shown us all just how much participating in community sports activities contributes to quality of life, and how boring life can be without it. And it’s not just for those who are playing. It’s for the parents who drive their kids to training, stand in the arenas, bleachers and pool viewing galleries and make their kids sports activities an important part of their life, as well as their kids’.
By the way, it’s not just fun and wellness that is stripped from community when sport goes. It’s money too. According to data compiled through USA Today, Forbes, Research and Markets and The Drum, amateur sport contributes a whopping US$19.2bn of revenue to the US economy annually. The National Hockey League – professional ice hockey – provides just US$5bn. Amateur sport may seem small, cash-strapped and insignificant at first glance. But roll it up across the enormous fabric of communities across a country and you’ll see that it is an important economic driver.
Indeed, one senior source in Canadian government told me that the best things sport clubs can do right now is to demonstrably show the economic impact of what they do to the local economy, especially in rural regions.
Amateur sport isn’t just play. It’s important economically too, and it can be a first responder to local economies when we are finally allowed to return to normality. Now is the time for sports clubs to capture that economic impact and wave it like a flag.
So yes, Covid-19 has shown us just how much community sport drives a healthy, vibrant and economically robust community, and how much we may have taken it for granted badly in the past. The key question will be, when sport returns, what will the sector do to ensure the people who fund it do not forget what life was like when it was all taken away.
6. Finding new ways to engage sponsors
I’m told anecdotally that corporate investment in sport in Canada has dropped about 50% since Covid-19. A catastrophic figure that probably has you wondering how on Earth I can find a silver lining in this one.
However, some sports clubs are realizing that, while sponsorship is down, it’s certainly not out. In some ways, it’s just changing shape.
Ted Gendron runs a company called KidSpired that is geared to securing corporate sponsorship for amateur youth sports organizations, targeting small-to-medium sized companies in the local community.
‘Businesses still need to connect with their local markets, so sponsorship opportunities are out there,’ says Gendron. ‘While the pandemic has created huge challenges for local business and community sport organizations alike, there is an opportunity for the two to lean in and support each other during these difficult times,’ he continues. ‘That in of itself is an excellent message of corporate citizenship and community togetherness that helps both sponsor and club’.
It’s happening with large corporations too, who are reported to be interested in opportunities to show themselves to be standing beside the communities that house their markets, supporting them with no strings attached. Combatting Covid-19-related mental health issues is an area of particular interest.
This means sports clubs must look at themselves differently and focus the community that participates in their sports, rather than the sport itself. Right now, the advertising or branding space on the soccer jersey isn’t as important as the kid wearing it and their well-being. Some sports clubs that are realising this are opening up new sponsorship opportunities for themselves that wouldn’t have been apparent before Covid-19 exposed them.
7. Athlete safety is genuinely put first
Covid-19 is the latest in a chain of issues that have been uncovered in recent years in relation to athlete safety in Canadian sport.
It started about ten years ago, when we started getting serious about head injuries in sport and the effects of brain trauma in sport-related injuries. It led to the normalization of policies and procedures in the management of head trauma in sports, backed by legislative action in Ontario with the introduction of Rowan’s Law.
Then a couple of years ago, the systemic risk of abuse (mental, physical and sexual) in sports was uncovered in a significant way, leading the sport system to introduce stronger protocols and policies around safety in sport. This was driven largely by strong leadership from the Canadian federal government and powerful advocacy from groups like Respect In Sport and the Coaching Association of Canada.
Now Covid-19 is here, once again pushing the fundamental safety of the athlete ahead of any game, tournament, race or performance event. The result? Athlete safety is becoming normalized as the highest priority, because the sport sector knows that it is simply non-negotiable. It was already happening. But Covid-19 has really sealed the deal.
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 www.capitisconsulting.ca for more and follow Paul on Twitter at @paulvarian or on LinkedIn at Paul Varian.
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