Six Crucial Messaging Points For Amateur Sports Clubs In Times Of Covid Crisis

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

The best amateur sports clubs are realizing that in times of crisis such as these, what you say is as important as what you do. What should you focus your messaging on as an organization, as we continue to battle the Covid-19 global pandemic? Here’s my top six to consider!

My first job out of college in 1994 was in sales. Initially, it was a tele-sales job, paying a pittance, selling business book summaries in a dreadful job. I think I only lasted a few months before moving on. I remember little about that job that was positive except for a few great people I got to know and also one of the best learning moments I’ve had in my career.

I was chatting with one of the more seasoned sales agents. This guy seemed to have no trouble leaving every call with a sale or strong prospect of one. I wandered over to his desk one lunch break.

‘How do you do it?’ I asked. ‘Everyone I speak to is hanging up on me before I get half way through my pitch.’

He looked up from his take-out pad thai. ‘Don’t sell the sausage,’ he said with a cunning grin. ‘Sell the sizzle.’

It was a great lesson; one that applies to many things, way beyond wretched business book summaries. His message was simple. A product or program is a bland, unemotional thing. What sells it is the value it brings. The sizzle - what makes an otherwise unattractive tube of who-knows-what ground meat shoved in a skin-like tube look, sound and smell like something you have to grab in a bread bun and devour right there. Product is sausage. Value is sizzle.

Covid-19 has presented unprecedented challenges because since March of this year, we haven’t been able to make sausage like we used to. But that’s doesn’t mean we can’t still sell sizzle.

The best sports clubs are understanding that, regardless of what conventional sports activities they can or cannot program, they have to continue to sell the sizzle that is the irresistible pull of community connection, the inspiration of youth development, and the comfort of human togetherness through volunteerism. These sports clubs understanding they are actually about people first. The sports are just something they do.

North Toronto Soccer Club is one such sports club who is doing this well.

‘We have come to realize as a club that we are really about our people, particularly our youth and volunteers,’ explains Technical Director Billy Wilson. ‘We’ve found that if we try not to get blinded by the traditional idea of what an amateur soccer club should do, target what we can control, and switch our focus more broadly to our people at large, then there is a lot we can do and plenty of good stories we can tell.’

With this in mind, here are six points you should consider communicating as much as possible from your sports club, to remind your customers that you are still there and continue to provide plenty of sizzle.

1. Show you’re taking athlete safety seriously

f your sports club is still engaged in training activities, find examples to show how you as a club are diligently following health and safety protocols for your athletes. This doesn’t just mean issuing arbitrary and soulless statements about how you are following the Covid-19 rules. Show by example. Take a video of an actual training session and point out the safety protocols in action. Do quick interviews with the parents of youth sport participants from your club indicating that they have every confidence in the efforts you are making to keep your athletes safe and well.

Brams United Girls Soccer Club, located in Brampton in the northwestern suburbs of Toronto, Ontario, has done it well.

Using twitter and other social media platforms, the club was clear and professional in the communication of its safety protocols as they moved to return-to-play in July 2020. They featured video content showing cleaning of equipment, social distancing of girls training and clear reference to the club’s playing protocols.

This level of professionalism didn’t only show the club’s existing customers that they were serious about their players’ safety, but also the broader community of Brampton and the Ontario soccer system at large, helping the club assume a clear position of leadership.

2. Show your club giving back to your community

If your sports club isn’t able to better people through actual sports activities right now, message how you are doing it through other means. If you believe your amateur sports club is ultimately the property of the community, then now’s the time to pay it back to the community and make sure everyone seeing you doing it!

Take a look at the Burlington Eagles Hockey Club. This competitive youth hockey club has positioned community action as a core component of the club’s value system. Their annual Gift Of Giving Back holiday food drive is the centre piece of their efforts. Launched by the club in 2005, the food drive was the largest in the whole of Canada in 2018, raising an incredible 601,639lbs of food for people in need that year, prompting a congratulatory message from the Prime Minister of Canada.

And although Covid-19 has curbed what the club can do with the program in 2020, the Burlington Eagles have still been out making their mark and letting their community know, as noted here in their local newspaper The Burlington Gazette on 15th October 2020.

If you want an example in this, look no further than Waterloo Minor Soccer Club (WMSC) outside of Toronto, Ontario. Community work like this doesn’t just impress the parents of the young hockey players. It impresses everyone, even those who don’t care about sport.

So do the same. Show your community that you care and if your sports programs get shut down, you won’t just shut up shop and let the community hang out to dry in their time of need. A picture of kids helping their community out without being asked to does more to position your brand closer to community, validate community grants and attract your local sponsors than a thousand sales calls, press releases and media buys.

Focus on your community and show it. It’s the very essence of amateur sport and there is no better time to immerse yourself in it and proudly tell everyone.

3. Tell stories of teamwork and camaraderie

Check the mood of your community out there and you’ll quickly get a sense of frustration and loneliness, with a generous sprinkling of fear. People are beaten down, feeling low and sometimes quite isolated. So grab onto any chance you have to show teamwork, camaraderie and the spirit of just getting on with it, through any examples you see in your sports club.

Back to North Toronto Soccer Club, who stumbled across a great example of this just a few days ago and used it to demonstrate their club values of not complaining, focusing on what you can control, and working together.

An early winter storm in Toronto had brought sudden snow, which was hampering the outdoor training that they had decided to pursue in order to minimize Covid-19 infection risk (rather than move indoors). But instead of cancelling practice that night, the team decided to collectively shovel the soccer field free of snow and train anyway.

Crucially, the coaching staff had the foresight to snap a pick, take a video, and put it out on social media. The result? A wave of positivity from the club’s membership base.

‘We’ve been contacted by the parents of other player groups telling us to let them know the next time a soccer field needs clearing and they will be down with their shovels to pitch in,’ says Wilson. ‘It says a lot about the club, but most about the people who make it what it is, especially the players and coaches. Don’t forget, the players suggested clearing the field because they wanted to practice so much. They drove the bus on this idea with pure, contagious enthusiasm.’

If you think this is just trivial news about shoveling a field, look more carefully. The picture shows everything the club is trying to be for its community and is giving readers of the social media post happiness and hope. That is worth a lot.

Capture these moments as they arise and make sure you replay them. They are the little things that may seem small and insignificant on their own but, when rolled up, are the very fabric of your sports club and the essence of the sizzle you sell.

4. Showcase your coaches

The most important asset in your sports club is your coach. The data is there to clearly support it. So why not take this opportunity to turn the spotlight on them and put in bold caps what fantastic capability your club has? Don’t assume they know. Like you, in normal times they are probably too buried in their own sport activities and concerns to look up at what other coaches are there, what they are like, and how experienced and qualified they are.

Your sports club is about human faces and personalities more than crests and logos and your coaches should be the poster children of your organization, especially your senior, established ones. Find a way to bring them to the forefront and let your athletes, parents and fellow coaches get to know them.

And you can actually use Covid-19 to do it.

Oakville Soccer Club in Toronto’s west-end took the opportunity to have their coach leaders run online training and personal fitness sessions out of their homes for their youth players during the initial lockdown months in April and May of this year. But they also ran get-to-know sessions with them online, free for everyone to participate in.

This kind of messaging is cheap and easy to execute, but also smart. It keeps your sports club, and the people who drive it and excite your customers to join it, front of mind. This keeps your sports club’s brand alive, fresh and engaged even if you aren’t running any of the conventional sports activities you would normally use to do this.

Focus on your people. It doesn’t have to be complicated. But they are your club and people will want to hear from them.

5. Find special interest stories among your athletes

As sport people, we naturally get caught up in the competition side of sports. We forget or don’t even notice that the sizzle is the personal story behind the player or athlete, not the result of the race or game.

I’ve touched on this above with regard to bringing your coaches in from the cold and into the minds of your customers. But it shouldn’t stop there. Take this to your athletes too. Not all of them, of course. But look for interesting stories, anecdotes or experiences that can connect them with your audience. The stories are there; you just have to go and look for them.

An obvious example that I am amazed more sports clubs don’t aggressively promote and celebrate in North America is NCAA scholarship offers. Say what you will about the merit of chasing scholarship offers as targets. However, such an offer is a clear level of personal athletic accomplishment that most fair-minded people would see as being worthy of acknowledgement and celebration. Throw in the backdrop of Covid doom and gloom and the idea of cheering for a few excited teenagers signing US college offer letters feels like watching a full-on royal wedding.

I know of some amateur youth soccer clubs that have traditionally held an in-person event for the signing of NCAA scholarship offers and I’ve been part of some myself. They are great events, but they’re clearly not on the cards right now.

North Toronto Soccer Club, however, this year decided to post vignettes on all of the soccer players receiving NCAA scholarship offers on their social media, to great effect.

The result was a steady stream of fantastic pictures of happy soccer athletes taking this huge step, having completed an amazing athletic journey at the club. More and more, the tweets came. Good news story after good news story. Repeated messaging that the players at this club are succeeding in spite of it all (which would mean that their coaching must be pretty good, too).

Again, these things don’t take much effort. Just an awareness of what is newsworthy, interesting to your broader non-sporting audience, and can put your sports club in a good light; a light that continues to add value where it can, in spite of what is thrown at it.

6. Be optimistic!

I have no case study examples to give you for this one. But it’s probably the most important item to message out of this entire list of six.

Find ways to communicate optimism and hope. It’s too easy to see the negative aspects of everything that is going on, and even easier to forecast more bad times. But your customers don’t need that; CNN and the like will do it for them.

Try to find stories, ideas or general news in your sports club that will cheer your customers up, put a smile on their faces and make them feel good, if even just for a moment. It may be something really small, funny or quirky, even. Put it out anyway. Rally around people. Find any ‘wins’ you can and promote them. Highlight any successes you can find, even if that is nothing more than maintaining the status quo.

Be positive. Be optimistic. It’s the best message you can give right now and the least likely to be forgotten.

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.