Six Signs Of A Responsible Self-Governing Amateur Sports Club In Covid Times

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

With Covid-19 bringing many of amateur sports governing bodies to their knees financially and capacity-wise, it is falling on community-level sports clubs themselves to step up and self-govern in a responsible way. Can they do it and what does this look like?

While some parts of the world are enjoying some reopening of amateur sport from the Covid-19 global pandemic, many regions are still restrained under lockdown measures. In these regions, in particular most of Europe and many parts of North America, it's been close on a year now and it's starting to take its toll.

When we think of amateur sports, we commonly think of a community club. But spare a thought for the industry’s governing bodies right now, many of whom are on their knees financially right now.

Nineteen sports governing bodies I quickly surveyed recently reported to be getting by with an average of 50% of their normal operating capacity right now, with some reporting less, amid catastrophic fiscal distress. It means that amateur sport’s authorities simply can’t cover every base right now, nor should they be expected to.

When it comes to prioritizing their activities, sports governing bodies appear to be focusing heavily on policies and rules enforcement, and items like coach certification and high performance programming that they are commonly the sole providers of. But many of the ‘nice to have’ items like sponsorship programs, outreach activities and the annual conference may well bite the dust for now. Many are also indicating difficulty in running their competitions like before, which will have a knock-on to return-to-play participation rates and quality of sports offerings that can be put forward.

It means that governing bodies need a responsible self-managing club membership now more than ever before. Governing bodies simply don’t have the bandwidth to crack the whip with uncooperative member clubs. Yes, its time for sport club leadership to step up, responsibly self-govern, and take some pressure off their governing bodies so stretched resources can be deployed in the right places.

So what does this responsible self-governance look like? What can sports clubs do now that will have their governing bodies thanking them, not cursing them? Here are six simple things to consider:

1) Continue to follow required Covid-19 safety protocols, especially as sport starts to return to play.

It may seem obvious but, as vaccine rates rise, infection rates drop and herd immunity levels start to be reached, sports clubs are going to be put under incredible pressure to open it all up and get back to 2019. Hand-in-glove with that will likely be pressure to slacken off some of the Covid-19 safety protocols that we have all become accustomed to, but most of us dislike.

Vigilance will be required here. Dr Anthony Fauci (you know him – the gruff-talking American infectious disease expert that drove Trump mad with facts and science) recently said mask-wearing would likely be required well in the USA into 2022.

Make no mistake. Maintaining these measures for this long, especially when it doesn’t openly appear that we need them anymore, will need strong leadership at community level, where these measures are actively put in play. As a community sports club, you’ll need to ensure you have the leadership in both your administrative and technical functions that supports and protects your frontline program staff and volunteers out in the field and suitably penalizes those who choose to shirk the protocols.

No, continued focus on sport participant safety isn’t going away as an issue and you’d better believe your sports clubs’ governing bodies know it. In our survey they rank this vigilance and discipline around participant safety as the second most important thing sports clubs can do to be self-accountable in 2021 – higher than any ability to return to play or balance sheet health. They get it, but they need their club members to continue to as well.

2) Be conservative in re-opening your sports programs.

Naturally the entire sports system wants to get back to play as soon as possible and an ability to re-open quickly is ranked third on our list of what your governing bodies want from you in 2021. But wanting you to be able to open quickly doesn’t been wanting you to open irresponsibly. Sports clubs must be mindful of why so many clubs got into such difficulty over this pandemic in the first place.

I’ve written before about how cavalier amateur sports clubs are when it comes to managing risk. And, in spite of the whacking the sector has been given, I’m not convinced everyone has learned their lesson.

Most sports clubs have extremely skimpy balance sheets and are often close to hand-to-mouth with their management of liquidity. This leaves them very open to financial distress if revenue unexpectedly drops or costs blow out.

To that end, most sports clubs have to be very careful about committing a whole load of sunk cost to a program that runs the risk of being cancelled due to a Covid-19 relapse. They simply can’t afford to send that cost out there and not have it come home to their P&L with revenue in tow. But too many sports clubs may roll the dice and try anyway.

When the time comes to re-open, responsible self-governing sports clubs will do so gradually and conservatively. They’ll start small, with modest, simple programs, shorter in length, lower in operating cost and less reliant on other organizations such as third party competition bodies, multi-jurisdictional clubs, or even third party training partners.

Start small and, where possible, keep it in-house. If this works, build out from there.

The truth is, we don’t know how long it will take to wrestle this virus, and all of its variant friends, to the ground. Don’t unnecessarily put your limited resources at risk trying to jump ahead of that process.

3) Stay relevant to your market.

This is a really important one, and sports clubs’ governing bodies agree (its fourth on our survey list). Sports clubs’ ability to continue to connect with their participant base, membership, community, market (call it what you will) is crucial as we navigate our way through this.

I’ve written about this a lot already, but I’ll unashamedly say it again. Now is the time to show people who use your sports club that you are more than just a transactional sports program. Don’t be a club that has nothing to offer if you aren’t playing sport. And, worse still, don’t be a club that has nothing to say.

Some sports clubs have done a great job innovating their programming, messaging and activities aware from pure sport, and more to community building. It’s effort well spent because we are starting to get data now indicating that people won’t be coming back to amateur sport like before (at least not in the short term) and that includes coaches as well as athletes and players.

The way to mitigate this risk is to stay in your participants’ hearts and minds and you can’t do this if you haven’t spoken to them or offered any way to engage with them since early 2020.

Keep connected – whatever it takes. It’s the secret sauce to a successful return to play when you get there.

4) Keep investing in your coaches’ education.

Although this curiously doesn’t rank that highly with sport governing bodies in our survey in term of importance in self-accountability, I think it should be well up there.

When I speak to sports organizations (clubs or governing bodies), one of the biggest frailties in the sport system that they commonly point out to me is coach education and excellence. There simply aren’t enough well-qualified, well-educated coaches out there and often coaches refuse to get qualified because they claim not to have the time.

Covid-19 has handed the sports system an opportunity to remedy this on a platter.

Coaches (for the large part) have not been coaching as the system has been shut down, and may have had time on their hands too. We know anecdotally that governing bodies that have moved to put much of the coach accreditation courseware online have seen huge upticks in enrolment – often two to three times the enrolment levels of traditional in-person classroom-based courses. So coaches are going on courses. The question is, are community sports clubs asking them to?

Focusing on ongoing coach education creates the wonderful silver lining of an enhanced, qualified coaching community to be deployed into the system when return to play is fully unleashed. It's also a great way to keep in contact with a key constituency of your participant base (volunteer coaches) while we can’t play, which we noted in the previous point is so important.

5) Be measured in your expectations of your governing body.

I remember talking to the Executive Director of an amateur youth soccer club last year. He was incensed that his governing body was getting back to him with information that he needed in what he deemed a timely manner. When I told him that the governing body had had to shed 90% of its staff and also sacrificed important revenue by waiving affiliation fees from its clubs that year, to protect their balance sheets, he looked surprised.

Its easy to continue to have pre-Covid expectations of your governing body, but that mindset is not fair or reasonable. Cut your governing body a break. They are likely doing it very tough with a skeleton staff and simply won’t be able to cover the volume of work or be as productive as you or they would like.

I’m certainly not one to let governing bodies off the hook in terms of their responsibilities to the sport systems they lead. After all, we wouldn’t expect them to do that to their member clubs and participants either, would we? But you must frame your expectations of them in the context of what we are all facing this year.

What do you really need to ask of your governing body right now? If it isn’t truly needed, don’t bother them with it. Even better, see how you can be of help to them. It is in these tough times like this that this kind of self-accountability and leadership will be appreciated and remembered when times improve.

Now is not the time to bash your governing body, regardless of how capable or dysfunctional you deem them to be. Be supportive and cooperative. It will help everyone get through.

6) Don’t fight with your fellow clubs – be united as a system!

Further to this, now isn’t the time to be picking fights and getting into bickering contests with other sports clubs in the community. Not only does it take valuable time away from your governing body in trying to resolve these squabbles, but it also makes everyone look bad and shows your club to be disconnected from its community and who it really serves. Who cares what the club down the road is saying? Focus on your fee-paying youth athletes stuck in isolation and in poor mental health – that’s what your community cares about.

Now isn’t the time to complain about a coach trying to recruit one of your top players or a neighbouring club trying to entice your top coaches away. Instead, consider contacting your neighbouring clubs and seeing how you can work together to create a common, consistent message of support from the amateur sports community. If clubs around you are struggling, reach out and lend them a hand. Their pain or even demise isn’t in your interests when you’re looking for good local competition next year. Get everyone rowing in the same boat right now. It’ll help everyone, especially when it comes to convincing your community to come back and play when you are permitted to do so.

These are six things you can do to drive self-accountability into your sports club. But there is one broad phenomenon that ties them all together and it is top-of-the-list on sports governing bodies’ wishes when it comes to what they see as responsible self-accountability in their clubs. And it is strong club governance and Board leadership.

You see, club performance and the culture that drives it starts in the Boardroom. A dysfunctional Board makes it impossible for a club to take a collaborative approach with its neighbouring clubs or governing body. It doesn’t allow it to think outside the box in connecting with its community or use this time to invest in its coaching brain trust. And it leads to the reckless approaches to management decision-making that erodes the enforcement of important safety policies and prudence in the re-opening of programs.

So keep investing in the leadership development of your Board of Directors! Their leadership skill, clarity of thought and courage in decision-making will continue to be tested throughout this year and likely into 2022 as we continue to fight this pandemic. Invest in this, and the other activities that define a strong, responsible, self-governing sports club will take shape!


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 Book ‘Don’t Blame The Soccer Parents’ ( Visit for more and follow Paul on Twitter at @paulvarian or on LinkedIn at Paul Varian.