Sport plays a huge part in the fabric of Australian society. People flock from all over the country (and the world) to enjoy our incredible calendar of sporting events, from the unusual, like the annual Camel Cup in the NT, to the more renowned and highly-prized, like the Australian Open usually scheduled for January in Melbourne. However, the global COVID-19 pandemic brought it all to a screaming halt this year.

After nine months of empty stadiums, the estimated number of active cases in our country is only sitting in the double digits, and our nation of 26 million people is close to finally eliminating community transmission of the virus. So, the question on many people’s minds is: when can we get back to sport as normal?

Players and athletes are certainly keen to get back to work and compete in live events, not to mention all the other workers in the sports sector; those who run the teams, sporting bodies and federations, those in sports medicine, those who sell and service sporting equipment, the data scientists and technology specialists who track and share our favourite teams’ statistics, those in media and broadcast, and those who run the on-ground logistics at the events. And of course, not to be forgotten, are the recruitment and talent acquisition professionals charged with hiring this entire ecosystem of sport professionals.

As we ride out the easing social distancing restrictions, future-focused recruitment and HR leaders in the sector are beginning to make plans for how to survive and thrive in the new world of work. So, what are the post-COVID 19 challenges we need to overcome for a quick and considered recovery in the sporting industry?


Curbing career anxiety

Global Sports ran a study to identify the impact of 2020 on the people in the sports industry surveying over 1000 respondents from 93 countries, covering all experience levels, sectors and across diverse ethnicities and gender identities. The results revealed 19% of those currently employed weren’t confident they would keep their jobs over the coming year, and less than half (42%) of those currently unemployed had any optimism about finding a job in the next 12 months.

The importance of employee engagement and candidate care in a post-COVID-19 environment cannot be understated.

Recruitment and HR professionals have an opportunity to create the environment for employees to feel connected, recognised and supported by doubling down on their mission and making employees feel closer than ever to their organisation’s ‘why’. And by fostering warm and welcoming relationships between your organisation and your candidates, even the unsuccessful ones, you will not only stand-out from your competitors, but you will enhance your reputation and employer brand.


High risks and high volumes

It’s uncharted territory for all, particularly those in hard-hit industries like sport who’ve had to make difficult decisions in the face of uncertainty. The Global Sports study found 65% of those currently unemployed in the industry believe it’s due to COVID-19.

This means in the coming year, you’ll either be needing to hire a lot of talent in a short space of time, or you’ll have a large number of applicants for your open roles – possibly even both. Automated assessment software like psychometric testing or video interviews, will help save a lot of time you could instead spend on building and nurturing relationships with top candidates.

But the kicker of life in post-COVID 2021 will be the constant looming ambiguity of whether we’ll have to endure a new wave of outbreaks. So, in the foreseeable future, we may need to put more thought into adopting temporary and/or contract hiring strategies to allow for staffing ebbs and flows, quickly and cost-effectively.


Lost skills and new roles

In our rush to get back to ‘normal’, you may experience a great temptation to fill new roles immediately. But if you’re not identifying the key skills needed to support your new business goals, you’ll be putting yourself at risk of enormous setbacks – landing you right back at square one.

More than half (54%) of sports industry professionals listed ‘opportunities to learn and develop’ as important when considering future employers; this was closely followed by defined employee development structure for professional growth’. This increased focus on professional development for your current team will need to be considered in tandem with the decision for new hires as you look to fill your skill gaps.

Further, the ‘fan-experience’ for sports has undergone massive change since the beginning of the pandemic, with teams, owners, and sponsors increasing their focus on virtual one-to-one relationships and substitute sports content for media. Consider the skills and talent this requires for the future. Will fans want to continue engaging with these forms of alternative content after normal sport broadcasting resumes?


Where will the work happen?

Overall, 68% of the Australian sports industry professionals surveyed were concerned about being at work post-COVID. It should be no surprise then, that the standout requirement for sports employees in the ‘new normal’ is more flexible working structures – remote working and flexible hours.

Remote work tantalises with its promises of diverse talent pools, increased productivity and retention, savings on facilities and smaller carbon footprints, but not all roles in the sporting industry will be able to make the move to WFH. Sports medicine can’t be administered by Zoom, and tennis balls can’t be fetched and returned to players if employees aren’t in the arena. Revisit your HR policies, contracts and documents to assess the mutual agreements and expectations of working remotely, and the safety measures for when employees must attend the office (or stadium/arena if that’s the case).


Diversity and inclusion

COVID-19 wasn’t the only game changer in the sports industry this year. The Black Lives Matter movement had athletes around the world ‘taking a knee’ in support, and US sports teams in the NBA, MLB, MLS and WNBA boycotted scheduled games altogether to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.

While 85% of sports professional respondents of the Global Sports survey believe BLM is important, less than half of these thought their organisation had taken the movement seriously. Almost half of all the respondents believed those of white ethnicity have an advantage over ethnic groups when it comes to job opportunities in sport.

This movement transcends a mere trend and is a reality all Australian organisations must aim to address to build a better future for our industry.


In summary

2020 has been a hell of a year. Its effects continue to ripple through the world’s health, educational, financial, and commercial institutions, and the sports industry is no different. COVID-19 and the movement for racial justice has accelerated changes in the recruitment industry that may have taken years, and created other changes no one saw coming – who knew ‘creating simulated crowd noise’ would ever be a desired skill?

With professional sports being such a critical aspect of community and social connection for so many people in Australia and around the world, resuming play is something we’re all looking forward to. For this to happen, recruiters and HR professionals will need to respond and adapt to these new challenges in 2021 and beyond.