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The future of sport, post-COVID

Experts say sport in Victoria must innovate and endure a lean period if it is to regain its role as a lynchpin of community life after COVID.

On 21 August 2020, Deakin Business School hosted a Sports Management Alumni webinar featuring three leading lights in sports management:

Michael Brown – Principal of Michael Brown and Associates, currently acting as a consultant to TicketMaster and Chair of Reclink a not for profit organisation providing recreational programs to disadvantaged Australians. Michael has held leadership positions at the NRL, NRLWC, Asian Cup and Cricket Australia.

Lisa Hasker – CEO of Vicsport, has oversight of Victorian sports, providing leadership and governance from community through to elite level sports organisations.

Donna Price – Head of People and Culture at the MCC, the organisation responsible for managing the MCG, with 150 permanent staff and over 1000 casual event staff. Her extensive sports and entertainment history includes roles at Victoria Racing Club, Melbourne and Olympic Park, and Marvel Stadium.

Hosted by Scott Field, Sport Management academic at Deakin Business School, the webinar provided many insights into the state of sports – in Victoria particularly – in the midst of Stage 4 restrictions.

Listen to the webinar, or read on for a taste of this fascinating discussion. 

Will sports organisations rehire?

On the pressing question of job opportunities in sport, post-COVID, will there be a glut of applicants as displaced employees and new graduates look for work? Will roles that have been made redundant get re-filled?

Lisa Hasker, CEO of Vicsport, addressed the question directly and sees a mixed picture, but one with some potential. She says “I’m hoping that those who have been stood down or put on 50% hours and pay can be reinstated. I know that some staff that were made redundant have picked up other roles, so that’s encouraging. I know there’s been a few roles advertised.”

But, she says, there are unknowns for Victoria, “Sports and businesses are reporting that they’ll be a bit leaner, and we’ll see what that means in the next few months particularly in Victoria. Sports in other states are back up and running, they haven’t had such a long shutdown period and they’re remaining pretty healthy in terms of keeping their staff.”

She’s optimistic for the future, but a recovery period is required first, “I suspect it might be a bit lean for a while, while people get things back up and running and start getting income back into the business. I’m hoping after that, when we grow again, there will be opportunities for people to move within sport and then for new people to come into sport.”

Dealing with the COVID blow

For the presenters, community impact is the first thing to note when discussing the COVID-driven shutdown of sport.

Michael Brown says, “Sport is part of the very fabric of our community, which comes from creating volunteers, who in turn create participants. Participants become part of the journey, they’re the people who are out there in the community becoming umpires, coaches, run the tuck shop and all of those things.”

It takes years to build up that cohort of volunteers so, he says, “Once you fracture those links, my biggest concern is will you get them back?”

Lisa Hasker concurs, saying, “Sport is only one part of a community sporting club. It’s those connections, and the social functions, and the friendships, and all those things that are really important”.

VicSport’s initial response was focused on club communities, as Lisa says “We’ve been encouraging sport, from the middle of March, to connect with their members in different ways. To get people in clubs to ring all their members just to make sure they’re ok. People are obviously going through a whole range of issues associated with COVID-19.”

The commercial perspective

As a very large club, charged with management of MCG, the MCC straddles commercial and community concerns. With 130,000 members currently locked out of the ground, it’s vital to provide content so “they still feel that connection to the ‘G’”, says People and Culture Manager, Donna Price.

Naturally, Donna says, there is “a heavy focus on return of crowds”, which drives a major planning effort to re-open in changed circumstances. Not only anticipating when it will happen, but what it will look like, “what sort of procedures, protocols and practices do we need to put in place, both from a staff perspective, but most importantly, from a member point of view.” Such things as “seating arrangements, use of cash, food and beverage outlets, the end-to-end experience”, will all “look a little different in the future”.

How Is sport preparing for life after COVID?

Clubs emerging from lockdown will face a new world and what that could look like concerns all of the presenters.

Michael is not confident he’s seen much leadership on that front, saying, “What are we doing, as an industry and as a business, to take the next step, to put ourselves back in the marketplace? Young people in jobs, sport, entertainment, community activities recommencing? Because I’m not seeing that kind of leadership.”

But, after what he sees as panic-driven decisions made early on in the pandemic, he says “More thought less emotion is the bit we’re seeing now”.

Lisa Hasker says VIcsport has been focused on preparation for re-emergence. “We did a lot of work on what sports finances would be with 3, 6, 9, 12 months of shutdown. So [we’re] getting people ready and getting them into that thinking.”

The sports organisations under Vicsport’s auspices were also working with purpose. She says, “I’ve been really proud of sports, they’ve adjusted quickly, pivoted quickly, designed some fantastic online, digital programs. All different things have come up so, you know, people have been thinking differently. A lot of sports have used that time to clean up some of their policies, to redeploy staff to do some work that they never quite got to when competitions are on. So there’s some silver linings, but we’re just hoping that people come back when we re-open up again.”

What will the new world look like?

The austerity clubs have had to apply will continue as dormant sports are revived. Michael says, “Prudent management, sharing resources, sharing roles has been an important part of this journey and it’s something that we’ve all got to embrace going forward”.

“There will be no such thing as a CEO, sitting in his or her office, that issues orders down the line. Everybody is going to get their hands dirty and that will probably be a good thing. We’ll get back to the tools of the job and actually see the things that make our businesses work.”

Lisa Hasker is optimistic, saying, “The data from other states that have been back for a little while is good. You know, strong memberships coming back. Not 100% of what they had the year before, but 80-85%. I haven’t got any data on the volunteers and whether a lot of them have come back yet, but that’s a risk, particularly older volunteers that might not feel safe to come back into a crowded environment. So we’ll see how it goes, but we’re hoping that everyone’s keen to jump back, straight in.”

The future of crowds

Donna Price says her organisation is focused on the live experience, “to make it such a special one that people still choose to come out on a Friday night when it’s cold in the middle of July and come to the G”. And that is dependent on people’s perceptions of safety.

With interstate attendances down, even on COVID-reduced capacities, it is apparent that “some people weren’t feeling entirely confident, or comfortable, or safe” to attend.

The MCG must provide “a safe and enjoyable experience” and that requires thinking through “simple things”, scenarios such as half time when food and beverage “outlets are crowded and people feel a bit awkward about that, so what do we do? Do we look at click and collect options? All of those sorts of things.”

The focus is to “make the customer experience a seamless one post-COVID, and we’re still learning about that and what it might look like”.

The future of participation

Lisa Hasker says sport needs to innovate and do things differently at community level. It hasn’t been as good at meeting its market in comparison to consumer goods producers.

Convenience and flexibility are drivers, with developments like “Rock Up Netball”, where you book on an app and play when it suits you, pointing to the future.

“It’s tricky doing all this innovation when you’ve got minimal staff and minimal resources”, she says, but “Unless it’s a bit different, people might not want to come back”.

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