Are we there yet? Have we reached the end of the disquieting ambiguity and angst that were some of the less physically debilitating, but nonetheless industry incapacitating, byproducts of the pandemic? Even as we’re showered with gloomy prognostications of another fall wave, and a potential recession, our continuing mission is to discern what’s changed and what hasn’t, 26 months after Rudy Gobert. As is our wont, we’ve turned to some of the upper echelon in sports executive search, since they are in positions to spot trends earlier than most.
Undoubtedly, the lasting impact on the workplace from the pandemic is that hybrid is and will be the new standard for white-collar jobs.
“Compensation in sports has increased, for sure, but salary is never the first question anymore from candidates,” said Michele James of James & Co. Executive Search, which recently placed Jessica Berman as the new NWSL commissioner. “The pandemic changed things to where the first questions are about culture and QTR (quality time remaining): Where am I going to have good days?” she said.
From a business in which transience was an unavoidable part of the career path, “we have people simply unwilling to relocate now,’’ said Jeff Yocom, partner and co-head of N.A. sport at search firm SRI, which, like many in search, is coming off a record year and tracking for another one. “That used to be rare in sport, now it’s routine.”
Now the conundrum is whether an industry based around events can ever be comfortable with an arrangement under which many employees are out of the office more than they are in.
“You’ll always have to staff events,” said Buffy Filippell, who founded TeamWork Online (then TeamWork Consulting) as one of the original sports search specialists in 1987. “But even teams will have to be part of this evolution and are being more fluid about days in the office.” For the first time, TeamWork’s listings now have a separate category for remote jobs.
Another unresolved issue is whether top talent can perform as well from disparate offices.
“Remote means your candidate pool is bigger, but it’s still undetermined if top talent performs as well from separate locations,” said Chad Biagini, president of Nolan Partners, acquired earlier this year by Excel Sports Management.
There’s more private equity money in sports than ever, and as any recruiter will say, PE is used to paying for talent.
Salaries are up 15%-20% and “in many of our projects, candidates have multiple offers,” said Scott Carmichael of Prodigy Search. “Sport and entertainment salaries always have skewed lower. They haven’t caught up yet, but in many cases, they are close.” As an example, Carmichael cited an executive vice president of sales candidate asking for $50,000 more than what was budgeted. “For these times, that didn’t seem out of line,” he said.
As for what kinds of jobs are being placed now? Data analytics positions continue to multiply. Elsewhere, Biagini said it’s transitioned from revenue officers to marketing types, citing recent CMO placements with the Houston Texans and LAFC. “There’s a general feeling that teams do a good job selling to their own base of fans and customers, but there’s a need to create more new fans and marketing is the way to get there,” he said.
The explosion in legalized sports betting has produced enough opportunity that SRI hired a specialist with decades of experience in gaming and gambling to service that burgeoning field.
James said she’s starting to hear about an altogether different kind of CMO: chief metaverse officer. Disney recently hired one with a slightly different title (senior vice president, next generation storytelling and customer experience) but “consumer products companies are starting to kick that can,” she said.
Diversity’s importance in hiring was another one of those prerequisites that was increasing in importance before the pandemic, accelerated by COVID, and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. “The desire for diversity in every search has never been stronger,” said Yocom. “It’s no longer a trend as much as a foundational piece. Every company wants to know how you’ll be addressing that issue.”
Echoed Filippell, “I see all those MLS presidents that are women and a commissioner [NWSL], and it makes me feel good and that things really have changed after more than the 30 years in this business.”
Terry Lefton can be reached at [email protected]