One of the most-read pieces in Sports Business Journal over the past three months has been contributor Bill Sutton’s column (Nov. 1) looking at how the sports industry is facing a hiring and retention crisis. He wrote about the overall labor challenges facing sports, and Sutton’s nearly 40 years in sports business give him a unique point of view. He called for higher base salaries, better benefits and hours and a more concerted effort on personal development. Based on the amount of feedback the column generated, it clearly touched a nerve, so I circled back with Sutton, a friend of more than 20 years, to explore the topic in greater detail.
Sitting in his Florida office, he called on hiring leaders in sports to think dramatically different when it comes to recruiting talent, but he’s concerned that any change won’t come intuitively or easily. “It’s going to take change,” he told me. “I’ve always said that one of the barriers to change in our industry is that people who have risen up to the vice president and president leadership levels have grown up through a similar system. That’s 90 calls a day. In the office before 8 and don’t leave until everybody else has left. Work every game night. Doing all those things.”
But he stressed that’s not the world we live in anymore, and the employees he has spoken with — many are his alumni from years of teaching — want to continue to work remotely with a measure of autonomy and certainly don’t want to commute to the office anymore. “They also don’t want to work every game, and I don’t think they want to sit at a desk and make 75 or 80 calls a day,” he said. “People want more to their work life. They want their work life to have meaning.”
He’s concerned about declining interest in jobs, specifically in team sports, post-COVID. We’ve all witnessed the reduced labor pool resulting in team executives working in ticket services, manning concessions and in premium areas to make sure they can still satisfy customers. “It’s to the point now where it’s just so hard to get somebody interested,” he said.
He shared anecdotes of teams lining up 10 interviews for openings but only two candidates showing up, and that has him worried. “When I started teaching sport management, I always told my students, ‘You’re going to work 60 hours a week and get paid for 40. You’re going to work every week during games when people are playing. You’re going to get free hot dogs, but that’s what it’s going to be. And if you don’t want it, the line to work for the exterminator is a lot shorter than this and you can make more money and you can do different things.’ Now people are saying, ‘You know what, Orkin doesn’t sound too bad. I’ve got some certainty.’”
Sutton believes that should be a call to hiring managers and leaders throughout sports to invest in far better benefits, and believes organizations, notably teams and leagues, must make serious financial investments in people — much larger base salaries, more meaningful benefits and realistic work hours — but he also believes organizations should help in paying off student loans and paying for child care. “The job offer has to be attractive, because it doesn’t make sense anymore,” he said. “Child care and student loans are two really meaningful things to employees right now. And they are often the barrier to going to work. Leaders have got to think about it differently.”
The big question is which organizations are comfortable enough, willing and aligned to change their approach to human capital. Sutton is confident some will, and fairly soon. “There will be some organizations that will jump on this, and you will see it within a year. Usually, the sports industry is a tale of dominoes. When one falls, they all come. But on this, I don’t know if they all will, but others that are very, very committed to HR will look at this and figure out what they can do. Then they will have to make a presentation to ownership because there are costs here — there are increased costs, it could impact jobs, you may have fewer people making more money and getting better benefits. So, the question always is how are you going to pay for it?”
Many organizations, even SBJ, are seeing employees leave for various reasons or offers not being accepted because they aren’t matching what other industries are providing. Certain areas of the sports business don’t face this crisis. But many teams and leagues do, and I concur with Sutton and can think of three to five sports teams that I anticipate making very progressive changes to their employee benefit packages to make the sports industry far more attractive. Please share with us what you’re seeing and what sports can do better in this critical area of human capital.
Abraham Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.