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Play on: how COVID-19 is changing the landscape for careers in sport

Sport has provided some of the most evocative sights and sounds of the pandemic – elite athletes’ voices echoing around empty stadia, doors of community facilities padlocked shut and social media flooded with home workouts, Peloton sessions and Strava segment battles  

‘The ups and downs of the past 18 months have demonstrated the importance of sport, says Dr Jonathan Robertson, Lecturer in Sport Management at Deakin University. At its core it is, and will remain, a public good. It’s a service we can enjoya tool for physical and mental health, and for social connection and engagement.’   

Sport changes lives and communities instilling purpose, creating emotional connections, and enabling people to fulfil their potential. It is increasingly leading the way on important social issues too. As an area of study, working toward a fulfilling career in sport is a personal passion for our students.’  

That’s why, alongside Associate Professor Adam Karg of Swinburne University of Technology and Scott Dinsdale of SportNXT, Dr Robertson has been investigating the impact of the pandemic on the business practices of Australian sport organisations from the perspectives of their leaders.  

The insights from this work are essential reading for anyone seeking to forge a successful career in sport 

Lessons in leadership 

As COVID-19 hit, the most successful sport industry leaders did not hesitate to create new norms, support decision makers in new ways, and adjust quickly to the challenges of remote leadership,’ Dr Robertson says 

‘This was a particularly transformative experience in a sport system that has historically demonstrated a hyper-conservative approach to change.’ 

Students of the Australian sport industry will have noted the turnover of senior leadership positions in recent times and drawn their own conclusions about the emotional toll of the pandemic. 

What’s clear, though, is that with more uncertainty ahead, investment in the development of senior leadership teams will be critical, whilst the leaders of the future – at all levels – will need to be resilient and adaptable, emotionally intelligent, and highly attuned to their own mental health and that of their colleagues.  

To that end, as the leaders who have been most successful in 2020 and 2021 will tell you, it’s never too early in your career in sport to have your own coach or mentor. 

'As COVID-19 hit, the most successful sport industry leaders did not hesitate to create new norms, support decision makers in new ways, and adjust quickly to the challenges of remote leadership'

Dr Jonathan Robertson,
Deakin Business School

Purpose and focus 

There’s no shying away from the fact that the pandemic has left us with a sport industry that is, at least temporarily, smaller. National and state sporting organisations have fewer staff and less resources 

This follows a period of expansion of goals and expectations, through which sport organisations have become important social leaders, driving social impact across education, equality, diversity, and wider community benefit. 

There is a concern that some of this might be left behind or lost, as sport organisations focus on core business – there will be difficult decisions to be made,Dr Robertson says 

‘However, the return of participants and spectators, alongside vaccination programs and the reopening of borders will provide opportunities to rebuild. What’s most interesting to us, and to current and prospective sport students though, is the nature of that rebuild what are the characteristics of the sport organisations of the future? 

A couple of these characteristics are already clear, Dr Robertson says. Sports organisations will be seeking future graduates with strong digital expertise, who are collaborative and creative 

Digital expertise 

COVID-19 has fast-tracked the digital disruption that had been creeping up on the sport industry for some time, so it’s inevitable that the best sport industry jobs of the future will go to the most digitally-savvy graduates. 

While we saw sport organisations and brands creating a plethora of new digital assets, content, fan engagement and digital coaching platforms, the biggest change was more fundamental. Post-pandemic, the ability to create customer-centric digital solutions has been transformed,’ Dr Robertson says. 

As trends go, this one seems irreversible and brings sport into line with other industries. Embracing technology and its new opportunities like blockchain, AI and advanced analytics – will be integral to the success of the sport industry and those who wish to work in it. 

Collaboration and creativity 

Collaboration and creativity are the must-have managerial mindsets of the sport industry’s future leaders. 

Post-COVID sport is facing challenges. The broadcast and media landscape is more crowded, complex and fragmented than ever​; physical literacy and structured sport are facing headwinds; and screen time keeps going up, while leisure time goes down. 

That’s why sport organisations are becoming more agile, flexible and innovative. They are looking for problem-solvers, creative thinkers and people who are prepared to reach across organisational boundaries for solutions,’ Dr Robertson says. 

So, if you’re thinking of a career in sport and that’s how you work, the message is ‘play on’ – you will thrive in the sport ecosystem in Australia and, should you choose, around the world.  

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Dr Jonathan Robertson
Dr Jonathan Robertson

Lecturer in Sport Management, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin Business School

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