A new report shows how the pandemic disrupted and transformed the practices of the Australian sport industry, suggesting a way out of COVID-19 for the global sport industry.
The report from Deakin University, Swinburne University of Technology and sports thought leadership summit, SportNXT, on the impact of COVID-19 on Australian sport suggests the pandemic not only disrupted the industry but accelerated long term trends that are fundamentally changing how sport is consumed, delivered and managed.
The researchers analysed the experiences and perspectives of senior sport executives from professional teams, sport governing bodies and advocacy groups to assess the impact of the pandemic on business practices and the lessons learnt.
Three key areas stood out as to how business practices were disrupted, which will underpin how sport is managed and delivered in the future in Australia and around the world: new styles of leadership, collaboration and digital transformation.
The collective uncertainty created by COVID-19 drove new leadership practices and previously unseen levels of collaboration in an industry known for hierarchies and silos, which advanced the efficiency and effectiveness of the whole sport industry.
“We found the successful leaders were agile and innovative, not hesitant to create new norms, support decision makers in new ways and adjusted quickly to the challenges of remote leadership,” said Deakin Business School’s Dr Jonathan Robertson.
“Many sport organisations responded by embracing new ways to work and communicate, reimagine their products and processes and break out of entrenched views of leadership styles.”
Dr Robertson said one clear tool to overcome this uncertainty was collaboration.
“Leaders and organisations communicated with each other more, shared information, formed and strengthened partnerships. Continuation of these practices opens the door to central systems and procedures, and for the right kind of partners and provided to thrive in the sport ecosystem.”
Looking to the future, Dr Robertson said the sport industry will continue to be asked to do more with less, as they begin 2021 with less people and smaller budgets.
“The gradual return of participants and spectators does provide opportunities to rebuild organisations,” he said.
“However, the learnings from the pandemic about the importance of new leadership practices, collaboration and reimagined digital practices are critical for the ongoing productivity and success of the sport industry.”
Sport organisations proactively and quickly embraced the role of technology during the pandemic, finding new ways to reimagine digital content and augment broadcast delivery.
Director of Swinburne’s Sport Innovation Research Group Associate Professor Adam Karg said digital practices, once a strategic competitive advantage, became ‘essential for survival’.
“The pandemic provided new ways for athletes and coaches to work together, we found new ways to watch sport, undertake new rituals, and interact with teams and athletes,” he said.
“Sponsors and broadcasters also found new ways to engage fans via digital media and at home experiences.”
Associate Professor Karg said the most critical outcome has been the way organisations were able to embed digital offerings so rapidly, think flexibly and take risks by trying new things.
“Going forward, we would expect to see far greater capacity from sport organisations to utilise data practices and technologies, including blockchain and artificial intelligence to continue to provide better experiences for fans and truly lead sport into the next era,” he said.
One concern from the researchers is what might be left behind or ‘lost’ as a result of working with less resources, including that organisations may be forced to focus less on social responsibility and leadership in areas such as education, equality, diversity and community benefit.
“Certainly, this is just the start of a challenging time for sport, and one that might either be seen as a disruption on the way back to ‘business as usual’ or an accelerator for new leadership, better collaboration and a more digital and efficient future,” Associate Professor Karg said.
“As players and spectators return to sport, the lessons learnt from leaders in the Australian sport sector have domestic and international relevance about how to manage through and recover from the pandemic.”