With the calendar flipping to September, the fall portion of the 2021-22 season is well underway for college athletics programs throughout the country. As iHire and WorkInSports released their first-ever State of Sports Hiring Report this week – shedding light on what the landscape is looking like for the industry as it attempts to bounce back from a COVID-19-marred 2020-21 calendar year at all levels – we also look to add some personal perspectives to give context to the statistics in this report.
Following a nationwide pandemic-induced string of layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts, NCAA conferences forged plans to attempt to play an altered schedule. At the Division I FBS level, where football drives the revenue bus, that meant moving ahead with a modified 2020 fall season, and at most universities, moving the remaining fall sports into the spring season. This doubled the amount of events in that portion of the calendar and added further strain on staffs already stretched thin.
As the 2021-22 season gets underway, we checked in with college athletics professionals at the University of Oklahoma, Auburn University, Central Michigan University, and Xavier University to get a further glimpse of the realities of working in sports in 2021.
Throughout the next month, we will be diving into the weeds of different areas of the college sports industry, where we’ll examine what things look like on campuses across the country with what is hopefully a more traditional 2021-22 schedule.
College athletic departments throughout the nation felt the pinch of the pandemic. In our State of Sports Hiring Report, 32.5% of respondents surveyed reported that they were unemployed and seeking a job, with 18% of those respondents reporting they lost their jobs due to COVID-19.
While Auburn University did not lay off or furlough full-time staff members, Assistant Athletic Director of Marketing and Fan Engagement Dan Heck alluded to an inability during the 2020-21 season to hire additional student staff and graduate assistants to bolster the department’s ranks. This led to an “other duties as assigned” mentality among the staff that was on hand.
As hiring picks up in sports and other industries with a large potential pool of applicants, there is a significant chance to find people applying to jobs that they are overqualified for. Over the past year, 49% of our State of Sports Hiring survey respondents stated that they applied for a job that they were overqualified for, which Heck saw when filling a position on his staff this summer.
“I think you may have more overqualified people applying for roles that they may not have at first as part of the re-entry process to get back on their feet,” Heck commented. “Then their next job could be the one they are positioning themselves for. Things will eventually even out and return to a normal hiring cycle, but we’re still in a unique situation within each conference and each state with COVID and financial issues.”
Among the collegiate professionals I spoke with, a theme that became clear was forced innovation through this pandemic. Logistics such as providing additional hand sanitizing stations, conducting bag checks without physical contact, spacing out seating (wherever fans were allowed at all) were suddenly paramount to both running an athletic event and keep these seasons going, as University of Oklahoma’s Assistant Athletics Director of Event Management Mike Beirne shared.
“We looked at the metrics and had to ask some serious questions,” Beirne said. “How can we safely distance everyone? How does that look staffing-wise? How do we make the world touchless? We looked at how to get rid of programs and exchanging cash. Every type of vendor came out to offer creative solutions to these challenges.”
Oklahoma allowed for 25% capacity at its athletic events, an odd look, particularly at a football stadium used to housing 86,000 fans. That reduced capacity provided other challenges beyond the bottom line, such as how to staff these events and what to prioritize, along with some hard conversations about what needed to be done to make sure these seasons continued unimpeded.
From an external communications and marketing perspective, this innovation taught workers how ready that they are to lean into the digital sphere to operate their gameday environments, something that Xavier University Director of Athletic Communications Greg Lautzenheiser sees continuing going forward.
As of September 1, there were roughly 5,000 open college athletics positions on WorkInSports.com's job board. Those include coaching, academic support, compliance, event management, marketing, communications, digital media, and administration. Sports are happening, and the demand to rebuild staffs is certainly there. The challenge is in rising to the top of the applicant pool, as in addition to the unemployed job seekers in the industry, there 58.1%of respondents in our State of Sports Hiring survey were currently employed and either open to or actively seeking a new position. Unsurprisingly, 58% of our survey respondents stated that standing out from other applicants in a competitive market is a trend they expect to impact their job search.
To that end, what were the attributes that proved valuable to employers in the industry during the unorthodox 2020-21 season that will impact hiring decisions going forward? Central Michigan University Deputy Athletic Director Rachel Blunt has a few traits that she looks for when going through the current applicant pool.
Author’s Note: Chad Twaro spent 12 years working as an Athletic Communications professional with four schools before the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. He reached out to contacts from various points of his career to provide perspectives from college athletics professionals who navigated an unorthodox 2020-21 school year and the lessons they are applying entering the 2021-22 season.