Covid-Era sports case in crisis leadership

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Across all sectors, Covid-19 has created a dilemma: stop everything in its path, continue as usual, or chart a new course? As in any crisis, leaders were forced to make decisions with limited information, at the risk of being judged for their lack of foresight – which, later, might be perceived as recklessness, meaninglessness. business, or both.

A prime example of this leadership challenge comes from the world of sport. When combined, the NBA, NFL, MLB and NCAA lost an estimated $ 14 billion during the pandemic, in addition to immeasurable emotional losses for players, coaches and fans (especially when it s acted as high school, university and Olympic athletes with a limited number of recruitment and competition deadlines).

What is remarkable is that these losses were felt at all levels, despite a wide range of responses from leaders. Some organizations have shut down completely, in reaction to public health regulations; others continued, regardless of the potential risks; and still others have compromised, maintaining the show while accommodating health concerns. Sports in the Age of the Pandemic can therefore provide an interesting case study of business leadership during a crisis.

How can managers weigh the price of pivoting against the price of procedure? What options do leaders have when they do not have all the information? What do these different approaches tell us about leadership in times of crisis?

Case 1: Cancel the culture

On March 12, 2020, the NCAA stunned coaches, players and fans when it called off all of its remaining winter and spring tournaments, including, for the first time in 82 years, the Final Four. In a declaration, the NCAA said, “This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 threat to public health, our ability to ensure that events do not contribute to the spread of the pandemic and the inability to organize such events at any time during this academic year. “

Unsurprisingly, the reaction was polarized, with Arizona State men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley Tweeter, “I respect the NCAA’s decision to put the safety of everyone first,” while Texas Tech male golf coach Greg Sands tweeted: “I love that @NCAA is coming to look in the eyes of my players right now. You’ve ripped out the hearts and souls of these guys! Why are you canceling the season so prematurely? “

Due to this decision, the NCAA lost $ 800 million in revenue (although this was partially offset by an insurance payment of $ 270 million and a $ 26 million increase in investment income), and saw a 54% drop in revenue year-over-year. other. However, these are far from the only funds in the organization that have been affected; the cancellation also had untold ramifications for players. “It was heartbreaking to see the answer” noted University of Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione. “You look at a number of student-athletes who not only worked that year, but they worked their entire lives for that time. “

As it was at the very beginning of the pandemic, when so little was known about the virus, the NCAA cannot be faulted for putting people first over profits in what must have been a leadership choice. incomparably difficult. As Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman said ESPN back then: “It was the most amazing time of day I have ever had or seen in my 30 plus years of working in the sports industry. “

Case 2: Business as usual

In July 2020, as cases of Covid-19 increased, hopes for a college football season dwindled. However, the harmful impact of the cancellation of football, which is the economic support of many sports departments, would have had repercussions on college sports. Leaders have been forced to weigh these far-reaching negative effects against the unpredictable dangers of playing into a pandemic.

Each conference was left to its own decisions: the SEC sued, for example, while the Big 10 canceled and then changed their minds and decided to play. It was clearly not an easy choice for any of the leaders involved. As a sports director of Power 5 put it Illustrated sports at the time: “I hope we don’t sell our souls to the devil to try and play.

Despite initial apprehension, the season ultimately appeared to be a success – both in terms of letting students play (thus keeping incomes and morale relatively high) and in terms of maintaining public health. “The student-athlete positivity rate relative to the campus as a whole was consistently lower and the campus positivity rates were lower than surrounding communities,” noted Dr. Doug Aukerman, who served on the Pac-12 Medical Advisory Group.

“I think reaching the finish line means the sport has been successful,” added Chris Fowler of ESPN after the national title game. “I mean, against all odds and against a lot of smart people who thought it wasn’t possible, the sport succeeded.” While the safe end of the season was a relief for everyone involved, the executives would undoubtedly have been hooked if things had turned out differently.

Case 3: Compromise Kings

Finally, we can look to organizations that have been successful in creating a hybrid solution, balancing public health and benefits as best as possible, and using the additional knowledge that comes with additional months of fighting the pandemic. The NBA playoffs are probably the most successful example: For 100 days, starting in July 2020, teams played in a tightly controlled bubble at Disney World, with no fans or family members.

During the season, not a single player, coach or staff member tested positive for Covid-19. “We didn’t have any positive tests while we were here, 90 days, 95 days maybe for myself,” he added. noted MVP LeBron James. “I had a little calendar that I checked. But on a more serious note, no positive test. It is a success for all who participated.

That said, not everything was perfect: Mental health issues related to isolation have taken their toll, with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver grateful that “The overall utilization rate of psychologists, on and off campus, has been quite high. (Nonetheless, we should applaud the fact that NBA executives ask their players about mental health on a daily basis and, in doing so, allow them to seek help anonymously and easily.)

Overall, this hybrid approach has proven to be a successful leadership choice. It was a bold, creative and original solution that balanced the needs of the organization and the audience, including players and fans. “We can’t thank the NBA enough for all of this experience,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra noted. “It’s just extraordinary, this bubble, this campus, the security protocols and just the organization of everything. To be able to be a part of something historic like this to continue our season, we feel so honored and grateful. ”

Looking back, I cannot be the judge of which of these decisions was “right” at the time. After all, the hindsight is 20/20, and we know so much more about the coronavirus than a year and a half ago.

What I can say is that these leaders had to make extremely difficult decisions with extremely limited information at an extremely unique moment in history. They were forced to balance the needs of their businesses – their bottom line, their employees, their fans and their legacy – with the needs of their fellow citizens.

So what can we learn from this about leadership in times of crisis? That the business world has no crystal balls. And that the courage to make those tough decisions – that’s leadership.



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