Sport is a unique industry that not only captures the hearts and minds of a global audience, but also brings us together as fans and supporters. At the core of it all are the athletes who inspire and entertain us with their skill and talent.
The businesses of sport, health, and wellness are multibillion-dollar industries, but when it comes to empowering athletes to work in these sectors, there’s a lot more to be done globally.
In this article, I’ll answer a few questions to share experiences from my own journey of competing at events like the 2004 Olympic Games to working in the world of sports tech, while I’ll also outline ways that organisations can help athletes transition to their post-competitive careers.
Is there enough athlete representation in sports business? And are the right pathways in place to help competitors transition to working in the industry?
The transition from being an athlete to working in the sports industry can be challenging. Depending on the length and level of their competitive career, and the pace at which the industry is evolving, athletes may sometimes find themselves without the required skills, networks, work experience, or awareness of available opportunities.
The mental and emotional switch that’s required cannot be underestimated either. While there is a lot being done globally to get more athletes on the field, there’s a dearth of representation within administrative and leadership roles on the corporate side of sports. Many organisations and leagues are introducing diversity and inclusion efforts and programmes, but addressing this problem requires support systems and a coordinated effort between multiple stakeholders.
The beauty of sport is that all participants come away with skills like discipline, teamwork, leadership, time management and resilience. These attributes can empower athletes to excel in various roles.Shikha Tandon, Director, Partnerships, Svexa
As an athlete, I was keen to work in anti-doping science but didn’t know where to begin or who to ask. The college counsellors had never heard of this career choice and were a bit limited in their advice. Universities don’t offer this as a dedicated programme or degree either.
The process eventually involved networking with researchers in the field and tailoring my elective college courses to focus on a topic related to anti-doping science in an effort to strengthen my skills and résumé. Fortunately, this focused effort led to a role at the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
How can athletes apply their sporting experiences to their careers?
The beauty of sport is that all participants, irrespective of level of ability, come away with skills like discipline, teamwork, leadership, time management and resilience, to name a few. These attributes, combined with specialised training and education, can empower athletes to excel in various roles.
In recent years, there has been an increase in athletes pursuing careers in sports after retirement. Traditionally, these roles included coaching and athlete or event management. But with the boom of social media, technology and wearables, and the global expansion of sports and leagues, the opportunities are endless.
While there’s still a way to go, it’s heartening to witness the rise of women in sport – not just on the field, but also in the workforce. Some athletes are even turning to sports entrepreneurship and venture capital as investors.
A growing number of current and former athletes, such as Serena Williams, are now spearheading investment funds
Today, the business of sport is diverse and encompasses a wide range of roles. When I relocated to Silicon Valley, it was time to move on from my role in anti-doping science. With limited experience or understanding of the tech industry, there was a phase of self-discovery to figure out “what next?”
Sports tech as an industry wasn’t nearly as established as it is today, but relying on my knowledge of the sports sector, I landed a role as a product manager at a fitness wearable company.
In essence, product management is a coordinated effort, much like a sports team, where the coach (product manager) creates a roadmap and guides and develops the athlete (product) towards peak performance. Meanwhile, teammates, family, sponsors and educational institutions (engineering, design, customer support, etc.) contribute their skills and common goals to keep everyone aligned and focused on achieving the desired outcomes.
Falling back on this analogy from time to time helped me navigate the learning curve of a new domain.
How can the sports industry benefit from the unique perspective of athletes?
Athletes have lived experiences that could benefit all facets of the industry. Their perspectives also mean they can be representatives for their fellow competitors, whether that be when implementing policies, developing and enhancing programmes, or leveraging technology to improve performance or fan engagement. Athletes also have a unique platform and voice to positively influence their respective communities and bring about social change.
What steps can organisations take to enable more athletes to work in the sports industry?
Empowering athletes to work in the sports industry – or any other organisation for that matter – requires a harmonised approach, which could look something like the following:
a) Education and training: Sports organisations can partner with educational institutions to co-develop tailored programmes that equip athletes with the required skills and role-specific certifications. Offering more generic courses in areas like management, business, marketing, finance and negotiation could benefit athletes while they’re competing, as well as after.
In my experience, the key was having these in place while I was competing. All it takes is one injury to change the trajectory of a sports career, and having a base level of knowledge to leverage could help ease the transition.
b) Mentorship programmes and internship opportunities: Connecting athletes with industry professionals will help guide athletes and open their eyes to different career paths.
As I’ve grown in my career, I’ve participated in multiple mentorship programmes working with current athletes and also gained mentorship from industry leaders myself, where we’ve been able to personalise the conversations to cater to a specific career trajectory.
Internships are a valuable way for athletes to showcase their skills, but also gain experience and streamline their interests for the future, even if it means realising what they don’t want to do.
c) Flexible work arrangements: This enables organisations to tap into athletes who are still competing, but also excel in areas outside their sport. That means recognising the demands of training and competition and adopting flexible work arrangements to accommodate their needs, while also enabling them to contribute to the industry.
In my current role leading partnerships at Svexa, I’m fortunate to work alongside an incredible team of current and former athletes, who are not only competing at the highest level but also creating cutting-edge technology and driving innovation in sport and health. The role itself is the perfect blend of my experiences working in science, product management, and sport. Another reminder that, as athletes, we’re constantly evolving and have the innate ability to harness a growth mindset.
To conclude, as athletes bring their unique perspectives and ideas to the table, the sports industry will evolve and thrive, driving innovation and ultimately enhancing the sports experience for all.
I’m excited about changing the narrative, where athletes are not ‘just athletes’, but where their sporting experiences are a springboard for what all organisations strive for in their workforce – diligence, resilience, and a can-do mindset.
Shikha Tandon is a member of the inaugural NEW ERA class of 2022/23. To find out more about the programme, click here.