Marisa Reich | Empathy and innovation are key to sport’s post-pandemic recovery

Marisa Reich, chair of She Sports Switzerland, considers sport’s response to the Covid-19 crisis and explains why an innovation-led, human-centred approach can help the industry build back better.

Marisa Reich
By Marisa Reich | 17 February 2021
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12 months ago, it was hard to envisage what would transpire in 2020. Sports on hold for months, events and competitions postponed or cancelled worldwide. Sports, which usually brings people and cultures together, forced to take a backseat and face its greatest ever challenge. This pandemic has the same implications for everyone and yet in almost every country, sometimes even in every state, the measures and restrictions are different.

We have, however, witnessed many industries adopt successful and innovative strategies. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) calls them ‘committed innovators’; companies in industries like the financial and pharmaceutical sectors, such as MasterCard, Roche, AbbVie or Novartis.

By comparison, the sports world continues to be a massively regulated, controlled and rigid environment – the opposite of what is needed in times of a global crisis in the 21st century. The most successful companies have shown participative leadership, great people skills, honest communication and transparency, and agility, and they are also most committed to excelling by prioritising serial innovation, advanced analytics, digital design, and technology platforms to strengthen their specific initiatives and be agile enough in downturns.

Yet were sports businesses equipped to deal with this crisis? When you look at what happened, you would clearly have to say no. We have seen huge weaknesses and mistakes in adjusting to the pandemic, including lack of insurance policies to counter cancellations, digital transformation efforts and innovation topics. The sports industry has been, in part, too proud to recognise its shortcomings and improve on them earlier. As long as the money rolled in, fans were happy, and staff kept content with bonuses and promotions, nothing had to change, and certainly not for something that might endanger our own comfort, power, or reputation.

Why does transformation seem so terrifying at first glance? It is unpredictable, it reveals the weaknesses and inadequacies of existing processes and structures, it costs money, manpower and time, and it requires the will to change.

But what, on the other hand, are the advantages of continuously transforming? If we learn to invest in people, technology and agile systems early, we can mitigate costly pitfalls. Amongst other things, we can salvage and even enforce our reputation with our stakeholders, we will have motivated employees, and we can thrive in times of crisis.

So why isn't the sports industry agile enough to survive and even thrive in times like these? Agility is about looking beyond your functional silos and creating an environment of self-managed, customer-focused, multidisciplinary teams that identify, decide and execute quickly. Flat hierarchies empower. But instead, we are faced with oxymorons: fast and federations; empowerment and clubs; women and sports. There is, unfortunately, very little that is fast, women-centric or empowering when it comes to the work of many stakeholders in the sports industry.

Of course, there are federations, leagues and companies that have been more agile and courageous than others. Just look at the WNBA and the NBA. The WNBA hosted its full 2020 season in a bubble in Florida. For 97 days they kept 300 people safe. Later the NBA invested heavily and wholeheartedly in scientific research measures like the SalivaDirect project to mitigate risks of an outbreak in their own bubble. And so the NBA bubble was much more about a holistic science-first perspective than it was a single set of policies.

But overall, the sports business world is like the Titanic: it has everything it needs to be great and to succeed in any circumstance, yet it doesn't (want to) see the obvious.

We need more innovation in sports, we need better governmental solutions, and we need more diversity in sports. This last point applies in particular, but is not limited to, highly skilled and talented women. Leadership teams need to have a rich representation of thinking and backgrounds, which naturally tends to happen with diverse teams. It is with great anticipation to see Kim Ng becoming the first female GM in MLB at the Miami Marlins. Or seeing Becky Harmon becoming the first female head coach in an NBA game for the San Antonio Spurs. But as innovations, these kinds of appointments and promotions can’t be singular occasions to be truly successful.

Covid-19 taught us many lessons in crisis management. Empathetic leadership and communication were and are essential, especially in lockdown situations. Being attentive, truly listening, being present, and having the will to learn and adapt are some of the keys to success in times of crisis. But crisis management also means being proactive, informed and determined.

At the end of the crisis, what will the world look like, what will the sports world look like, and, just as importantly, what will the fan and consumer look like? How will their lives have changed with remote work, more conscious choices around sustainability, meaning and purpose? What are their fears, their wishes and, just as importantly, in what are they actually willing to invest in future?

We need new perspectives and different ways of looking at problems, challenges and opportunities in a new light, to work on solutions that are made for more than just men's sports and male fans. We require more than just the much-needed modernisation of infrastructure; we require organisations that invest in systems and operations that learn from and adapt to changes in behaviour, preferences, and desires.

Great organisations find a genuine connection to people's struggles and fears, their insecurities, stresses and frustrations. Not just those of employees, but athletes and fans. And they will clearly remember who was there for them, who encouraged them, and who helped them build new positive habits like a work-life balance and exercise routines.

According to Business Insider, the prevalence of anxiety among US residents more than tripled year-on-year in Q2 2020 (25.5 per cent vs. 8.1 per cent in Q2 2019), and depressive disorders nearly quadrupled (24.3 per cent vs. 6.5 per cent in Q2 2019). These numbers should be of concern to the sports industry in a post-pandemic era. But it also presents an opportunity.

If we are able to put people at the centre of the business, we have the chance to thrive. Human connections and interactions will increase in importance, but so will awareness of efficiency and the value of experiences. Smooth, effortless experiences will be important. Local taste will become more relevant again as we increasingly appreciate our surroundings. Fans and customers will prefer to stay with brands they trust and love, and they appreciate the compassionate, human touch.

Feeling vulnerable and transient will play an important role in decision-making – leaders must stand up, be willing to change old habits for better processes, and ultimately deliver on promises. Younger generations are already demonstrating this with their voices and in their actions and are expecting it more and more.


About the author: An expert in sports marketing and communications, Marisa Reich is the chair of She Sports Switzerland and former head of events and culture at Infront. Her previous roles include managing international communications for Red Bull’s Wings for Life World Run and the Berlin Marathon, while she has also represented elite athletes in track and field as an IAAF-accredited agent. She became a SportsPro columnist in October 2020, writing about issues surrounding women in sport.

Find all of Marisa's SportsPro columns here.

Marisa Reich

Marisa Reich, chair of She Sports Switzerland, considers sport’s response to the Covid-19 crisis and explains why an innovation-led, human-centred approach can help the industry build back better.