The Sport Information Resource Centre
The Sport Information Resource Centre

Directions from public health organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic drastically altered the sport sector, causing many sport decision makers to reconsider what their organization does and how they do it. Although the full scope of the short- and long-term impacts are yet to be seen, some organizations have not survived. Others have used this period as a time to adapt their operations, develop, and incorporate new ideas.

Documenting how decision makers have adapted to this unprecedented crisis provides important insights about the adaptive capacity of sport organizations.

Why adaptive capacity matters

Adapting to crises requires sport organizations to undergo a dynamic process of learning, modification, and responsive decision making to effectively respond to a changing, unpredictable environment (Filo, et al., 2015). Adaptive capacity is “the ability of systems, institutions, humans, and other organisms to adjust to potential damage, to take advantage of opportunities, or to respond to consequences’’ (Pachauri & Meyer, 2014, p.118) and is intertwined with the concept of organizational resilience. Broadly defined, organizational resilience is the process through which an organization reacts to a period of stress or uncertainty and emerges from that challenging time as a stronger and more resourceful organization (Gallopin, 2006; Vogus & Sutcliffe, 2007). Adaptations are the changes that organizations make that ultimately facilitate the resilience process.

Due to the widespread and unprecedented impacts of COVID-19 on the sport system, our research team sought to examine how sport organizations in Ontario adapted to the pandemic to better understand adaptive capacity and resilience. We spoke to representatives from several provincial sport organizations (PSOs) and community sport organizations (CSOs) in May of 2020, during which time organizations were in the process of making adaptations. Below, we share some reflections on our findings and the associated implications.

Adaptation is a fluid process

Male soccer player tying cleats and preparing for training outdoors, wearing a mask.In early March 2020, new information about public health measures and COVID-19 response programs rapidly emerged. Some sport decision makers responded by temporarily closing their programs and facilities; moving programming outdoors and using new or different equipment to reduce the likelihood of transmission; implementing additional sanitizing, social distancing, and other health and safety measures; and providing different options for members to socialize and engage with sport organizations. As CSOs adapted programming based on guidance from their governing bodies and local health departments, they discovered adaptation was not a one-off, singular, or linear activity. Rather, the adaptations were part of a fluid process that involved constant review of guidelines and prior learning to respond to the evolving public health crisis.

Lesson #1: Decision makers within sport organizations should be nimble, flexible, and creative in how they adapt to a volatile environment to remain resilient.  

Sport organizations are beholden to multiple systems and stakeholders

Community sport organizations are part of Canada’s complex sport system and are also beholden to the municipal and provincial/territorial governments in which they operate. Thus, CSOs take direction from both sport and government entities.

Some sport organizations could access federal and/or provincial wage subsidies and loans because of income loss from the pandemic. Some also benefited from close relationships with their corresponding municipalities. For example, CSO decision makers could request direct or easily accessible rent relief arrangements for municipal facilities. The adaptations of these organizations were supported by relationships with municipal governments.

Lesson #2: Sport decision makers should have a clear understanding of the environment in which they operate—including knowledge of the key systems and stakeholders. Creating and maintaining strong relationships with key stakeholders can result in support to the organization in difficult times.

Organizational purpose matters

While some sport organizations cautiously opted to shut down completely, others adapted by providing virtual programming (e.g., online training, esports leagues, informal happy hours, homework clubs). If or how the organization adapted its activities to satisfy members was determined by how decision makers defined the purpose of the organization.

For some sport organizations, primarily providing social experiences to members was key. These organizations were able to continue operations by providing alternative opportunities for members to socialize—with or without sport programming (Peloton ride and virtual wine and cheese, anyone?). Organizations that primarily provided recreation opportunities and relied on volunteers often opted to cease operating. Although this meant a break in programming and the potential loss of members, in many cases these organizations experienced little financial risk. Larger organizations with professionalized operations, on the other hand, were likely to adapt and engage with members in creative and interesting ways, which were partly driven by a need to satisfy their memberships and maintain revenue.

Lesson #3: Having a clearly articulated vision of an organization’s core purpose was helpful in streamlining and prioritizing decision making and adaptation. Sport organizations play many roles beyond just providing sport participation opportunities, so pivoting to non-sport programming may be an appropriate and productive adaptation.

Timing is important

The timing of adaptations was also an important consideration. The initial shut-down led to some drastic measures, such as the cancellation of provincial championships with athletes already on site. Sports that were in their off-season in March were able to think, consider, and adapt in a more proactive way. The timing of sport seasons was also relevant for organizations with multi-sport facilities (e.g., curling and golf clubs). These organizations were not able to push back seasons or adapt timelines as easily, particularly for seasonal sports relying on the weather.

The timing of adaptation was particularly important when resources were involved. For example, cancelled fundraising tournaments were a major hit to many organizations’ finances. Timing therefore intersects with adaptation because it relates to fiscal management and the opportunity an organization does (or does not) have to adapt and recover.

Lesson #4: Each sport and organization will have unique circumstances based on time, location, resources, and capacity. Adaptations should reflect these unique circumstances. In particular, decision makers should be aware of how the timing of adaptation and the seasonality of their organization will impact the outcomes of their adaptations.

The past year has been a tremendous learning experience for many organizations and policy makers. Organizations – and indeed the entire sport system – have demonstrated resilience in many ways. These processes are wrapped up in adaptations, complex environments, identities, and timing. As the sport sector continues to adapt and strives for resilience, we hope these insights provoke some thoughts for organizers regarding how they can plan and adapt for uncertainty in the future.


About the Author(s)

Kyle Rich (@krich052) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at Brock University (@BrockRECL, @BrockFAHS, @BrockUniversity). His research is focused on sport and recreation policy and programming.

Kerri Bodin (@kbodin28) is a PhD Candidate in the School of Human Kinetics at the University of Ottawa. Her research is focused on sport event impacts and host community residents.

Kristen Morrison (@krisamorrison) is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Waterloo. Her main line of research focuses on the use of strategy by nonprofit community sport organizations.

Karen Lawford, PhD, (@KarenLawford) Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender Studies, Queen’s University. Dr. Lawford is also a Registered Midwife (Ontario) and an Anishinabe Midwife (Lac Seul First Nation).

Sheranne Fairley (@sherannefairley) is an Associate Professor in the UQ Business School at The University of Queensland. Her research is focused on sport and event tourism, volunteerism, and event leveraging.

References

Filo, K. E., Cuskelly, G., & Wicker, P. (2015). Resource utilization and power relations of community sport clubs in the aftermath of natural disasters. Sport Management Review, 18(4), 555–569.

Gallopín, G. C. (2006). Linkages between vulnerability, resilience, and adaptive capacity. Global Environmental Change, 16(3), 293–303. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2006.02.004

Pachauri, R. K. & Meyer, L. (2014). Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Geneva, Switzerland. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/05/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full_wcover.pdf

Vogus, T. J., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007, October). Organizational resilience: Towards a theory and research agenda. In 2007 IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man and Cybernetics (pp. 3418-3422). IEEE. doi: 10.1109/ICSMC.2007.4414160.