Sports organizations are confronting a troubling reality. Their staffs do not reflect the diversity of the athletes they serve, especially regarding top leadership. While 74% of all NFL players identify as people of color, only 13% of head coaches are non-white, according to a 2020 analysis by The New York Times. Disparities among head coaches are apparent across all major sports leagues, including the NBA, MLB, MLS and WNBA.
Since then, the NFL and other major leagues have reported increases in women and people of color hired into leadership roles, particularly in league offices. However, diversity at the team level continues to lag, according to the Associated Press.
Athletic departments at U.S. universities are also failing to match the demographics of student athletes. White men hold more than 80% of all top athletic campus leadership positions in 2022. Although nearly 44% of student-athletes are women, less than 8% of athletic directors at major Division I campuses are women.
With limited progress over the last few years, the challenge remains: How will the next generation of sports administration professionals build a more diverse work environment where people of all racial and gender identities feel represented and heard?
Improving Cross-Cultural Communication in Sports
Aspiring sports leaders must develop a new set of leadership skills to navigate this uncharted territory. The Arkansas State (A-State) online Master of Science (M.S.) in Sport Administration program can help students feel more comfortable making decisions on diverse hiring and retention as they enter the next chapter of their careers.
The program emphasizes cross-cultural relations, or understanding how people from different cultural backgrounds communicate among themselves and with those who don’t share their experiences. Students will have the chance to explore major contemporary social issues and how they arise in the workplace as potential conflicts — or, in many cases, opportunities for engagement and growth.
Building cross-cultural communication skills is crucial for sports administration professionals, especially as they expand their peer and mentor networks in the industry. In fact, sports leadership is traditionally male-dominated and generally homogenous, according to Ernst & Young.
The result is clear: those leaders largely hire people who look and think like them. As The Conversation notes, lack of leadership diversity means these organizations not only “fail to adhere to democratic or ethical business practices because some stakeholders are underrepresented, [but] it is also likely that this compromises their performance. Less diverse boards lack multiple perspectives that promote sound decision making, problem solving and strategic planning.”
Sports administration professionals must continuously break that cycle by seeking friends and mentors with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Gaining mutual understanding — and getting comfortable with uncomfortable conversations — could be why leaders can make a pivotal hire down the road.
Undoing Bias and Unlocking Innovation
Just as biases are learned over time, experts say they can be undone by intentionally questioning the status quo. Some organizations, including the International Equestrian Federation, have changed their policies so their internal committees appoint candidates from an underrepresented background when finalists have comparable experience levels.
The MLS has gone a step further in its hiring practices, requiring teams to ensure their finalist pools include two or more candidates from underrepresented groups, according to PR Newswire. Soccer clubs must seriously consider candidates outside their networks by proving all finalists had a fair interview process. If not, clubs could pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines for each offense.
Once more diverse voices are in the boardroom, Amaechi says successful leaders must welcome the “friction” that comes with it. Out of friction comes growth in areas that otherwise would have gone unaddressed.
Professionals in the sports administration world can look to the MLS, where improvements in diversity numbers have gone hand in hand with growing attendance and franchise expansion, according to The Sustainability Report. Beyond specific outreach to Black and LGBTQ fans, the league has looked internally and built a career pipeline for underrepresented groups through the Soccer Upward Mobility Initiative.
How an Advanced Degree Can Help
Rising sports administration professionals must prepare themselves to lead a diverse workforce while creating innovative programs that bring new staff and fanbases into the fold.
Through the Ethical Issues in Sport and Sport in Society courses at A-State, students gain insight into moral and ethical issues in the field, social criticisms and constructs of sport, sociological factors in the field and other cultural elements that impact athlete experiences. Given knowledge in these areas, professionals gain insight into the impact of diversity and culturally responsive leadership in sport.
Improving racial and gender diversity across the collegiate and professional levels won’t happen overnight – it requires collaboration. Armed with a sense of urgency and increased fluency in diversity issues, sports administration professionals have the chance to push the conversation forward — and clear one of the tallest hurdles facing the sports world.
Learn more about A-State’s online M.S. in Sport Administration program.