Recruiters Offer Sports Clients an Expanding Talent Platform

November 3, 2016 – The relationship between sports teams and executive search firms is rapidly expanding and now extends beyond merely recruiting. Seasoned recruiters are providing strategic planning advice with the capability of applying their findings to speed along the process in the hunt for talent.

Today, executive search firms are being called in by professional sports teams, colleges, and consumer brands to identify a host of leaders, from coaches and athletics directors to heads of marketing, finance, sales, fundraising and corporate partnerships as well as general manger roles.

In fact, the proliferation of search firms serving the sector is creating an international effect. U.K.-based sports specialist Nolan Partners, working primarily with sports-related clients from Europe, Asia and the Middle East, announced in July the opening of a North American operation with offices in Los Angeles and New York.

An Industry Going Global 

Chad Biagini, the firm’s U.S. managing partner, has expansive executive search experience representing American clients, including the NFL, NHL, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, WWE and Ultimate Fighting Championship.

But one of Nolan Partners’ recent assignments involved filling 40 positions in coaching and scouting for the prestigious U.K.-based Manchester United soccer club of the Premier League. The firm also serves sports clients in Hong Kong, Japan, and West Africa to name just a few other global outposts. “It’s an exciting time as the sports industry goes global,” said Mr. Biagini.

Like Nolan Partners, CarrSports Consulting, located in Gainesville, FL, is another boutique with a unique focus. Founder and president Bill Carr, a former athletic director at the University of Florida and the University of Houston, conducts searches like his rivals, but he also offers strategic planning advice as a way to compete more head on with larger firms such as Korn Ferry and Spencer Stuart.

Big Money

Those two firms, which joined in the sports search industry well after CarrSports Consulting did over two decades ago, received two of the largest paydays ever for a single coaching search. The University of Texas paid $267,000 to Korn Ferry when it hired football coach Charlie Strong. Colorado State University paid Spencer Stuart $250,000 when it hired football coach Jim McElwain. (Korn Ferry was then involved with the subsquent University of Florida’s hiring of Mr. McElwain).

“The big money that has come into big-time college athletics drives big changes,” Mr. Carr said. “The pot of gold draws a lot of attention. When Korn Ferry gets involved in college athletics, what does that tell you?” CarrSports Consulting received $42,000 from the University of Georgia for a search when the school hired football coach Kirby Smart in December. Mr. Carr said he offers lower fees to build his client base.

Among 28 schools with an opening for a head football coach after the 2015 season, 16 reported using a search firm, according to an analysis conducted recently by CBS Sports. Those searches netted more than $750,000, with the average search fee ranging around $70,000, based on information provided by 11 schools.

Schools That Hired Search Firms In 2016

The Value of Privacy

“The hardest part of the search is getting the work because there’s so much competition,” said Mr. Carr. “My fees are the most competitive, the most frugal, in the industry.”

Just this week, Korn Kerry was retained by the University of Delaware to lead its search for a head football coach. Jed Hughes, vice chairman of Korn Ferry’s sports recruiting practice, will lead the assignment.

In addition to helping Delaware hire a new coach, Korn Ferry, as do many other search firms, provides an invaluable service to schools by conducting their searches in relative privacy. “This is often vital to both the organization and the candidates,” said Chuck Cain, a senior partner at Harvard Group International. Mr. Cain leads the firm’s rapidly growing sports & entertainment practice.

Searching for a Sports Executive

In this ‘Talent Talks’ podcast episode, Chuck Cain, a senior partner with Harvard Group International, discusses the evolving relationship between sports teams and executive search firms. Mr. Cain, who leads Harvard Group’s growing global sports, leisure & entertainment practice, said that recruiters are being called in by sports teams and consumer brands to identify a host of leaders, from coaches and athletic directors to general manager roles. Listen Now.


“There are many reasons why an organization needs a search to be confidential,” he added. Harvard Group led the search that resulted in the Arizona United Soccer Club hiring Bobby Dulle as chief operating officer. “Typically, one candidate will be hired out of a pool of many. We can’t put them in a position that might negatively affect their current role,” Mr. Cain said. “So we impress heavily on candidates and clients the concept of confidentiality throughout the process.”

Mr. Cain said the hiring of coaches is a particularly sensitive area, but that confidentiality is a pervasive, top-of-mind challenge when looking for business operations talent for teams and leagues. “Anonymity is paramount, privacy everything,” he said.

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Providing insight and anonymity in coaching searches often ties in with the strategic planning that some firms provide. CarrSports is currently under contract with several colleges and universities in the area of strategic planning expertise.

“A strategic plan tells you what you need for an entire athletic department,” Mr. Carr said. “Or it can be the first step in a well-done search. I look at it though the eyes of an athletic director. I identify and quantify the issues for decision makers.”

More specifically, he added, strategic planning occurs when an organization solicits an outside source to evaluate daily operations which, in turn, helps identify who should lead the department, or coach its teams.

“We tell you what you need to do effectively to address critical issues,” said Mr. Carr, whose firm applies the SWOT analysis method (an acronym for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) to its strategic planning process. In theory, SWOT enables organizations to identify internal and external factors to help develop awareness about everything involved in reaching a decision.

CarrSports Consulting surveys approximately two dozen employees in each of the four categories and condenses the information to make a determination. “You use critical issues to develop two things, Mr. Carr said. “Search to develop the profile of the ideal candidate. And a strategic plan tells you what activities you need to engage in.”

Sometimes, he said, people look at things through rose-colored glasses and don’t realistically look at expectations. “When you have those critical issues, this helps you focus on the things you need and the actions you need to take to advance.

An Expansive Field

The sports & entertainment field is one of the most active and expanding sectors for executive search businesses. Many C-suite focused recruiting firms are now active in it and some specialize only in the sports field itself, but all are dedicated to providing sports-related executive search and leadership advisory services.

They include in addition to Nolan Partners, CarrSports Consulting, Korn Ferry, and Harvard Group International, the following: Prodigy Sports, Marquee Search, DHR International, Hartmann Mason, College Sports Solutions, Egon Zehnder, Heidrick & Struggles, Ascension Sports Partners, Russell Reynolds Associates, Diversified Search, Odgers Berndtson, Eastman & Beaudine, Alden Associates, Turnkey Search, Parker Executive Search, Sports Recruitment International (SRi), Neinas Sports Services, and Collegiate Sports Associates.

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; John Harris, Managing Editor; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Adam Shapiro, Director of Marketing & Brand Management — Hunt Scanlon Media

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