Sports Recruiting Finds Its Own Field of Dreams

May 4, 2017 – Over the last 25 years, sports has grown into a formidable global industry. Historically, professional sports teams operated on a relatively modest level, with league officials, team owners, managers, and coaches surrounding themselves with people they knew and trusted from their own small worlds.

But that’s all changed. In recent years, teams like the Dallas Cowboys, Real Madrid, and Manchester United, to name just a few, have seen their valuations soar into the billions of dollars, with no end in sight. Propelled by new digital platforms and technologies, these organizations now compete as global brands on a playing field strewn with entertainment choices galore.

Given the search industry’s knack for finding a need and filling it, it was only natural that recruitment firms would soon step to the fore in the sports sector. With large and complex compensation packages and even larger and more complex employment contracts changing the sports industry forever, recruiters have become respected players, of a sort, in their own right.

Leaders Who Can Navigate Disruption

“Managing this growing complexity requires leaders with wider ranging skills and more diverse industry and functional expertise,” says Jay Hussey, CEO of SRiCheyenne, a Boston and New York-based global sports and entertainment search firm, when we spoke recently. “Naturally, that’s where executive search firms can add a lot of value, and not just in identifying and recruiting talent from different tribes but also in helping sports industry executives gain practical insight into how other organizations and other industries have navigated similar disruptive changes.”

SRiCheyenne is the product of the merger in January of the Cheyenne Group, an executive search and consulting firm with a focus on media, and SRi, formerly known as Sports Recruitment International, which specialized in sports, media, and entertainment. Before his current role, Jay was a partner in Odgers Berndtson’s Boston office, where he led the firm’s U.S. technology search practice. He was also founder and managing partner of NineSeven Partners, a search and talent consulting firm, which merged with Odgers Berndtson. Jay has also served as executive director at Russell Reynolds Associates and as a consultant with Egon Zehnder.

Expanding Leadership Expertise

Given his long-time, extensive experience in recruitment and assessment for the technology sector, Jay was the perfect choice to lead SRiCheyenne, particularly in these days of continual growth for the sports sector. “The sports industry is being reshaped by the seismic forces of globalization and the growth of digital media platforms, including social, live streaming, and over-the-top broadcasting,” he says. “Leagues, teams, and national governing bodies are all looking to build or expand their leadership expertise in these areas.”

For example, the firm recently had the assignment to find a chief commercial officer for the England & Wales Cricket Board, an organization with a loyal but aging fan base. “They needed someone who could expand the appeal of the sport to a younger, digital savvy audience,” he notes. “Our successful candidate had previously been a senior marketing executive for a global consumer packaged goods brand who brought a brilliant track record of building innovative online/offline customer engagement teams and programs.”

In many ways, the joining of SRi and the Cheyenne Group was the ideal marriage. SRi was a leader in sports recruitment. And the Cheyenne Group was renowned for its top-level search and talent consulting for broadcast, print, and online content companies.

Cultural Compatibility

“Given the natural symbiosis of the sports and media industries, combining the two firms’ capabilities made perfect strategic sense,” says Jay. “Also, our two firms’ geographies lined up perfectly. SRi was born in the U.K. and went on to expand its footprint into Europe and, more recently China, Singapore, Australia, and Japan. The biggest missing piece for them was North America, which the Cheyenne Group fills in with its presence in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles.” On top of those synergies is the cultural compatibility between the two firms. Both organizations share an entrepreneurial passion to build a world-class firm and both share an unshakable commitment to delivering client value.

Sports organizations stand only to gain by calling in a search firm, even for coaching jobs. Recruiters bring skills in evaluating talent that most operations lack. And they offer a different, fresh perspective. “If we are leading a CEO search for a global 100 organization, chances are that our short list of candidates will all be well-known executives with high-profile public reputations,” says Jay.

“The value you get from a professional search process, whether you’re hiring a head coach or a chief executive, is the search firm’s expertise and experience in deeply evaluating those candidates’ functional skills, leadership competencies, and culture fit. A good search firm will also reach into less obvious talent pools to find those outside-of-the-box candidates who will challenge your assumptions about the ‘usual suspects.’”

Working with teams and organizations around the world, Jay and his team have gained insight into how sports are run in America versus the rest of the world. Jay in particular has received a running lecture from his U.K. and European colleagues about “proper football.” Besides the obvious differences between the European and American versions of football, the leagues on each side of the pond also take a vastly different approach to how they treat teams that fail to deliver in the wins department.

Relegation is the name of the game in the U.K.’s Premier League, Jay says. The three teams that fare worst at the end of each season are summarily demoted to the second division, which is ironically called the Championship. Reciprocally, the three top teams from that league are elevated to the Premier League for the next season. “Not surprisingly, the revenues generated from broadcast rights, sponsorships, merchandise sales and the like are much greater at the Premier League level,” says Jay. “If a team builds its player and organizational salary structures around those revenues one year but is relegated the next, it can find itself in a very uncomfortable economic situation, to say the least. So, as tough as it may be to own, say, the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, at least they don’t need to worry about a 1-15 season landing them in the Arena Football League.”

Contributed by Christopher W. Hunt, Publisher and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor — Hunt Scanlon Media

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