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COVID has presented nearly every person and industry with a unique set of challenges that we’re slowly learning to overcome. For athletic directors (ADs), these challenges are only becoming more prominent as we head back into a new academic year.

Not only are ADs responsible for the health, welfare, and safety of student-athletes, but they’re also responsible for the programs that drive revenue for their universities. This is where we see the crux of the challenge for ADs: how can they put students first while also fulfilling their responsibility to the school’s revenue and financial status?

While there are no black and white answers—and many directors, school presidents, and other university staff are split on the best path forward—there are some options to consider. As a former AD myself, I know the challenges first-hand and can empathize with the balancing act those in this position are managing right now. Let’s talk about how you can find a solution, even if only short-term, and move forward successfully.

Find Your Financial Footing

Whether you’re an AD or a college administrator, you know the dire financial constraints COVID is placing on the athletic department’s revenue and the school’s revenue as a whole. In fact, according to LEAD1, 63 percent of ADs are expecting worst-case scenario circumstances during the 2020-21 school year: revenues decreasing by at least 20 percent.

But it could get even worse. As one football coach who was surveyed said, “The worst case is there will be no football in which case it will be much more than 30 percent.”

How do you find your financial footing at a time like this? The accuracy and frequency of financial forecasting are more critical now than ever. As such, Athletic Directors and University CFOs must be closely connected. For example, the AD of an NCAA team might be trying to figure out: Will the dead period extension save money earmarked for recruiting travel? Will the new NCAA basketball advisory cost more money for testing?

“If they are not meeting regularly to discuss adjustments to the budget or other financial decisions related to COVID and how it may affect their programs and student athletics, then they should!” said one Div I CFO. “Continuous and regular communication with the CFO is something that we have always advocated, and it just got more real during COVID,” said another AD.

Focus on the Safety of Students and Training Staff

As with anything COVID-related, safety and mental health are the top concerns and this is especially true for athletic departments. Students normally play to massive live crowds, not to mention, student-athletes spend a lot of time together and in close quarters with one another and dozens of other staff members—none of which is safe during COVID.

However, not all schools are suspending their season, so the question remains, how do you mitigate the risk for student-athletes and staff? Bond, Schoeneck and King Attorneys suggest that communication is the most important factor in maintaining safety, including taking the following steps:

  • Providing athletic training staff and student-athletes with COVID-19 education, along with opportunities to discuss questions, concerns, and fears.
  • Communicating the risks to each student-athlete and trainer that will be participating.
  • Signing a statement acknowledging and accepting the education that was given, their responsibility to report symptoms, and their commitment to following medical procedures and advice in the event that anyone is exposed to COVID-19.

This communication is critical for mitigating the questions that players and coaches may have as well. The biggest frustration is not understanding the “why.” They see what other teams from across the country are doing on social media, and wonder: Why are we not scrimmaging? Why can’t we have fans? Why are we wearing masks during workouts?”

Communicating the context and why is critical—and don’t just do it once. You need to continually address these questions and concerns.

Support the Mental Health of Student-Athletes

Student-athletes are especially susceptible to shifts in mental health during COVID—whether they’re playing or not. The NCAA Student-Athlete COVID-19 Well-being Survey polled more than 37,000 student-athletes in the early weeks of COVID-19 and found that the disruption and uncertainty were driving extreme stress. Some factors include:

  • Fear of exposure to COVID-19 (43%)
  • Lack of motivation (40%)
  • Feelings of stress or anxiety (21%)
  • Sadness or depression (13%)
  • Challenges keeping up their athletic training without access to an appropriate facility (80%)

Managing these mental health challenges will be key for AD’s, whether their students are playing or not. Remember that non-COVID-related injured students and students in quarantine and isolation are by far the most susceptible to mental health issues.

Hire the Right Support Staff—or Rebuild Current Staff

If you’re looking to add to your staff, now may be a good time to start looking. Whether you’re looking for contractors and part-time help to support temporary needs, or full-time staff to fill gaps left by COVID, candidates are more open to calls and the pace of hiring has slowed.

This means you may have a wider selection of high-quality candidates to choose from and more time to be sure you’re hiring the best person for the position—regardless of what it looks like now or six months down the road.

This is also an important time for universities to reflect on their athletic staff. Does your staff align with your values? Do you have the right team of people to bring your vision to life and navigate COVID? For example, do you have someone on staff to provide mental health support for your athletes? Don’t overlook this opportunity to connect in with where you need to make changes to move ahead with a strong, unified team.

Use this time to re-think who’s on the team and what changes may need to be made as you shift into a new normal.

How to be an Effective AD During COVID

Your role has shifted dramatically since March of 2020 and it will likely continue shifting as the virus evolves and our new normal evolves with it. Use these strategies to bring awareness, empathy, and clarity to your student-athletes and the university as a whole. In doing so, you help manage the uncertainty and fear while keeping your department strong and prepared for what’s to come.

About the Author:

Christopher Zorich is a managing director with Comhar Partners and has over 30 years of experience along with in-depth knowledge of the collegiate and professional athletic industry. His expertise in sports administration/management has prepared him for his career in support of Collegiate and Professional Sports. Chris brings his knowledge of leadership, team and personal development principles that were honed from his experiences in the National Football League (NFL) with the Chicago Bears, and as a college athletic playing for the 1988 National Champion –  University of Notre Dame Football Team to Comhar Partners. 

Before joining Comhar Partners to lead its Sports Management and  Higher Education Practice, Chris was the Director of Intercollegiate Athletics at Chicago State University where he oversaw the Division I Athletic Program. Chris is also a prominent Motivational and Public Speaker and has been community minded throughout his career having previously founded and operated a non-for-profit. He can be reached at czorich@comharpartners.com or at www.comharpartners.com.