Chiefs of Staff in the Sports Industry

Once thought of as a role reserved only for political organizations, Chiefs of Staff are now commonplace in myriad industries, including the sports and athletics industry. As the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament enters its Sweet 16 round, we’d like to examine the role of Chiefs of Staff in the sports industry, what they do, and why the role is paramount to sports organizations’ success. 

When we think of our favorite sports team—be they collegiate or professional—we typically think of the athletes, head coach, and perhaps the team’s owner(s) or university athletic directors. However, sports organizations require extensive administrative support and professional coordination beyond those roles to achieve their objectives and ensure stable operations. Trainers, assistant coaches, communications professionals, HR, and even academic coordinators all contribute to the achievements of sports organizations. However, Chiefs of Staff in the sports industry perhaps have the most impact on the successful operations of athletic organizations. 

One might reasonably guess that only professional sports franchises and large university athletic departments have Chiefs of Staff, but many mid-size and small universities and semiprofessional teams have Chiefs of Staff as well. Regardless of an athletic organization’s size, Chiefs of Staff are instrumental in strategic planning, public relations, athlete and staff relationships, departmental communications, and the complex scheduling of the sports industry. 

Sports organizations have intricate operations and manifold objectives, mostly relating to positive community relations and making a profit. The stakes are high for these organizations—some draw in millions of fans, generating lots of money and positive regard in their communities. Chiefs of Staff in the sports industry can be involved in nearly every facet of an athletic organization’s operations. Let’s dig into what these organizations do and how far their impact can spread, and then examine how a Chief of Staff’s skills and perspective might improve those organizations.  

Both collegiate and professional sports teams bring in money for their respective organizations via ticket sales, merchandise, concessions, and even donations. This exchange of money for sport entertainment strengthens the ties among fans and their teams, demonstrating the importance of an athletic organization to be represented well, prepared for difficult situations, and maintain a positive reputation within its community. 

Professional sports teams have large fan bases who expect entertainment and top tier athleticism. Fans also hope that their favorite team fosters a positive reflection on their community and that individual athletes conduct themselves honorably and respectfully, despite the raucous celebrations and fame that accompany athletic success. Every professional sports team is involved with charitable activities in their community, whether it be through players visiting sick children, elderly or disabled fans, through sponsorship of events or causes, or even through funds for scholarships or community members.  

Collegiate sports teams represent their academic communities, including current students, staff, and alumni. Many college athletes are awarded scholarships for their academic and athletic merit, meaning that university funds and alumni donations support student athletes and their achievement. As such, athlete conduct is critical for positive relations among universities and their donors. When coaches and trainers recruit talent among high school students, they are elevating the university’s brand among the community they are scouting in, which further emphasizes the importance of an athletic department running smoothly and professionally. Athletics are an attraction to college applicants, both those who enjoy spectating sports and hope to try out for a team or play intramurally. Athletic departments must maintain robust programs to support positive regard for their universities, which in turn builds fan and donor appreciation and enthusiasm.  

In addition to their own fanbases and communities, sports organizations must also build positive relationships with their opponents. As teams travel for games outside of their home fields, opposing communities and fanbases can largely influence popular opinion of teams, their athletes, and staff. 

The responsibilities of a Chief of Staff in any industry are wide-ranging, but in the sports industry, it’s important for a chief to be extremely focused on the objectives and standings of their programs. With so much riding on the success and positive regard of athletic organizations, Chiefs of Staff who serve sports teams, owners, and head coaches are in a unique position to have massive impact on their organizations.  

Prime Chief of Staff has been an advisor to executive offices since its founding in 2014. Since then, Prime has worked with over 150 clients and amassed over 49 years of combined executive office experience among its staff members. During the firm’s research on the Chief of Staff role, Prime defined six primary functions in which a Chief of Staff’s role operates. Those six functions are outlined below with examples of how each function contributes to a Chief of Staff in the sports industry’s success.  

Beyond a team scoring goals and winning games, a Chief of Staff in the sports industry must manage the many objectives of their organization and principal. For example, a team’s head coach may be focused on hitting certain milestones in practice, recruiting new players, analyzing game film, fulfilling administrative responsibilities, and tending to community obligations. A Chief of Staff will ensure that their head coach’s time is spent appropriately to achieve these many competing goals. Additionally, a Chief of Staff has the skills necessary to meld the goals of other colleagues with that of their principal. For example, a university communications officer could express the need for the head coach emphasize certain university initiatives or sentiments, and a Chief of Staff can elevate that need to the head coach, combining their principle’s public relations opportunities with the university’s communication goals.  
The sports industry revolves around scheduling and events. Principles in athletics have schedules filled with practices, games, recruiting opportunities, administrative meetings, celebrations, pep rallies, and community events. Chiefs of Staff are adept at arranging and executing complex schedules, ensuring that travel is smooth and punctual, and setting expectations for events and the people involved in them. To make things easier for a principle, a Chief of Staff can operate their principle’s schedule and delegate additional tasks or events to other colleagues, such as assistant coaches or directors for the organization.  
A Chief of Staff is responsible for balancing the needs of the organization with the desires of their principle. In the sports industry, a Chief of Staff could ensure that a head coach’s values and expectations are implemented by staff and athletes while also ensuring that everyone is adhering to the organization’s code of conduct and written policies.   
Chiefs of Staff develop strong, trusting relationships with their principles. Chiefs are often able to anticipate their principle’s decisions, allowing a chief to be a buffer between their principle and any questions, issues, or decisions that need to be made when a principle is too busy. In the sports industry, a Chief of Staff could communicate their principle’s desired practice methods to the assistant coaches to lead while the principle tends to other efforts. Another example of a Chief serving as a proxy in the sports industry could relate to public relations efforts. Because a Chief is so close with their principle, they could easily draft a statement or speech for their principle to review and sign off on.   
The Chief of Staff is often referred to as the right-hand to the principal. This is no less true in the sports industry where the head coach needs an objective partner to help guide the critical decisions being made daily. The pressures of various involved parties, coupled with the amount of money on the line only makes these decisions more difficult. A Chief of Staff serves as a liaison of data, facts, and potential consequences so that the head coach can make effective and confident decision making and strategic planning for the team and the organization as a whole.    
As stated previously, there are numerous moving parts in the world of managing sports. Looking at the organization as a whole, one notices everything from fundraising leads to event planners to the education board. Creating a successful season requires all of these facets to be aligned and pushing the organization in the right direction. They might not all have the ability to ensure the teams win on the court, but with increased cohesion, they can be a powerful force within the business and publicity sides of the sport. A Chief of Staff is perfect to connect all of these dots as they have a working knowledge of how each team plays into the bigger goals of the organization.   

Chiefs of Staff who serve athletic organizations or their personnel might be especially and uniquely qualified for their position. Many sports industry Chiefs of Staff are former athletes themselves or have familial ties to the industry. As popular sports have become ubiquitous with American culture, some colleges and universities now offer courses and even degrees in sports management, broadcasting, and communications. Formal or informal studies in these areas might also make a Chief especially well-suited to working in the sports industry.  

Because both professional and collegiate sports teams are often tied to some form of charity or scholarship, the executive leadership of such athletic organizations are undoubtedly also involved in charity, scholarship, and raising funds. Head coaches and athletic directors are often seen as VIPs who might bring excitement and value to events for donors. Sports organization leadership might also have enough public popularity to solicit support or donations for their organization or a cause that their organization is partnering with. Chiefs of Staff can make principles in the sports industry more effective by keeping them informed of the events and causes they’re tied to, drafting speeches and remarks, and even serving as a stand-in if their principle is unavailable.  

All sports organizations have fans, and the leadership of those organizations is often as recognizable as the athletes. Even someone who hardly watches sports could most likely name at least one famous athlete and head coach. These figures are the face of the team. Although their contribution is undoubtably large and recognizable, it is important to not forget all the behind-the-scenes roles that lead sports organizations to success.  

They might not be on the jumbotron, but Chiefs of Staff and other athletics support staff put in equally vital work to keep these organizations running, funded, entertaining, and ultimately successful. Much like any other business, the sports industry has something to sell, and the Chief of Staff ensures that the team is continually working to accomplish this goal. Well that… and the hundreds of other goals and considerations that go into running a winning team. With the onslaught of inputs and the pressure of outcomes, principals rely on their Chief of Staff to work under the radar to align every area of the organization and provide grounded insights. Turns out the winning play might be having a Chief of Staff behind you all season.  

Photo by Markus Spiske:

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