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Increased diversity brings change to sport organizations

This is an excerpt from Organizational Behavior in Sport Management by Eric MacIntosh, PhD, and Laura J. Burton, PhD.

One of the most amazing things about working in sport is that it is universal - you can travel to any area of the world and interact with people who play, watch, and love to talk about sport. Depending on where you go, of course, the sport of choice may be hockey, basketball, cross-country skiing, or the world’s most popular sport of soccer - but the general appeal of sport is experienced everywhere. Because sport is universal, participant and fan communities are bound to include diversity; therefore, organizations that want to support their participants and fans must reflect and engage those differences. One example can be found in ESPN, which recognizes the importance of diversity in fulfilling its mission: "To serve sports fans wherever sports are watched, listened to, discussed, debated, read about or played" (ESPN, "About," n.d., n.p.). To help it fulfill this mission, ESPN seeks to recruit, hire, develop, and retain talented people who represent the organization’s globally diverse group of fans. To find out more about the importance of diversity in ESPN’s employment practices, check out the organization’s career website at jobs.espncareers.com.


As sport organizations continue to become more diverse, the ways in which they work also change. These changes relate to the shift to a more service-based economy in sport (Cunningham, 2015), which of course involves more direct interaction between employees and customers. Indeed, a service-based business succeeds only if it creates high-quality relationships between customers and employees. Researchers have noted that customers who believe they are interacting with people different from themselves experience less satisfaction in the interaction; therefore, building a workforce that reflects the different types of customers engaged by the organization may result in more positive customer service experiences (Cunningham, 2015).


In another ongoing change, both in the sport world and beyond, organizations increasingly use team-based approaches to tackle tasks and projects. In organizations that foster and support a diverse workforce, individuals who work in teams can interact with others who bring a wide variety of experiences, perspectives, and ideas. In this way, their differences can produce better work outcomes for the team and for the organization as a whole. Of course, as we discuss later in this chapter, working in a diverse group also comes with challenges. Therefore, the organization must provide support to help people overcome these challenges in order to make the most of diversity in a work team.


An additional consideration involves the increase in mergers and acquisitions in the sport industry, which sometimes involve global companies and can result in employees working with and for individuals from diverse backgrounds. In 2005, for instance, two of the largest sports apparel organizations merged when Adidas bought Reebok. Though both were international companies, Reebok was headquartered in the United States, whereas Adidas was based in Germany. Thus one of the initial challenges presented by the merger involved how to align the German organizational culture of engineering and design with the more marketing-focused organizational culture of a U.S. company. As this example suggests, the organizations that best support and foster an inclusive work environment enjoy an advantage in responding effectively to mergers and acquisitions. Furthermore, at the local level (e.g., towns, cities, regions), merging sport organizations may provide new and different perspectives on managing those organizations and better serve the needs of diverse customers (Cunningham, 2015).


Diversity in sport organizations can also be affected by legal mandates. In the United States, for instance, civil rights legislation mandates protection against discrimination based on race, gender, age, sex, physical ability, or religion; in addition, some state laws go further by protecting individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The first major U.S. legislation of this type to address the workplace was Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. Later, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 added provisions allowing individuals to recover compensatory and punitive damages for intentional violations of Title VII by an employer (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2009). In another example, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 affords protection for underrepresented groups (e.g., women in sport organizations) and has been used to protect individuals in cases of discrimination, notably sexual harassment. In Canada, the Canadian Human Rights act extends legal protection for individuals regardless of "race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability, or conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered" (Canadian Human Rights Act, 2017, n.p.).

Legal mandates notwithstanding, sport organizations that lack a diverse workforce often face ethical challenges, most notably at the senior level (i.e., in the leadership team). One high-profile example can be found in the NFL’s struggle to formulate even a barely adequate response to the issue of domestic violence committed by players. In response, calls continue to be made for the league to increase the diversity of its senior leadership - specifically, by including more women - to help it respond more effectively to this issue (Brinson, 2014).


More generally, social pressures have contributed to increased awareness of the need for a diverse workforce in sport organizations (Cunningham, 2015). In this vein, scholar and advocate Richard Lapchick (2016) and his colleagues collect extensive data regarding the racial and gender demographics of employees working in U.S.-based intercollegiate sport organizations and in major professional sport organizations in the United States and beyond. Lapchick and other sport management scholars - including Fink (2016), LaVoi (2016), Burton (2015), Cunningham (2015), and Walker and Melton (2015) - continue to call for an increase in diverse representation in senior leadership positions across sport organizations. The importance of diversity has also been voiced by external stakeholders, such as customers and prospective employees. For example, prospective employees have expressed more positive attitudes toward sport organizations that they believed were more diverse and maintained a more inclusive organizational culture (W. Lee & Cunningham, 2015).


In the Boardroom


Diversity, Inclusion, and Wellness at ESPN

The ESPN Diversity, Inclusion & Wellness team "strives to hire, develop, and retain talented people who represent . . . [the organization’s] diverse global fans" (ESPN, "Diversity," n.d., n.p.). ESPN maintains several employee resource groups (ERGs) that are each led by employees and assigned a member of the executive team who serves as a champion for the group. Including more than 2,000 members overall, the ERGs provide a way for employees to connect based on shared interests or backgrounds. Examples include Young Professionals, Women, Asians, People With Disabilities, Latinos, Families, African Americans, and ESPN EQUAL (for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees). The collective mission of the ERGs is to do the following (ESPN, "Diversity"):

  • Educate and promote cultural diversity
  • Network and learn from others
  • Develop professional skill sets
  • Add value to the business
  • Expand the recruitment base
  • Support ESPN’s community and diversity outreach partnerships

Learn more about Organizational Behavior in Sport Management.

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Organizational Behavior in Sport Management

Organizational Behavior in Sport Management

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