Everything you need to know about Sports Operations

Sports operations professionals oversee all the vital elements of a sports event. Primarily the job of such dynamic individuals is to successfully execute a sports event which includes planning, promoting, execution, and broadcasting of the event. They are extremely organized and active individuals. They need to coordinate with all departments and also require certain soft skills while negotiating and dealing with vendors, leading a team of volunteers, assigning tasks, crisis management, etc.

Individuals who like the hustle-bustle of sports on-field action, coordination, management and are good at multi-tasking will relish such career opportunity

ESM in Conversation with Mr. Arnab Mitra brings you an interview on “Sports League Operations & Planning and the career opportunities”

A brief introduction about Mr. Arnab Mitra:

Mr Arnab Mitra is a sports management professional with over a decade of experience working in the Sports Industry. Currently, he is Manager of Sports Business at Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd. Previously he has been associated with and held leading positions in various sports enterprises like Kolkata Knight Riders, Pro-Wrestling League and Pro-Tennis League among others. Having worked in different verticals of Sports Industry, he has acquired expertise in sports league/events planning and operations and managing grassroots projects.

Q1. A short brief on what sports operations exactly is and the type of profiles that come under the bracket of sports operations

Sports operations are spread across a wide scope of work. The nature and gambit of work depends on the spheres of the industry the organisation delves into. Two such dominant spheres that are in high demand and make the cut are

1) Sports Events – that include all kinds of leagues and tournaments with a huge angle of operations to them, and the

2) Grassroots Programs – which have grown in stature as it is being taken very seriously by the Governing bodies of the country like SAI and MYAS.

Both the areas of work are vastly different from each other. Talking about a sports event, it captures or includes all activities you need to get the event up and running. People generally misunderstand that executing the event is all what operations is about, but that is only a part of sports operations and forms the basis for venue operations activities. These include various aspects like security, hospitality, accreditations, competitions management etc.

Operations start off with the planning of the league, where you have to ensure that the plan is operationally viable, catchy and that every stakeholder involved has their expectations met in a best possible manner.

At all times, the Operations department has to ensure that the players remain the top most priority and the center of attraction for the organization point of view. It is critically important to give them the right kind of leverage because without players, there’s no game, no league. How a player is facilitated and managed directly affects their performance on the field of play which is the centerpiece of the League as a product, On ground as well as from broadcast perspective for the viewers at home.

Another very important vertical of Sports Operations is, Liaisoning. In India you happen to be working with so many authorities at a given point of time. The bigger the league, the larger the number of authorities involved that you ought to manage. Hence, liaisoning does become a critical aspect of operations – second only to the players’ priority, in my opinion. 

The operations team is responsible for the business on the ground. The tiniest detail like somebody’s experience while walking into the stadium or how convenient it is for them to find their seat, from that small part to ensuring that the referees and the players are on time, wearing the correct jerseys, is the responsibility of the operations department.

 The quality of operations is what determines the quality of the event, the retention of interest of all stakeholders and attracting potential stakeholders for the future.

Q2. What amount of planning goes into building a league from scratch? 

Well, the leagues like the IPL, ISL and PKL work with similar models where the franchise owners take the lead and get things done for themselves. But in most of the other leagues the fact is that things are increasingly managed centrally, including the team operations. So with regards to the operations department the task gets bigger to plan and execute the league and also ensure all the aspects of empowering a team are covered, so the coordination between the team managers appointed by the franchise and the operations team has to be accurate so everybody is on the same page.

Also there’s a technical aspect to operations, that involves the management for players referees and match officials etc, and in comes the liaisoning factor where you need to understand how the governing body of the league works and ensure they meet their expected targets of the league through your execution.

The broadcast operations also take a huge load as it is the broadcasters who are the eyes and ears of the game for the world outside the arena. 

Every subdivision of operations department has to be in perfect sync with each other throughout the event, as that’s what makes the whole experience interesting, the audience walks in and mind you this is not a gala dinner, this is a live sport experience, the viewer has to like the experience, only then would he/she want to come back. That has to be the main priority of a sports event manager or an operations manager.

Q3. My next couple of questions are about the career aspects of Sports Management and Sports Operations. For young aspiring students, generally, the stereotype is that if you get into Sports Operations, you’ll have perks like wearing a team jersey, be around star players, you’ll be on field near the main action with your walkie-talkies! But How true is it? Can you shed some light on it?

Yeah, of course, what happens is that people have the notion that they get to watch their favorite sports from closer than they used to watch before. From sitting on third-tier of the stand to being on the field! Although that’s true.

I will tell you a small thing when I was working for KKR (Kolkata Knight Riders). At the time, I wasn’t yet caught up with these players and their larger than life persona. I liked their talents. In fact I loved their talents and was a fan of them. But I am not driven by that persona, but still, when I first saw Dale Steyn bowling at Eden Gardens I did make sure I went down and watched the scene from ground level.  It’s a different feeling altogether! 

Those are the things that you must understand as a Sports Manager that those are the perks of the job that you’re doing but they are not the whole job in itself at all. For a Venue Incharge, a role that I’ve played quite a lot in the last 5-6 years, handling the venue itself becomes such a engulfing activity. It catches hold of you so much, takes so much of your time and energy that at the end of the day you probably aren’t able to watch the match. So roughly speaking, in a league schedule of 18-20 days, I got to watch the match for around 10-15 mins overall!

We would have to get back and probably catch the replay on TV. As I said, the viewers don’t get to know what a circus goes around behind the scenes. Even at the biggest event, there are about a thousand things running at the same time point of time and definitely to coordinate those thousand things you’ll at least face 100 big and small challenges. Those challenges come so quickly that you do not get the time but that does not mean that you are not enjoying it. As you keep growing, when you have put in the hard yards, what happens is, I see people and even I have experienced it, you start spending a lot more time with the coaches and the players, explaining to them what is expected from them when they are on the pitch from a programming standpoint and so on. 

For example, how do they walk out, when do they walk out, when do I actually pull them out for an interview, what part is going to be live on air, when do I pull them out for a photoshoot, these are all part of the process. Due to the sustained success of IPL over a decade as well as other sports leagues, sportspersons do understand that they are not only sports performers but also understand their roles for other business activities. These aspects will keep growing. You will grow into these parts, you will definitely get into those things as you go forward.

 It does not matter what role you are playing right now. Probably right now you are working as an accreditation manager and you are just giving people access to get into the stadium and you don’t really get the time to watch the match inside because you are always keeping a check on accreditations and coordinating with security on the same. But maybe 3 yrs down the line, I am sure as a sports manager you will get so much closer to the sportsmen and you will start getting to spend a lot of time. 

So I refuse to kill the dream, it does build up to the stage. But there is no shortcut to anything! You will have to go through the grind. Whoever is there right now, I can ensure you, all the people who have made it big in their life have all gone through the grind one way or the other.

Q4. What are some of the top skills required to do well in Sports Operations Management?

So I passed out from a Sports Management institute and I keenly lookout for my juniors, who are looking to make a career in this field, to get an opportunity to work with me in various projects I am involved in. When I have worked with them, what I have realized is – it is not wrong if you aspire to be with the players or spend time on the pitch with all the “razzmatazz”. It’s not wrong at all in fact it’s great if that’s what drives you.

So the only thing, the only mantra that I say to anyone who is taking up the role is to be superbly hard working. Because in Sports Operations you literally have to put in your sweat. As much sweat as you put in, people are going to recognize it including the guys who probably do not like you. There is always somebody who doesn’t like you but will respond to your work. That will happen because any person who puts in quality work will always get noticed. It doesn’t matter how big the project is or how many people are working on it, you get your job done, you put in the extra effort, go that extra mile and be very positive about what you are doing. Do not look at any role you are picking up as small or big or that somebody else’s role is better than your. Whatever the tiniest of work you are doing or expected to do, you should do it in the best way possible.

Beyond that, the only other thing you would require at an early time in your career is a very keen eye on everything that is happening. For example: Like mentioned earlier, everybody in an organization has to work in sync. The marketing team has to work in sync with the operations team who has to work in sync probably a broadcasting team and then security team etc. Everybody is interconnected. So it is very important to understand each and every aspect of the league operations. And when you start understanding, you get more blended into the process and you start getting to the top of business quicker. Consequently, when you start getting on top of what you are doing, you will get noticed.

Summing up its two things – Hardwork and a lot of observation.

You need to keep learning, if possible and if you find the right kind of mentor which I hope and wish that everybody does, you must keep asking questions to him or her. That is a bonus, don’t let that go. But the observation part is key.

Q5. What do you think about the future of the operations line of work in sports recovering from the setback caused by the COVID-19 pandemic? How will the industry recover now?

It is a challenge now. There is no doubt about it. In India especially, the problem is not completely to do with the fact it’s not possible to host the tournament. More than that people are very confused about how things are going to go. The polarized nature of our socio-political scenario currently is such that nobody is willing to take risks. But it’s not like things won’t be happening, it will happen very soon. The whole industry, as usual, is waiting for the IPL to take the lead. So as the IPL gets the first  ‘go ahead’ and they start planning and executing, all the other sports will start taking more of an initiative to push through and get their operations going. Initially, probably only federations driven competition will happen but then leagues will come in as well. Right now, to be honest, other than sports leagues, World Championships, Asian Championships, National Championships for various sports including likes of Khelo India are becoming large scale events. These events have also started providing opportunities to Sports Ops people. 

If we look at other countries, for example, the Premier League in England, Bundesliga in Germany have started working now and the Olympics is also  definitely on the cards unless things suddenly hit absolute rock bottom again. And if the Olympics are happening next year, other events will also start eventually. So there is a lull right now but that does not mean it will not go away. The crowd aspect may be sacrificed for some time and people might need time to adapt to it. But I think, with the small amount of evidence we have from the other sports that are happening live, that although ground viewership remains a challenge , sports will increasingly be driven by digital rights and broadcast revenue etc. 

The focus will be to execute from the standpoint of broadcast angles so it’s only a matter of time. It’s about waiting this period out and that’s what the situation demands and people will be back very soon so let’s just wait and see how it goes.

Q6.Even though we plan everything, how the process of the event will flow, somethings go wrong on the match-day. So is there any contingency plan which is there in case of any crisis?

During my Pro Wrestling league days, I was the venue in charge and on the day of the finals, we would have a seating capacity of around 5000 people in the stadium and around 15000 people would turn up and crowd the gates. The police and security would struggle to manage the situation there.

Such things can happen at any point in time but that’s where experience and cool heads kick in. Lets consider the discussed situation, none of us had faced anything like that before, but still, we had to find a solution. Industry experts have to find solutions to every crisis and that the job overall isnt it? This is not because they have faced a similar kind of situation in the past, but for the fact that they have understood that for every scenario, there has to be a solution. The only thing here is to stay calm and not panic and have a vision regarding the things that could possibly go wrong on the event day, in advance. A key part of all panning procedures. 

In the mentioned case, I was aware that there was a possibility of more people turning up which could lead to chaos. So I ensured a systematic blocking and opening of seats process was followed and the seating process was managed well right from the start. New category of seats were created for the final day, and additional seating opened up. I just had to act on my feet and not panic. Try to plan a little bit in advance and be a little proactive. 

Advice for youngsters who are new to sports management?

For a student, especially when they are studying, they must try and focus a lot more into the business factors of sports leagues. They should scrutinize as to why and how a league/project works or why the league/project does not work. 

There are ample projects to study even in the Indian context now. Students must try and find out all the variables which decide or drive the success or failure of the league. Try and understand it from a business point of view. 

This will prove useful when you actually start working in the industry. You will be able to point out the tiniest of things that you think should not be done so that the project achieves the success it deserves. This is something an educated sports management professional should be good at. It is all about how you understand and see the project. Firstly, you should analyse from your individual viewpoint and then be able to explain it to others. A unique and original viewpoint backed by reason will put you in a great position to convince your superiors and solidify the project identity.

But the Study and Analysis starts today.

We highly appreciate Mr. Arnab for taking time out to give us this interview and sharing his insights and experience with all of us. We hope you had great learning and understanding about the Sports League Planning & Operations side of Sports Management.

Let us know in the comments if you are interested to work in this field or already a part of it!

If you want to learn more about Sports Management and the career options click here

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