Lessons Learned from High-Stakes Sports Free Agent Recruiting

In my opinion, we are now in one of the most exciting times of year for professional sports. September is the Major League Baseball season’s final month, and tight pennant races are keeping fans on their toes as playoff match-ups are determined. Sundays are ruled by the NFL, hockey training camps are underway, and the NBA is right around the corner.  If you’re a sports fan, you know that the chatter and analysis of free agent acquisition busts and boons dominate the ESPN airwaves as the four major sports jockey for attention and ratings. So, what can Talent Acquisition leaders learn from the high-stakes free agency process?

It’s an interesting and timely question, and I’ve listed my top three lessons below:

There is always demand for hot skills… But these skills evolve faster than recruiting strategies
The most talented individuals in any industry will always be highly in-demand. The General Managers of successful sports franchises are masters at predicting and planning for what positions they’ll need to fill years ahead of time. If they’re smart, they’ll have options and a set plan in place, and won’t become desperate and overpay for a mediocre player. In the business world, the best Talent Acquisition leaders follow a similar model.  They’ll meet with department heads on a monthly or quarterly basis and discuss the areas where talent may need to be developed, cultivated or searched. Just like in sports, TA executives should never be caught having to pay top dollar for an average free agent, just because the pressure of the business requires them to hire someone fast. 

The lesson here? Even if it’s one year out, getting ahead of the game and forecasting the important staffing needs of your organization can be incredibly beneficial to your overall strategy. 

Building market knowledge
Every year, the talking heads in the sports media discuss the exciting free agent market versus comparatively soft markets. Each potential free agent signing is discussed at length as diehard fans eat it up, and there are no secrets as teams study and evaluate every possible scenario that could have an impact on their roster and the competition. Multi-million dollar bidding wars are an annual tradition in each sport, as teams jockey for top talent.  

Of course, it’s quite different in business. Salaries and contracts aren't published throughout the media and agents don’t meet with GMs to cut deals in high-pressure negotiations.  But, the concept of being aware of the available talent pool is the same. Talent Acquisition leaders should always be prepared for local wars for talent based on geography, culture, and skill sets, and adjust their attractions and recruiting plans accordingly.

Continuous engagement and the importance of an employer brand
It’s illegal to talk to players on competing teams ahead of free agency while they’re under contract, which is quite different than in business where you’re able to talk to any potential candidate you’d like and head hunt them on demand. Despite this, there are still strong similarities in terms of building an attractive employment brand (model franchise) that all players and employees will want to work for. 

It’s the difference between wanting to play for the New England Patriots, a perennial winner with strong team leadership, or a cellar dweller whose roster and coaching staff always seems to be in flux. If a strong, competitive salary is in play, top talent will typically choose the company with a strong employer brand, reputation, and track record of providing their employees with rewards and success. Always keep this in mind, and determine how to set your company above your competitors through social media, strong candidate application processes, and general brand management. 

So, are there any other lessons Talent Acquisition leaders can take away from sports free agency?