Innovation in Community Sport Organizations during COVID-19


Innovation can be defined as the adoption of a new idea or behaviour (Damanpour & Schneider, 2006; Winand & Anagnostopoulos, 2017). It is an important function of organizational effectiveness and an organization’s ability to survive (Damanpour & Schneider, 2006; Hoeber & Hoeber, 2012). CSOs often need to innovate a result of changes in the environment or societal pressures. This may include changing technologies, demographics and a multitude of threats that could arise in an organization’s external environment (Hoeber & Hoeber, 2012).

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is inevitable and important that organizations adapt their programming to meet the changing needs of society. But the ability of CSOs to return to play in any fashion, let alone implement new programming and engage in innovation during the COVID-19 pandemic, was dependent on directives from their governing organizations and the organization’s ability to acquire and utilize critical resources, such as human support and external funding. Clubs that did not have the capacity to meet the guidelines set by their governing bodies or the capacity to create new innovations within those guidelines, may not have been able to successfully complete those changes.


Gradual changes that don’t completely abandon existing practices, also known as “incremental” changes, are usually viewed as more feasible and accepted by members and stakeholders than changes that are considered “radical” (Camison-Zornoza et al., 2004). The assumption for organizations attempting to operate in a pandemic, a time where radical change was more than necessary but a means of survival, would therefore be that they would have trouble gaining buy-in from their stakeholders. Innovations like players needing to stay in their own box, increased safety procedures, activities without contact, and a complete overhaul of activity design, were among several radical changes community sport organizations implemented during a return to sport. Some of these innovations and change have been mandated by governing bodies external to the organizations, while others have been intentional process changes from the organizations themselves, in an attempt to control the uncertainty in the environment. The context of the COVID-19 pandemic has perhaps shed new light onto radical change and how to successful implement innovation of this scale. Although sometimes these radical changes were painful for players, they were for the most part just happy to be back playing the sport they love. Likewise, parents were happy to have an outlet for their kids to engage in physical activity. Coaches were also more understanding of the club’s priorities and why the restrictions were necessary. In other words, all the various stakeholders that organizations must satisfy on a daily basis were more willing to engage with these radical changes to sport delivery, given what was at stake and the common agreement of all to prioritize safety above all else. The ones that were not willing to comply with these directives, simply did not sign up.

leader’s commitment to innovation

Successfully implementing change and innovative practices cannot be done without a few key elements. Research suggests that innovations are more likely to be adopted if there is an idea champion (Hoeber & Hoeber, 2012), key individuals within the organization who hold knowledge and experience related to the innovation, and club resources to support its adoption (Wemmer et al., 2016). Wemmer et al., (2016) also provide evidence that use of outside knowledge can have a positive impact on performance of innovations in CSOs. This may mean that the ability of organizations to draw on critical resources in their environment, such as resources from their PSO and NSO, may aid in their return to play processes.

Organizations can also share their knowledge on the innovation with members, potentially opening the door to greater acceptance (Hoeber & Hoeber, 2012; Wemmer et al., 2016). Sporting clubs implemented this kind of stakeholder engagement in their return to sport plans through conducting surveys, disseminating “Return to Play Guides” and communicating openly with all stakeholders on a regular basis.

Further, a leader’s role in supporting the innovation is also said to be of great importance to increasing buy-in (Hoeber & Hoeber, 2012; Jaskyte, 2004). Characteristics such as risk taking, forward thinking, and challenging the status quo have been suggested to support the innovation process within non-profit organizations (Jaskyte, 2004). Organizations that had leaders that were willing to take the risk of returning to play and adapt their programs, policies and procedures, were therefore likely more successful in their overall return to play than ones whose leaders did not buy into the cause quite as much. Research suggests that if leaders are committed, staff lower in the organization’s hierarchy and the community at large are more likely to be committed as well (Hoeber & Hoeber, 2012).


Overall, innovation was an inevitable process in the COVID-19 pandemic that all community sport organizations needed to adopt in order to survive. The context of the pandemic potentially sheds new light into the concept of radical change and how potentially easy it can be to implement if all stakeholders are able to establish the same common goal, such as safety at all costs. However, innovation also cannot successfully be implemented without aspects like a leader’s commitment to the cause, risk taking, use of outside knowledge and open communication with stakeholders.


Camisón-Zornoza, C., Lapiedra-Alcamí, R., Segarra-Ciprés, M., & Boronat-Navarro, M. (2004). A meta-analysis of innovation and organizational size. Organization Studies, 25(3), 331-361.

Damanpour, F., & Schneider, M. (2006). Phases of the adoption of innovation in organizations: effects of environment, organization and top managers 1. British Journal of Management, 17(3), 215-236.

Doherty, A., Millar, P., & Misener, K. (2020). Return to community sport: Leaning on evidence in turbulent times. Managing Sport and Leisure, 1-7.

Hoeber, L., Doherty, A., Hoeber, O., & Wolfe, R. (2015). The nature of innovation in community sport organizations. European Sport Management Quarterly, 15(5), 518-534.

Hoeber, L., & Hoeber, O. (2012). Determinants of an innovation process: A case study of technological innovation in a community sport organization. Journal of Sport Management, 26(3), 213-223.

Jaskyte, K. (2004). Transformational leadership, organizational culture, and innovativeness in nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 15(2), 153-168.

Wemmer, F., Emrich, E., & Koenigstorfer, J. (2016). The impact of coopetition-based open innovation on performance in nonprofit sports clubs. European Sport Management Quarterly, 16(3), 341-363.

Wicker, P., Filo, K., & Cuskelly, G. (2013). Organizational resilience of community sport clubs impacted by natural disasters. Journal of Sport Management, 27(6), 510-525.

Winand, M., & Anagnostopoulos, C. (2017). Get ready to innovate! Staff’s disposition to implement service innovation in non-profit sport organisations. International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, 9(4), 579-595.

So there it is! A brief overview of innovation during the COVID-19 pandemic and how clubs were able to introduce radical change without much push-back from their stakeholders. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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