Q&A: DeRetta Cole Rhodes on Baseball in Uncharted Territory

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David Rice

Interview with Atlanta Braves SVP and Head of HR DeRetta Cole Rhodes

The current crisis has moved sports to the back of people’s minds while at the same time revealing how big of an impact they have on our sense of normalcy.

But while we all long for the days of attending a live spectacle, the organizations which stage those events are going through an unprecedented pause which has seen revenue dwindle and operational challenges increase. How does a business which relies on live events and large crowds gathering to watch these spectacles survive a pandemic?

To find out, HR Exchange Network sat down for a chat with DeRetta Cole Rhodes, Senior Vice President and Head of Human Resources for the Atlanta Braves to discuss the broader implications of the pandemic for the sports business and what they’re doing to keep their employees engaged.

HREN: We were speaking recently on one of our advisory board calls. You talked about the amount of uncertainty that both the Braves and Major League Baseball as a whole are dealing with. Sports and entertainment businesses obviously face a unique challenge here in that there is no partial way to do business. By nature, sports are an in-person venture built on events happening and people attending those events in large crowds. So what have been some of the toughest aspects of this for the organization? And have you been coping with that from an HR perspective?

DCR: “I think you've said it best when you describe the fact that this is not what sports and entertainment is about, it's about experience and moments that are live. And so it's interesting, I think my colleagues and, not only my MLB colleagues, but my colleagues that are within the city that play basketball and football and soccer, we're all experiencing the same thing. So it's interesting. We were not necessarily set up as a work from home environment and we had to spin up really quickly so that we could move our staff into that vein.

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And then the other thing is, as we continue to talk about those different scenarios around playing ball, that's such a critical thing for us. We were supposed to begin our season on April 3rd, so we have really been looking at and understanding what is the best way for us to still have a season. I think everyone is craving to have that experience of sports, whether you're a sports fan or not. You know, I was sitting here watching The Last Dance on Sunday that ESPN is broadcasting, and the fact that this is the highest rated show that ESPN has had, that speaks to the fact that people are craving to experience the moments of sports. As we all go through COVID-19 together, we really have tried to think about what are the ways that we can still get sports to our fans and how do we get to the other side of this and regain the opportunity for experience and moments?

HREN: One of the things about sports that makes it different is that sense of community within the league. How important is that relationship with other clubs, not only in baseball, but even, like you said, other franchises in your local area? Have there been any collaborative talks? Are you all kind of working together to find solutions to some of the common challenges that you face?

DCR: Well, it's interesting because you can imagine all of us are in different seasons. But what is very uniquely situated for all of us is that if we think about our gameday staff, a lot of them go from stadium to stadium. You do have a very interesting dichotomy between the league that you're a part of, but then the community that you sit in. We're really having to work with each other on finding out what's going on within that community. I know for us specifically, it has truly been about making sure we think about engagement and what does that engagement look like?

Right now, we're in a delayed season. And so thinking about that, what are the things that we are going to need to do when we spin back up? I'm truly an optimist. I know we're going to play baseball this year, and what does that look like? How does this season capture itself? How does that look when we start talking about football starting? We all are uniquely situated and in this together, but our timing is different.

HREN: One of the solutions being thrown around is that games are played behind closed doors, it’s something that all sports are talking about. Of course, this is something that we've never really experienced before as fans. But for you all, can you talk a little bit about the process of conducting assessments and ultimately making some decisions on who needs to be involved for that to happen and what needs to happen from a safety perspective?

DCR: I couldn't even go into what that looks like right now, because we've talked about scenarios, but we haven't said this is what exactly we would end up doing. We do realize, and I think everybody is seeing that, in Asia they're playing baseball without fans or with robotic fans. I think everybody is talking about that, whether that’s baseball or football. I think the concern is really around ensuring social distancing. And how do you make social distancing impactful while still making the experience of sport impactful? All of us are talking about that right now. I just don't know if anybody has come up with any solutions as of yet.

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HREN: You have a lot of different pieces within the organization. I think we all think of the players, but you have the game day operations staff, grounds crews, security, marketing, all of this stuff. How have you been communicating with those folks during this period to keep up morale despite the uncertainty of where things are going?

DCR: One of the things that in terms of spinning up our staff to work from home, we have had to do different avenues of communication. Of course we use email, but the bigger one that we'll continue to do during this time, is virtual town halls where our executive leadership team has communicated. We’ve made sure that we have information that's going out there on a regular basis so that at least we can have some level of connection where you feel like you're part of a community which has been very, very important for us.

I think the other thing that has also been critically important is that commitment to morale. We have different activities that we are doing around our staff with scavenger hunts at home, cooking contests and other challenges to engage people. We also send out a lot of information around how do you work from home and providing different tools and tips around how you make that happen with Microsoft Teams. We also make sure that we send out regular updates on things related to health insurance so we get information out to people that are concerned about that. We try to keep it on a regular cadence and we try to make sure we have something in which we are engaging everyone. So they feel still feel like the community that we are.

HREN: We’ve never really seen anything like this before where a baseball season is threatened. I think about that from a broader cultural standpoint. But from an organizational standpoint, what are some of the implications for the culture of the Atlanta Braves and other organizations within MLB?

DCR: I don't think the culture has changed. I think we've just had to shift how we do things. I think when you think about why people want to watch sports, when you think about fans, there's not necessarily a way to categorize fandom. People love their team. People want to be engaged with their teams. I don't think it's changed the culture. I think activities and actions have shifted. And as most people know, your culture drives everything that you do. I feel a momentum around wanting to have sports and being able to encourage your team. I'll go back again to The Last Dance. We're looking at things that happened in 1988, 1982. People are so excited about it in conversations that I've had, they can remember when that was happening. They could remember what they were doing during that season. So I think it's the same way for any sports team. That's what you create and that's what is always there as a result of the connection with the play of games.

HREN: Major League Baseball franchises have committed to paying employees through May. But somewhere along the line, some difficult decisions may have to be made. As a sports franchise, you have a different relationship with the local community than other businesses might. From an HR perspective, it seems like you're in a really difficult position where there's so much uncertainty around it all, there isn't much information that can be provided about when employees can come back or when teams will start hiring again. So what are some of the strategies to help the organization deal with those difficult conversations that will eventually come? Because you have to maintain that healthy relationship with both the employees and the community.

DCR: That’s a great point. I think, first of all, it's always maintaining transparency and being honest that we don't know. The one thing we wanted to make sure we try to do is just be very positive around the conversation. At some point, we're going to play sports again and that is very critical in terms of culture. Unfortunately, I probably can't tell you much of anything that's going on except for the status quo, because that's all that we're dealing with right now. We have to maintain perspective, specifically around making decisions that have to do with what's going to be the best for both our staff and a long term view of our organization.

HREN: From an organizational standpoint, what do you hope that the Braves and basically everybody will kind of take from this as far as lessons learned?

DCR: We have all seemed to have operated under this concept of business continuity, but business continuity was nothing like this. It was nothing to the extent that that we've dealt with during the pandemic and there were decisions that were constraints around working from home, around child care, around all of those things that typically you deal with it in a very singularly focused perspective. The other thing that is really fascinating during this pandemic is how different it has been to how we typically have dealt with a crisis. I mean, even think about 9/11, that impacted how we did travel. But it was isolated to one location, New York. When you've had tragedies or when you've had situations that were weather related, it was typically a specific region that was that was dealing with it. The interesting thing is that this is impacting everybody everywhere. And I think business continuity is going to take a different tenor around how you deal with things like this.

I think there's also going to be, from my perspective, different areas which you're going to have to focus on. So not only child care, but think about all of the things that we're dealing with in the community where we have been singularly focused. How does this effect the charities we support for example? I think this has opened up a wider lens around organizations, around community leaders, churches, around all of it. I think we're going to have to take a much more holistic and global view of things and not be so myopic.