Common theme among ‘best employers in sports?’ Pandemic support, commitment to communities

News & Media

Dec 15, 2020


In the News

Like all industries in 2020, sports in the United States had to confront the unprecedented: a global pandemic that has seen more than 1.6 million people die, a chaotic and unrelenting election cycle and a broader commitment to all types of justice and equality.

For the second straight year, Front Office Sports – a media brand that covers the business of sports – has released its “Best Employers in Sports” list. The list, FOS CEO Adam White said, came about when he wanted to give employees in the sports industry a chance to recognize their employers. So rather than rely on a company’s reputation or industry hearsay, FOS conducted a survey to determine the 25 winners.

“That takes into account what employees of these companies are actually saying and what they actually think,” White said.

USA TODAY Sports caught up with executives from three of the organizations that made the 2020 list to learn how they have distinguished themselves.

Atlanta Hawks

Perhaps no other major American sports team committed to civic engagement more than the Atlanta Hawks. Their home court, State Farm Arena, served as a central polling location in a key swing state in the 2020 election. Hawks employees trained to become poll managers and election clerks.

State Farm Arena will serve as a polling place once again, this time for the first week of early voting in the pair of Georgia Senate runoff elections, from Dec. 14-19.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Hawks assured their employees that nobody would lose their job, be furloughed or take a pay cut. Mackey remembers everyone being sent home to work remotely in March and how the leadership team acted quickly to keep employees’ well-being.

“All of our decisions were fact-based,” she said, with an emphasis of “safety first.” “We were flexible in what we did, we communicated and whatever decisions we made, we would agree, align and move forward together.”

From a community standpoint, the Hawks focused on food insecurities by partnering with a company called Goodr to form pop-up grocery stores and food delivery options to help those in need, while also donating meals from local restaurants to healthcare workers at Emory Hospital.

Throughout the year, the Hawks brought in speakers to discuss physical, financial and physical wellness.

“We look at your whole self,” Mackey said. “Not just your job, but your well-being, as well as the community.”

Miami Dolphins

Before the season started, the Dolphins released a video from players and coaches, explaining why they would not take the field during the national anthem this season.

“I talk a lot about wanting to be results-based culture with heart,” Dolphins CEO Tom Garfinkel said. “We want to have a true meritocracy, but we also want to treat people with dignity and respect and value the people who work here. And then the actions have to match the rhetoric.”

Leaders who instill a similar message are essential to following through on that front. Brian Flores, one of five current (including two interim) Black head coaches in the NFL, is a prime example.

“He’s all about results, but he also loves his players,” Garfinkel said. “I think, as an organization, we try to be deliberate about diversity and inclusion also, because it makes us a better business, it makes us a better culture and it makes us a better place to work.”

No layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts related to the economics of the pandemic impacted Dolphins employees, Garfinkel said. The Dolphins allow their employees time during the work day to participate in volunteer events, usually sponsored by the organization itself. Team owner Stephen Ross pledged at least $2 million to fight food insecurity and provide 1,000 meals per day for struggling Miami Gardens families.

Like the Hawks, the Dolphins are two-time winners of the “Best Employers in Sports” award.

Charlotte Hornets

Conversations about “leadership” and “culture” within the Charlotte Hornets begin and end with Michael Jordan.

“Our owner has always been very, very focused on our people and making sure that they feel valued and they feel like they’re an integral part of any success we might have,” said Fred Whitfield, vice chairman and alternate governor of the Hornets.

Never has that been more apparent than this year, Whitfield said, especially as operations moved remote, effective March 13. The discussion to continue paying staff full wages without any reductions was a conversation the leadership team had immediately and hasn’t revisited since.

“Our efforts will continue in that regard — finding ways to contribute and give back to those in need, to help address economic mobility within our Charlotte community,” Whitfield said. “That’s something that we’re going to be focused on going forward.”


Front Office Sports contracted, an online pre- and post-testing tool to conduct a survey with 1,670 responses from people (non-players) currently employed at more than 400 companies in sports. A set of basic questions helped categorize the responses, before five open-ended questions pertaining to employees’ personal experiences based on diversity, equality, inclusion, leadership, professional development, advancement opportunity, work-life balance, working remotely, office perks, paid-time off and the handling of the coronavirus.

Atlanta Hawks*

Charlotte Hornets

Miami Dolphins*


GMR Marketing*

Minnesota Røkkr and Version 1

Orlando City Soccer Club

STN Digital

Good Karma Brands

Nashville Predators*

The Savannah Bananas

Harris County – Houston Sports Authority


Prep Network LLC

Tipico Sportsbook

USA Triathlon


EdjSports, LLC


Next College Student Athlete (NCSA)

Scout Sports & Entertainment*

Peach Bowl, Inc.

Generator Studio



* Two-time winner

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