Across all levels of sports, perhaps the connection between sport and society is the most valuable and co-dependent element for sport managers to understand. Without the impact our society has on sport, athletes, owners, television networks and sponsors would not spend or generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. If sport managers fail to grasp and understand the significance of this connection, they are simply not doing their job. Sociology of sport can help the development of today’s sport management practices and policies and provide a base for sport managers to be successful. This paper will provide a framework of the significance of the relationship between sport management and sociology of sport.
The Relationship between Sport Management and the Sociology of Sport
An example of the relationship between sport and society and the implications it has on sport management is the ramifications of the recently concluded NHL lockout. The lockout, which lasted 113 days, marked the third time since 1994 that the NHL cancelled regular-season games due to labor unrest. Roughly 10% of games in that time frame have been cancelled. While the lockout has finally ended and the NHL will open the 2013 season on January 19, significant damage has been done to the relationship the NHL has with its fans, and it’s up to sport managers to make it right, and in a hurry.
The recent history of the lockout proves that they benefit nobody in the long run, and nearly kills the sport in the short term. The city of Detroit lost roughly 1.9 million dollars for each cancelled game this season, or roughly 35 million dollars overall. Local sports bars lost millions of dollars without any fans to serve over the last couple months. The relationship between sport and society comes into play in how the sport managers plan to rebuild the trust they lost from what has traditionally been a very trusting fan base. While the diehard NHL fans will return, the NHL has undoubtedly lost many fans that have found other things to keep them preoccupied.
So how do NHL marketing experts rebuild their relationship with their fan base? The Tampa Bay Lightning, a non-traditional hockey city, is offering special season-ticket memberships for just $200 (less than $20 per game) for a limited time. Fans also receive a special $25 gift card when they sign up for the special season-ticket package. The Phoenix Coyotes and Detroit Red Wings have both said publicly that once the NHL schedule is released, they will identify certain games with special value in appreciation of the loyalty and support of their fans. Virtually every team is likely to follow suit with something similar.
When Major League Baseball returned from the player’s strike in 1995, attendance dipped significantly, and many felt the league and its teams did not do enough to apologize to their fans. Clearly, the NHL is recognizing the importance of its fan base. Many teams through their general manager, head coach or website, have already publicly apologized for the lockout because they realize that without their fans, the NHL is in serious trouble. The NHL does not have the billion-dollar TV contract the NFL has. Thus, when there are games to be played, the NHL has always put it fans first because they are irrelevant without them.
As a future sport manager, the relationship between sport and society is something that always must be considered when any business decision is made. To be truly successful as a manager, the majority of decisions must be made with one’s fan base in mind. Correctly valuing the society that is passionate about your organization can enable you to maximize your profit and public image. If an NHL franchise failed to issue any kind of apology, ticket, concession or parking special, or have any special public events for its fan base after the lockout, it would fail to correctly understand the importance of the relationship between sport and society, and as a result, they would not recover from the lockout financially and with its fan base.
The best way to successfully manage the relationship between sport and society is to continually be active in the community. Sport managers can gain new fans (and new income) every day, thus it is important to always consider the impact any decision will have on its fan base. It is important to not only have marketing and media relations staff, but also a community involvement team. This team is responsible for spending thousands of hours per year interacting with its fan base, through charity events, clinics, fundraisers and visits to local schools. It is important to identify the characteristics and expectations of the society.
For example, the Oakland Athletics fan base, a small, blue-collar group averaging only 15,000 fans per home game, will be thrilled to just have a winning season, whereas the fans of the Boston Red Sox, who have sold out Fenway Park for 10 straight years, will not accept anything but a World Series. At the same time, it is important to understand the economic and social tendencies of your fan base. While the Detroit Red Wings have a very passionate fan base with a storied history, they also reside in a struggling economy, which has consequently affected the attendance inside Joe Louis Arena. The Red Wings’ front office needs to provide affordable ticket opportunities, understanding that their dedicated fan base has financial limitations.
Sport organizations are very different from traditional business organizations for a number of reasons. For one, teams compete both against and with each other, as the success of the league does affect the financial success of its teams. Second, sport organizations are often more publicly exposed than businesses, and as a result are scrutinized daily by millions of rabid fans and the local and national media. Third, the majority of sport organizations do not operate with profit as the chief goal. A 1966 report on the English Football Association (FA) showed the objective of an owner was “to provide entertainment in the form of football math. The objective is not to maximize profits, but to achieve playing success whilst remaining solvent.” (Rosner and Shropshire, 2011). Rarely do sport managers maximize their profits, and if they do, then most likely they will struggle to be successful on the playing field.
Following the 2011-12 NHL season, the San Jose Sharks, despite spending to the limits of the salary cap and selling out every home game, were eliminated after just one round. While many NHL teams are content with this, the Sharks’ fan base and ownership group are not, after having qualified for the playoffs every year since the 2004 lockout, yet failing to make the Stanley Cup Finals. Kevin Compton, head of the ownership group, told Sharks’ fans that they lost $15 million last season, but that is perfectly acceptable because they are committed to winning. Compton said, “We’re OK with that because that’s a decision we’ve made to stay competitive.” (Prohockeytalk.nbcsports.com, 2012).
In no other business than sport would losing $15 million annually be acceptable. Yet, in sports, this is what exactly what a society passionate about its team wants to hear. San Jose fans will continue to sellout HP Pavilion even after the lockout because its management group has made a commitment to do whatever it takes to win the Stanley Cup, even if that means a multi-million dollar loss yearly.
The relationship between sport and society is undeniable. Failing to identify the bond between sport management and the sociology of sport is unacceptable if a sport manager wants to succeed on the field, with its fan base and financially. Ironically, the financial element is often the one aspect that is overlooked by managers. Sport management is not always about maximizing profit. Sometimes, maximizing revenue can alienate a fan base, and in turn, this alienation will eventually hurt the pockets of the sport manager. The relationship between sport and society is the most important variable for a sport manager to correctly and quickly understand to be successful.
Rosner, S., Shropshire, K. (2011). The Business of Sports (2nd ed.). Subury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Sunnucks, M. (2013, Jan 10). Phoenix Coyotes’ NHL lockout payback: Possible intrasquad game special value. Sporting News Online. Retrieved from http://aol.sportingnews.com/nhl/story/2013-01-10/nhl-lockout-news-schedule-ph
Tampa Bay Lightning (2013, Jan. 9) Lightning to offer 200 season tickets for just $200 each. Tampa Bay Lightning Official Website. Retrieved from http://lightning.nhl.com/club/news.htm?id=649577
Tuttle, B. (2013, Jan. 8). NHL Lockout is Over! Guess Who’s Happier than Fans or Players? Time Magazine Online. Retrieved from http://business.time.com/2013/01/08/nhl-lockout-is-over-guess-whos-happier-than-fans-or-players/
Yerdon, J. (2012, Aug 20). Sharks ownership claims they lost $15 million despite selling out every game. Retrieved from http://prohockeytalk.nbcsports.com/2012/08/20/sharks-ownership-claims-they-lost-15-million-despite-selling-out-every-game/