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Young Innovators: U of S researcher says flexibility is key to effective pandemic response for sports industry

"The amount of social interaction from these events can significantly impact your mental health," said Jill Wolkowski.

Brooke Kleiboer

University of Saskatchewan researcher Jill Wolkowski investigated crisis response strategies behind professional sports leagues and determined that flexibility was a key asset used to minimize business impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everybody loves sports. Businesses all over the city of a professional sports team benefit from this. On game days, restaurants get busy nights with lots of sales, and hotels get significant business from a sports weekend,” said Wolkowski.

“Being an avid sports fan, not having live sports from the pandemic was deeply missed. The amount of social interaction from these events can significantly impact your mental health.”

People around the world watched sports organizations grapple with sending their athletes to the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games. Locally, athletes and families tried to balance facilitating games, practices and travel in the face of the ongoing pandemic.

Supervised by U of S Edwards School of Business associate professor Dr. William Murphy (PhD), Wolkowski — a graduate student in the Master of Science in Marketing program — investigated how professional sports teams handled communications about pandemic adaptations during their 2020-21 seasons.

Wolkowski interviewed representatives of the National Lacrosse League (NLL) to understand how crisis management processes were used to support players, fans and employees of the league when the pandemic threatened their regular season operations.

Wolkowski noted that organizations typically follow a three-stage process when preparing for crises: a pre-crisis phase used for strategy development; a crisis phase where awareness, strategy implementation and communication are essential; and a post-crisis phase where recovery occurs, along with learning to improve preparations for future crises.

A global pandemic was an unforeseen event with far greater impact than could be anticipated by organizations, rendering existing crisis preparation processes insufficient to help leagues deal with the crisis.

“The perception was that an event like this would never happen. Thus, the NLL and teams figured out a plan of action right when the crisis was happening,” said Wolkowski.

“Based on the crisis management literature, the absence of existing crisis plans puts firms at a disadvantage when crisis strikes, because there is so much going on in the crisis phase. Businesses can reduce stress during a crisis by having playbooks for dealing with crises.”

Wolkowski analyzed the impacts of communications between teams, league headquarters, and other stakeholders during the pandemic. She said NLL upper management succeeded in keeping employees and participants informed as strategies were being developed, and this communication helped to reduce uncertainty for all stakeholders, while keeping personnel motivated.

“This knowledge created a sense of safety and assurance for employees,” said Wolkowski. “Because of this awareness, they felt they were working with a shared purpose, developing plans for when the league would restart.”

Wolkowski used her research to develop important recommendations for sports leagues to use. These include assembling a crisis management planning team, developing legal documents outlining action plans for future pandemics and health crises, and increasing efforts to develop revenue sources that can sustain business even if crises cause season shutdowns, an especially important concern for leagues heavily dependent on game-day revenue.

Wolkowski noted one of the main advantages sports leagues have in their pandemic response efforts is their ability to be extremely adaptive in operations.

“What contributes to this flexibility is unknown, but it could be that sports leagues are accustomed to the pressures and tensions of having unexpected events wreak havoc on plans. This could make sports leagues more prepared to be adaptive,” said Wolkowski. “Operations often need to change very quickly, for example, when a star athlete is injured, compelling new planning and strategy shifts. So, leagues and teams are used to making quick changes.”

Wolkowski added that this might prepare leagues and teams to “not be discouraged when new pandemic information means revisions must be made to emerging plans.”

The research was completed in fall 2021, and the plan is to present the work at the North American Society for Sports Management Conference in spring 2022.

The research was supported by the U of S Graduate Teaching Fellowship. 

This article first ran as part of the 2021 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the USask Research Profile and Impact office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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