The rapid rise in COVID-19 cases resulted in public health measures to control the spread and reduce mortality. These measures, such as home quarantine, have impacted numerous business models, including sports teams. In 2020, research predicted a 37% year-on-year decrease in global sports sponsorship rights fees due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Quansah et al., 2021). The pandemic has reduced engagement levels between the fans and sports teams. In parallel, the pandemic has caused a significant change in how sports teams engage their fans. Restrictions on physical gatherings and social isolation have impeded the return of fans in the stadiums for live matches. Similar to the adaptations made during the past crisis, such as the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic, sports teams have had to rethink service and product delivery to meet fans’ demands. The unpredictable scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with digital evolution in sports, has created opportunities for improving the relationship between sports teams and their fans.
This paper seeks to discuss the role of design thinking during the COVID-19 pandemic to address the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on sports teams’ relationship, focusing on the Manchester United football club. Using this lens, the paper shares insights into the role of innovative solutions in addressing these challenges and the limitations of rapid design thinking. It offers an overview of personal reflection on the impact of design thinking in career development and how it can be a vital tool in solving complex challenges.
Impact of Covid-19 Pandemic on Sports Teams Relationships: Manchester United Scenario
The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that the fragility of football’s financial position. While most other pandemics made it possible for football to continue, the COVID-19 pandemic has wiped the core offering of football, causing the cancellation of football events in many countries for the first time since World War II. This impact has uncovered the weakness of the entire sports ecosystem, forcing unprecedented reconciliation between broadcasters, investors, and advertisers on operational modifications. COVID-19 presented the most severe market shock in modern history. For example, the postponement of EURO 2020 caused an estimated financial cost of €300 million (Parnell et al., 2020). As teams began playing behind closed doors, ticket sales were no longer a revenue source.
In late 2020, the government announced that Manchester would remain under Tier 3 restrictions. It meant that the club would play behind closed doors. On an ordinary day, the Manchester United football club enjoys an average attendance of 57,000 for home games, as recorded in the 2019/2020 season (Statista, 2020). With no fans on the pitch, the club became disengaged with fans and lost income generated from on-pitch advertisements and ticket sales. Before the complete return of fans to live matches, the focus has to be on how to improve the fans’ relationship through innovative solutions. Design thinking is an applicable model in this scenario to address the challenges by developing innovative solutions.
Discussion and Application of the Stanford 5 Stage Design Thinking Process
Design thinking is an approach capable of improving the relationship between Manchester United club and its supporters, as discussed in this section. Thakur et al. (2020) consider this as a process that requires “observation, collaboration, fast learning, the visualization of ideas, rapid prototyping, feedback gathering, and redesign” (p. 56). The Stanford 5-stage design thinking process involves empathizing, defining the problem, ideating, prototyping, and testing. In the first step, empathize, a needs process identifies the problem and opportunities. The focus is to engage users and empathize after assessing their challenges. The process then moves to the defining stage, during which the problem gets framed in a user-centered manner. The next step is to ideate, identifying ideas and potential solutions applicable in the given scenario. The fourth step entails using an iterative process to test and scale down whenever necessary and implement the solution iteratively. The model’s last step entails addressing compatibility issues in a dynamic context.
The focus of any innovation team is to challenge any assumptions and hypotheses about the customer experience. The management of the Manchester United club can build empathy by focusing on different means to understand their fans during and after the COVID-19 pandemic at the macro and micro levels. Using primary and secondary research methods can give significant insight and build fans’ empathy while answering strategic questions on the club’s progress post-pandemic. As Köppen and Meinel (2014) say, a design thinker must be able to imagine the world from multiple perspectives. Dalton and Kahute (2016) highlight a few steps in making this a possibility. Firstly, it is crucial to understand significant shifts at the macro level so that the club’s management can get foresight into the economic aspect. Secondly, it is vital to focus on the new power technologies that give relevant information in real-time. Thirdly, ethnographic research such as surveys and interviews can help the management understand how the fans feel about the current situation and their propositions.
The empathic discovery process involves; Discovery, Immersion, Connection, and Detachment (Kouprie and Visser, 2009). In the discovery phase, the Manchester United management must be willing to leave their comfort zone to understand the fans’ world. The immersion phase could include observation, site visits, and fans’ social media channels. This phase requires empathizing without any judgment. The detachment phase is where the management steps out of the fans’ world to use professional expertise to improve their experience.
In the define stage, the focus is the analysis of the information gathered in the empathize stage. This information gets synthesized to define the problem identified at this point. Problem definition is human-centered. For example, the design thinkers might define a problem as a decrease in fans’ commitment towards their team. This stage is crucial because it forms the basis of creating the ideas needed to solve the identified problem.
The management may ask questions that can help obtain ideas that become solutions. For example, “How might we, Manchester United, get our fans engaged and committed virtually?” The planning teams with representation from all stakeholders, from fans to the executives, should function as “command centers” for idea generation. As described by Thakur et al. (2020), this stage can require the use of virtual focus groups, team meetings, and online discussion forums during ideation. There are numerous possibilities to get fans engaged and raise their commitment levels during and after isolation. Among possible solutions to improve fan engagement and commitment during and post-pandemic include;
- Use more video; behind-the-scene videos, draft broadcasts, short player interviews, and game recaps.
- Improve fan experience through digitization of ticket booking and merchandise ordering.
- Increase loyalty programs and memberships.
The club can use the “My United” account to pass crucial information about upcoming events, request subscriptions, and allow easier management of fan’s information and commitments. An online platform can integrate resources, provide easy access to club merchandise and information, and create a virtual community of fans.
The club’s management has to craft affordable, scaled-down versions of the proposed solution or product to investigate the problem solutions in previous stages. Such prototypes may be shared and tested by the team and a small group of fans. The aim is to identify the best solution(s) for the problem. For example, additional live streams and content may increase the financial burden to the club, which is not ideal during the global recession. At the same time, it would be possible to increase user engagement through live interviews and reduce the disconnect between fans and the club. The intention is to focus on one additional product feature, for instance, player interviews, and assess the performance and feedback from a few select fans. It is crucial to implement the solutions one at a time to identify which works and which doesn’t. By the end of this stage, the team will have a clear picture of expected fans’ behavior towards the proposed solution. Because of the social isolation and physical distancing rules, the management can solicit timely feedback from the fans by relying on digital technology. Continuous communication with the fans can contextualize their needs.
The management should test the complete product as the final stage and use the results generated to redefine one or more problems and understand how fans think and feel. If the club decides to add live streams to the ‘my United’ account for subscribed fans, it would be essential to assess whether it adds revenue and increases loyal supporters. Similarly, the user accounts can be the best platform to collect fans’ feedback and views on the additional products and changes in subscriptions. Although this is the final stage, design thinking is iterative. The previous phases can become crucial in the effort to alter and refine the solution. The fans should be able to compare alternative solutions, experience the prototype and talk through their experience.
Design thinking has the potential to solve challenges in day-to-day life. However, my perception is that it is a danger to perceive design thinking as some form of plug-and-play solution to solving problems. It runs the risk of becoming obsolete if taken as a way of doing much more than the intention to deliver, resulting in disappointment for its users. A design thinking team that does not have a clear understanding of what the entire process entails, which can impede successful application. Design thinking, to me, is not just about methods because these are just instances of knowledge and skills associated with it. It is plausible to conclude that design thinking is a mindset approach and a toolbox. At the same time, design thinking can be captivating or confusing depending on an individual’s understanding. What is interesting about design thinking is that other than being an essential tool, it is fun. Design thinking encourages people to be creative and try new things. It also motivates people to think outside the box by innovating and developing unique solutions. There are endless innovation opportunities with design thinking which a potential source of competitive advantage is.
Design thinking is a crucial tool because any company can benefit from using it to address business challenges. It is a way of solving complex problems. Overall, it provides companies with a clear picture of their customers. It eases the process of developing solutions that address the challenges of those people. Targeted solutions generate a massive impact on user retention, and in sports, fans’ engagement and commitment to a club. Career-wise, design thinking is much significant because it can be used in marketing and making management decisions.
As sports teams are considering new models for generating solutions to address the volatile and complex situations caused by COVID-19, design thinking offers many creative and innovative solutions. These solutions include those related to uncertainty and ambiguity. Design thinking principles can be applied in different aspects, including one’s career life, to solve complex situations in management. The approach entails developing solutions to sustain the available resources and new methods to meet changes in demand. Design thinking is a model that supports innovation in response to the needs that have arisen in sports team’s relationships during the current public health crisis while producing crucial career lessons.
As a result of the pandemic, many clubs have experienced a decline in revenue and disengagement of their fans. Manchester United is one of the most impacted clubs because of its large fan base. To increase commitment and engagement, the club needs to focus on more video content, social media communities, and better management of user subscriptions. Every solution can be tested and analyzed over time to determine whether it is viable or not. Continuous refinements can improve a solution such that it becomes the best for the long-run strategy. It can help sports clubs’ management to turn the pandemic crisis into an opportunity for sustained change. It is crucial to ensure that digital transformation continues post-COVID instead of reverting to pre-COVID status.
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