Today I successfully completed my comprehensive exams for my doctoral degree (though, my written comps had been completed since late April). Instead of referring to myself as a Ph.D. student, I now can call myself a Ph.D. Candidate. My reward? I get to begin working on my dissertation. Did I really think this whole getting a Ph.D. thing through? Hmmm…
All bad humor aside, I believe that passing comprehensive exams for a doctoral student is more stressful than defending their dissertation (though, I reserve the right to change my mind after my own dissertation defense). My rationale is that failing one’s “comps” ends pursuit of a Ph.D.–you can say “sayonara” to all those long months (sometimes years) working on a dissertation.
For the written component of my comps, I was given a question from each of my four committee members, and received a set period of time to develop and submit my written responses. Over a period of two months, I wrote over 135 pages in response to these questions. The most challenging question, and the one that I found most thought-provoking was about theory and practice in sport management. A simple question that necessitates a thorough and mildly complex response. The question is written below:
Critically analyze how theory informs practice in the field of sport management and more specifically sport sponsorship. (Max 20 pages plus references)
What follows is my response to the question.
To critically analyze how theory informs practice, it is necessary to establish working definitions for both “theory” and “practice.” Providing the epistemological (i.e. what is knowledge) and ontological (i.e. what is real) perspectives from which I view the question may be even more important, as doing so establishes the rules and boundaries [i.e. framework] of belief from which I develop my response. Therefore, the epistemological and ontological perspective from which I view this question is provided, and the meanings of theory and practice as defined within this response are framed, before entering into critical analysis.
Additionally, I believe it essential to examine this question from both a scholarly and practitioner perspective. First, the role of theory in sport management practice from scholars will be extrapolated from recent commentary in academic publications. Then, an elaboration on noticeable research trends by practitioners within sport management will be discerned from available resources. Lastly, with consideration to both perspectives, I will—synthesizing aspects of each with my own experiences from both—present my personal position on how theory informs practice in the sport management field.
My Lens for Understanding and Reality: American Pragmatism
One criticism by Mintzberg (2005) when speaking about what he believes to be the prevalent mindset of researchers, says, “We have altogether too many geniuses in research and not enough ordinary, open minds” (p. 23). He elaborates on his view by noting that the creativity issue is less about the capability of researchers to be creative, but attributes it to becoming “blocked,” by a fear of—or, at minimum, a cautiousness related to—being perceived as “correct” in the publication process (Mintzberg, 2005, p. 23). Moreover, he claims that much research is often driven by theory that is fashionable within academia at that time; warning that when scrutinized under “single [narrow] (my inclusion) lenses, organizations look distorted” (Mintzberg, 2005, p. 18). He concludes his thoughts on the topic by recalling the “rule of the tool”:
“[Y]ou give a little boy a hammer and everything looks like a nail. Narrow concepts are no better than narrow techniques. Organizations don’t need to be hit over the head with either” (Mintzberg, 2005, p. 18).
Mintzberg’s (2005) sentiments strongly align with my own. While a hammer is a useful tool, possessing access to a toolbox full of different tools is more useful. My desire for a full repertoire of tools and an open mind for inquiry leads me to typically adhere to an epistemological and ontological perspective of American pragmatism (referred to as just “pragmatism” herein), as I believe it allows me to bring the largest toolbox for addressing research problems.
Generally speaking, pragmatism encourages a full and holistic examination of the phenomenon or phenomena of interest. Ontologically, pragmatism recognizes both the physical and constructed worlds as “real.” In describing pragmatism ontologically, Rosenthal (2011) says, “There is an inseparable relationship between the human biological organism bound to a natural environment and the human knower who through meanings constitutes the world” (p. 6).
Correspondingly, the epistemological perspective of pragmatism accepts knowledge as both objective and constructed (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004), its inherent nature rejecting the incompatibility thesis (Howe, 1988) that quantitative or qualitative purists consider to be truth. Thus, scholars (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004) suggest that pragmatism represents a mixed methods way of knowing, with mixed methods research serving as a “third research paradigm” (p. 14). With its ability to function in both an objective and constructed context of inquiry, Feilzer (2010) argues that a pragmatist perspective lends itself to “solving practical problems in the ‘real world’ ” (p. 8).
As a former sport manager and sponsorship practitioner, I was unaware that I actually followed an epistemological and ontological perspective of pragmatism; though, reflecting back during that time, it is quite apparent that I was a pragmatist in all regards. Further, I would argue that many of the sport practitioners with whom I worked—especially those within the area of sport sponsorship—would most closely associate with pragmatism than any other explicitly stated epistemological or ontological perspective. When evaluating sponsorships, there was always a need to measure objectively with return-on-investment (ROI), and subjectively with return-on-objective (ROO) metrics. From my experience, of the various types of sport practitioners, I would suggest that sponsorship consultants are most likely to be adherents to a mixed methods way of knowing and perceiving reality. As I later bring this response to a conclusion, my pragmatist perspective will substantially influence how I synthesize the following scholarly and practitioner positions gleaned from available literature into one that I state as my own.
With an understanding of the epistemological and ontological perspective applied in developing a response now provided, this next section frames a working definition of theory for use in critically analyzing how theory informs practice.
What is Theory?
Sutherland (1975) defines theory as “an ordered set of assertions about a generic behavior or structure assumed to hold throughout a significantly broad range of specific instances” (p. 9). Speaking on Sutherland’s (1975) definition of theory, Weick (1989) further elaborates by describing his understanding of theory as being on a continuum of explanatory strength:
“As generalizations become more hierarchically ordered, behaviors and structures that are the focus of the generalizations become more generic, and as the range of specific instances that are explained becomes broader, the resulting ideas are more deserving of the label theory [italics in original]” (p. 517).
In other words, theory provides a generalizable explanation for how specific behaviors or structures function within a phenomenon or phenomena, with the stronger and more comprehensive explanations serving as stronger representations of theory. Mintzberg (2005) supports a more inclusive portrayal of the word theory; placing lists, typologies, relationships among variables, causation models, and full explanatory models along a continuum similar to that which Weick (1989) proposes. This response adheres to the more inclusive view of theory as proposed by Mintzberg (2005); functioning along a continuum of increasing explanatory power. An inclusive and broadly functional definition of theory is one that I believe most aptly reflects its application in actual sport management practice. Further, Mintzberg’s (2005) overall discourse on what constitutes theory aligns well with a pragmatist-held perspective accepting action-based, fallibilistic truth; as he asserts that “we must choose our theories according to how useful they are, not how true they are” (p. 1). Pragmatism views truth as a process rather than a destination, believing that any current truth is provisional—being considered true to the degree that it currently works (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004).
Yet, what of “practice” in this critical analysis—what is it, and how does it function? The following section provides a working definition of practice, and establishes boundaries of what constitutes sport management practice as analyzed within this response.
What is Practice?
For purposes of this response, sport management practice and sport business, while overlapping, are not the same. Sport business is synonymous with the sport industry, and its size can be estimated in a national context by calculating a Gross Domestic Sport Product (GDSP), referring to “the market value of the nation’s output of sport-related goods and service” (Meek, 1997, p. 16). The sport industry within the United States (U.S.), however, is not classified as its own industry (Milano & Chelladurai, 2011). Instead, the sport industry’s GDSP has typically been conceived by scholars (Meek, 2007; Milano & Chelladurai, 2011) as containing parts of multiple industries, with the largest being Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation (Brown, Rascher, Nagel, & McEvoy, 2010). A study by Milano and Chelladurai (2011) provides conservative ($168.469 billion), moderate ($189.338 billion), and liberal ($207.503) estimates of the 2005 U.S. GDSP, with a comparison between its moderate estimate and a similarly conducted 1995 estimate of the U.S. GDSP by Meeks (1997); suggesting that the relative size of the U.S. sport industry has actually declined between those time periods.
Sport management practice differs in that we are speaking to those individuals who engage in the practice of sport management, which would not include every employee within a sport business. For instance, a Nike factory worker does not require an understanding of sport and its effective application in business to competently perform the duties of his or her position. A Nike marketing manager, however, would be well served to understand how to apply—whether focusing on leagues, teams, sports, or athletes—sport elements effectively in the company’s marketing campaigns. Another example of a position within the sport management practice is that of a sport sponsorship consultant. To accurately assess the value of sponsorship with a sport property for his or her client (i.e. potential sponsor), the consultant must know the dynamics between the property and its sport environment, as well as possible synergies (i.e. congruence or fit) between the property and client (Gwinner & Eaton, 1999; Roy & Cornwell, 2003, 2004; Ruth & Simonin, 2003).
Thus, sport management practice is framed within this response to necessitate that the practitioner (or sport manager) possesses a knowledge and relevant understanding of sport and its application within his or her particular sport business to conduct his or her duties. Depending on the particular sport business (e.g. sport retail, sport sponsorship, college sport, professional sport, etc.), the application of sport and the duties of the sport manager may vary substantially.
At this juncture, with my pragmatist lens shared and key terms framed, the following section attempts to capture representative perspectives of how theory informs practice within the scholarly sport management community. Please note that this response does not claim that the following section is an exhaustive and fully comprehensive representation of scholarly perspective within sport management, but a reasonable representation of the intended perspective based on the literature that is available.
A Scholarly Perspective of How Theory Informs Sport Management Practice
As should likely be expected with a field as multidisciplinary in nature as sport management, scholars in sport management possess multiple and, at times, contrary perspectives on how theory informs practice. Furthermore, some scholars share their perspectives as to how theory should inform sport management practice—encouraging changes based on these perspectives. I highlight a sampling of these scholarly perspectives with the intention to provide a general sense of the varying viewpoints within the discipline. The end outcome is hopefully a portrait of scholarly perspectives that represents the general factions within sport management—its painting done with broad strokes.
Re-centering of Sport Management Scholarship (Amis & Silk, 2005)
John Amis and Michael Silk (2005) contend that scholarship in sport management is too centered, which “limits scholars in serving a multitude of needs within the sport practice” (p. 356). They assert that sport management “is—as are other social science disciplines—dominated by quite fixed and rigid boundaries” (p. 360). Given the multidisciplinary nature inherent in the academic discipline of sport management, they state a need to challenge the hegemonic emphasis to follow certain methods and apply certain paradigms, neglecting others. While not explicitly stated (though, very much so implicitly) Amis and Silk (2005) speak against an overbearing of literature adhering to a positivist perspective of author neutrality and pure objectiveness as they note:
“…all of our work is what Sparkes (1995) termed persuasive fiction, even those pieces that offer a stripped down, abstracted, detached form of language, an impersonal voice, a conclusion of propositions, or formulae involving a realist or externalizing technique that objectify through depersonalized and supposedly inert representations of the disengaged analyst (Sparkes, 1995)” (p. 364).
Rather, Amis and Silk (2005) propose a re-centering of sport management scholarship that drives the emphasis of research (and thus theory) to “confronting social injustices and promoting social change (p. 358);” emphasizing stances held by Giroux (2001) and Frisby (2005). They implore their fellow scholars to engage in research that is less market-driven in its nature, and to focus less on traditional managerial issues. Encouraging an academic discipline more accepting of various epistemologies and methods, they call for a re-centering that is more actively engaged in the welfare of the public; implementing theory “as a resource to think and act” (Amis & Silk, 2005, p. 360).
While recommending a re-centering of sport management scholarship, it is important to note that Amis and Silk (2005) are not discouraging the continuation of research pertaining to traditional managerial issues. They state that:
“…such developments do not disregard the managerial issues that have traditionally dominated the discipline, but they do place emphasis on a wider consideration of the history, content, location, and implications of both the issues at hand and the research designs appropriate to investigate them” (Amis & Silk, 2005, p. 359).
Pertaining to sponsorship. Amis and Silk (2005) use research pertaining to sport sponsorship as an example of how scholars may be following practice in developing their theories, rather than developing theories that inform practice. Their example of research direction in sponsorship claims that most research views “sport sponsorship investments as neutral or inherently positive,” rather than considering “who might be disadvantaged by such investments” (p.359). Moreover, their example alludes to the notion that scholars in that area of research may be focused on publishing based on practitioner wants, instead of conducting research to develop theories explaining issues in the areas necessary for its advancement.
As stated in the introduction of this section on scholarly perspectives, not all academics are in agreement with one another as it pertains to theory building, nor do they agree on the most appropriate direction for sport management scholarship as it continues towards maturity. The following researcher’s perspective is quite contrary to that of Amis and Silk (2005).
Test, Adapt, and Create within a “Relevant” Sport Context (Chalip, 2006)
Laurence Chalip’s (2006) position on where sport management scholars should focus their research energies could be considered oppositional to the approach that Amis and Silk (2005) propose. While Amis and Silk (2005) urge scholars to focus more on social, cultural, and political issues that are pertinent to sport management practice, Chalip (2006) encourages his peers to pursue a more deliberate focus of the market-driven issues (using empirically-based methods) that the former authors suggest as “somewhat narrow (Amis & Silk, 2005, p. 356):”
“…sport-specific research foci need to be identified, and sport-specific research questions must be formulated. One manifestly useful place to begin is with the claims that sport organizations commonly make on the public purse. After all, the claims we make about the significance and value of our industry represent our loftiest aspirations for sport. Anything we do to further those aspirations will also enhance sport’s significance and value” (Chalip, 2006, p. 4).
Chalip (2006) asserts that for sport management to more firmly establish itself as a unique academic discipline—rather than a derivative of a parent discipline—its scholars must engage in two theory development processes to establish its distinctiveness. His derivative model of theory development, borrowing and testing theories from sport management’s various parent disciplines, determines the degree to which theory from the parent is applicable in sport management (Chalip, 2006). A sport-focused model of theory building involves either creating new theory that is grounded within sport phenomena or finding relevant mainstream theory to test within a purely sport application (Chalip, 2006). By developing theory using these two processes, he implies that—as it pertains to the view of the institutions that house its programs—sport management’s status as an academic discipline will mature into a similar, yet distinct, field of study from its parents (Chalip, 2006).
Acknowledging the greater difficulty in developing theory using the sport-focused model he promotes, Chalip (2006) suggests scholars focus such endeavors towards research in what he refers to as “sport legitimations” (p. 4). These legitimations—health, salubrious socialization, economic development, community development, and national identity—serve as justifications for promoting sport within society; suggesting positive outcomes (Chalip, 2006). Additionally, he encourages scholars to conduct research that examines popular wisdom differently than—as he suggests—has been traditionally conducted by sport sociologists and sport psychologists (Chalip, 2006). Where fallacies in popular wisdom relative to sport are exposed, Chalip (2006) suggests that scholars should probe “the management and research implications (p. 10)” associated with those fallacies. According to Chalip (2006), “…empirical scrutiny of a popular belief can render substantial new theoretical insight” (p. 14).
In a recent article discussing theory development (Fink, 2013), Janet Fink speaks to what she views as being necessary for developing theory in sport management. She shares her perspective on the current situation between sport management theory and practice, how theory can inform sport management practice, and possible constraints for when it does not.
Contextual Weaving of Sport into Theory (Fink, 2013)
In speaking to the process of how she creates her research, Fink (2013) emphasizes selecting a research topic of personal interest, conducting a thorough literature review relative to her topic across applicable disciplines, and writing notes in her own words to better master the meaning of content. She stresses that her process is not linear, but rather iterative and necessitates a substantial amount of time. Considering the level of refinement that occurs during the iterative process of her research, she notes that it is rare that her “final written work mirror the detailed outline (p. 19)” from which she initiated the process (Fink, 2013).
In highlighting items she believes to be essential for theory development within the discipline, Fink (2013) states the need for theory to be insightful and contextually sport-integrated. She believes that “the context of sport must be densely woven into any work in order to make a strong theoretical contribution to the sport management literature [italics in original]” (Fink, 2013, p. 18). Furthermore, she encourages the use and acceptance of multiple theoretical perspectives and related theories that arise from the process; allowing for differing theories relative to a particular phenomenon or similar phenomena (Fink, 2013). In quoting Chalip (2006), she affirms a stance that developing theory is necessary for the survival of sport management as an academic discipline.
Yet, Fink (2013) acknowledges that—from conversations with some doctoral students—that there is an existing perception, to some degree, of “a large chasm between theory and practice” (p. 20). In further clarifying these conversations, she explains that the perception is that theory-driven researchers (e.g. scholars) are unable to relate or influence sport management practice; likewise, sport management practitioners are unable to relate or influence theory-driven researchers (Fink, 2013). While she even notes that this perception appears to be ubiquitous among many academic disciplines, Fink (2013) provides examples of researchers (i.e. Bruening, Chalip, Cunningham, Frisby, and Irwin) who she considers influential in both theory and practice through various means (i.e. service learning projects, participatory action research, and consultancy). Stating her position on the topic, she contends that “[t]heory and practice should not be thought of as ‘either/or’ entities,” but rather that “they can operate in tandem, and each can initiate the other” (Fink, 2013, p. 20).
Fink (2013) does, however, admit that developing theory while influencing practice requires significant time investment, and more expertise than just one’s research area. In addition, she cites environmental constraints in academia that scholars must encounter and overcome when developing theory. Considering Walsh’s (2011) contention that the academic discipline of management functions in a “volume matters (p. 219)” culture to also be germane to the sport management academic discipline, Fink (2013) posits that this emphasis on quantity may be negatively affecting quality. To support this possibility, she notes that while the number of publications increases each year, only 40.6% of top journal articles are cited in the initial five year period following publication (Bauerline, Gad-el-Hak, Grody, McKelvey, & Trimble, 2010). Such statistics raise a concerning question: How can developing theory inform practice, when the theory being developed is not informing the theory which follows it?
The last scholarly perspective I highlight may partially answer the question just posed. Irwin and Ryan (2013) argue that collaboration between sport management scholars and practitioners is mutually beneficial; claiming a partnership approach to be most effective in applying, testing, and generating theory.
Engaging with Practice to Develop and Advance Theory (Irwin & Ryan, 2013)
Two decades ago, Weese (1995) expressed concerns about the relevancy and applicability of sport management theory in actual practice. He suggested that if the academic discipline offered no service to practitioners in sport management, then, what purpose does it serve (Weese, 1995)?
Within the scholarly perspectives being highlighted, Fink (2013) acknowledges the presence of a theory–practice gap, and its ubiquity across various academic disciplines. Irwin and Ryan (2013) suggest that problems in knowledge transfer and knowledge production between scholars and practitioners (Hodgkinson & Rousseau, 2009; Sandberg & Tsoukas, 2011) are likely leading causes for this theory–practice gap. A solution, therefore, is strengthening relationships between these two groups “through authentic and collaborative instruction, research, and professional service” (Irwin & Ryan, 2013, p. 13).
In addressing issues with knowledge transfer and knowledge production through the proposed scholar–practitioner collaborations, Irwin and Ryan (2013) present a number potential benefits, such as:
“(a) enriching student learning outcomes, (b) fostering healthy relationships with industry, (c) establishing a mechanism for external funding, (d) serving as a platform for scholarship, and (e) challenging faculty to upgrade instructional methods and content; ultimately enhancing professional competency and connectivity of faculty and students alike, and thus, advancing the discipline” (p. 12).
Yet, Irwin and Ryan (2013) highlight that when the North American Society of Sport Management (NASSM) and Sport Marketing Association (SMA) created opportunities for scholars to collaborate and partner with sport professionals, scholar interest was nearly non-existent. Questions arise: Do constraints exist that are too encumbering to overcome? Are the natures of academia and practice so fundamentally different, that collaborations are impossible and unwarranted (Grey, 2001; Kieser & Leiner, 2009)? How can theory—assuming scholars serve as its stewards—inform practice if scholars are unable to establish meaningful relationships and collaborations with practitioners?
Before presenting my own thoughts on how theory informs practice in sport management, and more specifically sponsorship, the following section examines noticeable practitioner trends in a narrow category of inquiry: professional team construction and on-field performance.
Noticeable Practitioner Trends
As it is assumed that any proprietary information a sport organization perceives as valuable (e.g. offers competitive advantage) is protected, I emphasize that these are “noticeable” trends. What is presented is far from comprehensive. In this section, I will first discuss the general nature of competition among American sport franchises before directing further discussion toward Moneyball and the emerging age of front office analytics.
Professional sport leagues in the U.S. are closed systems that are structured to encourage competitive balance, often utilizing regulations in player recruitment and roster spending towards that end (Andreff, 2011). Team management, typically—with the occasional exception (Torre, 2015)—desire strong on-field performance. For on-field success to occur, it is paramount that teams exercise good judgment in making roster decisions. With salary caps of various types in the big four (i.e. baseball, basketball, hockey, football) professional sport leagues (Brown et al., 2010), identifying inefficient practices in talent evaluation and determining means of enhancing player performance can provide teams with a temporary competitive advantage. A trend for identifying and exploiting these inefficiencies is advanced metrics development and statistical analysis utilization by in-house research departments.
Of the big four professional sport leagues in the U.S., Major League Baseball (MLB) is the league with the biggest discrepancies among its teams’ payrolls, given its soft salary cap (e.g. teams can exceed the cap, but must pay a luxury tax penalty). For example, the Los Angeles Dodgers possess the largest team payroll in MLB this year at approximately $276 million, while the Miami Marlins’ payroll—the smallest in the league—is approximately $69 million (Riccobono, 2015). Coincidentally, the small-market team that is credited with introducing advanced metrics analysis (i.e. which is called “sabermetrics” in baseball) into front office decisions originates from MLB: The Oakland Athletics (called the “A’s” herein).
In 2002, the New York Yankees had a payroll of approximately $126 million; whereas, the A’s payroll was approximately $40 million (Lewis, 2003). Yet, both teams won their division with 103 wins each. While MLB Commissioner Bud Selig referred to the A’s success as “an aberration,” given their small payroll, the team’s General Manager, Billy Beane, called it “Moneyball” (Lewis, 2003). His front office exploited a fundamental misunderstanding in evaluating baseball talent held league-wide. Teams were focusing on statistics such as batting average and runs batted in (RBIs), while ignoring better indicators of team contributions to success, such as on-base percentage (OBP). With teams engaging in improper player evaluation practices, the Oakland A’s identified and secured good players at discount prices relative to their actual performance value (Lewis, 2003).
While visible adoption of analytics-based decision making by teams’ front offices appears to have been initially slow, there is evidence—considering the success of teams known to implement analytics—that use of analytics is becoming expected to some degree. Though, given the secrecy many organizations (i.e. teams) enact to protect valuable proprietary knowledge, this recent trend of adoption may represent mimetic isomorphism within American sport franchises (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). Teams may be perceiving the adoption of analytics as a necessary action for remaining competitive.
Thus, it seems apparent that sport organizations, especially sport franchises, perceive value in collecting data that can be analyzed through advanced metrics; believing it furthers knowledge, and improves its practices. This has arguably led to greater competitive balance within the sports where these analytics have been adopted, as inefficiencies pertaining to player evaluation are identified by teams and remedied. In a presentation at the 2013 Sloan MIT Conference on Sports Analytics titled “Moneyball Revisited,” researchers Andrew Zimbalist and Ben Baumer (2013) contend that as baseball teams have adopted the use of various sabermetrics, a continual process of finding inefficiencies and eventual assimilation of those practices league-wide is in effect. Subsequently, they suggest that while sabermetrics was once undervalued, it may eventually become overvalued, allowing the front offices that are not dependent on sabermetric thought to possibly enjoy a period of competitive advantage (Zimbalist & Baumer, 2013).
What I find interesting about this period of emerging—though, not yet fully accepted or adopted—use of analytics in professional sports are the differing “theories” of what teams are “testing” to develop rosters and play games. In Moneyball, the A’s found under-valued talent for constructing its roster by obtaining players with historically high OBP. Moreover, the insights reaped from analytics extended into how the game was played on the field. For instance, attempting steals was frowned upon by management, as a player caught stealing would—in a statistical sense—reduce the likelihood of a big run inning (Lewis, 2003).
A more recent example of a front office’s “theories” informing its team’s practices within a different sport involves the Houston Rockets of the National Basketball Association. Called, “Moreyball,” after the team’s General Manager, Daryl Morey, the Rockets play at an up-tempo pace implementing an offense that avoids mid-range jumpers. The team’s style is based-upon findings from its department of in-house analysts (The Great, 2015).
With consideration to the scholarly perspectives and sport practitioner trends that are presented within this response, this final section provides my perspective on how theory informs practice within sport management and more specifically sport sponsorship. Further, I believe that my experiences as both a doctoral student and as a sport sponsorship consultant are relevant in influencing my perspective.
My Personal Perspective on How Theory Informs Practice
While research in the area of sport management is capable of informing practice with its theory, I would argue that it does not do so enough; especially in the area of sport sponsorship. From what I have experienced as a doctoral student, and my past experience as a practitioner, I believe that the theory—practice gap is large and continues to grow. As a sport sponsorship consultant eight years ago, I was never privy to the research that I can now access online through university libraries. Much of my understanding of the sport sponsorship phenomenon was obtained through knowledge transfer and knowledge production from more experienced consultants, as well as from the experiences that I personally garnered. From those experiences, however, came personal “theories” of explanation. In truth, after having read hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles on sport sponsorship, the “theories” that I had developed as a practitioner and those that I have read in research articles are quite similar. The largest difference among the two approaches is that I could explain my practice-based theories in less words. And even now, when conflicts exist between what I have learned from scholarly theory and in practice, I tend to side with that which I had learned in practice. Often, the difference is attributable to a narrow research design that suggests an incomplete understanding of how sport sponsorship functions—an incomplete understanding that is noticeable because of my practitioner background. Mintzberg (2005) reinforces the need for practitioner understanding when he says, “The library is the worst place in the world in which to find a research topic. Even students who were once in the world of real things have forgotten what goes on there” (p. 18).
It is easy for me to agree with Mintzberg (2005). The longer I have been in my doctoral studies, the more disconnected I believe that I have become to current practice in the field of sport sponsorship. I agree with the rationale of scholars (Chalip, 2006; Irwin & Ryan, 2013; Parks, 1992; Weese, 1995) who claim that establishing relationships with sport practitioners is vitally important for improving instruction, research, and service contributions that come from our academic discipline. Boyer (1990) makes the point that “theory surely leads to practice. But practice also leads to theory” (p. 16). Further, developing theory is not something exclusive to scholars, as Mintzberg (2005) notes, theories are “just words and symbols on pieces of paper, about the reality they purport to describe; they are not that reality…they simplify it” (p. 1).
As a sponsorship consultant, when a particular sponsorship activation produced unexpected results, notes were taken to be investigated further. In continuing his discourse on developing theory, Mintzberg (2005) contends that “You are not going to make the great breakthrough from the note that fits…[w]eak theorists, I believe, throw such notes away. They don’t wish to deal with the ambiguity. They want it all to be neat. Keep these notes…” (p. 21-22).
Consultants must be able to provide explanations to their clients; thus, they must seek to understand those notes that do not fit. If a clear understanding is not initially possible, they must theorize an explanation that is capable of being “tested” in the next activation. To “throw away notes” as a consultant is paramount to throwing away business. Thus, should not scholars, serving as knowledge consultants, conduct themselves similarly?
The realization of the potential benefits that Irwin and Ryan (2013) associate with scholar-practitioner partnerships—including “an ideal opportunity to apply, test, and…generate theory (p. 13)”—would function two-fold. First, the quality of instruction, scholarship, and service to the practice would increase. Second, and possibly more importantly, the quality of the practice would be advanced. Consider sponsorship research: Does it inform or confirm?
I would argue that research in sponsorship generally adheres to one paradigm (i.e. post-positivistic, quantitative), follow similar designs, are cross-sectional, and heavily focus on cognitive and affective image transfer effects (e.g. Roy and Cornwell, 2003, 2004; Gwinner & Eaton, 1999)—with results reflecting the general practice. In other words, the “big picture” findings that are identified in studies do not add value to the practitioner who already practices in accordance to those theories—albeit, in a different vocabulary. I would argue that few sponsorship studies are particularly insightful. For instance, why not investigate sponsorship effects that are associated with different types of leveraging? Different industries have different practices (given the nature of their products/services) for leveraging their sport sponsorships—what differences in effects exist between them? Or, instead of mass generalization of an extremely complex construct, how about examining sponsorship effects specific to certain industry categories? How about research questions leading to more inquiry of a qualitative (e.g. Farrelly & Quester, 2005) and mixed-methods (e.g. Delia & Armstrong, 2015) nature?
To summarize my overall perspective on how theory informs practice: it does regularly. I believe, however, that such theory is predominately being produced and tested by sport managers through practice. My thought is that the previously mentioned constraints (Fink, 2013; Irwin & Ryan, 2013) of the academic profession are partially responsible. The other, as highlighted by Irwin and Ryan (2013), is the indifference of most sport management scholars to engage collaboratively with practitioners. Foundationally, for sport management and its various sub-disciplines to be more relevant, I believe it is necessary to collaborate/partner with practitioners in our research, instruction, and service. Collaboration is also needed between scholars in sport business management and sport sociology (Love & Andrews, 2011). Such collaborations establish better understanding between these two groups of scholars; thus, capable of developing more comprehensive (and subsequently more relevant) theory from a greater breadth of methods and philosophies. These types of theories are beneficial in advancing practice in that they provide practitioners with their market-driven wants, while advocating and empowering them to address socio-cultural and political needs.
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