Crisis Management in Sports from the Property and Athlete’s Perspectives

Club and team owners experience crises differently from athletes even when the crisis implicates both parties.  While sports properties have many more bases to cover in the “crisis management” phase of the crisis than the athlete, the latter must take the necessary steps to save his or her own image.  After all, for the athlete, a crisis can be much more personal than “simply business” since it involves a person and not a somewhat abstract entity like a team or a league.  A team has many faces and the Chicago “Black Sox” will always be the White Sox in spite of the 1919 World Series, but – right or wrong – Joe Jackson’s image was tarnished forever.

Every year brings new controversies to the world of sports and late 2009 was the prelude to the nearly Shakespearean disintegration of Tiger Woods’ image.  Accenture, AT&T, et. al. ended their relationships with Woods as the main stream media published and broadcasted evermore stories of his indiscretions and ungentlemanly conduct.  How does someone in his position handle a similar situation and still come out on top?  Well, they can’t.  However, an athlete facing a similar crisis could minimize the damage on his character and image by keeping the lines of communication wide open between himself and all internal stakeholders (i.e. sponsors, players union) and external stakeholders (media, the government in cases involving illegal activity, all publics, etc.).  Above all, especially during the so-called “communication age,” athletes must have a crisis management plan in place that includes forming positive relationships with members of the press and making himself available to his publics (such as through a current website).  Since sponsorships depend mostly on borrowed imagery, an athlete must do his utmost to preserve his own image in order to maintain sponsorship relationships and keep the value of his endorsements at a premium.

The property, though, faces a far more complicated process.  Of particular difficulty is selling the idea of creating a crisis management plan to management in the first place, since crises are very rare by definition and the creation of contingency plans and extra employee training required to form a good CMT takes time and uses a significant amount of company resources.  Having a good crisis management plan in place, however, means that the property will not be caught off guard should a crisis occur – just ask British Petroleum’s Tony Hayward what happens when crisis management is either inadequate or ignored.

The risks a sports property faces are not even close to those that companies drilling for oil in depths beyond the reach of our Navy’s best submarines must deal with; nevertheless, they are quite severe since the improper handling of a crisis could lead to a business’s absolute demise (Chalk’s Ocean Airways is a good example).  In the effort to create a crisis management plan, every property must designate an employee (usually the CEO or someone in upper management) who will create a SWOT analysis that effectively identifies the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.  With this knowledge, the CEO can begin to draft a crisis management strategy.  Here, the crisis management team – which is made up of members from all departments, especially HR and Public Relations – creates the crisis management plan.  A good crisis management plan forms the guidelines the property must follow to prevent, prepare for, manage, and learn from a crisis.  It should be reviewed often (every quarter is a fair interval) and rehearsed just as frequently.  Since planning for every possible catastrophe would be unreasonable, crisis management teams usually form plans that cover certain categories of problems, such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or economic instability, to name a few.

Essentially, even though crises are potentially catastrophic events that can happen without warning, they have a low probability of occurrence.  That does not mean that an athlete, sponsor, or sports property should not be prepared for the improbable or unforeseeable.  The return on investment is always worth the trouble of forming and training a team that can execute an effective crisis plan.  Surprisingly, a significant proportion of businesses neglect crisis management.  Indeed, it should be embraced both at the business and personal level.  There is simply too much to lose.

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

Thanks to Professor Dave DeVries of Northwestern University’s Master of Sports Administration program for his guidance and lessons in crisis management in sports.  As always, thank you for your continued readership.

  1. July 13th, 2010
    Trackback from : World Wide News Flash

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