Writing Case Studies to Engage with Industry (And Become a Better Writer)
By Aaron Mansfield
Aaron Mansfield is a PhD student at UMass Amherst and an Associate Editor at ESPN
This summer, Zion Williamson – whom legendary former Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro describes as “the most marketable person I’ve seen” – hit the sneaker market. A bidding war ensued.
While the No. 1 NBA draft pick was ruining rims for Duke, pundits speculated about which brand he’d select: Nike or Adidas? Late in the game, however, a dark horse emerged: Puma.
Though Zion ultimately chose Nike subsidiary Jordan, the German giant’s commitment to basketball was evident. Puma announced its re-entry into hoops in 2018, after its attempt in 1998 famously flamed out. Twenty years later, Puma – sensing an opportunity to play “provocateur” – gave it another go, launching an ambitious campaign with Jay-Z.
I recently broke down this situation from a sport marketing perspective for the McCormack Case Study Collection at UMass Amherst. In the case, I offer context, highlight opportunities and challenges, and outline teaching points and assignments. For students, the case offers the chance to engage with a story developing right now – the type of thing they’re already talking about. For instructors, the case offers relevant, vetted material and a ‘plug and play’ design.
UMass’ collection is one of several such resources for sport educators – for example, check out Case Studies in Sport Management, or search for your topic of interest on the expansive Sport Management Case Studies Repository. Academics often hear of the importance of bridging theoretical instruction with industry. This is especially significant in sport because of our discipline’s applied focus (Chalip, 2006; Irwin & Ryan, 2013). Further, because consumer sport is young and rapidly developing, the subject matter we explore is dynamic. Trends and talking points arise constantly. (Consider the emergence of esports, or how many jobs are now centered on sport analytics.) It’s difficult to make a meaningful contribution in the classroom without industry awareness.
Case studies offer such a bridge, invigorating the classroom. Students excitedly participate in discussions. Well-suited for either individual or group work, cases offer a refreshing supplement to tried-and-true approaches like lecturing and textbook assignments.
I also encourage you to consider writing a case of your own. For example, the leader of UMass’ collection, Will Norton, is searching for quality content. Unsure what to write about? Well, when it comes to building theory, sport scholars have alluded to the importance of personal passion for the subject matter (Chelladurai, 2013; Fink, 2013). That insight extends to case studies. What are you passionate about?
The similarities between writing for journal publication and crafting a case may not be immediately apparent, but there is carryover. As a scholar and journalist, I have learned this to be true: writing is writing. When I am attempting to make a theoretical contribution for a journal, I am becoming a better editor; when I am coaching a writer on an NFL season preview feature, I am becoming a better theory-builder. Writing is akin to training your central nervous system – it doesn’t matter which muscle group you’re targeting. Working on a case refines your voice and sharpens your editorial sense, which come into play every time you write-up research (or review a peer’s work).
The language and conventions are different, but constructing a case is much like constructing a journal article: you start with a big idea, narrow its focus as you peruse related literature and take notes, break it down into component parts, and slowly but surely – making exponential progress, adapting as you discover new sources –mold it into a cohesive product. Perhaps most importantly, you spend time between writing wrestling with the concepts. Doesn’t that sound like the process of theory building that Fink (2013) described?
I specifically recommend that PhD students consider this opportunity. You’ll bolster your writing ability, enjoy exploring a topic of interest, and feel satisfied knowing your work could impact leading sport programs. Oftentimes, such as with the UMass collection, you’ll also be compensated financially.
Case studies are a tool for scholars who aspire to shape the future of the academic discipline and the next generation of sport professionals. I encourage you to take advantage of such a valuable resource: consider using a case in your next course or writing one of your own.