Logistics in the Sports Industry: How Supply Chain Management Keeps Games Running

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When people debate the performance of various sports franchises, the discussion typically centers around the product on the field: “Why can’t this MLB owner spend more money to improve his team’s performance?” or “How does this coach impact a team’s organizational philosophy?”

It’s easy to break things down to a black and white level, especially when you’re looking at the spreadsheet data of how much players are paid or things of the sort, but so much more goes into operating a sports franchise or program — at just about any level of the game, whether professional or all the way down to grade school — than just the on-field product.

Sports franchises are like microcosms of a city, with supply chains providing food, athletic equipment, cleaning supplies, merchandise, and all the other items needed to operate properly. Here’s a look at how those supply chains work.

Food Logistics

While I’ve always been interested in how sports teams operate, my first real encounter with the impact of supply chains came earlier this year. Back in September, I attended a Seattle Mariners game at T-Mobile Park. It’s a lifelong goal of mine to catch a game at every MLB stadium, and the Mariners were the next on the list.

When visiting a new park, I like to get a sense for the local flavor: seeing any monuments to legends of the game, food items that are unique to that region of the country or betting promos available at the sportsbook tie-ins some teams provide. In the food department, the Mariners are famous for their chapulines, fried grasshoppers flavored with chili-lime salt seasoning. I can’t say the thought of eating a bug made my mouth water, but it certainly piqued an interest: I might as well give them a shot.

Much to my disappointment, a concessions stand worker informed me that they hadn’t had any chapulines at the ballpark since mid-July, when the Mariners hosted the All-Star Game: the fans flocking from all over the world to take part in the festivities had cleaned them out entirely. While I was disappointed to miss out on the unorthodox snack, I also found it interesting that some stadiums don’t update their stock of foods on a weekly or monthly basis. Rather, they stock up at the beginning of the year and then hope those supplies will last through the course of the season, keeping the foods frozen or otherwise preserved until they’re ready to be eaten.

Perhaps buying in bulk and prioritizing foods that will keep helps cut down costs — even if it runs the risk of overstocking or not buying enough — as opposed to updating inventory throughout the year.

Merchandise Logistics

The logistics of supplying merchandise, like team jerseys and other apparel, functions in a similar way. It’s a riskier game, though, as teams run the risk of overstocking on the jersey of a player who could get traded, fall out of favor with fans or even get cut from the team. When you consider that the average authentic MLB jersey costs more than $300, that’s a big risk to take.

What many teams will do instead is stock up on blank jersey templates, ones that come in the traditional team jersey style — be it home, away, or an alternate uniform — but without any player’s name attached.

When a customer comes to the team store and asks for the jersey of a specific player, teams will often only supply the apparel of a few stars: players guaranteed to stay with the team for years. If they ask for another player, an employee is on hand to create that customized jersey, sewing or ironing on the requisite nameplate and numbers to create the finished product.

By deferring part of the labor of creating the jersey to the moment a customer buys it, teams are able to ensure that they don’t buy too many or too few.

Staying Ahead of the Curve

At the end of the day, the goal of supply chain management in sports is to identify what needs to be supplied to customers and businesses before the demand exists. One such example is the aforementioned use of jersey templates, but teams can also rely on long standing market trends to make those predictions.

Ordering extra ponchos if there is rain in the forecast for an upcoming game helps teams profit off of an immediate demand — customers keeping themselves dry — just as things like hot chocolate or winter coats bearing the team brand will see an uptick in sales as the weather gets colder, or stocking up on sunscreen ahead of the summer months.

With tens of thousands of people attending each match, there are plenty of customers available: making sure their needs are suited through careful inventory supply and planning helps teams creating a winning customer service experience.