This story was originally published on haslam.utk.edu.
Apply business science to sports and what do you get? In 2002, it was a research paper that found NFL coaches punt too often on fourth down. Before that, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane revolutionized baseball by favoring statistics over scouting instincts. Economics and analytics now influence sports strategy from draft picks to league schedules.
Eric Boden, a 2020 Tennessee graduate, may have found the next convergence: supply chain management and the sideline.
Boden approached UT's athletics department as a lifelong fan looking to incorporate some aspect of the football program into his business honors thesis in supply chain management. A few discussions in, equipment management seemed a perfect fit.
Cramming a hundred or more 200- to 400-pound players along with their coaches, staff, and equipment into a space measuring roughly 250 square yards takes organizational expertise. Complicate the system with strategic coaching preferences and travel destinations that change weekly, and you have a logistical nightmare-or a supply chain management major's dream.
"I'm always thinking about sideline organization and equipment management in terms of supply chain management," says Roger Frazier, director of equipment and apparel for Tennessee Athletics. "The majority of our duties involve supply chain management and logistics. It is our responsibility to make sure that everything is organized and in place on a daily basis for practice and games. Our job is to make sure that we operate as efficiently as possible."
"When I heard that and started to speak with Roger more, I thought I'd won the lottery," says Boden. "It comes down to four key themes we learn on the first day of our operations management class: cost, quality, time and flexibility."
"Equipment management is really about understanding the attributes and performance goals of the inventory the team has on hand," says Boden's thesis advisor, Lance Saunders, an assistant professor of supply chain management and the Daniel and Karen Myers Supply Chain Scholar in UT's Haslam College of Business. "Balancing conflicting goals in a set amount of space is the nexus of the challenges retailers like Walmart face regarding inventory."
Boden's first conversation at UT led him to interviews with equipment managers at two NFL teams and four Power Five schools, among other collegiate and high school football staff members. The inventory complexity increased markedly at the professional level, where players have customized gear and teams play multiple days per week at destinations across the US. "Depending on the week we may be flying or transporting our equipment by truck. The mode of transportation we use impacts our volume," one participant from the NFL told Boden. "We have to be able to carry inventory that fulfills player specific needs rather than a one-size-fits-all."
In the football environment, quality equipment equals player safety, which all participants said was their top priority, most citing the chronic traumatic encephalopathy findings announced in 2002. Boden points to the NFL's helmet safety guidelines and vendor partnerships following the CTE findings as an equipment decision victory across the sport that Power Five collegiate teams could learn from.
"Although [Power Five conference programs] are extremely collaborative, they rarely compare themselves to other programs," Boden writes in his report. "Each program feels that their equipment decisions are best for their program without even understanding if another program is excelling in that specific area."
In practical terms, this translates to coaches running their sidelines as a form of signature. Rather than copying model programs, coaches often have specific preferences for who and what should go where. Saunders argues that supply chain management could bring the science of efficiency to sidelines as well as locker rooms and away-game equipment shipping.
"Right time, right place, right size. That's supply chain 101," Saunders says. "Football does this in a constrained environment, balancing quality with cost. A lot of programs aren't necessarily designing a sideline that aligns with their competitive priorities."
Many of Boden's research participants agree. One of the collegiate contacts noted the impact Boden's work could make in professional baseball and set up a meeting for him with staff members at the Atlanta Braves last spring.
"With baseball you have a brutal schedule and an even greater variability aspect. They have to travel at 1 a.m., cross multiple time zones, take all kinds of player preferences into account," Boden says. "We were literally talking about my dream job before COVID-19 disrupted all of sports."
Boden took a more traditional supply chain position, which he points out might be the better career move. But Saunders believes that the supply chain research will become increasingly relevant this season, with COVID-19 creating greater economic pressures for all sports and more potential for schedule variability.
"The global pandemic is creating uncharted territory for sports at the collegiate and professional level," Saunders says. "We're seeing programs across the country announce cuts. They're going to begin looking toward a more businesslike mentality of reducing cost without compromising service, quality, or other key outcomes."
The supply chain management undergraduate program and faculty at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has consistently ranked among the top 10 in the nation for decades. U.S. News & World Report ranked the Haslam College of Business's graduate and executive supply chain education fourth in the nation for 2021, with Gartner and the Financial Times placing them second and third, respectively. The college is also home to the Global Supply Chain Institute, which serves as an international hub for supply chain research and talent development and has more than 70 corporate partners.