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When Evening MBA student Alex Sotiropoulos signed up for a marketing lab supported by the Kilts Center for Marketing, he hoped the project-based course would help him pivot from communications to a new career in brand management for consumer packaged goods.

“I’d never previously worked in a brand marketing or innovation function, so I was craving hands-on experience before making the switch,” he says.

The course Lab in Developing New Products and Services gives students a chance to apply innovation design principles they learn in readings, class lectures, and exercises to the real-world marketing challenges of various client companies. Each company works with a dedicated team of six students.

After being selected to take the course with Kilts Center executive director and clinical professor of marketing Art Middlebrooks, Sotiropoulos and his classmates formed a team that consulted with the Chicago Blackhawks. The National Hockey League team sought strategies to diversify its audience through increased engagement with Gen Z and millennial fans.

“They’re not typically as strong of sports fans as Gen X and baby boomers, but it’s not the full story,” says Matt Murphy, Blackhawks manager of strategy. “It turns out younger people just consume sports in different ways. They are really fundamentally a different consumer for us to reach.”

The Research Phase: Understanding Hockey Consumers

Students tackled the problem using design thinking—a process that emphasizes cross-disciplinary teamwork to create innovative solutions that are desirable, feasible, and profitable. They first conducted in-depth, qualitative research with hockey consumers through one-on-one interviews and surveys. At the same time, they researched trends in the sports sector and innovations by other professional hockey teams.

The students’ research confirmed that younger fans generally have less money to spend. Perhaps even more importantly, they spend money differently than previous generations, with a preference for experiences over products. As digital natives, Gen Z and millennials are used to online transactions for nearly everything they do. They buy tickets on demand—not weeks in advance—when friends and family are available to join them. A sense of community is important to them, but there’s nowhere on-site to gather and interact with other fans before the game begins.

Getting these fans to spend their entertainment dollars on game tickets—today and for many years to come—requires creating experiences that align with their preferences at a price they can afford, Sotiropoulos and his team concluded.

Olivia Lee, a Full-Time MBA student on the team, was surprised that just a few conversations with fans could uncover so much about consumer needs.

“Especially in moderated interviews, in which we could push people to really discuss the ‘why’ behind their responses, it was interesting to learn what drives sports fandom and what kinds of experiences make an event truly memorable,” she says.

This is a critical component of the process, says Middlebrooks, who designed and has taught the course for 26 years, eight of them using the consultant model, where students work with real clients.

“The goal is to get an in-depth understanding of the people you’re designing for,” he says. “Why? Because most MBA students in the program are going out and designing for people very different from them. MBAs are not typical. You have to get to know the people you’re designing for.”

“The students did a great job understanding not only our business but, particularly, where this stuff fits inside our business on the whole. They’d always bring fresh new material and ideas to the table, which was really inspiring to work with.”

— Matt Murphy

The Solutions Phase: Targeting Young Fans

Students presented the key challenges to Blackhawks executives, including CEO Danny Wirtz, and then embarked on the solutions phase. They brainstormed nearly 50 potential ideas, narrowed them down to 10, then picked three for a final presentation to the Blackhawks.

Their first idea was to add ticket packages that give fans more flexibility, such as attending a game only once every four to six weeks. “It keeps them engaged but it fits with their schedule,” the Blackhawks’ Murphy says.

Another idea would give fans something social to do before the game starts. Students recommended happy hours with local vendors and breweries—a good fit because younger adults are enthusiastic about supporting local and small businesses.

“That was an excellent one, especially coming out of COVID with so many companies that have been hurt,” Murphy says.

Their final solution was to convert unused corners of the arena into more flexible recreational space for fans to mingle. Most arenas were built to get people in and out, Murphy says, so young fans typically do pregame socializing at a nearby restaurant or pub. Sports teams could be missing a prime opportunity to build community.

“They’d take whatever feedback we had and really own the work themselves,” Murphy says. “They did a great job understanding not only our business but, particularly, where this stuff fits inside our business on the whole. They’d always bring fresh new material and ideas to the table, which was really inspiring to work with.”


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