Sport management scholars, students, and practitioners can turn to the case study as a research tool when they want to gain a deeper understanding of an actual (real-life) sport industry phenomenon or issue (e.g., decision-making processes used by athletic directors, the effects of team relocation, a sport merchandise company’s approach to expanding globally). Investigators can use case study methodology to verify a theory in the real world (e.g., examining the validity of a theory in a particular sport organization or situation), to study the precise characteristics of a unique situation in order to make comparisons to other situations, or to research a phenomenon that has not been studied in order to discover new features (Ghauri & Gronhaug, 2005). Therefore, in addition to examining and solving practical issues in the sport industry, case study research in sport management can also involve testing existing theoretical concepts or even creating new theories (Maylor & Blackmon, 2005). In case study theory-testing work, the investigator can examine a case in order to evaluate, strengthen, or challenge a theoretical proposition (Edwards, 1998).
Case studies typically explore, describe, illustrate, or explain a selected phenomenon in sport management. Case study research comes in three types (i.e., serves three purposes) that often overlap in sport management: explanatory, exploratory, and descriptive (Maylor & Blackmon, 2005). As detailed by Yin (2003), exploratory and descriptive case studies often answer research questions that address who, what, when, and where. In explanatory case studies, however, the investigator seeks to answer questions about how and why. For example, you could use an explanatory study to gain understanding of how sport marketing professionals have used a particular promotion to sustain consistently high attendance regardless of their team’s wins and losses. You could also use an explanatory case study if you wanted to understand why baseball ownership and management failed to adequately address the issue of steroids in the 1990s. Most case studies in sport management are focused on answering the how and why research questions.
Communication studies pioneer Wilbur Schramm (1971) illustrates the use of these questions in his definition of a case study: “The essence of a case study is that it tries to illuminate a decision or set of decisions: why they were taken, how they were implemented, and with what results” (p. 21). Denizen and Lincoln (1998b) explain that the term case study is used “because it draws attention to the question of what specifically can be learned from a single case” (p. 86). The most widely accepted definition is offered by Yin (2003): “A case study is an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident” (p. 13). Yin continues by noting that a case study “relies on multiple sources of evidence, with data needing to converge in a triangulating fashion, and . . . benefits from the prior development of theoretical propositions to guide data collection and analysis” (p. 14). Thus, a sport management case study is a research strategy built on theory and involving multiple sources of data collection (e.g., interviews, observations, documents).
Moving forward from these general definitions, a researcher can find numerous ways to frame sport management research in relation to popular definitions of case study. For instance, in applying Zikmund’s (1991) definition to sport management, we would define a case study as an exploratory research technique used in sport management to intensively investigate a situation. Kirk’s (1995) definition is also excellent when applied to sport management: A case study is examining (e.g., observing, exploring) certain factors of a sport management subject (e.g., people, company, organization, system) for some period of time.
A sport management investigator using case study methodology focuses on a specific, actual phenomenon in a practical, natural, or real context. For example, Amis et al. (2004) examined radical change in organizations by looking at the influence of various factors (e.g., organizational capacity, power, interest) in six uniquely designed Canadian national sport organizations. The typical case study—which involves little (and usually no) intervention, manipulation of behavior, or control over the events being studied by the investigator (Velde et al., 2004)—is facilitated through the use of several research strategies—for example, content analysis, use of a survey instrument, and archival procedures. In the study by Amis et al. (2004), their two primary research strategies involved conducting interviews and performing documentary analyses of governmental reports and newspaper articles. Because a case study uses several research methodologies, it should not be viewed as synonymous with an observation study or a historical treatise. For instance, although a contemporary case study researcher in sport management functions in a fashion similar to that of a sport historian in examining documents, artifacts, and archives, he or she also tends to use other sources of evidence (e.g., observations) not typically used by historians.
A case study generally entails in-depth examination of a single case (e.g., a certain sport industry phenomenon, group, situation, team, event, organization, or process). Even though a case study involves only one unit (N=1), the research process engages many variables and requires data collection and integrative interpretation (Ghauri & Gronhaug, 2005) of information from multiple sources, such as interviews with sport management personnel, observations of fans, archival data from organizational files, historical information, surveys of sport event participants, and analyses of documents (e.g., sport marketing plans, team budget and financial reports, newspaper articles, advertisements). As explained by Velde et al. (2004), case study research addresses the “degree to which the results and conclusions of the various data collection methods point in the same direction” (p. 79). In addition to the single-case approach (e.g., examining one sport organization), case study research can also involve studying multiple cases (e.g., performing a comparative case study of several sport organizations). Therefore, in the next section we examine both the single-case and the multiple-case study designs associated with this qualitative methodological approach.