Cheryl Farrow is president and chief executive officer of the Supply Chain Management Association
A lot of names have been engraved in Blue Jays folklore over the last couple of baseball seasons, with more to come. Who could fail to be impressed with a batting lineup described as an avalanche, a defence that covers every blade of grass and pitchers who leave some of the best batters in the league swinging at thin air? But another group that impressed received very little attention, and in a perverse way, that is a good thing.
Whereas players hit the headlines for home runs and strikeouts, there are many people behind the scenes whom we only hear about if something goes horribly wrong. When it comes to getting a baseball team, support staff and mountains of equipment around a land mass the size of North America with very little time between games, a lot can go wrong. But it almost never does.
The logistics behind this operation is mind-boggling. In 2015, the Blue Jays played a staggering 173 games, with 86 road contests and 32 trips between cities, a total distance of 67,000 kilometres – almost twice around the world. With logistics like that, there's no time to rest. Planning for the 2017 season is already well under way, with hotels and transportation providers being sourced, airline contracts being negotiated and contingency plans being made in case of disruptions. But with the American League Championship Series just getting under way, there is the small matter of finishing the 2016 playoffs.
Consider the challenge that comes from having many games take place in different cities on consecutive days. Travel and game disruptions due to weather are not uncommon, and security has become a much bigger hurdle than it used to be. The playoffs add a whole level of complexity, as opponents and travel plans are unclear until mere days in advance. If players are stressed out or fatigued because of the trip, or if they are worrying about whether the right equipment arrives in time for a key game, their performance could suffer. Given the amount of travel involved in Major League Baseball, that is a huge concern.
Beyond ensuring that everything runs smoothly, the role of the back office has evolved to become much more important to the success of most professional sports teams. Baseball led the way in many respects with the Moneyball concept, which added a layer of statistical analysis to the coaching team, but that concept is now a decade old. Teams are now looking deeper, into factors like the supply chain. As in any competitive business, they are constantly looking for competitive advantage.
Look at cycling's 2016 Tour de France winners, Team Sky. They went so far as to commission and transport custom-made mattresses between race stages to ensure their finely tuned cyclists would get a good night's sleep. Last year, to make sure their football stars received all the comforts of home and could fully focus on the field, the New York Jets shipped 350 rolls of toilet paper to London for an overseas National Football League game.
And at the last Winter Olympics, the U.S. team worked with their kit suppliers to deliver better aerodynamics for their speed skaters, producing an unlikely collaboration between Under Armour and defence company Lockheed Martin.
Sports is big business now, and the most successful teams will take a leaf from of the corporate playbook to find an edge. Major League Baseball is estimated to be worth a whopping $36-billion (U.S.), and the average player salary is $3.8-million. If you are investing that much in your teams and players, you want to do everything possible to make sure they succeed. This means minimizing distractions and fatigue, but also looking at the entire environment around the team to find ways to deliver a competitive edge.
With elite athletes, tiny details can make a huge difference in performance. It's no wonder teams are increasingly looking to the people behind the scenes to facilitate their success.