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SLM students ponder WooSox relocation, win second place in COVID-19 problem-solving competition

Published on December 07, 2020

SLM students ponder WooSox relocation, win second place in COVID-19 problem-solving competition


A team of three sport and leisure management students at Eastern Connecticut State University won second place among 40 competitors at this fall's Pioneer Institute Nichols College Case Competition, which challenged students to develop solutions on how professional sports might adapt to COVID-19. 

Nikita Biahliak ’21, James Callaghan ’21 and Keira Integlia ’21 represented Eastern in the regional problem-solving competition, and took home $1,000 as part of their second place prize package.

The virus has halted sporting events across the world, including delaying the future plans of the Boston Red Sox’s AAA affiliate, which was in the middle of relocating from Pawtucket, RI, to Worcester, MA, when the pandemic struck.

The three students put their heads together and came up with some creative ideas to keep the Worcester Polar Park project alive during COVID-19. They believed that if the “WooSox” re-arranged their priorities they could maintain the viability and timeliness of the park’s construction during this uncertain time.

Building relationships was key. The students believed that establishing mutually beneficial relationships with a range of publics in the community would restore the vibrant support the team needed to rebound economically. They were given a 15-minute Zoom conference window with judges to present their case.

Notably, most of the group’s recommendations did not center on baseball-related activities. In particular, the students suggested that the park’s owners host community events and invest in transportation infrastructure near the stadium to encourage economic activity. The judges viewed this recommendation alone as a significant, practical benefit to the community and positive public relations.

The students went on to explore the possibilities for business partnerships between Polar Park and nearby restaurants, sporting goods stores and universities. This included the students’ targeted efforts to attract specific populations such as senior citizens and students to games. 

The judges praised the team’s work, connecting the park’s success to buy-in from the broader community. One judge, Ryan Meagher, season ticket sales manager for the Worcester Red Sox, offered particularly positive pertinent feedback to the team’s recommendations.

Other judges included Dave Peterson, general manager of the Worcester Bravehearts; Ellen Roy Herzfelder, former Massachusetts secretary of environmental affairs and current member of the Pioneer Institute Board of Directors; and John Peculis, senior vice president of commercial lending at Fidelity Cooperative Bank.

One of the Eastern team’s more creative proposals was to implement a bikeshare program in Worcester, which they suggested could increase access to Polar Park, boost revenue for businesses in the city’s Canal District and even improve public health. They also discussed opportunities to improve public transit near the stadium, including the creation of a shuttle service that would connect Worcester Polytechnic Institute with Kelley Square.

Gregory Kane, associate professor of kinesiology and physical education, believes the success of the students — who have placed first or second every year since Eastern started competing in these case-study competitions six years ago — is due to the multidisciplinary nature of Eastern’s sport and leisure management major and the liberal arts education all students receive at Eastern.  

“Our students got to see how we measure up with other programs. We have been fortunate in our performances,” said Kane.  “They shined in teamwork, decision-making, public policy research, project management, communication and presentation, and critical and analytical skills.”  

“Participating in the Pioneer Institute Nichols College Case Study Competition allowed me to use my liberal arts education, more specifically my background in sport management, to put my knowledge to the test,” Integlia said. “Placing in this competition has brought recognition to the KPE Department and also instilled great pride in me as an Eastern student. This case study competition has prepared me for future endeavors I might explore in my career.”

Callaghan considered the competition an amazing opportunity to get real-world experience in the world of sports. “Eastern’s KPE department is the main reason why I believe our team was named a finalist in this competition, as all of the teachers and classes at Eastern have prepared us for an experience like this. It just adds to the long list of reasons why I am proud to be a Warrior.”

Biahliak agreed: “It was a great honor to represent Eastern and our KPE department. This incredible opportunity has allowed me to apply my knowledge, given to me by our amazing professors, in a real-world application. The competition made me proud to be an Eastern student and reinforced my belief that Eastern prepares its students for the future.”

One of 40 teams competing, the team of Eastern students received $1,000 to split among themselves as part of their second-place prize package.

Written by Dwight Bachman