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Field of Study: Ballparks, Arenas and Racetracks Serve as Classrooms in Sports Management

19 May, 2016

By: Dr. Bonnie Tiell

Sport and Entertainment Management as a service-oriented industry similar to hospitality, culinary arts and healthcare requires hands-on activities to best prepare students for the myriad of entry level positions in the field. Ready to provide the practical experience are professional and semi-professional sport organizations which are increasingly collaborating with academic institutions in a variety of ways. Examples of collaborative initiatives include internships, career-oriented events (job fairs and panels), action-based learning projects and actual partnerships.

These programs clearly bridge theory and practice, but skepticism lingers behind the potential hidden agendas or the ulterior motives of professional teams that entertain partnership opportunities with academic institutions. Teams and leagues seem to increasingly rely on free or cheap labor for ticket sales and other business functions from willing students and job seekers.

The most common collaborative initiative between sport organizations and academic institutions is the for-credit internship which has increasingly been criticized for an over-emphasis on exploiting students in a free-labor market. The sport management industry is saturated with a supply of eager college students seeking experience to satisfy graduation requirements. The highly-sought-after affiliation with a professional or minor league sport team means franchises can provide opportunities with little or no compensation and seemingly never run out of willing and able candidates.

While internships for academic credit and little or no compensation are prevalent with franchises in the minor and pro leagues, several teams in the Big Four (NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB) require commitments longer than a single-semester and have begun tailoring experiences for recent graduates. For example, the MLB Atlanta Braves trainee program for recent college graduates pays $9.50 per hour and spans 10 months. The MLB Pittsburgh Pirates have established a year-long B.U.C.S. Academy in conjunction with their ticket sales and service management team. The Denver Broncos, recent NFL Super Bowl Champions, posted an advertisement for an intern to work seven months in the marketing department, however, while the listing indicated full-time hours (9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday with some evenings and weekends), no compensation was offered.

Another tactic teams use to collaborate with academic institutions is to host a career fair or a networking event with front office executives. While the value of leveraging connections can be invaluable to current and future job seekers, these forums often include a fee (ticket purchase) and are staged to a boost attendance at a low-market game. The perception of corporate social responsibility for providing networking opportunities for college students interested in a career in sports is overshadowed by the economic benefit for teams using the event to drive ticket sales.

The NBA Detroit Pistons, for example, annually host a pre-game professional panel in sports marketing, communications or a similar support area for the price of a ticket and food voucher. Teamworkonline.com, a popular job search engine for sport careers, listed 15 job fairs and networking events in a six-week time span. All were hosted by professional teams and required the purchase of a game ticket.

Action-based learning projects are another example of collaborative relationship between the academic institution and a sports organization. There are many forms of these types of projects where the arena, ball field or race track becomes a live classroom. Some projects are between a sport organization and a franchise where a team executive works directly with academic professors to tailor a project for a particular class or cohort of students. In other cases, universities and organizations host a competition whereby teams of students work on a case study or project assignment focusing on a segment of the industry (i.e. watercraft sports), a specific sport organization (i.e., USA Track and Field) or event (i.e. World Rowing Championships).

The National Sports Forum which attracts almost 1,000 professional team executives to an annual conference hosts a case cup competition for college students. In 2015, the competition required student groups to develop a marketing campaign to attract Millennials to the Kentucky Speedway. Competitions involving teams of college students working on a case study have been also been hosted by organizations such as the Collegiate Sport Research Institute and the Jeffrey Moorad Sports Law Journal as well as by individual universities including UCLA, San Diego State, Nichols College and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Partnerships between sport organizations and individual universities have increased in popularity over the past few decades. The MLB Cleveland Indians organization currently partners with five universities (Tiffin University, Gannon University, University of Findlay, Kent State University and Baldwin Wallace University) for the annual collegiate competition to market the 2016 opening weekend vs. the World Series Runner-Up New York Mets.

Collaborating with a professional franchise to create a competitive environment challenging business students to be innovative and entrepreneurial provides real-world experience that goes beyond the walls of a brick and mortar classroom. These action-based projects link theory and practice while delivering dividends to high performers in the form of incentives, but also benefits the sponsoring organization with access to a willing group of individuals they don’t have to pay to sell game tickets.

The program begins with a representative from the Indians organization working with an academic professor at each university to tailor a program to best serve student’s needs while benefiting the organization’s interests in increasing sales and widening their fan base. Students complete an assignment centering on the team or the league (business plan, marketing campaign, event brochure, an analysis of dynamic ticket pricing strategies, etc.) that links education to selling tickets to Opening Weekend.

As a caveat, the ticket includes a pre-game networking social, free drawstring bags for the first 300 who enter the gate, photo opportunities with the mascot, raffles, prizes and free drawings. Universities receive a percentage of the sales and top performing groups and individual sellers receive incentives ranging from free tickets to a job interview. Additionally, the top group from each university that excelled on the academic assignment is invited to make a presentation to the front of front office executives.

The Indians organize training by initially facilitating a basic sales seminar on each campus and following up a half-day workshop at Progressive Park for all participating universities. The workshop typically includes a panel on career preparation in professional sports as well as a facility tour, lunch and break-out sessions on topics ranging from overcoming sales objections to effectively servicing clients. Students are able to actually see the seat locations and are trained as junior account executives with the authority to sell, order and distribute game tickets using the Indians customer relationship management (CRM) system. At one point, 11 universities participated in the collegiate competition demonstrating how friendly rivalries can promote collaboration among professors for the benefit of student learning.

Sales combines are yet another way sport organizations access eager students or recent graduates to sell tickets in exchange for providing real-world training and experience. Actually, participants pay a fee to attend multi-day training seminars before they are unleashed to demonstrate their ability in selling tickets for a pro team. In 2015, combines were held for the NBA New Jersey Devils and Detroit Pistons, but programs have also been connected to other professional leagues. Top performers receive interviews and are occasionally hired by organizations impressed with talent.

Sport management has long been described as a field where experiential learning is a foundational component for adequate career preparation. To land a job in the industry, experience is crucial. The elusiveness of applied knowledge is minimized when engaging in action-based learning projects, partnerships and activities that are linked to real-life organizational scenarios.

Combines, competitions and partnerships between sport organizations and college academic departments will continue to grow in popularity. Professional teams and events will continue to attract free or cheap labor in exchange for their field, turf, stadium or racetrack serving as a living-learning environment. The desired outcome for college graduates is a rewarding job in the industry and a host of sport organizations and professional franchises have a proven system in place to test the waters before making a hire.

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