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In ‘Trading Places’ scenario, each sports executive-educator found his comfort zone
Published August 23, 2010
Back when Jim Kahler ran sales and marketing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, he hired an Ohio State professor, Bill Sutton, to consult on research projects.
“Someday, I want to be Bill Sutton,” Kahler used to say when they worked together.
“Well, someday I want to be you,” Sutton would reply.
Kahler enjoyed the challenge of the sale, but his greatest pleasure came in spotting promising employees, helping them flourish, and watching them move up and often out. He liked teaching.
Sutton enjoyed teaching classes and gathering and analyzing data for clients, but he longed for the chance to put his theories into practice. He craved bottom-line responsibility.
Unlikely as it may have seemed at the time, they both got their wishes.
“Bill is my ‘Trading Places’ story,” said Kahler, who left the Cavs in 2002 to start a sports track in the MBA program at Arizona State University. For the last five years, he has headed the storied sports administration program at his alma mater, Ohio University.
“I give Bill Sutton credit for showing me this was possible way earlier than I thought it could be,” Kahler said. “He’s the one who said one day that I needed to be in a position to have my own program, that that’s what I would enjoy.
“I wouldn’t trade this job for any job in sports.”
Sutton said he never set out to run a sports administration program, as he has at the University of Central Florida since 2004. After getting his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Oklahoma State University, he stayed in the area and took a job as executive director of a local YMCA. He decided that since he had settled into a college town, he may as well work toward his doctorate. While doing that, a professor asked if he had ever considered teaching. It appealed to him. He followed that path, teaching first at Robert Morris in Pittsburgh and then at Ohio State and the University of Massachusetts.
“The first day I taught at Robert Morris, it felt like the most natural thing I’d ever done,” Sutton said. “But after about eight years of teaching, I decided I needed to test myself. I’m teaching all these kids, but do I really know what I’m talking about? I had to find out.”
Sutton left Ohio State to start a consulting division at sports marketing firm Del Wilber & Associates, analyzing ticket marketing strategies for teams and leagues. He did that for three years, then returned to academia, joining the faculty at UMass.
Sutton continued his consulting work, and before long, he again felt the need to prove his theories. He took a sabbatical to join the NBA’s team marketing division, where he stayed for three years. Then it was back to academia and a tenured slot as associate head of a startup program at UCF.
“For me, it’s always been important to have a foot in both doors,” Sutton said. “I’ve always felt grounded being in both worlds. I get to teach, to find and develop talent, which I love to do, but I also know what it takes to be an entry-level sales person. I can have that credibility in the industry, which is important to me. I feel like I’ve earned that respect and trust because I’ve been out there and I continue to put myself out there.”
Both Sutton and Kahler say they’re fielding more calls than ever from friends and colleagues who are considering teaching a class or even making a full-time transition to the college campus.
“You have to have an exit strategy when you reach a certain level in this business,” Kahler said. “You get to a certain point in your career where the lifestyle, the hours and the pressure can start to get to you. You get tired of all the moves. You wonder what’s going to happen when the team gets sold. Can you find certainty in this industry? Maybe. But it’s hard.
“I know that my next move is going to be to the cemetery across from the Hungry Howie’s Pizza. There’s something to be said for that.”