Industry vets see teaching as their next challenge
Published August 23, 2010
The night school sports marketing class at Columbia University, populated by eight graduate students, six of them already working full time in sports, was early into its review of the week’s homework assignment when the instructor, Tony Ponturo, unlocked his vault.
Ponturo, who for 17 years controlled the purse strings for the most prolific advertiser in sports, Anheuser-Busch, had asked students to assess Coors’ recent ceding of its sponsorship of the NFL. After listening to several students’ analyses, Ponturo offered his own:
Facing the threat that a work stoppage might disrupt the 2011 season, Coors had weighed the benefits it reaped as the NFL’s official beer against the risk that it might see its largest marketing platform shuttered for the better part of a year, while forking over nearly double what it paid annually during the previous term.
“Having been through strikes with Major League Baseball and the NHL, I can tell you that it freezes your entire merchandise and promotional program,” Ponturo told the students. “You can’t do anything. You don’t want to make all the material and put it out to your wholesalers because they’re not going to put it up if there’s a work stoppage. You don’t want to spend the money elsewhere because the NFL may come back. So now you’re just stranded.
“I would argue a lot of that went into their thinking.”
All eyes locked on Ponturo. On most campuses, he would be a headliner, the guest lecturer who made a one-time appearance because he was invited by a friend. He would tell a few stories, take some questions, weave in a few more anecdotes, and then leave to polite applause.
At Columbia, he is of the program, an adjunct instructor who signed on this summer, agreeing to teach a 10-week class titled Seminar in Sports Marketing. Ponturo retired from A-B at the end of 2008 and has reinvented himself as a Broadway producer, but he has kept his hand in the business as a minority investor in the sports marketing firm Leverage Agency, where he holds the title of chairman.
He decided to give teaching a crack as well, drawn by the chance to pass the lessons of his career on to others. There’s also the benefit of the rub-off: an association with the only Ivy League school that offers a master’s degree in the marketing and management of sports.
Those are the whys for Ponturo. He is a star, and Columbia is an Ivy, but the same dynamic plays out on campuses across the country for executives whose names are equally familiar and far less familiar, at institutions with similar pedigree and lesser pedigree.
The executives get the LinkedIn line that might help set them apart from the rest. They get the intellectual stimulation of being back on campus and the fresh take that students can provide. They get paid, though not much: about $5,000 to co-teach a class for a semester at Columbia, for example.
Three years ago, while working at a New York-based sports marketing agency, Glenn Horine persuaded his alma mater, Iona College, to offer an advanced certificate in sports marketing as an option in its MBA program. He agreed to oversee the track and teach in it. Part of the job is recruiting adjuncts.
In the last two years, more and more colleagues have contacted him about teaching.
“The world is a different place than it was when we started out working,” said Horine, who started his own consultancy last year, offering property representation and career counseling. “You thought you were going to retire at 62. Now, people don’t think they ever can retire. Teaching may be part of what you want to do.”
Occasionally, a program gets a star. Names like Ponturo, or others at Columbia — former CBS Sports head Neal Pilson and former WNBA President Val Ackerman co-teach a leadership course — attract students to the program. Name recognition, or title recognition in the case of many, sells.
“I had a student who said that going to coffee with Neal paid for the first semester by itself,” said Lucas Rubin, the director of Columbia’s program. “Another was blown away by the idea that she could sit down with Val Ackerman and talk about her career. Wow. That’s attractive.”
Over lunch at a streetside table a couple of blocks from Columbia’s main entrance, Rubin went over the philosophy behind the construction of his teaching staff. With the aid of John Genzale, founding editor of SportsBusiness Journal and a Columbia alum, Rubin has cobbled together a mix of marquee names and lesser-known specialists from within the field to teach as adjuncts — for example, the president of the Stadium Managers Association, Bill Squires, teaches facility and event management — complemented by experienced professors from the university’s business school and journalism school.
The program lives in the school of continuing education, where it attracts primarily professionals in their late 20s and early 30s, about three quarters of whom already work in sports and are willing to spend two years and about $50,000 to add an Ivy master’s degree, learning from, and hopefully making a connection with, the likes of Ponturo.
“I don’t need Tony to teach more marketing,” Rubin said over lunch, two weeks into the summer term. “I need him to teach it from a different perspective: the perspective of someone who controlled hundreds of millions of dollars at Anheuser-Busch. I want Tony Ponturo to reveal the state secrets of how he thinks. Can you imagine the power of that?”
It takes time
Pilson, who presided over CBS Sports through the ’80s and early ’90s and remains a power player as a consultant, is in hissecond year teaching a leadership class at Columbia. He taught it alone in his first go-around, but an impending move to western Massachusetts, a three-hour drive from Manhattan, made the commitment more difficult. Rubin suggested he share the class and then recruited Ackerman through an introduction by a mutual friend, Columbia Athletic Director Dianne Murphy.
“Of all my work assignments, this by far pays the least, so I’m not doing it for the money,” Pilson said. “You always have to ask why. If the guy says, ‘I think it’ll be great; I’ll really enjoy doing it’ — well, everybody thinks that. That’s not enough. If you want to share your experiences and you’ve had experiences that are worthwhile to share, then maybe you should do it. A lot of people want to teach, but I’m not sure what it is that they think they’re going to teach.”
For most, the fuse sparked at the front of someone else’s class. A colleague or friend invited them to be a guest speaker. They prepared their remarks; perhaps they adapted a PowerPoint they’d used for an earlier business presentation. They answered questions. They told stories. Maybe after class they invited a few students for beers, where they told more stories.
They liked it.
Those who explore teaching more deeply find that what they experience as a speaker is only a snippet of what is required.
Guest speakers speak. Adjunct instructors create a curriculum. They build a syllabus, choose textbooks, create and grade assignments, and write and grade tests. They are expected to be available for students who have questions outside class hours.
Also, they teach.
“I will say, this took a lot more time than I expected,” said Ackerman, who echoed a sentiment shared by every instructor interviewed for this story. “It’s one thing to be the guest speaker and do your Q&A and you’re done. This is different. To be able to create a teachable sort of content, trying to get the students engaged, really did require some work.”
Ray Katz, who teaches media marketing at Columbia, joined Leverage as president of sports properties and media last year after stints at Omnicom, Madison Square Garden and the NFL. After teaching for a dozen years, most of them at New York University, Katz estimates that his class eats up about four to five hours a week on top of the 2 1/2 to three hours he’s in the classroom. And that’s for a class with developed curriculum.
Michael Neuman, who teaches sports marketing, sponsorship and sales at Columbia and also has taught at NYU, spends about the same amount of time for his standard class. When he persuaded Rubin to let him create a new class that delved into the measurement of ROI, the time commitment doubled.
“If I spend the right amount of time before we launch the first class and I set clear goals and have a defined course syllabus over the 16 weeks, it makes my life a lot easier,” said Neuman, who owns the agency Amplify Sports and Entertainment. “Writing it from scratch is more of a challenge. It’s a lot of work to get started.”
Ackerman benefited from the fact that Pilson had taught the class before, so there was an existing syllabus. Because it was a leadership class, there also was a widely used textbook that lent structure and offered background reading. But many times, teaching sports administration means teaching subjects for which it is hard to find textbooks that are relevant and topical. There are a handful of well-regarded sports marketing and sports law texts. There are fewer books, sometimes none, in other areas, such as facility management, finance, or more specific segments of marketing.
“The textbook we use is pretty rudimentary, but it does give structure and the ability to prepare for a class,” Pilson said. “The fact that it’s not geared toward sports isn’t of consequence. I teach a class in leadership skills that happens to be in a graduate program that focuses in sports. But I’m focusing on how to be a leader. That works no matter what you’re in.”
Teaching requires skills beyond the presentation of a lecture.
“First time I gave a test, I think I flunked 70 percent of them,” said Bill Sutton, associate department head at the University of Central Florida, who has spent the last 25 years straddling the fence between academia and the outside world. “For the next two weeks, I had a line outside my door of people wanting to talk to me about what I was thinking. I had to learn to react to that.
“What is a fair question? What really measures what you expect people to learn? Do you give an essay test or a short-answer test, and if you give an essay test, do you have any idea how long it will take to grade all the essays? There’s a lot to it.”
There’s also the matter of office hours. Because most adjuncts work full time elsewhere, they can’t be on campus for a two-hour block outside of class hours. It’s less of an issue at Columbia than elsewhere, because most of the students are working full time, too, so they aren’t typically available either. But accessibility still is important.
For most, the answer is e-mail. Those adjuncts who fare best give students a window of time in which they can expect an answer, and then follow through. Many adjuncts say they’re also open to staying after class, meeting for coffee or inviting students to their offices.
“I don’t have office hours,” Neuman said. “I have two little kids and I have responsibilities at Amplify; those have to take priority. But I do make myself available. I’ll either be on a call or e-mailing back and forth with students on the night before or weekend before big presentations. That’s something you accept when you choose to do this.”
On his way into Manhattan for a sports marketing faculty meeting earlier this summer, Pilson got an e-mail from a student who took his class a year earlier, asking where he thought Notre Dame would land if broad conference realignment came to pass. Pilson sent a lengthy response back from the train.
“When you’re with them for 14 weeks, you become not their professor but their business adviser and personal consultant,” Pilson said. “And that’s fine. While you don’t stand up in front of the class and say, ‘Hey guys, call me any time, anywhere,’ the fact is that they expect a certain amount of access to you, and you need to provide that.
“I remember as a 25- or 30-year-old how grateful I was when a senior guy would put his arm around me and say, ‘Neal, that isn’t the way we do things around here. This is the approach we like to see.’ I think ultimately there’s an obligation for people who have been there and succeeded to pass that along.”
Finally, for those who choose to return to a college campus, there’s a cultural bridge to cross. This includes learning that what is deemed acceptable at one place might not be viewed the same way elsewhere.
Katz learned that lesson while at NYU. He said the school insisted he limit his number of guest speakers for the term to three, meaning he had to cut experts who were ideal for some topics. He said the school also wasn’t receptive to an idea he had to immerse his class in a game.
He pulled it off at Columbia this year, taking his students to Citi Field on a Saturday. There, they toured the stadium. They listened to a one-hour presentation from a Mets sponsorship executive. Then, each of the eight students sat with Katz for an inning, observing aspects of the ballpark during the game. He also had them watch part of the game on TV, listen to part of it on the radio, and follow part of it on the Web. Their assignment: Write a paper explaining which sponsor did the best job, which did the worst job, and what company that was not a sponsor should sign on.
“It was a tremendous experience,” Katz said, “and I could have never gotten it approved at some other programs that are caught up in rules.”
At the University of Oregon, the managing director of the sports business program, Paul Swangard, populates his teaching staff using what he calls a “two plus two” design: two core sports classes taught by faculty and two taught by industry professionals.
Last year, Oregon had three adjuncts teaching: former Adidas and Nike executive Jolene Ovington, former Portland Trail Blazers CMO Declan Bolger, and Blazers CFO Gregg Olson, who was filling in for a regular faculty member. This year, the finance class that Olson taught is back in faculty hands, and Oregon is back to two adjuncts.
“Having those names on your faculty gets people excited and makes it an easy sell,” Swangard said. “But once you put your money down for tuition and are in that classroom, it’s not about hearing war stories.
“When they’re dropping $15,000, $20,000 or $25,000 a year and only have five or six courses that constitute the sweet spot of what they’ve come back to school for, what they don’t want is 12 weeks of guest lectures. They want someone who will work with them and teach them tangible skills that they can put on their résumé and go out and use.”
Pilson and Ackerman go heavy on guest speakers, but their cachet and connections, coupled with Columbia’s proximity to the epicenter of U.S. sports, give them access to executives who consistently wow the room. Gary Bettman has appeared. So has Harvey Schiller. David Stern was scheduled, but class was canceled because of a snowstorm.
Pilson said they tell each speaker what that week’s topic is and ask them to tailor their presentations accordingly. The conversation likely will veer and broaden based on questions from students, but they try to stay on matters related to leadership.
“Guest speakers should not be a replacement for instruction,” Rubin said. “But the right people discussing the right topics are invaluable. Because of our location, because we have people like Neal and Val, and because of the reputation of the institution, we have access to those people. It would be crazy not to bring them in.”
Even with the guest speakers, the star adjuncts, and the lesser-known industry professionals who teach specialties and fill in the gaps, Columbia taps its greater faculty for its broader business classes, such as the ones students take in their first semester. Rubin covers the bulk of his classes from a rotation of about 18 adjuncts, but he also relies on five or six professors from the Columbia B-school and from other area universities.
Other graduate programs, including many of those outside of major metropolitan areas, use few adjuncts, or none. Some schools use adjuncts not because they have access to great ones but because they come more cheaply than full-time faculty. The mix varies, based on location, budget and goals.
Two programs, Georgetown University and the University of San Francisco, have created broad offerings of classes by relying on massive rosters of adjuncts, placing them at the core of their philosophy and their marketing. USF has more than 40 adjuncts teaching in its program, which offers a full menu of classes on both its main campus and a Los Angeles area campus. The adjunct faculty includes executives from most of the major pro teams in the Bay Area and Southern California, as well as from Ticketmaster and ESPN. At Georgetown, the roster is similar, and there are about 60 adjuncts, tapping every D.C. team as well as AOL, Under Armour and Octagon. Two instructors share each class, broadening the content that they bring and, perhaps more importantly, lessening the demands on each instructor individually.
Some educators warn that programs populated by large numbers of adjuncts can lack consistency, since most who teach part time will come and go. In addition, an adjunct-based faculty can shift even greater responsibility to the program administrator, who must not only advise students and help them find internships and jobs, but also monitor the adjuncts and work to recruit their eventual replacements.
“You can have a program that’s more than 50 percent adjuncts and be successful as long as there’s a dedicated person at the top coordinating it all, holding people accountable and making sure there’s legitimate content,” said Sutton, who has used adjuncts sparingly at UCF. “What you can’t have are adjuncts that walk in and tell stories for three hours every week. There has to be content and student interaction. When these people fail, it’s because they come in and don’t have enough time in their lives and they try and wing it. The ones who can take some time and have a course with some meat on it can really impact students’ careers and lives.”
‘A pride factor’
Those who mine the current happenings of the sports industry for their teaching materials usually find fertile ground.
In the course of one, typical three-hour session on a Tuesday night in June, Ponturo and his teaching partner, Leverage Agency co-founder Ben Sturner, led their class through a talk on topics that included ambush and guerrilla marketing, athlete endorsements, the value of a FIFA sponsorship for global brands, sponsorship market valuations, BP, boxing, and the long-term payoff of a neon beer sign.
The first half of the class was devoted to a discussion of the homework assignment and an analysis of the week’s events. The second half zeroed in on a featured topic. On that particular night, it was a contrast between the rights and audience available through major sports properties compared with niche opportunities. Ponturo and Sturner assessed ways that Coors might spend the millions it once put into the NFL.
Ponturo explained the assets available through the established properties, like baseball and the NBA. Sturner made the case for moving into the niches: action sports, volleyball, boxing, and an intriguing mix of bar games, such as beer pong and pool. In class a few weeks later, Ponturo took the students through a dollar-by-dollar analysis of the way he spent the sports marketing budget at Anheuser-Busch.
During dinner at a nearby Caribbean restaurant after class, Ponturo explained that, like most first-time instructors, he learned that preparing adequately for class takes far more time than he expected when he began this endeavor.
“When I would give talks at universities [as a guest speaker], I would do it mostly off the cuff,” he said. “You can’t really do that 10 sessions times three hours. You’d be a wandering gypsy if you tried. You have to have a better plan.”
Sharing responsibility for the class with Sturner, who previously taught a class at NYU, helped. Still, there was a steep learning curve. Two weeks into the term, students already were asking for specifics on the end-of-year project. Ponturo hadn’t even considered some of those details at that point. He talked it through on the fly, then promised to get back to them the next week.
“Why I was intrigued by the teaching … is that it’s unproven ground for me,” Ponturo said. “I didn’t really want to regurgitate my career. I wanted to move it forward and have it feel like it was taking another step. That said, this isn’t meant for you to spend 10 weeks of your time, get your jollies and put it on your résumé. It’s about delivering the goods to the students. There’s a pride factor. You hope it goes well and they’d like to have you come back. Whether you accept or not, at least you were asked.”
Though he didn’t know how it would go at the time, Ponturo was, in fact, asked back. He intends to return.
After his first time in front of the class, Ponturo called an old friend who teaches at a high school. In hindsight, he wishes he had called him earlier because it might have given him a better idea of what to expect.
Ponturo said he enjoyed leading the class and interacting with the students, but he worried about whether he would deliver the “right meat,” the sort of skills and perspective that would translate and help them succeed in their careers.
“I think it’s a lot more delicate than it might seem to the untrained eye,” Ponturo said. “People may think it’s the nice thing to do after a long career: I’ll teach a little bit. It can be seen as a sort of respectable, semi-retirement job.
“I think they’re going to learn it’s a lot tougher than it looks on the page.”