SBJ/July 28-Aug. 3, 2014/In DepthPrint All
When Karina Bohn chose to pursue her MBA at Arizona State, she was at a different life stage than most of her classmates. Married and in her early 30s, she not only knew she wanted a career in sports, but she knew she wanted to pursue it in the Phoenix area.
Bohn had worked with sports clients on the agency side. She hoped that an MBA from ASU would open the door to a job at one of the city’s pro franchises.
“Looking back on it, I wouldn’t change anything,” said Bohn, who is in her second season as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ vice president of marketing and 11th season in the club’s front office. “I look at where I am and I realize that the choice I made led to opportunities that I don’t think I’d have gotten if I hadn’t gone back to school.”
In this 2004 photo, Jim Kahler lectures students at Arizona State’s sports business program. Of the eight students shown, three work in sports today. Kahler now heads the sports administration program at Ohio University. ASU no longer offers the sports specialty.
Photo by:Jason Wise Photography
He worked in the athletic department at ASU while getting his MBA, then landed a full-time gig as director of sports marketing there when he graduated. Soon after, Dunkerley added fundraising to his responsibilities. After three years, he’d seen enough to know the career wasn’t for him.
“Fundraising in college athletics isn’t fundraising, it’s ticket sales,” said Dunkerley, who for the last four years has split his time between heading up development for a Nashville nonprofit and launching and operating his own craft beer company. “Usually, donors are donors because they want good seats. ASU opened my eyes to the fact that maybe I was naive as to what college athletics really was. No knock on Arizona State, but it wasn’t for me.
“I got out of sports, but fortunately I still have the business degree. Ten years later, I’m glad I went that route.”
Student profiles: Click here for their stories and words of wisdom
Both Bohn and Dunkerley were featured in the pages of SportsBusiness Journal in November 2004, in the first of what has become an annual look at sports education. The story focused on sports business MBA programs at Arizona State and the University of Central Florida, following the students for an inside look at the curriculum while exploring what it was that drew them to pursue careers in sports. That issue also included snapshots of three other well-established programs that offered sports-focused MBAs: Ohio, Oregon and Massachusetts.
The students featured in that story had this in common: All said they saw a career in sports as a way to turn avocation into vocation. Checking in with them a decade later, all but one member of that ASU graduating class landed a job in sports, and eight of the 12 remain.
Andy Rentmeester is vice president of sales planning and analytics at MSG Sports. Kristin Shaff is director of
Karina Bohn, who is in her 11th season in the front office of the Arizona Diamondbacks, hangs out with Sesame Street characters that were part of a USO promotional tour.
Photo by:Arizona Diamondbacks / Jordan Megenhardt
The success rate for the graduating classes across the five programs in 2005 and 2006 — in essence, the students who were working toward their master’s at the time of our story — was nearly as high. Seventy-seven percent of the 203 students we were able to locate from those programs landed a first job in sports. Ten years later, 115 still are working in sports.
Twenty-five of those work in college sports, most of them as associate or assistant ADs. Twenty-one are in front offices at pro teams, most on the business side but a few in operations or player development. Sixteen are at sports marketing agencies. Seven are in sports sponsorship at large brands. Six are at sporting goods brands.
They had been told to expect to be paid far less than similarly qualified applicants in most other fields, at least at the start, and that they might well make less after getting their MBA than they made before it. That they needed to land high-quality internships and impress while there. And, perhaps most importantly, to make good use of alumni and guest speakers to develop a network.
A decade later, Bohn, Dunkerley and four other members of that ASU Class of 2005 reflected on the choices they made, and the paths their careers have taken.
All of them shared one jolt they never expected.
Five years ago, ASU, which at the time was the only nationally ranked business school in the country to offer a specialty in sports, announced that it was shuttering the program. With the economy in the tank and budgets tightening, it no longer could justify offering a specialization that offered such a short supply of jobs, most of which paid far less than those in other fields.
Turns out ASU’s business school wasn’t cut out for sports, at least not long term.
Not everyone is.
Lange was wrapping up a quick call from a sponsor on a recent Wednesday morning when the race team’s crew chief poked his head into the office to let Lange know he’d be ducking out for a bit.
“Gotta meet the plumber,” he said.
Lange nodded and waved.
The larger operations in NASCAR have upward of 100 employees, with layers of engineers, mechanics, crew
Jeremy Lange (right) has found a home with NASCAR Sprint Cup team Leavine Family Racing. Here he’s joined by the team’s driver, Michael McDowell, during a media tour.
Photo by:Harold Hinson Photography
“I couldn’t be any happier than where I am,” said Lange, who joined the team a year ago after stints in race sponsorship with agency GMR and for Best Buy. “I like being with the underdog, the David and Goliath kind of thing. And I like having a say in what goes on and feeling like I make a difference.”
Lange knew coming out of ASU that racing would be his likely path. He had interned at NASCAR’s New York office, researching sponsor targets and helping organize contract information to track the order in which various deals were expiring. He wasn’t a race fan, but he was intrigued by the way the business worked. So when he got the opportunity to join a startup race team that would be “owned” by fans — a database marketing company disguised as a stock car team, really — he jumped at it, relocating to Sarasota, Fla.
The company had $4.5 million in seed money, enough to last three years while the idea got off the ground, Lange thought. It burned through the money in 21 months, shuttering without ever running a race, or even building a car.
Lange needed to find another job.
Lange landed a slot with a sports marketing company, working on Kroger’s NASCAR sponsorship. That led to an
offer from well-regarded GMR, handling sponsor Jim Beam’s program. From there, he moved to Best Buy’s NASCAR account and developed a model to track the ROI that the sponsorship delivered for Best Buy’s business-to-business division.
“I’d always wanted to get to the client side, and it was a roundabout way of getting there. It was great.”
Great, until Best Buy went through a deep round of layoffs. For the third time in seven years, Lange found himself looking for a job.
The good news, as he sees it now, is that each of those career moves put him on a different side of the sponsorship equation. He’d been at a race team, an agency and a brand. He thought about hanging out his own shingle, but with two young children couldn’t stomach the risk.
Lange started mining his network — a practice that program director Jim Kahler always stressed to his students. An attorney he met while working on Best Buy connected him with Bob Leavine, who was looking for someone to sell sponsorships for a part-time Sprint Cup entry.
Lange pointed to a dry erase board on his office wall, explaining the color coding that charted which races they have sold to sponsors, which were unsold and which lived somewhere in between. “I really like what Bob and Sharon [Leavine’s wife] are trying to do with this race team,” Lange said. “We’re building something.”
Walking back through his career path, the conversation turned to where he might be without his sported-up MBA.
He was working on the media side of a New York ad agency before he went back to school. It had clients in sports. Yes, he says, it’s likely that he could have crossed from there to a brand, or to a sports marketing agency.
You won’t find “MBA preferred” on any race team job postings.
“Trust me, I think about it all the time,” Lange said, nodding. “Could I have made money instead of spending money for two years and still be where I am today? Absolutely. But would I have found the motivation or the confidence to do it? Probably not.
“I figured out a lot while I was at Arizona State. My résumé doesn’t even say sports business on it. But I’m glad I did it. Looking back, I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Earning your stripes
Five months into a job as director of sponsor activation with the San Francisco Giants, Shaff has, like Lange, seen all three sides of the sports marketing triangle.
Her first job after ASU was with GMR, working on Visa’s sponsorships, which exposed her to a range of properties, including the NFL and the Olympics. She moved to the client side after five years, when her contact at Visa left to become CMO at 24 Hour Fitness and hired her to manage the company’s Olympic relationships. She was there until March, when she took her job with the Giants.
Kristin Shaff worked on the agency side and brand side before joining the San Francisco Giants as director of sponsor activation.
Photo by:Kristin Shaff
“When we were in school, we all thought we were going to be involved in strategy and spend our days coming up with cool marketing ideas,” Shaff said. “And, fortunately, you do some of that. But on the agency side, you’re a recommendation maker and not a decision maker. You learn that pretty quickly. On the corporate side, you may be a decision maker, but you spend a lot of time in budget meetings and doing things like talking to HR, so 75 percent of your time is being pulled by the bureaucracy of the organization.
“Then, on the team side, people have this perception that you have the coolest job in the world. And it can be great.
This is a really rare chance to work for an organization where people never leave, learning the team side at one that arguably does this better than anyone. But do you know what I do? It’s like anything else. You come in. You answer emails. You go to meetings. It’s no different than what most people do. We just happen to go down to the field before the game.”
Like several of her classmates, Shaff said she is unable to draw a correlation between her MBA and her career path.
“I don’t think it matters, unfortunately,” Shaff said. “I wish it did. The industry still has an old-school view of education, and of paying your dues. When you’re at the director level at a company it helps. It helped me at 24 Hour Fitness, because all my peers had the MBA as well. But I don’t know how it helps if you’re at a team or league, because you’re still going to be expected to earn your stripes and work your way up.
“At least none of us can say that’s something that we weren’t told about.”
None of the half-dozen ASU grads interviewed for this story said the MBA helped them land a job or advance, at least not directly, although all agreed that the skills and approaches they learned in business school have made them better at their jobs.
Their consensus was that it was worthwhile, but not at all appreciated in sports, other than during stints some of them had in the corporate world.
“I don’t think the MBA factored into my being promoted quickly,” said Bohn, who went from intern to director of marketing in only two years, but attributed that mostly to her experience level and performance rather than her education. “If you think the degree is what’s going to do it for you, you may be disappointed. It’s the degree combined with the relationships you build, the people you meet, the network that you tap into. If you come out with the degree, but no relationships, no internship, not having proven to anyone but yourself that you can add value to an organization — it’s not really worth that much.”
Building a network
Kahler, the Ohio alum who ran the ASU program and now heads the fabled sports administration program at his alma mater, answers quickly when you ask him to help locate his former students.
“I’ll get you what I have, but you should really talk to AJ,” Kahler said, referring to AJ Maestas, who impressed both his professors and his fellow classmates with his ability to build contacts while at ASU. “He’ll know where everybody is. AJ is all about the network.”
Maestas chuckled when told that. Kahler always stressed the value of networking, which is a strength at both Ohio
AJ Maestas (left) founded a sponsorship measurement company while Dave Schifrin ventured in and out of sports. He now works for a Phoenix-based athletic training company.
Photo by:AJ Maestas
He did well in the classroom, but his emphasis was elsewhere. All the ASU students collected business cards when at networking events and followed up with notes to the people they met. But Maestas was almost manic about it. He thought more about volume than about impressing anyone on the spot, figuring that the only real chance he had to do that would come later.
“Not that an MBA didn’t help, but my investment in ASU was entirely to open doors in sports and I treated it that way,” said Maestas, who is president of a sponsor research company that he launched with an ASU classmate and also teaches an online course through Ohio. “My focus was on things like internships and networking, and on learning what roles and functions existed and what the path was.
“I hate saying this, because ASU was a very good MBA experience. But it was really what Jim Kahler gave me that I was seeking. Not only is he passionate about selling his students to the marketplace, but he came connected to the Ohio University family, which is an incredibly powerful network. That gave me the academic experience of Arizona State and kind of cheated me into the Ohio network.”
Maestas was passionate about sports, but he understood that there were limited opportunities and knew that the pay could be far less than he could make elsewhere, at least at the start.
While most of those who have remained in sports agree that the MBA is generally unappreciated, or at least underappreciated, by those hiring and promoting, those who crossed over see it differently.
“It’s not just a matter of having it, it’s having it instead of just the sports [administration] degree,” Dunkerley said. “I look back at my choice with absolutely no regrets, mostly because of the MBA. The sports isn’t really doing me much good right now. But when you’re looking to do something else, the MBA can.”
Working on the fringes
When Dunkerley, Maestas, Bohn, et al., were in their second year at ASU, Dave Schifrin was in his first. He was one of the few students who, like Dunkerley, left a job in sports to pursue his MBA. Schifrin was working for Richard Motzkin, a prominent soccer agent. He thought the MBA would give him a leg up in the sport.
Mark Dunkerley once had his sights set on college sports, but he used his business skills to launch a craft beer company.
Photo by:Mark Dunkerley
Schifrin decided he would enjoy something like that more than a job with a team, league or agency. When he graduated, his job hunt didn’t go well. That’s when he got back in contact with Dan Burns, the COO of a Phoenix-based athletic training company for which he had worked on a project while at ASU. Burns offered him a job in operations, which meant “doing everything.”
“It was at the fringes of sport, and I learned quickly that that’s the right place for me,” Schifrin said. “Supporting the athletes is what I like. And that was a great place to do it.”
Over the next three years, the company took on private equity investment and expanded. But when the economy tanked, it hit a rough spot. Schifrin was laid off.
The next few years of his résumé are a checkerboard. He ran a successful, small chain of yoga studios that was sold to a larger chain. He did agency consulting. He tried the travel business, leading tours through Alaska.
Last year, at 38, he decided he wanted to get back on path. So he returned to the Phoenix-based athletic training company, which is now a more broadly positioned wellness company called EXOS.
Schifrin spends most of his days looking for ways to collaborate with partners such as the Mayo Clinic on programs to enhance employers’ health and wellness programs.
“It took a while, but I’ve really found where I fit,” Schifrin said. “I’d say I’m still in sports, but it’s definitely on the fringe, which is what I like.
“When I get asked for advice by kids who want to work in sports, I tell them to get a solid MBA and forget the
“I tell them they can get the sports anywhere. It’s just a matter of figuring out what the jobs are and putting in the effort. The thing that’s of value is the MBA.”
Schifrin wasn’t the only one of the ASU grads to say that. Those who disagreed pointed out that, for someone who has no ties to the industry, the sports part — and especially making connections to land internships and find a desirable job — might be difficult to navigate without a more established infrastructure.
“I’m not sure where you’d get that in most traditional MBA programs,” Maestas said. “I know I’m not doing what I’m doing today if I hadn’t gone to ASU and made the connections to Ohio.”
While they didn’t agree on some points, all the ASU grads interviewed said they look back fondly on their experience there.
Ten years after their time in school, learning to analyze and strategize, to assess and direct, each of them calls their decision to chase a career in sports the right one, with a caveat.
“It was the right way to do it, but it turned out it wasn’t the right path for me,” Dunkerley said. “The big thing people need to understand when they say they want to work in sports is that, at some point, it does become a job. At some point, you get numb to all the cool things. At some point, all things being equal, you might just as soon be at home with your family or out with your friends as opposed to being at another event.
“That’s the thing you’ve got to look at. For me, what was cool at 24 and what’s cool now are vastly different.”
Praveeta Singh was at a small software company, putting to work undergraduate degrees in marketing and information systems, when she was bitten by the bug.
Turns out, the school at which Singh got her undergraduate degree, the University of Central Florida, had started a sports MBA program that fall. Singh applied and was accepted. In her second year, she was a graduate assistant to Bill Sutton, who then ran the program along with founder Richard Lapchick. Sutton connected each student with a mentor. Singh got Scott O’Neil, the Philadelphia 76ers/New Jersey Devils CEO who a decade ago ran team marketing and business operations for the NBA. It was O’Neil who introduced Singh to Brett Yormark, the CEO of the Nets, which is where she got her first job.
Singh started as a marketing coordinator with the Nets, but after two years she and her husband decided to return to
“I wouldn’t have been afforded the opportunities and met the people I met along the way and found the mentors I have if I hadn’t gone into that [UCF] program,” Singh said. “The MBA was mostly for if the sports thing didn’t work out. But it has been very important as I’ve progressed in my career.”
When Keri Boyce landed a plum internship at the NCAA offices while a grad student at the University of Central Florida, she promised herself she’d use that time not only to learn how the organization operated, but also to plot a career path.
“I know that college athletics is a business, but that really wasn’t the part that I was drawn to,” said Boyce, now the assistant commissioner for compliance at the Big 12 Conference. “Having been a student athlete, I was more geared toward things that might change young students’ lives. That was it for me.”
While at the NCAA, she mined the staff for advice.
“I loved it there,” Boyce said. “I told everybody how I wanted to stay and try to get a job at the national office. And every person there said you need to work on campus first if you want to work anywhere in college athletics. And then if there’s ever an opportunity at a conference office, grab it.”
Boyce’s first job was as compliance eligibility coordinator at Texas Tech, a role that enabled her to work with athletes and learn the inner workings of the program. After a little more than a year, she was able to jump to the Big 12 office in Dallas as director of compliance. After three years, she was promoted to assistant commissioner.
“You look at what I’m doing now and it may not be obvious where the MBA matters,” Boyce said. “But it’s great to have and I think it will assist me even more in the future.”
Like many in his shoes, Brad Sexton knew he wanted to chase a dream but had absolutely no idea what that might entail.
While at the University of Central Florida, he worked on projects involving the Orlando Magic, Minnesota Timberwolves, NASCAR and the school’s own athletic department. He took a shine to ticket sales. When UCF recruited Seattle SuperSonics executive Matt DiFebo to start a ticket sales department, DiFebo hired Sexton as sales manager.
“I’m selling an 0-17 football team, playing in the Citrus Bowl, 30 miles from campus,” Sexton said. “I agreed to do that for a $15,600 base, plus commissions. You come out with two masters’ degrees — talk about being grounded pretty quickly. But I learned that I enjoyed it, and that sales didn’t have to be about who was the loudest person in the room. I had my career path.”
Sexton’s next stop was at South Alabama, which hired him to create a sales department for its new football
“Grad school gave me the chance to see real-life examples that got me thinking about how you could do things better,” Sexton said. “Without a doubt, the reason I’m here today is the real world experience that the program gave me and the network that it opened up to me.”
That Zaileen Janmohamed ever ended up at the University of Massachusetts’ sports management program was a bit
“My initial year there brought in a business element that I hadn’t really thought about in terms of sports,”
Janmohamed said. “I realized that I could do more than just go back home and work in college athletics. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But my vision opened up.”
As only the second group ever to work toward a dual MBA/MSA at UMass, Janmohamed and her classmates found ways to bring sports to the MBA program, building projects on topics such as the NHL lockout and payroll allocation.
“Until I got here, I questioned whether I really needed the MBA, or if it would have been better to get out in the workforce earlier,” Janmohamed said. “But I get it now. At Visa, my whole job is problem solving. I analyze our portfolio and look at ROI. I use the MBA now. And as I go for the job at the next level, thank God I have it.”
Joe Smith didn’t have to tap into the University of Massachusetts network for his first job after getting his MBA. He landed it through a classmate.
“I not only knew the sport, but I had this relationship with Zaileen where I could pick up the phone at any time and say, ‘Dude, make our logo bigger,’” said Smith, who is now senior vice president of global sponsor marketing at Bank of America. “We still joke about it. But that relationship really helped me at the agency. She might say they couldn’t do it, but she’d also say why. When you can go back to your client as the agency guy with a real answer, that’s a good position to be in.”
Smith, who played soccer at Gonzaga, soon added responsibility for Pepsi’s MLB and MLBPA sponsorships. When
“I’m not sure the MBA really matters in sports, but it does help if you make your way into a position like the one that I’m in,” Smith said. “It’s not like I’m taking things directly today that I learned 10 years ago and applying them. But it’s allowed me to think differently than I would have if I had just done the sports [master’s] program. It allows you to think about how what you’re doing might better the broader enterprise of Bank Of America.”
Frank Lamattina was 33 years old and working as an engineer when he ditched that path to pursue a master’s in sports management at the University of Massachusetts.
“Working in sports was just one of those things that was always gnawing at me in the back of my head,” Lamattina said. “I had to give it a try. When people ask me now if I regret it, I say no. My only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.”
“The trouble with getting into sports at that age with a family is that you’re starting at the beginning,” Lamattina said. “And it’s hard to support a family on a single income as an assistant golf pro.”
Lamattina’s foray into sports lasted less than two years. He returned to engineering. Today, he is a senior manager of supply chain development at Lego.
“The good thing is, I use some of the things I learned all the time,” Lamattina said. “People have a passion for sports. That’s the reason I wanted to do it. I love that people have that same passion for Lego and our brand. We tap into something that’s very similar.”
Eric Sudol came out of a small Iowa college qualified to do precisely what he’d planned to do from the time he got
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Photo by:Enter Name Here
“I was going to be a teacher and a coach,” Sudol said. “I had zero desire to be a teacher and a coach.”
Sudol still wanted a career in athletics, but his interest was in athletic administration, not coaching. So he applied to grad school at Ohio University, known widely as the cradle of college athletic directors.
While at Ohio, Sudol realized that his skills might be better suited to pro sports, something he’d never been exposed to. He took the step that many at Ohio take, cold calling executives he found in the alumni directory. He reached Mike Redlick, then an executive vice president with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Redlick offered Sudol an unpaid internship, then gave him his first job, working in corporate sales. Two years later, Sudol moved to the Dallas Cowboys, selling suites,
“I had one focus coming out of Ohio, and that was on who I was working for, not what I was doing,” Sudol said.
“I’m forever grateful to the people who have given me a shot, probably mostly because of Ohio. Coming from where I came from, I needed access to the keys to unlock the doors. And Ohio was the program with the most keys.”
Brent Braden was 26 years old, married and working in finance for IBM when he approached his wife, Katherine, with a revelation.
“Honey, I gotta do something different,” Braden told her.
A dozen years later, Braden is global sports marketing director at Nike. He can’t retrace his path without tracking back to that day, and his wife’s response.
“The coolest thing she ever said to me was, ‘Tell me what we’re going to do,’” Braden said. “When my wife said that, I jumped on the Internet and started looking into the program at Oregon.”
Because of his work experience, he was able to take an accelerated path through the MBA program, finishing in
“One of the greatest things I’ve done in my life,” Braden said. “That reaffirmed that working in the business of sports was definitely what I was put on earth to do.”
Braden hoped to work for a team after graduating but couldn’t find a job in the region. So he took a temp job in IT finance at Nike. It was as far as you could get from a sports marketing job, but it gave him a chance to show his skills and meet people. When a finance job opened in sports marketing a few months later, Braden moved over. In 2011, he made the full transition from finance to marketing.
“IBM offered me more out of grad school than anything I could’ve gotten in sports would have paid,” Braden said. “It was much higher than what I took at Nike. But it was the right choice for me.”
“You’re here with an extraordinary opportunity. Wherever the journey takes you, have a high intolerance for the pain of others.”
This was U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati in early May, speaking before 190 students in a packed auditorium at Columbia University. It was the semester’s final lecture in the Principles of Economics course he first started teaching at the school in 1986.
Dressed in a blazer, dress shirt and jeans, Gulati walked up and down the rows and across the front of the room — a passionate, but mellow, evangelist. Born in India and raised in the United States beginning at age 5, Gulati shared his business experiences across the world, as an economist for the World Bank and from his life as a sports executive. He exhorted the youngsters to share their talents to aid those less fortunate.
U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati teaches three courses at Columbia University.
Photo by:Christopher Botta / Staff
“Columbia pays me for 27 lectures for each course,” Gulati said. “The last half-hour is on the house.”
Most semesters, Gulati teaches three courses: the introductory economics course, one on the global economy, and a once-a-week, three-hour lecture on sports economics and management. For the sports class, influential figures have participated in question-and-answer sessions with the students at Gulati’s invitation, including David Stern, John Skipper, Jurgen Klinsmann, Adam Silver and Jonathan Kraft.
For Gulati, however, teaching the Principles of Economics course is his favorite part of being a professor at the Ivy League institution in upper Manhattan.
“I have the chance to give a young person their first impression of economics,” Gulati said in his office at Columbia. “Not only the theoretical parts of it, but also the philosophical and human side of the science.
Fundamentally, economics is about making choices. When you first see students as they figure out how banks create money, their eyes light up in amazement and wonder. That part never stops being fun for me.”
Watching him at the last 75-minute session of the spring semester, you would never know that Gulati has been teaching for so long. From the moment he closed the auditorium doors at 8:40 a.m. to signal the start of class, Gulati displayed the zeal of a professor leading a college class for the first time.
“It’s like an actor doing the same performance 600 times — what’s different is the audience,” said Gulati, who turns 55 on Wednesday. “New students, new questions. It’s always challenging. I enjoy being in front of a large group and speaking about something that’s so important.”
He opened the session with a survey, hoping to learn what his students thought of the Principles of Economics class. One of the questions for the students to answer via clicker: “True or False: You sent a text or email during the class at least once during the semester.”
There was a collective, nervous giggle when the question appeared on the screen behind the professor.
“My guess would be about 60-70 percent of the students has done it,” Gulati would say later in his office. “The rules in my class are TED conference rules: Computers can be used only if you’re sitting in the last two rows. Some teachers don’t care about the texting because they feel that you’ve paid for the class, so do what you want. I’m not that way. It disturbs other people. It’s discourteous. If I see a student texting, I’ll chastise them for it.”
After the survey, Gulati looked to spark a group discussion. He gave the students a choice of a society in which to live: “World A” would be “50 percent Calcutta and 50 percent Scarsdale” (in other words, a world where half the population was poor and the other half was rich); “World B” would be “100 percent Argentinian farmland,” where citizens split the resources and were in the same economic class.
The students seemed evenly divided in their opinions and more than a dozen of them stood and argued their cases.
“Dr. Gulati always gives us something to think about, which is why it’s my favorite class,” said Luis Secco, a 29-year-old Columbia student from Rio de Janeiro.
Asked if he was aware of his professor’s other job as the president of U.S. Soccer, the young Brazilian said, “Of course. That’s the other reason why it’s my favorite class.”
Like most college students, Secco Googled the professor’s name when he was considering signing up for Principles of Economics. The first thing he saw was Gulati’s listing on the Columbia website, along with his email address.
The next thing he saw were dozens of articles about Gulati’s appointment to the FIFA executive committee, about the hiring of Klinsmann and about the buildup to the World Cup in Brazil.
“My soccer job comes up from time to time in class — much more the last few years, which says a lot about the popularity of the game increasing,” Gulati said. “If I had asked them in that classroom 20 years ago to name a soccer player other than Pelé, few could have done it. Today, there would be a bunch who knew how Atlético Madrid did over the week and about the incredible goal scored by Cristiano Ronaldo.”
Gulati’s presidency with U.S. Soccer is an unpaid position. The job at Columbia pays the bills (he has a wife and two children) and allows him the flexibility to dedicate the necessary time — “untold hours every week, like a full-time job,” he said — to his role in soccer.
Since starting at U.S. Soccer in 2006, Gulati has logged between 250,000 and 350,000 air miles each year. It is not uncommon for him to return from meetings or matches in Switzerland, Russia, Belgium or somewhere else on the soccer landscape just in time for the start of a Monday morning class.
“U.S. Soccer is a job, but it’s a job of passion,” Gulati said. “I absolutely adore the two things I do. I love walking in front of a classroom and, except for days when we lose games, I love being part of U.S. Soccer.”
He is in the first year of his third, four-year term with the soccer federation. Gulati declined to speculate whether this would be his last term.
As for teaching at Columbia? With a glint in his eye, Gulati mentioned a Lesley Stahl feature on “60 Minutes” that he saw just two days earlier, about people living and thriving past the age of 90.
“I’d probably teach until the end,” he said.
Sunil Gulati on ...
Balancing his Columbia/U.S. Soccer work schedule: “I can schedule soccer business around my class schedule, but if there’s a school conflict with a FIFA meeting or international games, I have to reschedule a class. It’s not easy to reschedule a class when you have 200 students. Inevitably, I’ll end up teaching that one session three different times to accommodate all the students.”
U.S. Soccer’s growth: “I have huge pride in the success of the sport the last decade. We have players participating and business partners in numbers that we haven’t seen before. The challenge is still there. Most days, there’s a lot of joy in it. Then there are days when you’re negotiating a deal or dealing with problems that aren’t fun. The hardest day is when we have a loss in a match, or a tough personnel decision with people I’ve known for a long time.”
A career highlight: “After we beat Algeria to win the group stage in South Africa in 2010, President Bill Clinton extended his stay to go to the next match. He arranged for some of us to meet Nelson Mandela. The president joked, ‘Madiba, this is Sunil Gulati. He’s my boss.’ My family was there; so was Don Garber. That was certainly memorable.”
Budgeting: “Budgeting is not a longest-drive contest. It’s a closest-to-the-pin contest. If you’re well under or well above budget, it’s not a good thing. Budgeting is a planning tool.”
Budgeting at U.S. Soccer: “Sometimes we come well under it — much to my chagrin. We can budget too conservatively. Our returns are not measured by what we’re getting on our money in the bank but by the growth of soccer. I don’t want to be sitting on $50 [million] or $60 [million] or $70 million when we can be reinvesting in the sport — whether it’s in inner-city soccer, referee development, building new facilities or whatever else it could be. Being under budget is not necessarily the goal of a nonprofit. Spending money wisely is.”