SBJ/Aug. 18-24, 2014/Opinion

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  • Cartoon: A fork in the road

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  • Programs offer alternative path for athletes to finish degrees

    A student athlete who fails to complete his or her degree prior to exhausting eligibility is out of luck, right? Fail to graduate in five years or suffer an injury that prevents future competition and you’re on your own, right?

    Wrong.

    Despite congressmen questioning the ability of student athletes to complete their degrees and recent letters penned by the presidents of the Big Ten and Pac-12 that mention degree-completion goals for student athletes, the issue here isn’t about the lack of programs. At best, the issue is a lack of awareness of all of the existing degree-completion programs.

    Alvin “Stone” Logan, founder and CEO of the American College Football Players Association, says former student athletes either don’t know about the programs or the application process is too lengthy.

    Among the existing programs is the NCAA’s Degree-Completion Award Program. Since being established in 1989, more than $19 million has been awarded to 2,600 former student athletes, with 40 to 45 percent of new applicants accepted each year. The award includes tuition, fees and a book allowance, with room and board awarded on a case-by-case basis. Ninety-two percent of those students receiving awards have completed their degrees through the program.

    The National Consortium for Academics and Sports, nearly 30 years old, has assisted more than 33,900 former student athletes in returning to school to complete their degrees at its 280 institutional members. Under the NCAS degree-completion program, tuition and fees are covered in exchange for community service hours from the students, and institutions are encouraged to cooperate if a student athlete wants to attend a different institution than where they attended as a student athlete. To date, more than $300 million in tuition assistance has been awarded by NCAS member institutions.

    Individual schools have developed programs as well, including the University of Kentucky in 1989. Bob Bradley, the associate athletic director for student services, has been at Kentucky since the program began and estimates that more than 150 former student athletes have completed their degrees, with more than half of those being former football players. The program is funded by the athletic department, and Bradley says all former student athletes interested in completing their degree are admitted into the program.

    I first learned about the existence of degree-completion programs during a football game I attended at the University of Louisville in 2011. During the game, the program was advertised on the video board alerting former student athletes of its existence. Louisville’s program was established in 2000 and receives funds through the athletic department. As of the fall of 2011, 82 students had enrolled in the program, with 50 ultimately completing their degree.

    Georgia Tech graduated four of its former football student athletes this past spring, with three others currently working toward their degrees. Gary Guyton, a former Yellow Jacket who signed with the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2008, is completing his degree under the NFL’s Player Tuition Assistance Plan, wherein eligible current and former players are reimbursed for tuition by their current or most recently former team.

    Josh Nesbitt, a former starting quarterback for the Yellow Jackets who signed with the Buffalo Bills in 2011 as an undrafted free agent and was waived in 2012, returned to complete his degree under the NCAA’s degree-completion program and will graduate in 2015.

    T.J. Barnes, a former defensive tackle with Georgia Tech who initially signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent in 2013, completed his degree this spring through the athletic department’s degree-completion program.

    Georgia Tech’s in-house program, which is funded through the athletic department, does not have a cap on the number of participants. Doug Allvine, the assistant athletic director at Georgia Tech who administers the program, says there is a budget for the program each year, but the athletic director has a discretionary fund that can be used if the program runs over budget. Allvine says he’s never been denied a request for funds by current Athletic Director Mike Bobinski or former Athletic Director Dan Radakovich.

    In addition to student athletes who failed to complete their degrees while NCAA-eligible, Georgia Tech also funds degree completion for former student athletes who are no longer able to compete due to injury or medical condition. Last school year, the athletic department funded scholarships for student athletes from its swimming, softball and football teams who could no longer compete due to medical conditions. One of those student athletes was injured 2 1/2 years ago and has continued on scholarship while working as a tutor in the athletic department.

    Georgia Tech isn’t the only school keeping former student athletes who can no longer compete on scholarship. Oklahoma’s NCAA financial statement last year reported 8.2 grants-in-aid for men’s gymnastics. The NCAA limit for men’s gymnastics is the equivalent of 6.3 grants-in-aid. How could the Sooners award the equivalent of 8.2 scholarships for the sport? The excess represented scholarships for former men’s gymnastics student athletes who had exhausted their eligibility or were medically unable to compete; those scholarships are exempt from the NCAA cap.

    While these programs fall short of guaranteeing former student athletes the ability to complete their degrees, they do provide multiple opportunities for degree completion rarely reported on by the media and largely unknown by those outside of intercollegiate athletics.

    Everyone involved in intercollegiate athletics plays a role in the success of these programs going forward. Athletic departments and the NCAA need to educate student athletes, university admissions and financial aid offices so former student athletes re-enrolling can be directed to the programs. In addition, organizations representing former student athletes need to educate themselves about the programs and how they can assist their members. While an absolute guarantee from the NCAA or member institutions might be ideal, there’s no reason former student athletes can’t complete their degree under the existing programs if they are still academically eligible and weren’t released for disciplinary reasons.

    Kristi Dosh is vice president of public relations for Reputation Ink.

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  • New vision for security blends overt measures into experience

    Sports venues today spend billions of dollars as executives, engineers and marketers address their primary objectives of entertaining fans and filling seats. With home entertainment options growing for fans, the sports business is countering by offering an elevated fan experience that can only be found in stadiums. 

    Teams spare no expense to make every game day an over-the-top experience. The “showtime” effect drove a record number of eyeballs to watch the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and the Bruno Mars halftime show during this year’s Super Bowl. Yet the tone for the event is set long before such glitzy entertainment, or before any mammoth home runs or scintillating touchdowns. 

    It starts the second a fan arrives at the venue.

    The first experience for fans is when they approach the entrance to the sporting venue and they have to go through security. Fans have been feeling the impact of an increased response to security threats in the form of additional perimeter screening and heavier restrictions on fan bags and gear. Whether due to tragic events such as the Boston Marathon last year, or due to intelligence reports about possible attacks, the trend of ever-tightening security is a reality. 

    The Sochi Olympic Games and Super Bowl XLVIII set the social and traditional media worlds ablaze, in large part due to the scale and seriousness of security measures there. With reports of barricades, buffer zones and even war ships, the feeling for some fans was similar to a militarized zone. While achieving fan safety and security, these drastic measures left a less-than-desirable experience for the fan upon entry. 

    Heavily armed guards outside the Olympic Park in Sochi underscored the seriousness of security.
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES

    We are reaching the point where heavy security measures are beginning to threaten the perceived and actual fan enjoyment at most sporting events.  

    Sports is like any business you or I frequent. If I am intimidated, hassled or uncomfortable because I can’t bring in what I need for me and my family, I may not show up, or at least not spend as freely as I would if I felt comfortable with my environment. The question is: How can fan experience from the first point of entry through the security process be improved to support, rather than work against, the amazing experience and outstanding performance waiting inside? 

    Let’s start by not making security the scapegoat for causing displeasure for fans, travelers and anyone affected by major events. Security, too often, has been addressed more as a bolt-on solution rather than designed with entertainment in mind. The right strategy would be to blend the more overt security measures into the event experience as seamlessly as possible. We illustrate this vision for security in the service of fan experience with the following four examples:

    First, the design of the approach pathways to the sports venue can be effective in preventing fast vehicle movement while still being visually pleasing to the eye. This is seen, for example, at Walt Disney World parks in Florida, where concrete barriers were turned into attractive raised flower beds and blended into the overall park scenery.

    Second, checkpoints and screening lanes can evolve into welcoming stations with a branded-event feel, complete with graphic design, sponsor insignia and multimedia. Leaders in this trend can be found outside the sports realm — for example, at the new Dallas-Fort Worth airport security check experience, where furniture, carpeting and lighting are used to transform the atmosphere while not compromising security screening whatsoever.

    Third, streamline the screening process and accelerate flow. Being able to stop threats before they get inside the perimeter should not necessarily translate to adding steps and screenings. In fact, the entire process, from initial approach to ticket validation to bag and person screening, can be streamlined to cut down wait time while employing the most advanced methods for threat and prohibited-item detection. 

    At Qylur, we have taken the approach to combine all of these stages in one solution, using multiple parallel screening streams, automated detection and integrated ticket scanning. This solution was recently deployed at the FIFA World Cup matches in Curitiba, Brazil, where the festive feel was pervasive as enthusiastic fans went through security and actually enjoyed their experience.

    Fourth, effective operations, especially for the venue of the future, will have to rely heavily on human and machine interaction, in a partnership where the best qualities of each are leveraged. A machine is capable of making thousands of decisions in the blink of an eye and can perform repetitive services with 100 percent consistency, something humans are simply not equipped to do. Human operators bring life experience, flexibility and situational judgment calls to the table. Entry-point security can benefit a lot from such collaboration. 

    At the World Cup deployment, collaboration played out in detection: The solution automatically screened for dangerous items, while human screeners looked for stadium-prohibited items. Another example: By automating ticket exchange and screening, staff is freed up to engage with fans, comb firsthand for threats and suspicious behavior, and facilitate a more inviting and entertaining atmosphere.  

    I believe that continued awareness, and examples of effective implementations, will drive venue owners and their security and operations leads to develop strategies for nonintrusive yet effective security solutions. They will team up with vendors, designers and human-factor experts, and leverage the benefits of security personnel and technologies in creative, efficient and economically sound ways. This new direction will ensure sports venues are consistently filled with fans who are truly safe and have one thing on their minds: not the threats lurking outside, but their team in the game.

    Lisa Dolev (ldolev@qylur.com) is founder and CEO of Qylur.

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  • Nassau County’s decision on arena could serve as example

    Late last year, Action Long Island, a regional business and economic development organization, hosted a breakfast for small businesses. The meeting featured a panel consisting of the winning team in the bid to become the developers of a new sports, entertainment and retail hub in Nassau County, a bid that did not include a professional sports franchise as the anchor tenant. 

    Bruce Ratner, along with David and Ed Blumenfeld and Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, presented their updated vision for a parcel of land that is mainly known as the home for a certain hockey team but in reality has been of interest for decades. The conversation in the room before the formal presentation was interspersed with some serious questions about the viability of any plan that did not include the only major professional sports franchise in the area. “Wasn’t having a team the logical/only way to go? Seemingly every other major locale had gone that route.”

    It sure seemed that, eventually, that hockey team, the NHL’s New York Islanders, was going to get an updated arena to keep them on Long Island. The battle for the new arena played out very much like many others over the past 15 years. Even with more locales hesitant to put their already tight municipal finances at risk by using public resources for private use, sports team owners and other investors had been coming up with different ways to get facilities built, usually with the end goal of keeping or attracting a pro sports franchise and, as a result, retaining status as a “professional” or “top-tier” city. 

    But something different happened in Nassau County. The locale let the team leave. And it will likely turn out better for having done so.

    The plans for Nassau County include a $229 million renovation of the arena and surrounding area. Despite reducing the size of the arena by almost 25 percent, the developers project that the first year of operations, likely 2017, will include more than 300 events. This would more than double the number of events currently hosted at the arena and make it one of the busiest and possibly one of the most profitable in the country. 

    A $229 million project will result in a smaller arena and redeveloped surrounding area.
    Photo by: SHOP ARCHITECTS

    Incidentally, one of the busiest arenas in the world, the O2 Arena in London, is without a team to call its own, and it does not seem to be hurting at all.

    But what do you do when a team threatens to leave your locale (often) for a shiny, newer building with all of the premium offerings that make a team owner’s wallet just a bit fatter? Most locales capitulate. Who wants to be known as the mayor or executive in charge who let the team leave? Nassau County and its component parts were facing just that, but they didn’t blink.

    “While we love our New York Islanders, residents voted against a public referendum to build a new arena that would have kept them here in Nassau County,” Mangano said. “The Ratner team will transform the coliseum — at no cost to taxpayers — into a new first-class arena that hosts six Islanders games, preseason Brooklyn Nets games, New York Yankees coaching clinics, family-fun entertainment and blockbuster concerts.”

    What Nassau County did may serve as a strategy for dozens of markets around the country and even around the world. They decided that they did not need a pro team to be considered top-tier; they needed a facility of that quality. The facility itself, and not any pro team, would be the main attraction. 

    This may be the logical next step in the path to prominence for the once-taken-for-granted facility. Over the years, we have seen naming-rights deals give these buildings names we can call them by. Add in all of the special seating and luxury boxes in these facilities, and you are looking at a huge source of revenue for the owner. The facilities are hosts for not just sports and concerts, but also for the growing number of performing artists, kid/family shows, trade shows/conventions, and the occasional graduation, among other events. 

    “The New York City region is already extremely competitive with MSG, Barclays, PruCenter, Red Bull and MetLife all operating at very high booking and marketing levels,” said industry consultant Jim Delaney, president of Boston-based Activate Sports & Entertainment. “From both a branding and booking standpoint, it’s not an unwise decision to let an underperforming pro tenant depart and differentiate now as a smaller arena, especially if it’s one that will be part of a world-class sports, entertainment and retail complex with a population of several million in close proximity.”

    By adjusting its focus away from the Islanders and toward the arena, Nassau County found what was truly important for its residents and their quality of life.

    Sarbjit “Sab” Singh is assistant professor of sport management at Farmingdale State College. Follow him on Twitter @sportsdoinggood.

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