SBJ/July 24-30, 2017/In Depth

Role of sports business is growing at the nation’s top-ranked B-schools

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George Foster had been a professor at Stanford’s business school for about a dozen years, long enough to be established after moving to the States from Australia, when the sports bug tugged at him hard enough that he thought about developing a sports management course.

Fond of the co-teaching model that paired professors with those working in the field, he approached retired Hall of Fame football coach Bill Walsh, who did two stints at Stanford, about joining him in the classroom. Foster wanted to toss around ideas, build out a curriculum and launch the following year.

Walsh initially declined, but with a wry smile.

“I’m 70 and I don’t think a year ahead,” Walsh said. “Rephrase the question.”

“Would you like to teach a sports course with me next quarter?” Foster asked.

Walsh happily accepted.

First Look podcast, with discussion on education beginning at the 18:55 mark:


Stanford’s George Foster (with NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick) has grown the business school’s sports business curriculum to include four graduate-level courses.
Photo: COURTESY OF GEORGE FOSTER
“We taught that course for seven years,” said Foster, who has continued the course with other co-teachers since Walsh’s death in 2007. “I learned more from him than I have from anyone in the industry.”

A decade later, that one course has grown to four — the original management course, plus one in marketing, one in sports business investment and one in negotiation in sports and entertainment, the last of which Stanford added this year.

In each case, Foster has a co-teacher. Each class session also includes a guest speaker. Guest speakers in the management class last fall included Jed York, Rick Welts, Larry Baer, Mike Crowley, Carmen Policy, Tracy Dolgin and Steve Tseng.

In the winter, Foster co-taught the new negotiation class with former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie and 49ers chief strategy officer Paraag Marathe, both of whom are former students. Condoleezza Rice and Don Fehr were among the guests. Hinkie also co-taught the marketing class, along with Dave Kaval, president of the Oakland A’s.

“I stress business concepts and use the sports industry as a platform to get those concepts across,” Foster said. “The idea is to fit in with the general business curriculum. There are strong themes that have to be done in every session.”

Stanford does not offer a sports business specialization or track in its MBA program. In fact, none of the B-schools ranked in the top 25 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report do.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t playing in the field.

Rather than a robust curriculum and required industry consulting projects and internships, schools like Harvard, Wharton and Stanford generally feed students into jobs based upon the connections of a key professor or two who bring in speakers and consulting projects and nurture alumni connections at senior levels in sports.

The elite B-schools that have stuck more than a toe into sports point to strong placement records for the small percentage of students that pursue sports jobs, often followed by rapid advancement.

“As it has become more common for someone to express an interest in pursuing a career in sport, I do think that these programs at the top schools have increasingly made it a point to at least offer something that says they’re playing here, whether it’s a conference or a speaker series or even that one class,” said Craig Leon, manager of the MBA program at the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “It’s more competition. But I think that’s actually good for us. The more that these schools take it seriously, it allows us to point to what they’re doing and say — if Stanford can offer four courses, it shouldn’t be a huge issue if we’re trying to do the same.”

For evidence of the career vault that an MBA from a prestigious program can provide, consider the résumés of SportsBusiness Journal’s own Forty Under 40 selections through the last 18 years. Of the 114 who earned MBAs, 69 came from top-25 programs, with 52 of those coming from schools in the top 10. Twenty-two came from Harvard.
Stanford’s MBA program has produced the next most Forty Under 40 winners, with nine. Another six winners got undergraduate degrees at Stanford.

When Stanford alum and NBA executive Amy Brooks was honored, Foster received a handwritten note from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, thanking him for the “pipeline” of students he has sent into league.

“As a faculty member,” Foster said, “you don’t get too many notes like that.”

Sports is not the focus

There long has been debate about the value of sports management as an educational pursuit, which only has intensified as more schools have added the major and tacked on graduate programs. The website Degrees In Sports lists 414 sports-related undergraduate degrees and 240 masters programs in the United States alone.

A sports business-focused MBA has blunted some of that criticism, because it offers traditional training that can help someone get a job if they opt out of sports, and because even sports employers increasingly see it as valuable.

When that MBA comes from a Harvard or Wharton or Stanford, it’s even more likely to get their attention.


A recent Turnkey Sports Poll survey of more than 2,000 executives in pro and college sports found that 60 percent would prefer to hire a candidate from a top-25 B-school over one with an MBA from one of the top five sports management programs in the country. Only 33 percent said they would prefer the sports management MBA. That’s a slight shift from two years ago, when 55 percent said they would prefer the top-25 MBA and 30 percent said they would choose the sports management-focused MBA.

“For those who are 100 percent certain they want to go down the path of working in sports, the sport management master’s degree or the sports-oriented MBA may be the right fit for them,” said Scott Rosner, associate director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative, who before going to law school earned a master’s in sports management at UMass. “The program is focused on where they’re targeted. And there is a place for that. Where we fit is for those who are not quite sure, or are looking for a broader base.

“I think the sense from employers and people in hiring positions is that if it’s a Wharton MBA, or HBS (Harvard) MBA, you know you’re getting someone who likely is very intelligent. So they’ve got the chops to fit in and the business skills.”

From a classroom standpoint, the program at Wharton might at first glance look a bit thin. At the MBA level, there is only one sports-oriented course: a sports management and negotiation class taught by Rosner. But there is a management consulting class that Rosner often leads that pairs six students on a sports project, meeting weekly for 80 minutes. A thriving sports business club helps bring in speakers and organize networking events.

With all that said, Rosner and the original champion of sports business studies at Wharton, Ken Shropshire, both say they are quick to stress to prospective students that what they offer is only a sliver of what they’ll experience at the school.

“When they come through the door talking about sports, we’ve probably discouraged more of those students than we’ve encouraged,” said Shropshire, who spent 30 years on the faculty at Wharton before leaving this year to head a new Global Sport Institute at Arizona State. “We’re very careful to remind them that it’s only a small portion of how you’ll be spending your time here. You certainly can make your way into sports, as others have. There’s a path here. But let’s not confuse this with something else.”

It was Shropshire who raised the profile of sports at Wharton, initially focusing on the intersection of race and sports and emerging as a prominent voice on a range of issues. A football player at Stanford who got his law degree and went on to work on the Los Angeles Olympics, he had a background that easily connected the school to an industry already populated by plenty of Wharton alums. Shropshire continued to do legal work and serve as an arbitrator and consultant, developing a network that would help Wharton students find their way into the field.

In 2008, the school launched the Sports Business Initiative, a think tank funded by a $5 million endowment.

“You’re not going to encounter a lot of sports in the classroom at Wharton,” Shropshire said. “But if that’s your interest and your passion, you can find opportunities.”

It doesn’t hurt that the University of Pennsylvania’s campus is an easy ride from the offices of the Phillies, Eagles, Flyers and Sixers, 20 minutes by car or 45 using mass transit.

Students at many of the nation’s top B-schools benefit from that sort of proximity to pro teams.

Eight of the top 10 programs are either in or within a quick drive of New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, L.A. or San Francisco. Between them, those eight schools have easy access to 48 franchises in one of the five major sports leagues. Those cities also are hubs for leagues, agencies, sports finance groups and large corporations that sponsor sports.

That means not only a steady stream of qualified guest speakers, but lots of opportunities for work experience beyond the typical internship.

“There’s a trend now of education in large urban areas becoming more attractive,” said Dan Funk, a professor who teaches sports marketing at Temple University, which has a top-35 B-school that also has a well-regarded sports management program, but doesn’t offer a sports MBA. “Programs that are able to bring students in for a year or two years and provide opportunities to get real world experience at an organization are becoming quite attractive.

“We have contacts and established networks so our students have an opportunity to get embedded into an organization.”

From B-school to sports

When Jessica Gelman decided to pursue an MBA a few years after graduation, the choice was a relatively obvious one. Gelman got her undergrad degree at Harvard, where she was captain of the basketball team.

She had every intention of using a Harvard MBA to enter the sports industry; so much so that it was a topic of her admissions essay and others she wrote while in school.

“Obviously, getting the best education you possibly can is paramount,” said Gelman, CEO of the Kraft Analytics Group. “The way I viewed it was I wanted to learn about business overall and figure out how I could apply that to a specific industry.”

Though the path from B-school to sports was one rarely taken at the time, Gelman used the Harvard connection to land a job with another set of HBS graduates, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his son, Jonathan.

“I certainly was aware of the HBS folks in sports, but I think there were maybe 10,” Gelman said. “Obviously, now there are a lot more. The industry has changed and I think the way it views an MBA and a top B-school has changed.”

The annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has raised the school’s profile in the industry.
Photo: COURTESY OF MIT SLOAN SPORTS ANALYTICS CONFERENCE
That change is closely related to the increased appreciation of analytics skills on both the player personnel and operations side of organizations, as well as on the business side.

Gelman was in on the ground floor of that emergence only five years after she finished at Harvard, joining with friend Daryl Morey, then a basketball operations senior vice president with the Celtics, to launch the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at Morey’s alma mater.

Over the last decade, the conference, which spawned from a popular sports analytics class that Morey and Gelman taught at Sloan, has taken MIT’s profile in sports from negligible to as high as any school in the country.

There still isn’t a sports track in the MBA program, or even a sports class in the one-year business analytics master’s program that MIT now offers. But the conference has proved to be both a recruiting tool for quant-minded people who are interested in sports and a pipeline for those MIT students who aspire to work in sports.

MIT students play key roles in the production of the conference, which offers them the opportunity to interact with speakers and build connections.

“It’s amazing how many of the former students are in senior roles in the sports and entertainment space now,” Gelman said. “Folks in the industry call me looking for good candidates. It’s easy for me to make recommendations for the Sloan students because I’ve seen their work.”

Of course, keeping students on the sports track when they’re graduating from one of the premier B-schools comes with an unavoidable challenge that has nothing to do with interest or preparation or connections.

An MBA candidate mulling an offer from a team, league or sports marketing firm is unlikely to be paid as well as a peer that is choosing between a consulting firm and an investment bank. While Rosner and Foster both said the gap is closing, it’s still considerable. With tuition at most top B-schools exceeding $60,000 a year, that can be a barrier.

That’s one reason Foster often counsels students to start on a path that is tangential to sports and then cross over rather than taking a haircut on salary to get in the door.

“If you go to an investment bank, find the partners doing investment banking in the sports area and velcro yourself to them,” Foster said. “You get the premium of being at an investment bank, and Stanford and Harvard can get higher salaries in that world. Then, after five or 10 years go into a senior position at a franchise or a league.”

Those associated with other programs find it interesting — even surprising — that Foster has managed to build out four sports-related master’s level courses at Stanford. It’s rare for a B-school that isn’t offering sports as a track or concentration to serve up more than one.

Foster was aided initially by the culture at Stanford, which allows professors to float new classes and then lets them keep going as long as they can fill seats. When students saw that Walsh was the co-teacher, the sports management class filled up quickly. Now, it sustains itself based on its reputation, fueled even further by the increasing number of MBA students toying with the idea of pursuing a career in sports.

Classes are made up mostly of students who find sports interesting, but do not intend to seek employment there. Typically, about 10 of the 400 students who enter B-school each year show up with the intention of taking all of Foster’s classes, working on consulting projects, landing internships and entering the field.

That’s not nearly the 30 to 60 sports-minded students you’d find at a B-school that built out an advertised, specialized degree. But you won’t find a sports management specialization, or a packaged dual master’s in business and sports, at any of the elite B-schools — or even at any ranked in the top 25.

The highest-ranked B-school that offers a sports specialization or concentration within its MBA is No. 27 Ohio State, which will do so for the first time this fall.

“To get something going at that caliber of school, you need someone with some clout and weight,” Warsaw’s Leon said. “At most business schools, where you’re dealing with traditional business minds and academics, the idea of sport being a particular focus of study is something they cannot wrap their minds around. You need somebody in there who is credible and really can influence people on the inside to allow these courses to be offered for students.”

While sports classes fill seats, the fact is that they’re not likely to become a priority at any of the premier B-schools. In most cases, they are born out of the interest, acumen and passion of a single professor, such as Foster at Stanford, Shropshire at Wharton or Stephen Greyser at Harvard.

So there is always the chance that, if one of those champions leaves or retires — as Shropshire and Greyser have — the sports offering at the B-school could wither.

Thus far, there isn’t any indication of that happening at either of those schools. At Wharton, the Sports Business Initiative remains funded and intact. At Harvard, Greyser still teaches as a professor emeritus. And 44-year-old professor Anita Elberse covers enough sports in her analysis work on the broader entertainment industry that it seems likely the school will continue to play pre-eminently in the sector. Elberse interacts with senior executives in sports through Harvard’s weeklong executive education program that focuses on entertainment, media and sports.

“Who knows what happens if that champion leaves at any school,” Rosner said. “You could see things change. That happens a lot. Schools are known for something because they have one professor and they leave and things are not sustained. It’s more secure when you’ve been able to raise money around it. That should provide a level or protection. But you never know.”


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