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Volume 21 No. 2

In Depth

When the faculty director of Northwestern University’s graduate program in sports administration lines up consulting projects for his sports brand class, he looks for three things:

Clients must have a traditional brand issue to address regarding either product, pricing, placement or promotion.

They must be willing to dedicate someone at least at the director level to serve as a liaison with students, taking their calls and attending meetings.

And they have to commit a modest budget — so far always less than $1,000 — in the event that the students need to conduct surveys or encounter other hard costs.

Professor Steve McKelvey talks with students at the University of Massachusetts.
“If a front office comes to me and says they want our students to create a big group sales opportunity, that’s not really the sort of project we’re looking for,” said Curt Gruber, whose day job is vice president of business development with the Chicago Wolves minor league hockey team. “You’ve got bigger problems than that. I don’t want you to spend our time selling tickets to a Wednesday-night game when you’ve got higher-order issues to address.

“Let’s find a brand issue we can address that’s going to make your company money and fix a problem.”

Long at the core of MBA programs at universities across the country, the consulting project — students tackling a business issue for a client, much as a professional consultant would — also is a prominent part of the curriculum in many master’s-level sports administration programs, and particularly at those that offer MBAs.

Students at George Washington University travel internationally each year to consult on projects for Olympic organizing committees and other properties. Those at the University of Central Florida work on a large annual project that offers dozens of activation ideas for a property to offer sponsors. Ohio University and the University of Massachusetts turn to alumni across the country to participate in a range of projects that offer students real-world experience in exchange for help with matters that the alumni otherwise might not get to.

Four years ago, the executive director of the Center for Sports and Entertainment Studies at Iona College, Glenn Horine, put a consulting project together for his class for the first time. They compiled and analyzed data and recommended a venue for a championship game for Major League Lacrosse.

Since then, his classes have worked on at least two projects a year, including an analysis of the youth market for NASCAR, recommendations for online sports programming for NBC, sponsorship analysis for the New York Islanders, and a licensing assignment for the WWE. Last year, they shifted to the other side of the table, recommending tactics for a pair of sponsors.

In the fall, Horine’s class examined ways in which Mars Inc. could use the NFL to drive trial for Dove chocolate products by women. In the spring, they looked at ways Dunkin’ Donuts could use its sponsorship of the New York Jets and Giants to drive sales of iced coffee in August and September, and hot coffee the rest of the year.

“I think it’s very important on the graduate level that it’s not just what I call eye candy, where you go visit the New York Yankees or Madison Square Garden,” Horine said. “That’s great eye candy. But what does that mean from a practical-application standpoint for the student if they’re a finance major in the business school? Are they meeting the CFO? Is the CFO giving them a project?

“Anybody can pick a professional sports team and go visit. The work is designing a project students can learn from and be able to talk about if they’re going to speak with someone about a job.”

Valuable experience

When the director of the sports MBA program at UMass approaches potential consulting clients about projects, he often has to steer them away from basic requests for sales help or data collection and toward an idea that deals more with strategy.

“What keeps you up at night that you don’t have the time to answer?” Steve McKelvey asks them. “That’s what we can answer for you.”

While McKelvey conceded that few projects yield recommendations that clients implement entirely, he said the exercise

Students at Ohio University review consulting projects during their on-campus residency.
typically delivers information and analysis that they find useful.

“I have to make sure it really is a true, real-world project where we can come back with recommendations that will be taken seriously and taken to the next level of management,” McKelvey said. “They may require some level of research, and that’s fine. But that’s just the baseline work that is necessary to take it to the next level so we can come up with some strategic recommendations.”

That level of strategic analysis is a distinctive feature of the better projects, most directors said. Another is a client that will stick with the project, providing students access to meaningful metrics and allowing them to pick the brains of staff members. The first doesn’t guarantee the second.

“What you want as a director is an engaged client who is willing to roll up their sleeves and give us a meaty project, with good and consistent access,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “We’ve had times when [an organization] will throw a project over the fence and we stop hearing from them.”

The consulting project has been at the bedrock of Oregon’s business school sports specialty since it launched in 1993, a product of the fact that it was the first sports education program housed in a business school, where such projects have been the norm. The sports MBA students tackled the consulting project in their first year, as other MBA students did. But, because the students hadn’t taken many industry-specific classes at that point, Swangard felt projects sometimes fell short of what was expected from Oregon, especially when considering Warsaw’s elite national profile.

Two years ago, the school moved the consulting project into the students’ second year, giving them their core business curriculum, an internship and some sports marketing classes under their belts before they start working with a client.

“The reality was the students were just getting started learning about the industry,” Swangard said. “That was a challenge for clients. They saw the value of working with students. But they were really looking for consultants who they could trust to do good work.

“Now they’re getting a student who is mid-20s, with professional experience, a year and a half of MBA education and a summer internship. We’re putting our students in a situation where they want to prove they know what they’re talking about. That has resonated with our partners.”

Last year, a group of Oregon students worked with the Portland Trail Blazers, exploring the potential for streaming games on the Web. Swangard said the presentation for that project, where students made recommendations to Blazers Chief Operating Officer Sarah Mensah and team President Larry Miller, became one of the more valuable real-world learning experiences he has seen when the executives turned the exercise into a frank discussion of strategy, with the students chiming in.

“The work the students were doing caused [Blazers executives] to think about what steps they might take to change strategy,” Swangard said. “The students, at that point, had to feel that they contributed great value.”

At the University of Central Florida, students work on two projects concurrently in the core sports marketing course they take in their final semester. One is a traditional group consulting project, with four to five students in each group. The other is a larger project on which they work for a single client in pairs, with their presentations serving as the final exam.

This fall, the class will create sponsorship activation programs for Madison Square Garden. Each pair of students must come up with five programs: One in-arena, one Web-based, one cause marketing, one Hispanic marketing and one that can use any tactic or focus on any segment, so long as it drives retail sales.

The class will begin with students studying market data supplied by Scarborough Research and end with them delivering their ideas to MSG executives, who will go to campus for the presentations.

One tweak that UCF uses is the inclusion of the client in the grading process. MSG plans to send three executives to review the work, which means students will have a panel of four grading their work.

“I like it because it’s the ultimate in real-world exposure, and it’s something they won’t experience in any of their classes,” said Bill Sutton, associate head of the sports business graduate program at UCF. “This is the real deal. This is your client. Is the client satisfied? I might like your project, but if the client isn’t satisfied, you didn’t do the job.”

Finding clients, building trust

Like most program heads, Sutton, who has worked for the NBA and the Pittsburgh Pirates and consulted with properties across sports, relies on his network of contacts for projects. But he also seeks them out elsewhere. After speaking recently at an Orlando event, Sutton landed two new projects: one for retired NBA players in Florida who hope to find more marketing opportunities, and the other for a popular program that parents can use to encourage communication with their children.

Increasing the opportunity for practical application was one of the reasons Ohio University created its Center for Sports

Administration in 2005. The nation’s first sports administration program was long on networking, boasting more than 1,000 alumni, but it provided little practical research outside of the college sports realm. The addition of the center, headed by Ohio alum and former Cleveland Cavaliers executive Jim Kahler, put students to work on projects meant to provide relevant research to the sports industry.

“One of the missions of the center, and one of the main reasons my job exists, is to pull projects to campus,” Kahler said. “They’re out there. But you have to have someone who is willing to go out there and get them and then hang with them, so that the students and the client both get what they need. Ideally it’s something that a client can use and a student can showcase in a job interview.”

Some clients are more open to that sort of showcasing than others. At Oregon, Swangard takes care to make sure that students get clearance from clients before sharing anything from their projects, or even mentioning them on a résumé.

The university is particularly sensitive to that issue because an Oregon MBA student once leaked information about a client to a competitor during a job interview. If Oregon students were studying the potential of a new market for Nike, the company likely wouldn’t want them discussing it during an interview with Under Armour.

“When you ask a company to allow you the access you need to produce a meaningful project, there’s a lot of trust involved,” said Lisa Masteralexis, head of the sports management department at UMass. “We remind our students over and over and over that the reputation of the program hinges on that trust. If you don’t have that, it’s difficult to do these projects.”

An expansion into online education has allowed Kahler to tweak Ohio’s project format to build in even more real-world experience in the last year. Project teams now are made up of two traditional master’s students paired with two online students already working in sports. That has doubled the number of group projects the center produces each year, from four to eight.

Schools approach the question of cost in varied ways. Ohio asks clients to pay for expenses and has charged fees up to $5,000, though most fall between $1,000 and $2,500, Kahler said. After offering its services free of charge for years, UMass recently began asking clients to contribute toward a graduation party for students. Oregon did not charge initially, but now asks clients to become a sponsor of the program, or at least agree to a budget that covers all costs.

“I think it’s kind of like discounting tickets,” Swangard said. “As soon as you give it away for free, it sets the floor. It’s important that there’s some skin in the game for a client. If there are costs involved in running focus groups or if there are nominal fees related to travel — every company we worked with has been willing to cover that.”

UCF sets a fee of about $6,000 for a property or company to be the client on its large annual sponsorship project, Sutton said.

“It’s been easy to sell,” Sutton said. “Each team generates five ideas for each category. That’s 75 ideas for $6,000. Why wouldn’t you do that?”

The director of the sport management MBA program at George Washington University is long on connections in international amateur sports, many of them built while leading study tours to every Olympic Games since 1992.

When she learned that George Washington alum Jose Brito held a seat on the executive board of Rio 2016, she knew there was potential to build out an extensive consulting project.

“I have connections and he has connections,” said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, who has traveled to 56 countries studying the development and organization of the Olympic movement. “He invited me in September, and I met the CEO and all the top executives. After that, it was just a matter of designing the ideas and moving forward.”

This summer, 24 MBA students from George Washington spent two weeks in Brazil, finalizing and delivering results from five projects.

Students from George Washington University have gone inside the planning for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
One examined how the 2016 Games could handle the procurement of everything from furniture to security systems, building off lessons of previous Games. That group recommended the Olympic committee work with organizers of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, also being held in Brazil, to avoid duplication.

Another group analyzed spectator engagement, surveying Brazilians to find ways to attract them not only to the marquee sports, but also to those sports they might be less interested in or familiar with. They also considered how the secondary ticketing market could be used to fill seats at lower-profile events.

One group developed ideas for sponsor activation, focusing on sustainability and social responsibility. Among its recommendations: a program licensing native crafts as a category, with a percent of revenue donated back to indigenous populations.

“They [consulting projects] really can become quite involved, especially when you’re dealing internationally,” said

The students also visited several baseball training academies in the Dominican Republic.
Delpy Neirotti. “You have to have a faculty member willing to spend time with this, because it’s your reputation at the end — meaning my reputation. So there’s a lot more than most people realize that goes into it.”

The international consulting project begins annually as a seven-week class on the George Washington campus in the spring. Delpy Neirotti gives students the history and background of the clients and gets the students going on their research. That sets the stage for the summer residency.

“We go down there pretty aware of what’s going on,” Delpy Neirotti said. “And then we get the local flavor and talk to people.”

This year, that often proved frustrating. Many of the organizations the students worked with were behind schedule. They were either unable or unwilling to provide the details students needed to make recommendations that were as authoritative as they had hoped.

“It’s difficult, but that’s part of learning,” Delpy Neirotti said. “Sometimes you’re going to be hired by someone who has no clue of what you need and you have to make the best recommendation you can based on the information you have. If things change, that’s not your fault.”

This year, George Washington offered a second international consulting class, this one studying the Dominican Republic for Major League Baseball. Students met with representatives of 14 teams and toured their respective training facilities. They met with local scouts/agents, known as buscones, spoke with representatives of SFX Baseball, which operates an academy in the Dominican Republic, and spoke with parents and educators.

The group’s findings and recommendations came in the form of a white paper that explored conditions at the various training facilities and the viability of incorporating Dominican players into the draft, among other issues. Each student also was responsible for turning in an individual paper on a segment of the study.

“We suggested some things regarding a worldwide draft that people may have talked about but never really thought through and assessed and put down on paper,” Delpy Neirotti said. “I think there’s value in that.”

When officials with the sports management master’s program at Georgetown University sat down with D.C. United President Kevin Payne to brainstorm a project for the leadership course Payne would be teaching, they proposed having students find ways for the various departments within the organization to operate more efficiently.
Payne had something more specific in mind.

He was concerned that the Major League Soccer franchise was operating in silos. Game operations staff worried about the way the event ran. The ticket sales department worried about tickets. Nobody, other than Payne, spent much time worrying about how game operations and ticket sales might intertwine.

The team asked Georgetown University students to help tackle issues surrounding key segments of its fan base.
To battle that, Payne had recently formed cross-departmental groups to tackle issues in four segments that he deemed to be key: Hispanics, families, corporate guests and young adults. He wondered whether the Georgetown students might be able to learn from, and contribute to, those groups.

“It was pretty clear that it made no sense to do a generic project when we might be able to help him out with a specific challenge he was faced with,” said George Perry, a former Washington Freedom and Redskins marketing executive who co-taught the course with Payne. “This gave our students a chance to get inside an organization and see the way it worked and who did what, and also to analyze challenges and make recommendations.”

Much in the manner that Payne divided his organization into task forces to tackle each segment, he divided the class into groups. Each student was assigned to role play as one of the members of the task force, meeting with the head of the task force they were assigned to and either the member they were to role-play or that person’s department head.

At the end of the project, each group made a 10-minute oral presentation to Payne and his task force members at D.C. United’s offices, delivering a PowerPoint document that included several recommendations.

“Because it was a real, strategic challenge that Kevin had, and D.C. United was taking part in it, it made it more interesting,” Perry said. “It wasn’t manufactured. It was a real challenge. It helped us evolve the whole consulting idea in the program at Georgetown.

“It’s very important to have a senior-level executive that’s a champion of what we’re doing. When Kevin Payne says, ‘When the Georgetown students call, please make some time for them,’ that’s what makes it go. The nice thing about teaching at Georgetown is that we have senior-level executives, so there are a lot of people that can help facilitate that. It’s not always perfect. But people really do want to help. You just work through it and work with it.”

Dunkin’ Donuts was fresh off signing new sponsorships with the New York Giants and Jets when the head of the Center for Sports and Entertainment Studies at Iona College called the company’s vice president of brand marketing, Scott Hudler, to offer up his students to work on a consulting project.

Because it would be difficult to manage from Dunkin’s corporate offices in Massachusetts, Hudler turned the project over to the marketing director responsible for the company’s push into the New York market, Russ Romeo.

“I’m glad we did it and I’ve already told them I’d be happy to do it again,” Romeo said. “I was energized by working with the students, who came to the project with the passion and enthusiasm that you don’t always get from someone with more experience. I think we benefited from getting a fresh perspective.”

Students suggested ways to use social media to boost sales of iced beverages and coffee.
The task was one that was a priority for Dunkin’: Designing ways to use the high-profile sponsorships to drive sales of its iced beverages during the early stages of the NFL season and of hot coffee during the bulk of the season. The brand had ideas but was struggling to find creative ways to use social media to attract younger consumers.

“When you have all these 20-somethings that you can put to work, that’s appealing to people,” said Glenn Horine, who heads the program at Iona. “A lot of the Dunkin’ project was based around social media. You have this petri dish of 20-somethings who are not only your consultants, but also your target. You may not take the global idea that they propose; you may take bits and pieces. Either way, when you go back to your counterparts with the insight, you seem that much smarter.”

The project began with Romeo meeting with students to go over the sponsorship and outline Dunkin’s objectives. From there, he met with them as groups and encouraged them to ask questions both by phone and via email.

“What I focused on with them was what I focus on and ask my team and agency to do,” Romeo said. “Find ways to use the sponsorship to drive revenue and income and build the brand that we’re stewards of. We wanted to grow coffee and [iced] beverages. That’s exactly what I’d ask my team to do.”

One difference was the degree to which Romeo shared financials with the students. He said he spoke in terms of percentages rather than actual dollars most of the time. When he did need to use numbers to give them a point of reference, he said he used fictitious figures.

“You can talk in general terms and still give them enough to come back with something that’s real world,” Romeo said. “Even if this dollar amount is fictitious, what would you do against it? How would you use it? You’re still giving them the opportunity to think and present a sound business case.”

While most of the students’ recommendations involved social media, one that stood out for Romeo was more of an in-stadium play. They suggested a program around premium packages called tailgate packs, with boxes of coffee and doughnuts that fans could take to the stadium. The concept required too much packaging and bundling for Romeo to implement it immediately, but he saw merit in the idea.

“Most of the people who work for me aren’t tailgating, so something like that wouldn’t have occurred to them,” Romeo said. “Maybe it’s not the answer, but it could be a path to the answer. You could do something during the week where fans can show their support. Office parties. We’d need a little more time to hone it, but it’s an interesting concept with a thought-provoking way to leverage a love of sports.”

When students working toward their MBA in Ohio University’s sports administration program head off for their internships, the director reminds them not to come back empty handed. Jim Kahler, who heads the program, also teaches a class in revenue generation that is built around a consulting project.

“My expectation is that they’re coming back with a rev-gen project,” Kahler said. “So much of a really good project comes back to trust, so why not do the project with people that you’ve gotten to know around a property that you’ve become familiar with?”

Katie Tershel presented an 18-page report to the Washington Nationals.
For Katie Tershel, who graduated from Ohio with her MBA earlier this year, that property was the Washington Nationals.

Near the end of her internship with the team last summer, Tershel approached executives about what topics they might find most useful. She knew they were working on a renewal with MillerCoors and also would be talking to Anheuser-Busch, so she suggested a project that would examine activation by beer sponsors across sports.

“I went to them and said ‘What will be valuable to you guys?’” Tershel said. “And this is where we landed.”

Tershel’s project produced an 18-page report, built around information gathered through research and interviews with sponsorship executives at teams, agencies and brands. It analyzed the state of the beer industry and reviewed the objectives that MillerCoors and A-B set for their activation: drive retail sales, create branded destinations at ballparks and provide VIP experiences. Most importantly, it recommended what Tershel said could meet those objectives.

“I wanted to tell them everything that was going on out there in the beer category, and then provide my

recommendation for the Nationals,” Tershel said. “So, a lot of people are doing this, but it’s not right for you, and this is why.”

Kahler tells students that each year one project will make his revenue generation hall of fame. The most likely way to make it: Use the project to land a job. Tershel didn’t seek one with the Nationals, choosing instead to search in Dallas, where she landed a job with The Marketing Arm agency. The Nationals provided strong recommendations, Tershel and Kahler said.

“Most people leave their internship, and the relationship pretty much ends,” Tershel said. “You do your best to keep in touch, but it’s hard. This project gave me the ability to continue to prove myself and strengthen my relationship with the Nationals. They were huge supporters and, when I was out looking for that first job, they could talk to people about what I could do.”