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Volume 21 No. 2
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Consulting 101

Sports management programs put students to work on real-life cases that could boost their students’ portfolios and their clients’ bottom line

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?”