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Volume 22 No. 23
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Tracking Warsaw alumni

Photo: courtesy of akash jain

Akash Jain 

NFL VP for international commercial development

Akash Jain wanted to apply U.S. sports business principles to other parts of the world. He decided the best place to do that would be at a B-school with deep connections in sports.

After getting his Warsaw MBA in 2004, he took a job in the NBA’s international division, working with licensed products.

Though Jain had no consumer products experience, he caught on quickly.

“With Jim [Warsaw],” Jain said, “you had no choice but to understand at least a little of that space.”

Jain’s parents were from India and he had worked there as a consultant, so he was the natural choice to lead a group that developed a five-year implementation strategy once the NBA decided to move forward with a plan for consumer products in that nation.

“I was employee No. 1 on the ground in India. From a professional development standpoint, that was priceless.”

After four years, Jain and his family were ready to return to the U.S. When the NFL offered a job that would put him over commercial development in six countries — Canada, Mexico, Brazil, China, Germany and the U.K., while being based in New York — he took it.

“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the relationships and the people that I met [at Warsaw],” Jain said. “All those experiences helped educate me on the industry and broadened my perspective globally.”

Sheng started SECA in 2010 thanks in part to help from NBA legend Yao Ming.
Photo: courtesy of warsaw sports marketing center

Sheng Li

CEO, Sports Entertainment Content Activation

Of all his memories as a trailblazing member of the first class to graduate with a sports-focused MBA from Oregon in 1998, Sheng Li points to a moment in a sports marketing class as the one that confirmed he was on the right path.

The instructor, Rick Burton, was walking the group through recent doings in the sports world, asking their opinions. Eventually, he turned to a broader question.

“Why are we in the sports business?” Burton asked. He wanted objectives, not motivations.

“People all had different ideas,” said Sheng, who was born in Shanghai, raised in Beijing and came to the United States to get his MBA. “It was to create excitement. Bring people together. All sorts of noble ideas.

“I was the only one who said, ‘To make money.’”

He chuckles at the irony. “I thought that was pretty funny,” said Sheng, who 20 years later is CEO of Sports Entertainment Content Activation, which he founded in 2010 with the goal of helping commercialize sports in China. “I’m this Chinese guy. I’m supposed to be coming from a communist country. And I’m the first one who says we’re in business to make money.”

Sheng’s career rocketed after grad school. He landed his first job working on Olympic sponsorships for Visa in San Francisco. When Beijing won the bid to host the 2008 Olympics, Sheng jumped at the chance to return home to oversee the company’s vast activation. After the Games, Visa promoted him to head up all marketing in China. He did that for two years but missed sports.

With Yao Ming as both an investor and his first big client, Sheng launched SECA as a sports management company that would build the profile of China’s leading athletes. Now, he is in the midst of an even larger play — an OTT platform programmed similarly to ESPN’s.

Photo: courtesy of gabrielle valdez dow

Gabrielle Valdez Dow

Green Bay Packers VP, marketing and fan engagement

While attending Warsaw in the late 1990s, Gabrielle Valdez Dow also was juggling law school at Oregon and driving back and forth to Portland nearly two hours each way, working part-time for the Trail Blazers. It’s hardly surprising, then, that she crossed paths with Jim Warsaw only once, meeting him at a Ducks football game.

And yet, when Dow moved to Los Angeles to intern with AEG in 1999 Warsaw had gotten hold of her number and called to invite her to lunch, which became a quarterly occurrence.

“I felt like I had a mentor that I never asked for,” she said. “And almost like a second parent. He wasn’t living through us. He was just making sure that we were doing what we needed to do to stay in the business and move forward.”

That internship was the result of a different Warsaw connection, as Executive Director Rick Burton had worked with AEG communications head Michael Roth. She eventually got a full-time role and would work for five executives: Tim Leiweke, Lee Zeidman, Brenda Tinnen, Bobby Goldwater and Roth.

After AEG, she worked for the Florida Panthers and then the Baltimore Ravens, where she was vice president of marketing and got a Super Bowl ring in 2013 before moving to the Packers in 2014.

 “Jim was always about relationships with people,” Dow said. “I still tear up talking about him.”

Photo: courtesy of tabitha hayes

Tabitha Hayes

EA Sports VP of global brand management

Tabitha Hayes, class of 2000, was recalculating her career route after her first sports employer — the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association — went belly up when a friend from the Warsaw program who had gone to work for a video game publisher asked what she thought about giving it a try.

“I played video games my whole life, half raised in an arcade,” Hayes said. “So it was an easy thing for me.”

A few months later, Hayes went to work at Seattle-based Sierra Entertainment as the marketing lead on their NASCAR game but “worked my way out of a job” for recommending that they not develop a larger sports portfolio to compete with EA. From there she went to Activision, where she managed the “Call of Duty” franchise for 2 1/2 years. That led her to a job at EA, where she now oversees brand management of all of their titles in Europe.

“While a lot of things change, the one thing that I always talk about as part of my platform as a woman driving a lot of inclusion efforts is the power of the network,” Hayes said. “That’s still a big part of the story for me. It was a big part of Jim [Warsaw]’s vision.”