Duck Tales: Warsaw at 25
Whitney Wagoner was a business major at the University of Oregon when she heard that a former student who had hit it big in the sports world was coming back to campus to share his entrepreneurial story.
Already smitten by the idea of a sports career after interning in the school’s athletic department and working a few charity golf tournaments, Wagoner made sure to attend the presentation led by Jim Warsaw, who in 1993 had sold his family business to Nike for $78 million.
David Warsaw started Sports Specialties in 1928, when he convinced Chicago Cubs management to let him sell team-themed ashtrays and bobbleheads in exchange for a royalty. The company took off when his sons, Jim and Bob, took that licensing model to the cap business, where they locked up rights from across all of the major pro leagues and hundreds of college programs.
It was, by many accounts, ground zero for today’s $25 billion sports licensing business. Newly wealthy beyond his dreams, Jim Warsaw, 45, had his eye on a new venture, one that he hoped would marry traditional business education to real-world application.
The first such program to be endowed at an accredited B-school, the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center was founded in October of 1993, when Warsaw donated $250,000 in seed money. It began humbly, driven by a speaker series that featured Warsaw and whatever guests he could corral from the industry. They hired an executive director and two faculty members. By the time Wagoner graduated in 1996, there were five courses available, allowing for a concentration for both undergraduate business students and MBAs.
Many schools already offered master’s degrees in sport administration or sport management, including Ohio and UMass.
But only Oregon offered a sports marketing MBA. Only Oregon shared DNA with nearby Nike, which was co-founded by former Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman and led by alum Phil Knight, and could easily work with the many other sports product companies in and around Portland. And only Oregon had Jim Warsaw, a force of nature who was willing to put his name, his money and his connections behind the nascent program. Wagoner didn’t know it that day, but she had found a mentor. Though she never did take any classes at Warsaw, when she graduated he set her up with an unpaid internship at the NFL.
“This was not what we know now as the NFL internship structure, where there are 30 people coming and you’re going to be one of the 30,” Wagoner said. “This was, ‘Hey, old friend at the NFL, this is Jim Warsaw calling. I’m about to start a program at the University of Oregon. We’re in our early stages. I’ve got a kid. You’re going to take her.’ And they said, ‘OK.’”
Armed with a single suitcase, Wagoner flew east, starting an adventure that would launch her career. The internship at the NFL turned into a job there in corporate sales. She got her MBA at NYU, which enabled her to teach part time back in Eugene as an adjunct. Three years ago, she made the transition to full-time academia, returning home as director of the Warsaw Center.
This year, Warsaw will celebrate its 25th anniversary. It is a chance to trumpet its achievements, reflect on its beginnings and recall its founder.
Shortly after launching the program, Warsaw was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He went back to get his undergraduate degree in 2006 but died in 2009 of a heart attack. Today the program has roughly 25 graduate students in each entering class plus hundreds in the undergraduate offerings.
With so much of the program’s ethos still tied to its founder, what shape will Warsaw take in its next 25 years?
“It’s hard, and gets harder with time,” Wagoner said. “There is some part of honoring legacy that sometimes can hold organizations back from making progress. So we can’t allow that to happen. We have to be Warsaw Forward. We have to be Warsaw 2.0. We have to be Warsaw Next.
“And so how does one appropriately recognize and celebrate that legacy, and still move forward?”
• • • •
Kicking back in a meeting room at Adidas’ North American headquarters on the north side of Portland, Jeff McGillis chuckled at the similarities he heard while sharing origin stories with two colleagues who also came out of Warsaw.
Their journeys are not unlike those of the many Warsaw alums over the past 25 years.
“I wanted to be the commissioner of the NHL,” said McGillis, a 2000 Warsaw grad who oversees football, baseball, hockey, lacrosse, volleyball and tennis as a vice president at Adidas. “That’s why I went back to school. Jerry Maguire was my backup plan.”
Leaning forward on a sofa to his left, Matt Van Wyen, a 2013 grad, spoke of growing up near Amish country in Pennsylvania, raised by parents to think about a career pragmatically. He majored in economics at a small school close to home and landed a job managing client portfolios for mutual fund provider Vanguard. He started work in the midst of global financial turmoil.
“Obviously, it wasn’t the most fun environment,” said Van Wyen, a senior product manger in Adidas’ running footwear group. “And like many people in the finance industry at that time, you start to look at what you’re passionate about. For me, that was basketball and sneakers.”
For Chris Murphy, the Warsaw program was part lifeline, part sanctuary. He worked in extreme sports for a bit after he got his bachelor’s degree in ’98, then left for an internet startup. The pay was low but the stock options were promising. When the market crashed, Murphy fled.
“I was going to be so rich, at 23 or 24,” Murphy said. “Then it fell apart. We had to give money back to the VCs. I said, ‘I need to get out of this digital space as fast as possible.’ How do I do that?”
Murphy thought back to the advice of his father, who sold fishing rods at Abercrombie & Fitch in San Francisco when it specialized in high-end fishing and hunting gear.
“My father went fishing with Eddie Bauer on a pretty regular basis,” Murphy said. “He was always about working wherever it matched your passion. He used to say, ‘When I leave for lunch and go fishing, it’s totally cool. I can be gone for two or three hours and I’m going with the CEO — and it’s totally fine.”
Arriving at Warsaw in 2003, Murphy knew he’d found his tribe. Turns out he’d also found a hot career path. When Adidas called Jim Warsaw looking for an intern for its emerging digital marketing department, he immediately pointed to Murphy. That led to a job after he graduated in ’05, followed by several promotions.
On paper, the first thing that Warsaw had that distinguished it was its place in the business school, where it could deliver an MBA. But in practice, the thing that made Warsaw different was the man himself.
“The Warsaw connection opened the door for you,” McGillis said. “And I would credit a lot of that to Jim. I remember instances where I’d tell people I went to Warsaw and they’d say — ‘I love Jim. Jim is one of the best guys in the industry.’ They were so excited that they had met one of Jim’s people.”
Another of Jim’s people was Rick Burton, who was so drawn by Warsaw’s passion and the program’s potential that he cut his salary by two-thirds, leaving a sports marketing agency job to become the program’s director. With those two men at the helm, the new program had enough industry connections to punch far above its weight class from the start.
“Jim had a great network and he wasn’t shy about tapping into it,” said Burton. “This was an amazing and special guy who was committed not only to the concept of an endowed program, but then also to the students who were going to be a part of it. When he came to town, he always wanted to be with the kids and wanted to help facilitate their interest and passion for getting into the industry.”
The annual trips to New York delivered seminal moments for many Warsaw grads, exposing them to the industry at its highest levels for the first time. The school also took students to Seattle and San Francisco. Today, its reach extends to the other side of the globe.
On a Friday morning late in May, a couple dozen students and faculty gathered in a business school classroom to prep for an adventure that has become a signature not only of Warsaw but of the broader Oregon B-school: a two-week tour that goes from Shanghai to Beijing and then Singapore, introducing students to business as it is conducted in Asia.
Naturally, Warsaw builds its own itinerary around companies and properties in sports, which this summer is scheduled to include Nike China, NBA China, the Beijing 2022 Olympic Committee, Wieden & Kennedy, Blizzard Entertainment, the Shanghai Sharks pro basketball franchise and sports marketing agencies SECA and Shankai Sports.
At the front of the room, Wagoner launched into a presentation the tour leaders give annually.
“Let’s say your employer needs someone to go to Asia and open an office, check on a factory, do a deal, recruit some employees,” she began. “Who is ready to put their hand up? Our goal is that after having this experience, you all are people who raise your hands.
“That’s the big goal. … Are you, as a person, confident enough and curious enough and maybe just a little bit crazy enough to put yourself out there in your professional career in an exciting way?
“That’s the overall context of why we do this.”
• • • •
Typically, those who venture to Oregon for a sports-focused MBA are either career shifters driven by the hope of turning avocation to vocation, or worker bees in low- to midlevel sports jobs, looking to accelerate their careers. The most recent class of Warsaw grads is no different.
Before she quit her job, picked up her life and moved to Eugene to get a sports-focused MBA, Jeanne Schneider spent 10 years at two experiential marketing agencies in Chicago. She worked on six Super Bowl campaigns, four of them for Bud Light and two for Verizon. She managed activations around the NFL regular season and the draft, the NHL All-Star Game and the Final Four.
But sports wasn’t the entirety of her job. And even when it was, the agency often shared the role with other companies that worked exclusively in sports.
“I like to say my job was adjacent to the sports industry,” Schneider said. “When you come off of the Super Bowl, they have to find another project for you to work on.”
One year, she worked on a rodeo in Texas. She spent a summer working on music festivals that Bud Light sponsored.
“They were some really, really cool and valuable experiences for my career,” Schneider said. “But I wanted to work full time in sports.”
Schneider knew she wanted to move into sports, but wasn’t sure of the sector or role. So she started researching grad schools, figuring that a year getting broader exposure to the industry might help her sort it out. She was leaning toward the night school master’s program at Northwestern when she came upon a story about Wagoner leaving an NFL job to head up the Warsaw program.
Intrigued, Schneider applied for admission and was accepted. “I dropped everything in Chicago and moved to Oregon,” she said. After graduating last month, she landed a senior brand manager job at Adidas.
Brooke Halvorsen was only a few months into a job as an accountant at a tech startup in Vancouver when she realized that path wasn’t for her. An elite-level volleyball player who spent three years on the Canadian national team, Halvorsen thought back to a conversation she’d had with a marketing professor who once suggested that she marry her passions for business and sports.
She contacted an acquaintance from Vancouver who was in his second year at Warsaw. When she heard about the experiential trips and the projects, she was hooked.
“I was pretty pumped at that point and knew I wanted to come,” Halvorsen said. “So I simultaneously wrote the GMATs, quit the accounting job and started working at Lululemon.” Halvorsen now works in Chicago for 4Front.
Will McGirl knew he wanted to get into sports as far back as high school. That’s why he went from his New Jersey home to Ohio University for undergrad. He hoped to land a job at a sports marketing agency. But when he graduated four years ago, the best entry-level sports opportunity he could find was selling football and basketball tickets for Rutgers.
Eight months into the job, he had an epiphany. “I found myself, while I should have been making phone calls, watching the League of Legends World Championships in the background on my laptop,” McGirl said. “I’m not entirely proud of that. But I realized then, this is probably something I should be doing instead of making 90 cold calls a day trying to sell Rutgers basketball — which is not the easiest thing in the world to do, it turns out.”
McGirl called an old professor from OU to ask about grad schools. He pointed him in the direction of Craig Leon, an Ohio grad who is the MBA program manager at Warsaw.
Leon said he couldn’t promise a path to a career in esports. But at least McGirl wouldn’t be alone in his quest. Another Warsaw applicant, Justin Surber, was leaving a job as an associate at a small Oregon law firm to pursue an esports role. Leon and Wagoner promised to support them in whatever projects, internships and job opportunities they could find. Both McGirl and Surber graduated this spring.
• • • •
For more than two decades now, those students and others like them have come from all over to Eugene, chasing a dream and the master’s degree that they hope will lead them to it.
But there is reason to wonder whether that will continue.
Warsaw was the first sports marketing program to launch from an accredited B-school, but there are at least three dozen now, along with another 200-plus that offer the less expensive, and less time consuming, master’s degree in sports administration. It’s an attractive enough proposition that schools such as Columbia, Georgetown and NYU all offer degrees through their continuing ed programs.
Then there is the approach taken by schools like Penn, Stanford and UCLA, where B-school professors who consult in the industry teach a sports class or two, bring in projects and cases, and funnel interested students toward internships and jobs. It’s not a degree path, but it can be a career path.
And, of course, there are programs that offer master’s degrees, certificates and even single, open-access classes, all online. Every one of them trades on the idea that they will get their students a job in sports.
“I think everyone thinks sport business programs are all apples, when they’re really apples and bananas and oranges and kiwis,” Wagoner said. “Take what fits you best. I worry that people don’t understand that the 950 sports-something shingles out there are not all the same.”
When she thinks about Warsaw’s priorities as it navigates through these crowded waters, Wagoner divides them into two parts.
One is making sure that their curriculum and experiences are suited to ever-evolving industry opportunities. For now, those are things like data and analytics, sustainability, emerging technology and, increasingly, esports.
The other is an area that has to do more with broader educational trends, which, at Oregon, still have not been determined.
“Right now, if you think of the Warsaw Center as a product company, we have one SKU: Come to Eugene, put your bottom in a chair and get a college degree,” Wagoner said. “But there is this whole other arc of sport business education, from young people that are pre-college to people that are after college, where you broaden the definition of being an education provider.
“What is really out there that is so entirely different that we don’t have to worry about it competing with what we’ve built?”
The University of Oregon doesn’t offer its MBA program online. Wagoner wonders where the Warsaw component would fit if it eventually does. She’s even more intrigued by the potential for executive education that could be tailored to sports, and by bite-sized certifications and online badges that might help build out a résumé.
Whatever the school chooses to add, however it is delivered, she said she will insist it not take away from the core MBA program envisioned by its founder.
“Jim could never remember important things, like where is his wallet or where did he park his car today,” Wagoner said. “But if you were getting married, if you were having a baby, if your mother passed away -— Jim knew all that.
“He was one of those people where folks say ‘I felt like I was the most important person in the world to him.’ That’s how he was with people. And so many of us have been the beneficiaries of that.”