By David Pavlak
The sports industry is a multi-billion-dollar business, but does anyone actually know how the sports work behind the scenes, where the money goes or how it is distributed?
Rider offers its students the opportunity to find out how this process works and more with the Masters of Business Administration (MBA) Business of Sports class, taught by Dr. Larry Prober, and the business of sports minor, headed by Dr. Ira Bruce Sprotzer, which are available to all undergraduates. Through the use of high-profile sports executives, the students have the ability to know the ins-and-outs of how a sports industry operates.
The idea came to fruition after Prober noticed sports business classes being offered at other schools.
“I was searching the web about eight or nine years ago and I saw that Stanford had a [business of sports] course,” Prober said. “Ironically, I was drawn to it because I was looking for business stuff. They had brought in Bill Walsh who, at the time, was the [San Francisco] 49ers’ coach. They decided to bring in a lot of speakers. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good. Wouldn’t that be nice?’”
The plan wasn’t without some hesitation on Prober’s behalf.
“What about materials?” he said. “These teams don’t issue financial statements the way corporations do. I’m used to teaching accounting where you can get financial statements and read about the inner workings and try to interpret those. These are syndicates and privately held businesses. Then, I saw that they actually wrote a textbook and included cases that made a lot of their materials available to everyone. I thought it might be a nice elective for MBA students to have.”
Half the battle was finding and bringing in the appropriate speakers to connect to the class.
“I got a copy [of the book] and it looked really terrific,” Prober said. “That’s when I called Harry Gamble — he was the first person I called. I said, ‘I would like to do this’ and he said, ‘Sure, I’ll come in and talk.’ That kind of gave me the confidence to call some other people. As time passed, I got an array of speakers.”
Previous speakers have included Gamble, a Rider alumnus and former president of the Philadelphia Eagles; John Nickolas, the chief financial officer (CFO) of the Philadelphia Phillies; Sandy Lipstein, the former CFO of Comcast Spectacor and Don Harnum, Rider’s current athletic director.
“I was pretty lucky,” Prober said. “People said yes to me. I would not have done this without their support. I can’t answer a lot of these [specific] questions and the students want to be able to ask questions. I cover the league-level teams, a little college sports, marketing, stadiums and arenas, valuation and lots of other topics. I’ve been pretty lucky.”
Sprotzer faced the same sort of success.
“Individuals that I have known for quite some time such as Don Harnum, Kevin Bannon, Rick Giles of The Gazelle Group and others have been willing to speak in my sports classes,” Sprotzer said. “They have also referred me to other individuals who have been willing to speak. I guess it is a matter of knowing some people and developing connections with others in the field.”
All the speakers in Prober’s class have given the students important advice and information hopefully to help them upon entering the field.
“A reoccurring theme among speakers is that it’s hard to go right into sports,” Prober said. “That’s kind of why we have a minor at the undergraduate level. The feeling was, we didn’t want students to get too much of an expectation that they were going to get a degree and go and work in a sports enterprise. It does happen, but it kind of is a rarity. So what the speakers normally do is give words of wisdom on getting any job at all. I do feel the students really take those to heart.”
Sprotzer has noticed his students have taken a liking to the guest speakers.
“I believe that students learn a great deal from guest speakers who have experience in a certain field,” Sprotzer said. “This is especially true in survey type courses, such as Introduction to the Business of Sports. Most students pay close attention, especially if the speaker is both knowledgeable and entertaining.”
Still, a subject is only as interesting as the professor can make it. With the addition of guest speakers, Sprotzer has been happy with the turnout of the program.
“Students that are interested in the material usually take an active part in the learning process and I have found this to be true in the sports classes I have taught,” he said. “It is also a pleasure to teach in an area that interests you and that is surely the case with me and sports.”
Prober isn’t looking to revolutionize the business of sports at Rider. In fact, he believes that students shouldn’t have such a narrowed-down area of focus.
“The feeling was, we might be holding out too much promise to students if they are going to be majoring in this,” Prober said. “What if they didn’t get a job in sports? Well they know a lot about sports marketing and sports this and sports that, but you’ve got to get a job and have a career. They can just as easily do it if they had a functional specialization and then they went into it.”
At the end of the day, however, it’s all about learning.
“I’ve had professors attend the class and they always feel that the concluding remarks about how to succeed in business are almost as important as what went on with the team,” Prober said. “That’s kind of what we are here for. Part of what I am doing is comparing and contrasting how a normal business operates, kind of in comparison to a sports franchise. Most of the class will graduate and work for a normal business, yet they can bring what they learn to that and if they end up in sports they can use those experiences.”