Stories from the Field of Play
UMass Alumni tell us about their experiences in the world of sport management.
“The best part of sport management is growing up as a fan and turning it into a career,” says Michelle Price ’05, who works for Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals. Price and more than 3,000 fellow alumni of the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management—one of the top-ranked sport management programs nationally and internationally—have built careers in the business of play. They work around the country and around the world, following their passion for sports in all aspects of the business—marketing, sales, data analysis, legal, media, front office, back office, on the field and off. Ten alumni share brief stories from their experiences to give behind-the-scenes insight into life in sport management and why they find the field so interesting and their careers so rewarding.
In the 1985–86 season, the Bills went 2 and 14 with only 18,000 people in the seats. We had a saying: when the snow gets high and the hopes get low, all we can do is go up. Five years later, we clinched the AFC championship game against the Raiders 51–3, with 80,000-plus people and went to our first Super Bowl.
It was during the height of the Persian Gulf War, and a lot of people don’t realize it, but there was a question about whether we would even play that game. It was a Thursday decision made by President George H. W. Bush that the game would go on. Whitney Houston sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” which was incredible, something I will always remember. It brought tears to our eyes. During halftime, ABC didn’t broadcast the halftime show, which was New Kids on the Block. Instead, Peter Jennings came on—I remember this, it was incredible—with a special halftime report on the progress of the Gulf War. ABC aired the halftime show on tape delay after the game. That is forever sticking in my head as an unbelievable experience to go through.
I can remember it like yesterday, because I was involved in the whole thing. It was an emotional time, a tough time.
One of my most memorable experiences came in 2001 here in St. Louis when we hosted the NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four.
It took a Herculean effort with a local organizing committee. We had to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars—now it’s millions. Even back then it was a lot of money. We were getting corporate support, which was really unprecedented in this market, and it was very rewarding being able to raise money for a women’s basketball tournament. The community embraced it. We did a lot of programs that were firsts, and one ended up being part of the NCAA legacy program that persists today. One brainchild of our marketing committee was to have an event for the entire community, whether they had tickets or not, and we did something we called the March to the Arch. We had thousands of people of all ages dribbling basketballs for a mile up Market Street from Union Station to the Gateway Arch. The visual was amazing, the acoustics were chilling—4,500 people bouncing basketballs together. Every year now, they do some kind of a bounce or march that involves the local community. I’m not sure anybody ever had more people involved in such a visually and acoustically impactful way as we did.
My first year with the Jets, the 2013–2014 season, the Super Bowl was in New Jersey between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos. I volunteered and was actually on the field for the game. I wasn’t a big football fan then, and I didn’t understand the magnitude of how huge that game was. I think that’s why they put me on the field, because they knew I wouldn’t really be awed by everything going on.
It was great fun being at the game and on the field during the halftime show, and postgame was a great experience. The halftime show was absolutely electric—Bruno Mars and the whole ensemble performed like clockwork and put on a great show. Postgame is what I remember the most, being there after the confetti shower for the Seahawks. It was cool to see the players celebrating with their family members on the field.
I believe one of my most significant accomplishments was changing and redirecting the PAC-12 and trying to go from 10 schools to 16 schools. It was 2010 and there was a huge uproar in college athletics and movement among conferences. We spent two weeks solid on the road trying to put together our plan for conference realignment and what that meant for the PAC-10 at the time. I never have been involved in such a secretive, but also very public, process. Every sports blog on the internet, plus ESPN and FOX, were trying to track where we were, who we were talking to, and what we were doing. We had to travel in the cover of darkness. We chartered aircraft and disguised tail numbers. We stayed in backwoods motels, were driven in cars no one could see us in, and were meeting with schools without anyone knowing about it. It was fun being in it, doing it, and then going home and reading the media. One story in a Kansas City newspaper said that I was on a flight to Kansas City to see my wife and son and then I was headed to Texas. I was really in Oklahoma trying to recruit the Sooners. It was a fascinating time in college athletics and we were trying to figure out what was going to be best for our conference and our schools 20, 30, 40, 50 years down the line. I really like where we ended up, with 12 teams in a geographically and brand-sound conference.
Going to the Olympics was a childhood dream. In 1988, the Olympics were hosted in Seoul, South Korea. I still remember, one of my first memories—a vague fuzzy image in my head of me as a three-and-a-half-year-old kid at my aunt and uncle’s house, with my parents and all my relatives watching the ’88 Olympics on TV.
I had known for some time that I was going to the Olympics this year, barring some sort of catastrophic event, but it was that moment, walking into the stadium, I was like, “Wow, this is really happening.” Waiting in the tent before entering the stadium for the opening ceremony with so many of the best athletes from around the world was amazing. There goes Chloe Kim, there goes Hilary Knight, and all these names you know and all these faces you see on TV—all these people crammed into this tent. You are bumping shoulders with them.
That was definitely the most interesting thing and also, sadly, the thing that I don’t remember very well because I was so bombarded with sensations. I don’t remember much about the walk, except for the images I have on my phone and what I see on TV. I was so overwhelmed by the whole experience; it is such a blur; it is almost like I blacked out.
I joined MKTG as a coordinator in January 2015 after graduating in May and completing a six-month trainee program. I was immediately told I was going to the Super Bowl in less than a month to work on my client’s program and that I was also going to be leading a few other programs. I was shocked and nervous because it was the first big project I was involved in, and it was the first time I was going to see a project from start to finish. I went to the Super Bowl city (Phoenix) for a little over a week, and it was a huge challenge. Our client had a booth at the NFL Experience for nine days leading up the Super Bowl, and I was there every day. I got thrown right in and was responsible for negotiating and managing player appearances for, among others, Nick Foles (right before he was traded by the Eagles and long before he was a Super Bowl MVP!), Le’Veon Bell, Hines Ward, Alex Smith, Joe Montana, Drew Brees, Jim Kelly, and Boomer Esiason. It’s a lot of moving parts, and as someone who had just joined a few months before, it was a lot to keep on top of. I was very happy and felt accomplished at the end when it all went well.
My first job away from UMass was an internship between my junior and senior year with the Hudson Valley Renegades (the single A affiliate for the Tampa Bay Rays). I had worked in athletic marketing at UMass for a while, but this was the first external job where I applied and interviewed, and I thought, “great, for my summer internship I am going to be working in baseball on my first step away from UMass.”
I was a fan engagement and customer service intern, and on my first day my boss said, “Grab that bag over there; we’re going to a school to help with a reading program.” When we got to the school, I opened the bag and in it was a raccoon hat; it was the team mascot outfit. For my first day, I was a raccoon on stage for a school assembly.
I started at Eastern Washington University in 2007, and we really needed synthetic turf. In the summer of 2008, I was in Boise—Boise State University is famous for its blue turf field—with my family, and the idea of red turf, our school color, hit me as I watched folks come to the blue turf on a July day. It was amazing the number of people who came just to take pictures and to be on the blue turf.
Our field was a mess by November during football season, and we had a donor who was a former football player, Michael Roos, left tackle for Tennessee Titans at that time, and his wife, a former tennis player, and we gave them the idea of red turf. He gave us the lead gift, which paid for half of it, and we fundraised the other half. We had it installed for the fall 2010 season, and that first year, we went 8–0 on that turf and ended up winning the FCS national championship.
Eastern has had an amazing run since the installation of that turf—multiple, deep playoff runs, just one national title, but three other times to the semifinals of the FCS. Not that you can totally attribute it to the turf, but it certainly provided a brand and an identity, not only for the football team, but for the athletic department and the university as a whole.
Working in the sports industry, you have to start at the bottom. My life after seven years is completely different than it was in year one. I recently flew to the United Kingdom for a champion’s weekend. Our team, Manchester City F.C., won the Premier League trophy, and we had a huge celebration in Manchester with our supporters after the match. This is the first time I’ve worked for an organization that won a championship, which is very cool and exciting.
In contrast, my first job after graduating from UMass was with the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City) of Major League Soccer. They played in a minor league baseball park, and premium seats for our highest-end clients were director’s chairs on the sidelines of the pitch. I was a sales associate, but part of my job was to help break down those seats after every game and carry them to a container outside the stadium.
I am now based in New York, cultivating global partnerships with companies such as Tinder for City Football Group, which owns some of the most notable soccer teams in the world.
An unforgettable time for me came early in my career. It was in 1995, and I was with the University of Connecticut when the women’s basketball team won their first national championship and were the first team to go undefeated. It was pretty amazing. I actually started at UConn as an intern as part of my graduate school requirements. After one year as an intern, I was hired on to be their full-time compliance [academic eligibility] person. I was the first person to have that job at UConn. But then I had the opportunity to see the women’s basketball program grow from not even playing in Gampel Pavilion, not even selling tickets, to four years later selling out the Hartford Civic Center and winning the national championship. The way that team captured the hearts of Connecticut was really incredible.
It was exciting to see how the university positioned the team, how and why decisions were made, and how they went from playing on campus to a general admission audience, to playing at the Hartford Civic Center. It was fascinating.
Illustrations by James Yang