Going for Gold in Sports Biz
By Riccardo Caruso
In Italy, business and sports are mutually exclusive. You either have the brains to become an engineer or you don't -- and if you don't, you focus on sports. So I have to shake my head in disbelief when I find myself, now a second-year MBA at the University of Oregon's B-school, at the Harvard Club in New York, talking with David Stern, commissioner of the NBA; Val Ackerman, president of the Women's National Basketball Assn.; Stephen Phelps, vice-president for corporate sponsorship at the National Football League; and other top executives in the sports industry.
You see, in my country, a job with a soccer team is a dream that most people can barely conceive. Here in the U.S., anything goes. There's money to be made in sports marketing, and I've picked up the No. 1 lesson from an MBA program -- how to land a job wherever you please.
Before I came to the U.S. in September, 1999, I was a manager at an engineering company in Cagliari, Italy. On the side, I had been competing in triathlons for three years, after more than a decade of running. Earlier in 1999, I represented Italy at the Triathlon World Championships in Montreal, Canada -- a race that started well for me but ended with a broken bicycle. It dawned on me that my job wasn't quite as exciting as my races -- and I was devoting nearly all of my time to work, where I pushed my passion aside from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. So I was grateful when I found the University of Oregon's sports-marketing MBA program. The curriculum would prepare me for a career in sports marketing, but it would also leave me pockets of time to train.
At first, taking core classes with a group of former athletes and sports enthusiasts seemed a dream come true. My classmates shared my passion and drive. My friend Piotr, for instance, was in training for the Olympic pole vault competition. Sure, I was still a bit skeptical that anyone could make a living in the field as anything other than an athletic superstar, but the confidence of my 19 colleagues was infectious, so I followed their lead.
Only when the MBA program swung into full gear did I learn the difference between getting an MBA in the U.S. compared to getting one in Italy. What really struck me was the competition among my classmates. Twenty-some months before I would have heard the question in Italy, people were asking me what job I wanted at graduation. Was it sports properties, agencies, or event planning? I have no idea, I said, throwing my hands in the air. I just knew that I wanted to be a part of it all.
It wasn't until I was introduced to the career-services office in the first semester and started writing resumes, practicing interviews, and researching prospective employers that I noticed the biggest distinction between the U.S. educational system and the Italian one. In the U.S., the degree takes a backseat to the job you can land with it.
Mamma mia, even in sleepy Eugene, Ore., I've learned a term that in its most literal translation couldn't be more on mark: the job hunt. Competition is fierce to land a job. Before I knew it, I was handing my resume off to the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, hoping to land a job for the 2000 Olympics in Australia. From October until June, I had 10 job interviews by phone with managers of different departments until they designated me assistant manager for logistics at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney. That meant I was planning and managing operations at different venues, training the staff, and scheduling work assignments.
Back in New York after the Games, my head is still shaking. It has become perfectly natural for me to meet with people such as Adam Silver, the president and COO of NBA Entertainment; Mark Abbot, COO of Major League Soccer; and Kevin Monaghan, vice-president for business development at NBC Sports, among others. My classmates and I, after practice at other events, are now pictures of confidence at sports-business gatherings, working the room, shaking hands, and networking with top sports executives.
In Italy, nothing like this exists. It might sound appealing to pay just $300 to $500 a year in tuition, but we certainly don't get the chance to put our talents to the test like I did in the U.S. The University of Oregon B-school has trained us to market ourselves. We've completed a year-long team consulting project for major companies such as Nike. The MBA class trips also gave us valuable contacts. In San Francisco, we visited Visa, sports and arts agency IMG, and interactive sports-media company Quokka. And in Portland, we met with winter-sports equipment manufacturer Solamon and Columbia, the sports-apparel maker.
While my classmates are great, I never expected having to face the sometimes fierce competition to land a job that's common in the U.S. We Italians let hugs, laughs, and good feelings invade our work arenas, and after a competition, there isn't room for antagonism. My B-school experience has been a cultural education, as well.
Finally, by the start of my last semester in B-school, I know what I eventually want to do: match management and marketing with technology in the sports environment. And I got an in-person explanation of what that's like in New York when I talked to some top execs at ESPN.
But I have one more mission to accomplish before I start an American job search: to represent Italy in the next Olympics as a triathlete. Maybe I'm missing a big opportunity by not pursuing a job in the U.S. right now. But being a triathlete brought me this far, and I have no doubt it will get me to the next open door faster -- assuming I can shave one minute from my time in the 1,500-meter swimming leg of the triathlon. After all, sports business is the only industry where winning races helps your resume. And when I've done that, I hope I can prove to other Italians that even a 31-year-old from Cagliari who studied engineering can make money in sports business.
Caruso is a second-year MBA in the James H. Warsaw Sports Marketing program at the University of Oregon's business school in Eugene, Ore.