Field of Dreams

Passion, not profits, drives MBAs to choose a career in sports. But often, hard work can lead to trophy roles and a bona-fide payoff

By Jordan Burke

Delivery-driving wasn't a job Ryan Gates had in mind a few years ago when he meticulously filled out four lengthy applications to business school, finally graduating with an MBA in 2004 from Indiana University. But there he was, with five hours of driving under his belt between West Virginia and Kentucky. The reason: a car full of baseball jerseys that had to be somewhere. It's just another day at work for the 28-year-old business-development director for the Charleston Alley Cats Division A minor-league baseball team.

Gates' venture along Interstate 64 is far from the spiffy office complexes that many of his fellow MBA classmates gravitated toward after graduation. The pay isn't in the ballpark, either. Gates earns about half of the $80,000 median his peers will earn in 2004, and less than he earned prior to getting his MBA. But Gates says his choice wasn't about the money. It's a step toward fulfilling his dream of becoming the general manager of an AA baseball franchise. "I'm putting myself in a position to do what I want," he says.

Gates is among dozens of B-school students who are melding their business acumen with their favorite sport. Sports-management jobs are increasingly popular among MBA students, though few schools keep track of the number of students interested in these positions. Only a few MBAs end up accepting these typically low-paying, hard-to-find jobs with minor-league teams or other sports or venues, though these are the roles that eventually lead to the big leagues -- and bigger bucks.


  While the Hollywood hit Jerry Maguire portrays the life of sports agent Jerry Maguire as exciting and lucrative, sports jobs -- especially at the entry level -- are rarely glamorous. And unlike George Steinbrenner, the controversial owner of the New York Yankees, there's very little high-profile work. For Gates, being a business-development director means doing a little bit of everything, from attending the team's games and working the cash register in the souvenir shop (when the regular cashier doubles as team mascot), to delivering a box of jerseys.

Now in his fourth month with the Alley Cats, Gates is focusing on the team's upcoming move to a new stadium that will hold 4,500 fans, which is 1,000 more than the team's current park can accommodate. When he's not attending a game, he spends his day selling anything from advertising signage to private suites. "We're just running a business, and there happens to be a baseball stadium around it," Gates says.

For most, lower pay comes with the territory. Andy Kreutzer, coordinator of Ohio University's Sports Administration program, estimates it takes grads about two to six years before they reach "normal" salary levels. The sports industry, compared to normal MBA ventures, is a buyers' market, and isn't salary-driven, says Kreutzer. But for those with their hearts set on sports work, Kreutzer says the payoff of the pricey degree is "amortized over a lifetime and not when you walk out the door."

Most grads understand the deal from Day One. Adam Antoniewicz, a 30-year-old Austin native, says he doesn't envy his peers who work in investment banking. After graduating from the University of Oregon's Lundquist School, one of the few schools with a well-known sports-marketing program, Antoniewicz took a job in Shanghai, where he uses his MBA skills to help companies like Reebok, the National Football League, and the Chinese Basketball Association build their brands in China. "The sports industry is a different beast," he says. "Everyone wants to regain that glory of winning from their early days, so they translate that into business endeavors."


  But it takes more than just an idea to build a business, and that's where MBA skills come in handy. The MBA brought Antoniewicz the financial and marketing backbone he needed to succeed in the sporting world, giving him an "edge in the industry," he says. It also helped him to realize that he could make a sports career a reality. During B-school, Antoniewicz sharpened his sports-marketing know-how at Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, which taught him how to survive and thrive in a world "filled with sports has-beens," he says. "I couldn't get as fired up about marketing Kraft Singles that I do about creating victories for Reebok in China."

In many cases, MBAs aren't the first group most sports teams and athletic companies look for to fill business-side jobs. Jenni Winslow, a 30-year-old grad from UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, knows that all too well. She parlayed her pre-MBA marketing background into a job at high-end mountain bike maker Trek Bicycle Corp. near her hometown in Madison [Wisc.]. "It's blending my two worlds together," says Winslow, a tri-athlete, cyclist, and seven-time marathoner. But, Winslow got her job as a marketing manager only after she researched the list of company executives and contacted one of them, asking for a chance to interview. After several interviews and a stunt as a freelance consultant, Winslow won the job. Two months ago, she took on marketing of women-specific bicycle designs. She'll help market and develop female-geared products across the company's four bike lines and cadre of accessories.

Sometimes, it's a lifelong hobby -- or a desire to hone one -- that lures an MBA to the sports world. Doug Donovan, another Haas grad, dabbled in skiing as a kid and had long been fascinated with the sport. But he wondered why more ski mountains and resorts seemed geared toward adults, especially since teens and younger skiers flock to skiing and snowboarding. After graduation, Donovan teamed up with another Haas grad to build a youth-oriented snow resort near Denver that will open for business in December, 2005. The resort, which has a 1,000-foot vertical span, will house a terrain park, and offer snow tubing and traditional ski lifts.

For Donovan, a former equity-research analyst and co-founder of a software startup, the new resort is a chance for him to run his own show, and he'll act as general manger. But he's the only one on the payroll, since hiring won't begin until the site is built. For now, he's busy figuring out how to get electricity and a septic system to the site, which lies in a rural area 30 miles west of Denver.

One thing is certain: MBAs who follow their passions into the wide world of sports won't find all fun and games. After all, like any business, sports are about profits. But with enough hard work and dedication, a career in sports can pay off handsomely, and even end up making those investment bankers jealous of all the glory.

Jordan Burke is an intern in BusinessWeek's B-school channel

Edited by Suzanne Robitaille

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