Kristen N. Koenig
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Megan Hastillo (McLeod)
Communication Alumnus Mike Soltys: Headline Photo (on the right)
Working in the sports industry may seem like a dream job for sports fans.
It is a high-profile business glamorized through media exposure, and teams serve as a rallying point for unifying diverse communities around the world.
UConn alumni working in the business acknowledge how much they enjoy their work, but quickly note that the competition for getting a job is just as fierce as trying to crack a team’s starting lineup.
Alumni such as Michael Aresco ’76 J.D., senior vice president of programming for CBS Sports, and Greg Economou ’88 (CLAS), executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, are in key positions as leaders off the field of play in virtually all sports, influencing the direction of their businesses and organizations in such areas as marketing, accounting, law, business development, human resources and community relations.
In addition to professional and college sports, the industry includes fields such as advertising, licensed goods, media broadcast rights, product endorsements, travel and Internet and wireless communications, making the sports world a $213 billion industry, according to Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal, a leading industry publication.
As in many industries, business objectives in sports have evolved over the years as technology has changed organizational operations in response to the demands of consumers such as sports fans, who want access to games, scores, statistics and information around the clock.
There is no better example of this than the $6 billion, 11-year deal that Aresco negotiated between CBS Sports and the NCAA.
“That deal afforded us rights to not only TV coverage to the NCAA basketball tournament and miscellaneous NCAA events, but it also gave us marketing rights,” Aresco says, noting that the network will also guide publishing, licensing, Internet, wireless and ancillary media activities connected to NCAA events broadcast by CBS.
“It was a new model in programming. We called it the bundled rights deal. New media is really our watchword. It’s the future.”
William Geist ’92 M.B.A., senior vice president for finance, programming and ad sales for ESPN, says his network faces increased competition as regional sports networks and college athletic conferences have developed their own television packages, including the Big East Conference, the league in which UConn competes.
As a result, the original cable sports network based in Bristol, Conn., is also negotiating multimedia agreements, continuing its evolution into a global multimedia company.
“Sports is such a big part of people’s lives and we’ve found ways to bring it to them at all times,” says Mike Soltys ’88 (CLAS), vice president for U.S. network communications at ESPN, who recalls the early days of ESPN, when there was skepticism about whether anyone would watch sporting events in the middle of the night or early in the morning.
“It’s still growing. Hopefully we can replicate the U.S. interest in ESPN in other countries.”
The ever-expanding obsession for sports news, highlights and information can be traced to the success of ESPN, which moved sports beyond weekend viewing and Monday Night Football or the Olympic Games.
At the same time, the major team sports — football, basketball, baseball and hockey — and, increasingly, NASCAR, are working competitively to establish their respective brands in the marketplace.
“The ultimate goal of a team franchise is to sell tickets,” says Economou, a member of UConn’s 1988 NIT championship team, who before moving to the Bobcats, was senior vice president of marketing communications for the NBA and previously operated his own sports marketing firm.
“We work to build our brand and to create a sense of good will in the community to draw fans because that’s what fuels the business.”
As executive director of USA Hockey, David Ogrean ’74 (CLAS) works on a multi-layered set of challenges to promote his sport, which continues to work its way back from the cancellation of the National Hockey League season two years ago.
In addition to encouraging participation in the sport, organizing clinics and working with the NHL and NCAA, USA Hockey has responsibility for organizing and training men’s and women’s teams that compete internationally, including in the Olympics.
“They’re bouncing back now. The boom areas today are girls and adult hockey,” says Ogrean, who previously worked for USA Football and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
“We’ll soon have 60,000 girls and women playing. There’s been so much interest since the women’s Olympic success in Nagano [in 1988] with the gold medal.”
Grassroots enthusiasm for local sports teams is something Celia Bobrowsky ’80 (CLAS) saw firsthand during her 12 years as director of community relations for the Detroit Tigers before being named director of community affairs for Major League Baseball last year.
“I realized how much professional sports means to people, much like the Huskies do in Connecticut,” she says of her time in Detroit.
“You have to answer every request and treat everyone with respect. We can’t do everything, but we can do something. Like a request for a visit to a sick fan in the hospital may not be possible, but a letter from Cecil Fielder is.”
Professional athletes can serve as role models and positively influence the behavior of both young and old.
The major sports leagues and their local teams have developed programs aimed at promoting a variety of health and education concerns.
Bobrowsky says Major League Baseball has a wide range of programs such as children’s safety, juvenile diabetes and prostate and breast cancer awareness.
There are also initiatives like Breaking Barriers, an essay contest that asks children to address the values of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues.
Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, is closely involved with the program which attracts thousands of entries, with winners attending the All-Star Game and World Series.
“Because baseball is America’s national pastime and is so entrenched in the culture it may seem unrelated to events, but we know that it’s not. We have to respond in some way,” Bobrowsky says.
The outlook for the sports industry continues to be growth, says Abraham Madkour, executive editor of Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal.
“You’ll see sports taking a larger role in the entertainment options in America,” he says.
“Many activities in sports are full day events. When we ask people in the business where they see growth, many think the pro game has matured and that college sports are the future. You’re seeing the growth of regional conference networks, licensing, and stadium development.”
Huskymania in Connecticut demonstrates that point.
Each year basketball games at the Hartford Civic Center draw more than 320,000 fans to cheer on the UConn men’s and women’s basketball teams and the Huskies football team plays before sold-out crowds of 40,000 fans at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.
UConn games are regularly broadcast to a national audience.
Even as UConn alumni help to shape the future success of a dynamic and growing industry, they each point out the high demands of their work and the intangible rewards of their profession.
“Being in sports sounds glamorous, but it’s hard work,” says ESPN’s Geist.
“We have a guy who is working on NASCAR and we thought it would be valuable to have a finance person on site. While that sounds cool, he’s in Taledega one weekend and Darlington the next. It’s not all easy, but it’s a fun product to work with, and my kids still think it’s cool their dad works at ESPN.”