Stephen Master, head of Nielsen’s global sports practice, was speaking at a 2010 sports media conference at Northwestern when he was approached by a group of University of Michigan students who made the trip from Ann Arbor. The aspiring sports business executives wanted to pick Master’s brain about starting a conference on their own campus.
Master — who graduated from Michigan with an undergraduate degree in 1990 and from Northwestern with an MBA in 1996 — mentally filed away their idea. In the fall of 2011, the students reached back out to Master to have a more detailed conversation about the concept, and expressed their hope to hold the inaugural Michigan Sports Business Conference in January 2012.
But Master suggested they tweak their plan. “I know most of you are seniors, but I think you should push this to fall 2012,” he told the students. “That will help you get alums on board. We should do it around a football weekend and it becomes a much bigger deal. Sports is such an integral part of the Michigan experience.”
Even though many of them would have graduated by then, the students agreed with Master’s suggestion and set Nov. 9, 2012, as the date of the inaugural Michigan Sports Business Conference. Master started reaching out to his fellow UM alums about the event, and “everyone was raising their hands [to get involved],” he said. “That’s really how it got started.”
The inaugural year’s speaker list featured a powerful group of Ann Arbor alums. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross (Class of 1962), CBS Sports’ David Berson (Class of 1994), Big Ten Network’s Mark Silverman (MBA 1991), ESPN’s Seth Ader (Class of 1994), Gatorade’s John Shea (MBA 2003, now with Teneo Sports), IMG’s Ira Stahlberger (Class of 1993) and former NFL player Dhani Jones (Class of 2000) were among those who immediately bought in to the program. Even several sports business executives and media personalities who were never students at Michigan but have ties to Ann Arbor wanted to participate, including MLBAM’s Bob Bowman (grew up in Michigan, daughter went to UM); The Montag Group’s Sandy Montag (then with IMG, son went to Michigan); Bruin Sports Capital’s David Abrutyn (then with IMG, daughter goes to UM); and broadcaster Mike Tirico (lives in Ann Arbor).
Shea remembers that students approached him with a business plan “that was 85 percent baked.” They asked him to be on the board of directors to help guide it, bring on speakers and provide direction.
“I was completely on board with it,” he said. “Selfishly, it’s a way to unite the Michigan alums that are in the industry. The conference becomes a great way to connect all the folks that I knew from Michigan and some that I didn’t.”
Now in its fifth year, the Michigan Sports Business Conference has given students the opportunity to gain real-world industry experience (such as handling sponsorship sales, event marketing, programming and operations) while also being able to network with sports business leaders and find strong leads for their first jobs in sports.
This year’s conference, which begins with a dinner Thursday at Michigan Stadium and an interview with AD Warde Manual, will be attended by about 350 Michigan undergraduates, as well as about 80 students from other schools around the country. There also have been about 75 tickets sold to business professionals. In addition, there’s an allotment of tickets given away to the conference’s board of advisers, high-level executives, guests of speakers and school officials. MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Ross will deliver this year’s keynotes on Friday. Tickets cost $35 for students, $50 for nonstudents.
The MSBC applies for funding as a student organization each year, and all other funding comes through corporate partnerships sold by the students who run the conference. Coca-Cola, StubHub, Palace Sports & Entertainment and Turnkey are among this year’s sponsors. All of the money is put back into operating the event.
Like most conferences, it facilitates relationships and business. A meeting between Intel’s Matt Kauffman (Class of 1990) and Zebra Technologies’ Dustin Cairo (Class of 2012) exemplifies how the conference helps connect sports business veterans with industry newcomers. The two met briefly at a previous year’s conference, but last year had a more meaningful dialogue about potential synergies between their tech companies.
“A few weeks after the Ann Arbor sync-up, we put our two companies together,” Kauffman said. “We are working together to see what might be possible, how Intel can help Zebra and how the two companies might collaborate to build on some of the things they’re doing with the NFL.”
“Would the companies have found each other anyway? Possibly, maybe,” Kauffman added. “But because we were both Michigan alum at a Michigan sports business event, it provided a forum for us to talk, and it was really the spark that led to a business development opportunity for both companies. At minimum, it was the starting point and it was the first intersection between the two companies.”
As an undergraduate at Michigan, David Herman (Class of 2015) served as president of the MSBC for two years (2013 and 2014). At the 2015 conference, about six months after his graduation, Herman was introduced by Master to Danny Keens, who at the time was head of sports partnerships for Twitter and had been invited to speak at the conference.
Herman and Keens stayed in touch, and a few months later, Herman received a note from Master with this message: “I know you know Danny. I was with him last night. He’s looking to hire someone. I told him to reach out to you.”
Herman emailed Keens the next day, and two weeks later, he had a job at Twitter. “David’s job at Twitter is the direct result of me getting Danny to the conference,” Master said.
Herman’s landing at Twitter is just one example of how the conference has become fruitful grounds for recruiting.
“I did some on-campus recruiting last year [during the conference], and three of my last four interns have been from the University of Michigan and they’ve all been part of [the MSBC] in some capacity,” said Michael Levine (Class of 1998), vice president of entertainment and player marketing at the NBA. “Pretty much every résumé that I look at from the University of Michigan has the Michigan Sports Business Conference on it.”
Levine added, “The conference is helping the students build relationships at a younger age, it’s inspiring creativity and it’s exposing them to real-life situations.”
“What I loved about this all along is it’s student-driven,” Shea added of the conference, “It’s born out of the passion of the students for sports business. It passes down from year to year to different leadership teams, and each one is so impressive, for a group of college students to put on something like this and the way they’ve connected with the industry.”
By Marcus DiNitto
Published by SportsBusiness Journal on Oct. 31, 2016