U-M undergraduates host big names at first Sports Business Conference

By: Ben Freed, Business Reporter
Published on November 9, 2012

A sports business conference in Ann Arbor Friday includes a trio of big names Stephen Ross owner of the the Miami Dolphins and namesake for the University of Michigan Business School; Mike Tirico leader of the Monday Night Football announcing team, and Mark Silverman president of the Big Ten Network.

What’s perhaps even more impressive is that the conference was put together by a U-M senior and a recent graduate.

The conference has been sold out for weeks and will include about 350 students, mostly undergraduates, as well as 150 executives, faculty, and alumni. The event will include keynote speakers and panels, as well as networking time for students and industry insiders.

Dustin Cairo and Brandon Rhodes have been working to organize the Michigan Sports Business Conference for a year and a half.

“Our target audience is really people like us, undergraduates who want to work in the sports industry,” Cairo said.

“Many people don’t understand that there are different ways to break into the industry. They know you can work for a team or a league, or be an agent, but past that, they don’t understand the different opportunities out there.”

In addition to traditional sports business personalities, the conference will highlight sports branding and marketing executives, including keynote speaker Rohan Oza, the former chief marketing officer for Vitamin Water.

Cairo and Rhodes first met to discuss the possibility of the conference in February of 2011. At the time, both were dual-degree candidates in sports management and business; Cairo was a junior, Rhodes a sophomore.

“The idea was really bigger than us,” Rhodes said.

“Even when we first sat down, we started plotting out five to 10 years down the road, where we wanted this to go. No one else does a conference like this for undergraduates.”

In order to really draw people to the conference, the pair knew they would need to attract top speakers.

“The first thing we did was utilize the power of the “Block M,” Cairo said.

“A lot of these big guys in the industry are Michigan alumni or have connections to Michigan so they were excited to come back and speak. We found that alumni love coming back, and giving back to the students who are here now.”

But even the allure of Michigan and a hardworking group of 30 undergraduates was not enough to put together a conference with as impressive a guest list as this one. Rhodes said Stephen Master, a vice president at The Neilson Company, came up with the idea of putting together an industry board of advisers to help reach out to leaders across the sports business landscape.

“We had a fantastic board of advisers who we were able to bring them a list of people and they could say, ‘oh I’m good friends with him,’ or ‘she went to school with me,’” Rhodes said.

“The industry is so interconnected that they were able to help us get the speakers we wanted and even suggest other people who would make the event that much better.”

Cairo said there are other sports business conferences, including one at Northwestern University and a joint Ivy Sports Symposium that will be held this year at Columbia University. However, those conferences are primarily geared towards graduate students and often have high costs for attendees.

Tickets to the Michigan conference were $20 for undergraduate members of the School of Business Association, $25 for non-members, and $50 for graduate students. The remainder of the event’s $25,000 operating budget was covered by fundraising, sponsorships, and $4,000 from the university.

Both Cairo and Rhodes hope to be involved in the sports business industry for a long time.

Cairo graduated in April, and said since then putting together the conference has basically been his full time job. He’s hoping that the connections he’s made will lead to a permanent position in either sports brand consulting or urban revitalization around sports stadiums and arenas.

Rhodes will graduate this spring, and said that he has one job offer on the table and is still pursuing others. He said with the conference coming up he hasn’t been able to give too much thought to career paths, but he is looking at different options in the sports marketing field.

The conference will be held all day Friday at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

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