HBS Spring Sports Symposium: Sports in the Digital Age

The 1990s redefined sports. Increasing media exposure turned athletes like Jordan, Beckham, and Woods and teams like Manchester United and the Yankees (sorry, Boston fans) into worldwide household names. It can be argued that the sports invasion began with, and was brilliantly executed by, one single entity: ESPN, which today dominates the way sports are consumed in 192 countries.
But according to ESPN CFO Christine Dreissen, the keynote speaker at last week’s HBS Business of Sports Spring Symposium, controlling the airwaves is only part of the vision for the ESPN sports universe. After developing a magazine, a series of restaurants, and their own high-profile events, recent focus at ESPN has turned to the distribution of sports through digital media and to innovative ideas for maximizing profits through these channels. All told, digital media was a hot topic throughout the symposium; in fact, a presentation from McKinsey & Co. was exclusively devoted to the topic.
Beyond the digital space, the conference also focused on careers in sports business. For the traditionalists, a panel comprised of executives from Boston-area professional sports teams, including the New England Patriots, the Boston Celtics, the Boston Bruins, and the Boston Cannons (professional lacrosse), discussed entry paths for MBA students interested in traditional track sports careers. The central piece of advice espoused by all panelists instructed interested candidates to “get close to the operations side of the business”, which according to Matt Griffin, Sales and Marketing Director of the Boston Celtics is a fairly natural transition from the business domain.
“I thought it was great to hear the perspectives of individuals involved across all of the major sports,” said Scott Jablonski (OI). “Whether it was team/league officials or third-party personnel, the presenters at the conference highlighted industry growth areas (e.g., digital distribution rights, corporate sponsorships, etc.) for MBAs.”
In the next few years, these non-traditional industry growth areas will provide inroads for job-seekers looking to work in sports. Highlighting some of these opportunities, speakers on a sports entrepreneurship panel discussed career paths in the non-profit sector, professional fitness, and sports management. Speaking on his own experiences, Jason Chandler, General Manager of the Boston Cannons, likened running a professional lacrosse franchise to running a small business in which everyone has to pitch in. Chandler, himself, was the former team gopher responsible for everything from taking out the trash to managing public relations for the team.
“The symposium covered a number of different topics and was especially relevant for MBA students who have a number of career options in the sports industry,” said Howard Berkof (OH). “Teams and leagues are no longer the only way to go for a career in sports. The panelists highlighted that there are a number of different avenues you can pursue, from fundraising to non-profit to PR, far beyond what people would ordinarily think of.”
After a successful spring symposium, the Business of Sports Club will round out the year with a behind-the-scenes tour of Fenway Park.