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Announcing the Talks@Columbia: Learn for Life Podcast

The Talks@Columbia: Learn for Life podcast explores the people, the skills and the global forces driving change in our professional lives, with host Dr. Jason Wingard. 

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In this episode, Scott Rosner, Academic Director of the Sports Management program, discusses his career, the changing demographics of sports audiences and sports business professionals, and how data and globalization have impacted the business. 

Listen to Dean Wingard and Scott Rosner, and read the full transcript below.

Scott and Jason

Jason Wingard: (00:00)

Did you ever wonder how, and more importantly, why just a couple of years ago, the Philadelphia 76ers were one of the worst basketball teams in NBA history? Well, it's actually no secret--they lost on purpose. Today, we'll delve into the world of sports management. I'm Jason Wingard and welcome to the Learn for Life podcast.

Talks@Columbia: Learn for Life Podcast: (00:21)

The Learn for Life podcast, exploring the people, the skills and the global forces driving change in our professional lives, with host Dr. Jason Wingard, Dean of the Columbia University School of Professional Studies.

Scott Rosner: (00:37)

The only way that you get better in sports is by acquiring better players. So you need, how do you acquire better players? Draft picks, trades, free agency. And the thought is that if you get enough turns of that roulette wheel, you'll strike upon enough big talent to move the needle for you from a performance standpoint.

Jason: (01:00)

Sports management, it's an industry people dream of working in to shape athletes, to build teams, to produce extraordinary moments that inspire and entertain people all throughout the world. With me today to discuss this topic is Scott Rosner, Professor of Professional Practice and Academic Director of the Sports Management Masters Program at Columbia University School of Professional Studies. Welcome, Scott.

Scott: (01:26)

Jason, great to be here.

Jason: (01:27)

All right, we'll get back to the 76ers later, but let's talk numbers first. Here's some big numbers we should reflect on. First, the highest paid athlete in the world currently makes $127 million a year. You know who that is?

Scott: (01:39)

Lionel Messi, Barcelona.

Jason: (01:40)

Absolutely. That's more than three times the GDP of the island nation of Tuvalu.

Second, here in the United States every football, basketball, and baseball franchise, that's the NFL, NBA and MLB, is now worth at least $1 billion. And in terms of events and merchandise, over a hundred billion dollars are spent in the United States alone on sports-related purchases.

So Scott, clearly the sports universe is massive and there is seemingly ample opportunity to carve out a career in sports. So talk to me about what you're seeing as the director of one of the leading sports management programs. Who are the people pursuing these opportunities in this industry?

Scott: (02:18)

So our students are incredibly diverse. Our cohort of full time and part time students in our sports management program ranges in size in any given year, between 60 and 80 or so students. And those students come from throughout the world. We have 15 different nations represented in our program right now. We are diverse from a race, ethnicity and gender perspective. And they're hungry. They understand what it takes to have a career in sports. And if they don't understand that coming in, we are certainly beating them over the head with it, with what those skill sets and what the mindset is to have a successful career in sports. And we are providing them with the world class education that they need to hit the ground running with a career in sports.

Jason: (03:04)

So what role does their passion for sports play in committing to a career in the field? So in other words, how is their engagement as fans, the coolness of wanting to be able to participate in this industry, how much does that influence their interest in having a career in this space?

Scott: (03:18)

Yeah. Our students are all fans of a particular team, of a particular league, of a particular player. What we do in our program, interestingly enough, we have to break them of their fandom and get them to focus on the skill set that they need to have an effective career. So it's great that there are fans that are out there, it's great that our students love sports and they get together to watch games, whether it's Champions League or NFL games or any other sport for that matter, but that's not what's going to lead them to career success.

Jason: (03:53)

So let's talk about you for a second, how did you get into sports? Who are you a fan of and how did you break yourself of that fandom?

Scott: (04:01)

I've always wanted a career in sports. In fact, when I was in high school and until through my freshman year of college, I was going to be an orthopedic surgeon. I was going to be the team doctor for the Philadelphia 76ers and Flyers and Eagles and Phillies as the hometown Philadelphia guy. And then, realized that science is kind of an important piece of that equation. And while I was a good student, the science piece was certainly the weakest part of my portfolio.

Jason: (04:28)

Chemistry weeded you out.

Scott: (04:29)

Chemistry weeded me out. No question.

Jason: (04:31)

You and many others.

Scott: (04:35)

Well, it was the look to the person to your left, look to the person on your right. I will say that the person sitting to my left, one of my close friends, is a team doctor for a leading university. And you see him on TV all the time at football, basketball games sitting on the sides, so he made it. So I'll live vicariously through him for that part of the career. But I was a huge fan. And it didn't matter what the season was, I was following the teams, I was following the athletes in an era where it was a lot harder to do so than it is now. And I was playing, I was playing soccer in the fall, I was playing basketball in the winter, I was playing baseball in the spring. And with each season came a new challenge.

Scott: (05:16)

It also runs in the blood in my family. My grandfather played in the league that was the precursor to the NBA. His team is enshrined in the pro basketball hall of fame in Springfield. And so it also is a little bit in the blood, and the next piece it was passed down. My father was a huge basketball fan, baseball, hockey, again Philadelphia across the board and so it was really just imbued from one generation to the next as often happens with sports fans.

Jason: (05:41)

Okay, so you are effectively broken or are you still a Philadelphia fan through and through?

Scott: (05:46)

I am still a Philadelphia fan through and through. It is one of those things that the more you see how the sausage gets made, the less sometimes you want to eat the sausage. And there was a time when I really didn't want to watch games as much or anything else, but through my kids, I had the passion re-lit and we watched together and they love it, I love it. They think I have the coolest job in the world, which note parenthetically, I do, and they enjoy the fruits of my labor and get to see it in a really cool way.

Jason: (06:21)

So we've talked a little bit about the talent who go into the business within sports, now let's talk a little bit about consumers. So there's a lot of attention paid to millennials and the proverbial generation Z, collectively these consumers are under the age of 35, for those of you who are always guessing what the ages are? As of 2017, millennials and gen Zers made up 48% of the population in the United States. The fact is they're the largest generations of our time and they're a formidable consumer base. So Scott, these groups have definite consumer behaviors from how they prioritize convenience to how they consume media. How are the millennials and gen Zers changing the sports industry?

Scott: (07:02)

Great question. I think that the millennials and gen Zers are leaving a lasting imprint on the sports industry that is going to change it in permanent ways going forward. If we think about the media landscape and how gen Z and millennials consume media, they consume media in a very different way than gen X, gen Y did certainly. They are digital, they are digital natives now, they've never had a cable subscription in their lifetime and they are then leading to changes in the larger sports business ecosystem, which has been propped up for a very long time by sports media.

Scott: (07:44)

So if fans are watching in a different way and they're consuming sports in a different way from a live experience perspective as well, those are the two fundamental building blocks of the sports industry. So having to go to a sports bar for them to watch a game is something totally foreign, having a cable subscription is something that is increasingly becoming more and more unrelatable for them, having a season ticket, the best customers in the sports industry is something they can't relate to. I mean, I have to go and watch 81 baseball games when they tell me I want to watch that I have to sit in the same seat every time. So it really is leading to huge changes in the industry that the industry is slowly adapting to. Probably not as fast as it needs to be.

Jason: (08:33)

So what does this mean for future careers in sports? Are there new opportunities that are emerging? And if so, what are the trends that can shape education and how people can get prepared to do these new jobs?

Scott: (08:46)

So we want our students to have a really strong knowledge of the digital world. We want them to have a really strong knowledge of the data world. We want them to have a very strong knowledge of the global nature of sports. And these are the three big tent poles of our curriculum. We want them to, again, think about the global nature of sports, that the sports world, as Tom Friedman would probably refer to it, is flat. And we can watch games in our offices on a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon from Europe in real time, talking about Champions League. If you're in Europe, you can watch NFL games at home on prime time on Sunday night. So it really is one where we're seeing fandom, we're seeing consumers go from just being somewhat local in nature to being global in nature. So it really is the geographic boundaries have really changed on that front.

Jason: (09:46)

So now let's talk about who are getting these opportunities. I know that there is an uptick of women enrolling in the sports management program that you lead. Is that a trend you see in the broader industry?

Scott: (09:57)

I think it is. I think that the industry has long been a male dominated one, and that is starting to change. We are starting to see an influx of women in leadership positions who have been in the industry for their entire careers. We are also seeing women who are transitioned into the sports industry from other industries where they've had great success and then transitioning into the sports career that they've always wanted or they always thought about having at a very high level in real leadership positions.

Jason: (10:31)

So another topic that has come up with respect to women in the sports industry is women in the locker room. So in male dominated sports, or male only sports, and women are covering these contests and after the game the tradition is that the sideline reporter goes into the locker room to get the real time feedback from the players. And when women go into the locker room, sometimes it's okay, sometimes it brings on a little bit of consternation. What do you think about that and how it impacts women in a role like that?

Scott: (10:59)

I think that we are largely past the issue of female reporters in the locker room. I think the women who are going into these careers are so savvy, so knowledgeable about the industry, and the male athletes who they are largely covering are used to female reporters being in the locker room that you really don't see the tension that we saw when it wasn't a habit, when it wasn't something that they were used to earlier in their careers.

Scott: (11:28)

So did the women have to have a thick skin? Of course. Are the men probably a little bit more sensitive to the presence of women than they would have been a long time ago? Maybe, but it's no longer a pressing issue. It's something that you're used to all the time as a professional athlete. And even as a college athlete that there are going to be women in the locker room, and that's just the way that it is.

Jason: (11:51)

So we know that data and globalization have dramatically impacted the world of business overall, and you've talked a little bit about how it's impacted the sports industry, can you talk a little bit about how these variables have specifically affected sports data and globalization?

Scott: (12:05)

Sure. So when we think about data in particular, it used to be if you were a team and you were selling a ticket to someone, you had no idea who was actually in the building, who was actually using that ticket. It could have been their friend, it could have been their relative, it could have been a ticket scalper who sold them the ticket outside of the building. We had no idea. The industry has gotten significantly smarter and has taken advantage of the data explosion in really the last 10 years. So the industry in this front, the industry being the sports industry, has really been a laggard when it came to the use of data. We didn't know who our customers were. Imagine a hotel not knowing who was in their rooms or an airline not knowing who was in a specific seat on a plane, not knowing usage habits. Well, that's what the sports industry for a very long time, in fact until recent memory, was.

Scott: (13:03)

So we're starting to get a much better hold in the industry on usage rates, who's in the building? It's still not perfect. We're still around, depending on the team that you're talking about, 50 to 75% knowledge rate in terms of who is in the building, in terms of who is watching. We are becoming a lot more sophisticated on that front. So knowing who your customers actually are is something that the sports industry is finally getting its arms around and, again, in a laggard position compared to many other industries.

Jason: (13:34)

So let me interrupt you there for a second and talk about how data has been used by sports teams for performance. So we go to the movie Moneyball, and so you use a lot of data to try to figure out strike counts and tendencies for left-handed pitchers versus right-handed batters, all kinds of things like that. And then there's another school of thought that says as a coach or a general manager, your gut, your sense of understanding how well a team can do or what plays should be called is the best indicator of being able to win and be successful. What do you think about that, data or gut?

Scott: (14:07)

It's a combination of both data and gut. So you have to have a feel for the players. If you're a coach, if you're a general manager, you have to know your locker room, you have to know chemistry, you have to know leadership, and those are things that are very, very hard to quantify. From a skill and performance perspective, we're getting a lot better at it.

Scott: (14:26)

In baseball, it's been played out. You mentioned Moneyball, and Moneyball... Every team is doing Moneyball now. And they've got teams of people that are working on various dimensions of analytics, whether it's hitting or fielding or pitching or injury rates and a myriad of different other topics as well. In other sports, it's a little bit less sophisticated. Baseball is a bit easier because it's a bunch of discreet individuals who come together on a field so you can measure individual performance in a very straightforward way. As opposed to football and basketball and hockey, which is a lot more challenging to measure the dynamic nature of the sports themselves.

Scott: (15:04)

Now we're tracking our players now and there's radar GPS detection in most of the buildings now that track player movement and businesses that have grown around that, but the level of sophistication there is much better. The generation that is coming into sports now that was raised with analytics is certainly a lot smarter, a lot savvier and certainly far more knowledgeable on the data front than the generation before it. There's no question about it. And we're starting to see leadership positions in certain sports being filled by, what we think of as [quants 00:15:41] as opposed to the old school jocks that would fill those roles historically.

Jason: (15:47)

Okay. So Scott, so let's get back to the start of the podcast where I asked a question how the 76ers, the Philadelphia 76ers, became the second worst basketball team in NBA history. What's that all about?

Scott: (15:59)

So, the tanking issue. Tanking, as it is generally known, is largely a function of the reverse order draft system that the American professional sports leagues use to distribute incoming talent into the league. The Philadelphia 76ers were the first team to really go at this in an intentional fashion in the sport of basketball. The thought process was, from a management perspective, let's not really focus on building the best team together on the floor, let's have a longterm strategy, as they referred to it, a process that we will follow.

Scott: (16:33)

And that process has been very successful in turning a historically bad franchise into one of the elite teams of the NBA that winds up having a whole set of effects on the league itself. One, the strategy may not work. Just because it works once doesn't mean it's the right strategy. Two, it takes money out of the system. As we think about the overall landscape and ecosystem of professional sports, the team that's tanking, their fans don't want to watch, right? So demand goes down. And for the teams that they play when they go on the road, demand also goes down because the home team fans don't want to see a bad visiting team come and play them. The final thing that we see is from a television perspective, the ratings fall off the cliff when it comes to who's watching these really bad teams play.

Jason: (17:24)

So Scott, you mentioned the sports ecosystem. The business stakeholders in this sports ecosystem are all interconnected, so you have the players, the coaches, the management, the owners, the media, sponsors, and ultimately, the fans. When you talk about your sports management program here at Columbia University and the ever-evolving curriculum and staying up to date on pressing industry issues, what do you teach them or what are you teaching them right now about how one of those stakeholders messes up the whole system? So an owner gets caught in a scandal or a player is uncontained and unmanageable, what happens when something like that happens and the whole ecosystem gets disrupted? How are you addressing those issues in real time within your curriculum for your master's students here at Columbia?

Scott: (18:18)

So one of the great things about our curriculum in our Columbia sports management program is that it is the broadest and the deepest curriculum of any program in the world. We offer 30 plus classes, so we get down to real micro levels in the fundamental areas of the industry, whether it's digital media or traditional media, or PR and communications, or on-field performance analytics, business analytics, sports law, accounting and finance, you name it we pretty much have it. So from that perspective, we're addressing the issues that arise in the sports industry on a micro basis as it pertains to that segment of the industry. So our students come out understanding that if you've got a bad actor on your team that it could potentially have this impact on sponsorship sales. If you have a league wide scandal in your league, this is how it could affect media. If you fall into political crosshairs for whatever reason, that can have a cascading effect on any professional sports organization and how exactly that plays out. That's exactly what we're talking about in our classes.

Jason: (19:41)

That's great. So now let's focus a little bit on the future. What does the field of sports management look like, say, in 10 years or even 50 years?

Scott: (19:48)

Like anything else, we have our crystal balls, and sometimes those crystal balls are broken and sometimes they work, but what we see is continued focus on business analytics. So we will continue to evolve that part of our curriculum. We see increasingly global nature of the sports industry, we'll continue to focus on that part of the curriculum.

Scott: (20:12)

The great part about being at Columbia with the ability to tap into experts across the sports industry... Because almost everybody is here in New York city. It's the hub of the sports industry globally. So we have access to, and can be on the front line of, any changes that come across the industry.

Scott: (20:36)

What is the industry going to look like in 50 years? Hard to know, but we know that at the core of it will be athletes performing at an extremely high level, trying to tap into a very passionate fan base who is looking for entertainment. Our job is to educate the people who are not only responsible for putting those games on, but also for broadcasting them for ultimately, monetizing them in whatever way monetization will occur down the road.

Jason: (21:10)

So will we see robots on the field in the future?

Scott: (21:12)

Seems unlikely. There is a drone racing league that is out there, but seems unlikely that it'll be robots. I think we're still looking at athletes, but a very different kind of athlete perhaps in the future and better trained, a better use of analytics, but probably not watching the Jetsons and Rosie the robot right out there doing their thing.

Jason: (21:36)

I hope not. So what do you want your students to learn while they're here at Columbia? You talked a little bit about how the curriculum stays up to date and how you have an interdisciplinary curriculum, but how do you want your students to be able to differentiate themselves in the job market upon graduation?

Scott: (21:51)

So one of the things we really focus on in our program, first and foremost, Jason, is grit. We want our students to be able to fall down and get back up. And the notion of grit is something that we focus on from day one at our orientation program and trying to teach them ultimately, the leadership skills that they're going to need to have success for not just the program itself but for the duration of their career.

Scott: (22:15)

Then we get into specifics around soft skills. So one of the things that we've seen increasingly is the need to imbue our students with the soft skills that they need to have an effective and long lasting career. Third thing is the hard skills. And so the hard skills, whether it's specific knowledge around data, around digital media, around traditional media, around sponsorship sales metrics, whatever that might be, the hard skills in the classes they take with us in their relatively short period of time that they're with us are the ones that really provide them with the knowledge base that they have to hit the ground running in their careers and take them to high levels throughout.

Jason: (22:59)

So at the start of the interview, Scott, we talked about some impressive numbers. So here's another one, nearly 3.6 billion people, which is more than half the world's population, watched the 2018 men's World Cup Soccer. These kinds of numbers are telling us something, that sports has the visibility and the impact that other industries simply just don't. So we at Columbia School of Professional Studies, we talk a lot about creating impact and we talk about creating an impact in society. What impact will the graduates of the sports management program here at Columbia have on society?

Scott: (23:34)

We are building the future leaders of the sports industry here at Columbia, students who have the knowledge base, the skillset to lead the for the next generation. We're in a very fortunate position to be in a leadership position within sports management education landscape. It also puts a major responsibility on us as faculty and our staff to make sure that we are always making sure that we are on the forefront of the latest developments in the industry, whether they be topical or larger trends that we see in the industry to really help make sure that our program's always on the leading edge of what we see throughout the sports management ecosystem.

Jason: (24:22)

So can you provide an example of an alum of the program who has actually made that transition to impacting society in the way that you described?

Scott: (24:30)

We have alums who are working at the biggest teams and for the biggest sports organizations in the world and climbing the ladder to get to the highest positions of leadership from a CFO of an NFL team, to senior vice president in the NBA, to leadership positions with leading global soccer teams. So our students are hitting the ground running and they're not looking back.

Jason: (24:56)

When you talked at the beginning of the podcast about how millennials and generation Z, in particular digital natives, they don't watch cable TV. Do you watch TV as a non millennial generation Zer? And if so, what do you watch?

Scott: (25:09)

I primarily watch sports on television, preparing for work.

Jason: (25:14)

Oh sure.

Scott: (25:14)

It's all homework, Jason. So when you watch a game, I'm getting ready for class.

Jason: (25:19)

You're getting ready for class, all right. I got it, you're always on the clock.

Scott: (25:22)

So in terms of television shows themselves, just a couple really. I mean, we're big Homeland fans and a big fan of the Jack Ryan series on Amazon, so looking forward to series two of that coming out. A little bit of This is Us, but bring the Kleenex.

Jason: (25:40)

Are you a sensitive guy, Scott?

Scott: (25:43)

The tears. It gets a little dusty in the Rosner household.

Jason: (25:46)

I understand.

Scott: (25:48)

Yeah, it's strange how that happens. It's always the same time every week. But other than that, really it's unbelievable how little television, scripted TV, we actually watch and how much of it is unscripted drama and almost all sports.

Jason: (26:02)

Absolutely. Well, that'll be another discussion for another time. Scott, thanks for joining me. We learned a lot today. You provided some keen insights on the sports industry and society at large on this episode of the Learn for Life podcast.

Jason: (26:15)

A few key takeaways that you shared with us. Number one, due to the fandom experience and the cool factor, the sports industry is an extremely competitive one for perspective employees, so education really matters, the faculty, the curriculum, and of course, the location. Number two, the sports industry is undergoing dramatic change due to the explosion of data and the global nature of sports. And number three, as a result, the required toolkit to get a job in the sports is much more sophisticated now, but if you possess the required skills, you are eminently more employable.

Jason: (26:50)

Thank you again, Scott, for joining us on this edition of the Learn for Life podcast.

Scott: (26:55)

Thank you, Jason. It was a real pleasure.