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Seattle University Tackles Diversity and Inclusion in Professional Sports

Innovation is a hot topic among today’s business schools.  But meeting the standard of genuine innovation is tough.  Merely “new or different” doesn’t necessarily qualify.  Eduvantis is digging deep to find programs meeting this elusive standard, analyzing and sharing standout examples of authentic program innovation, through a “lessons learned” and best practices lens.  If you have a program you feel should be featured, please let us know at [email protected].

 

New MBA in Sports and Entertainment Management – Albers School of Business and Economics, Seattle University

 

Differentiated Positioning:

An MBA program designed to impact diversity and inclusion in the sports business – an historic problem that is often rationalized as due to “a lack of good candidates.”  Program partners include a spectrum of professional sports teams in Seattle – the Seattle Kraken, Seattle Mariners, Seattle Seahawks, Seattle Sounders and Seattle Storm, plus Oak View Group and Climate Pledge Arena.

Program Details:

A 24-month program beginning this summer, delivered on campus.  Features 7 MBA courses, 11 sport-specific courses, and 2 electives.  Tuition is $45K total over the two years of the program. All second-year students will receive a fellowship involving immersion in a Seattle sport organization, working 20 hours per week, that includes a $15,000 stipend.

A commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is one of the hallmarks of the MBA SEM, making it the first program of its kind to build on DEI as a core philosophy.   The curriculum will focus on:

  • Venue management and operation.
  • Venue sustainability for sports organizations and music/entertainment tours.
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion and anti-racism in sports, entertainment in sports and venue management.

“We’ve designed a sports MBA with an authentic experiential immersion curriculum, where students benefit from real-world projects, and close contact with various levels of organizational leadership,” according to a Seattle University media release.  “We will equip our students with the leadership skills and business acumen sought by employers and prepare them for the workplace by creating a highly diverse and inclusive community.”

Lesson Learned 1: Start by identifying a meaningful problem to solve with your program.

 

Why haven’t professional sports teams hired – and retained – more women and people of color for management positions?

In truth, answering this question and designing a program to address it, was not where things began.  Seattle University had an MA in Sports Business Leadership for more than a decade, through the College of Arts and Sciences.  Like many “sports-business” programs, the emphasis was on how the industry works and the development of relevant skills, rather than authentically confronting questions such as “What will transform the industry?” and “How do we help in that transformation?”

Maylon Hanold, director of the new program, is a former Olympic kayaker in the 1992 Summer Games, and also a competitive extreme kayaker.  She began hearing sports teams mention the need to become more inclusive with their staff.  According to an interview recently conducted with the Seattle Times, she said a probable “tipping point” for teams happened last summer, when the police killing of George Floyd set off nationwide protests, including highly visible calls from professional athletes to end systemic racism.

What caught Hanold’s ear was that the conversation wasn’t so much about “diversity” as it was about “inclusion.”  That was among several “ah ha” moments that opened a new pathway to program innovation.

There is a 20 year history of organizations thinking about diversity, focused on how we conduct our recruiting and hiring – efforts to “bring in” a diverse workforce.  But there has been much less focus on what happens once individuals are inside the organization, what their experience is like, said Hanold.

“We’ve learned through our HR studies that when people don’t feel included in an organization, they leave.  The big insight that ultimately drove our program design is that we must figure out how to incorporate the values and behaviors of inclusion first and then diversity will follow,” Hanold said.  “I think most organizations have been doing the opposite.”

Seattle U’s MBA in Sports and Entertainment Management will attempt to address an historic lack of women and people of color in management positions.  Among other things, it will actively pursue  a diverse pool of candidates from underrepresented communities.  It will also offer scholarships to make access to the program as inclusive as possible.

The kicker is a feature of the program’s second year, when all students in the program will receive paid ($15,000), nine month fellowships working directly for the participating sports teams and organizations.

Lesson Learned 2: Let your most important stakeholders build the program.

 

More than a few academic programs have been built intending to “listen to stakeholders.”  But as a firm often called upon to help with program innovation, Eduvantis knows it is one thing to “survey stakeholders,” it’s another for the institution to first ask the right questions, to the right people, and to then really listen to them and then act on what they learn.

“We looked first at other top sports management programs – believing that if we aspired to be among the top, naturally we had to reflect these programs,” said Hanold.  We then very logically sought to establish a process to build just such a top program.”

Knowing, of course, with objective observation and market data, how a top program in any category works, and what the levers of competition are – price, delivery model, nature of demand, types of competition and other factors – in any institution’s particular marketplace, is critical to program design and the ability to gain market share, profitably.  But that is the starting point.

The program then gathered representatives from the constellation of professional sports teams and organizations in Seattle, knowing there needs to be a strong connection with industry for sports management programs to work.  Based on a series of conversations about what these stakeholders really wanted and needed, Albers developed what it believed was an appropriate survey to engage both professional sports business leaders and alumni working in the field.

Then the real learning began.

“By engaging in this process authentically and with an open mind, we learned to get out of our own heads and have the humility to listen deeply to the leaders of the professional sports industry right in our back yard,” said Joseph Phillips, dean of the Albers School of Business and Economics.  “If we were to do something different, truly innovative and successful, we needed to gain their authentic commitment to what we were together seeking to accomplish.  We had to build our program not only to simply offer great courses in sports management, but to address the deeper needs of organizations in a way that also leveraged unique aspects of our institution.”

Lesson Learned 3: Iterate, let things emerge.

 

This may sound like torture, but for Albers it was worth the pain.

The Albers School has built its program to address the inclusiveness barrier in professional sports organizations, rather than focusing only on, say, how organizations work, the specific skills required or industry trends.  It built a program committed to addressing why professional sports organizations have historically struggled with diversity in their ranks, believing the program can change the industry fundamentally.

It took a while to hear this deeper need emerge in conversations with its stakeholders.

“We learned that listening is a process,” said Hanold.  “It is never a 2 or 3 month thing to define the path to innovation, when you are really trying to do something different and important in the realm of academic programming.”  Hanold emphasizes that they heard “many opinions, many ideas and many priorities” over the course of more than a year.

She added “The vision for our program wasn’t predetermined.  Our goal was to find a new, uniquely valuable way to serve students, serve our corporate partners and serve our institution’s mission.  You have to let things emerge—and sometimes there is tension among partners when you take on an important and challenging subject.  It’s not just about deciding on a series of classes to offer or a new curriculum.”

Over time, Phillips said the institution brought its stakeholders 7 different iterations of 3 different academic models for the program.  In May of last year the design team went back to its industry stakeholders for another round of discussions.  “That’s when the diversity and inclusion piece re-emerged as somewhat of an ah-ha moment – that this was the Seattle University thing that really set the program apart, was really the innovation,” he said.

Lesson Learned 4: Be transparent about challenges.

 

The bottom line, innovation requires authenticity and sometimes tension.

“Albers and its partners are in great alignment in terms of our desire to create opportunities for students who have been underrepresented in the sports industry and to give enrollees exceptional experiences.  But a complex group of stakeholders who are deeply invested in the program – who actually have a lot at stake – will no doubt have different perspectives and priorities from time-to-time,” said Hanold.  “Like before, we will win by listening, deeply to our partners as we continue to grow and develop the program over time.  Honest, open dialogue is what has made this program possible.  It’s well worth the effort.”

 

ABOUT TIM WESTERBECK

Tim Westerbeck is president of Eduvantis, the leading data-driven strategic consulting firm serving the global business school market. The firm has worked with more than 80 business schools to develop enrollment growth strategies, capture new markets, identify new revenue streams, and design more effective product, digital marketing and recruitment models to enhance competitive standing.