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Chris Granger, the National Basketball Association’s senior vice president, team marketing and business operations, was one of the keynote speakers Feb. 20 at the inaugural Kellogg Sports Business Conference.

Raymond Bednar

Team players

Speakers at Kellogg’s inaugural Sports Business Conference discuss the need for more MBAs in the field

By Sara Langen

2/26/2010 - The stadium is packed. Fans are on their feet. The roar of the crowd is deafening as the home team clinches in the final seconds of the game.

 
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MBA Careers in Sports
   
In that moment, there’s an energy that Raymond Bednar, senior vice president at Bank of America and global sponsorship marketing executive, knows no amount of advertising can manufacture.

“It’s the connection to the passion the fan has for that particular sport or player or team,” Bednar said during a panel discussion on sports sponsorships at the 2010 Kellogg Sports Business Conference. “The avidity of a fan base is really critical to us.”

More than 185 students, alumni and sports industry professionals turned out for the inaugural conference Feb. 20 at the Kellogg School. The theme for this year’s gathering was “Blazing New Trails: The Growing Need for MBAs in Sports.”

When it comes to sports sponsorships, a mutually beneficial relationship is established between the two partnering institutions, Bednar said. After all, companies don’t sponsor teams and players simply because they’re fans.

“We’re a bank, so it’s critical for us to make money,” he said. “When we sponsor a team or a sport, we also do the business banking for the teams.”

Sometimes that relationship can be tested when a team or player ends up getting negative publicity, the panelists noted, citing the Tiger Woods scandal.

“There is risk and reward to associating yourself with any third party,” said Jim Andrews, senior vice president and editorial director with IEG Sponsorship Consulting. “You can’t manufacture the following that an athlete has, so you have to associate yourself with it. Occasionally, they mess up. There are legal things you can do to try to protect yourself. It is a gamble, but I’d say most sponsors think it’s worth it.”

For college sports, the sponsorships and fans are focused more on the team or the school, making things a bit easier for panelist Lawton Logan, senior vice president at Collegiate Properties Host Communications, IMG College.

“We avoid some of the pitfalls of having to deal with individual athletes,” he explains. “Our adage is, if your driver’s license says Michigan, you’re probably a Michigan fan.”

Sponsorship is changing across the board, though, with many corporations scaling back during the current economic downturn, Cleveland Indians Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Vic Gregovits told moderator Ben Shields, ESPN associate director of brand and fan strategy. Companies no longer want hospitality suites and other perks that often come with sponsorship deals because they’re worried about the public perception of partying during a crisis, Gregovits said.

Another change is the move toward more analysis of ticket trends and fan behaviors enabled by the extensive amount of data available for collection on consumer habits today. The panelists echoed the conference theme that more professionals with marketing and business acumen are needed in sports to help translate this data into strategies.

“Where you’re sitting is good because sales and analytics are growing in our world,” Gregovits said to the MBA students in the audience. “You’ve got to be smarter.”

Kevin Plank, chairman and CEO of Under Armour, and Chris Granger, a senior vice president at the National Basketball Association, also gave keynote addresses on their experiences in the field. Other panel discussions included Entrepreneurship and Sports, the Global World of Sports and MBA Careers in Sports.