The University of South Florida began offering its Vinik Sport and Entertainment Management Program MBA in 2012, the year the these rankings were first published. After making its debut on the list at number 19 last year, it has risen rapidly up the rankings, finding itself in fourth place in 2018, behind only the heavyweights of George Washington, UMass, and perennial winner Ohio.
This remarkable rise has been supported by strong showings in the value and usefulness criteria – new categories in this year’s list – and top-ten finishes in both the graduate and course leaders’ choice, suggesting that the course’s graduates have been sufficiently impressed, as have the faculties of rival schools.
William Sutton, the founding director of the programme at USF, believes there is another, more tangible factor in the college’s early success. “I think we embraced our location,” Sutton explains to SportBusiness International. “We realised that in Tampa we have the ability to do things that you can’t do in other markets. We wanted to make sure that we integrated all those things into our programmes.”
Sutton reels off a list of the sporting events that have been held in the city since the inception of the MBA – “the NCAA Women’s Final Four, the Men’s Frozen Four, the college football championship” – and says that he and his faculty “want to incorporate all those things into opportunities for our students. So we really invest a great deal of time and effort into experiential learning. We want to make sure that our students are able to learn the theory, see it in practice, and apply it themselves.”
The programme was initiated by the Vinik family, owners of the nearby Tampa Bay Lightning of the National Hockey League. Sutton explains that the Viniks’ thought process was that “they would like to have MBA students learning the most advanced areas of the business and bringing that knowledge to the Lightning, and then being at the Lightning and seeing the issues that the team faced and being able to work on those problems”. In 2017, Jeff Vinik stepped up his commitment to the course, giving his name to the programme and rechristening it as the Vinik Sport and Entertainment Management Program.
“Over the six years of the programme we’ve done, 98 per cent of our grads have got jobs in the sports industry within three months of graduation.”
The development of the programme has followed that foundation, operating in the belief that experience is the best form of learning, with all students simultaneously working on placement and studying throughout the second year of the course. Due to the nature of the partnership with the Lightning, everyone enrolled on the programme gets an internship, a stipend, a tuition-fee waiver and medical insurance for the duration of their final year – another factor which makes the MBA one of the most sought-after in the country. “It’s not a few people benefiting, it’s everyone benefiting,” says Sutton. “In the first year, everybody pays, in the second year, they’re working and the programme develops this way.”
The sport industry component is introduced during the second semester of the first year, with most of the first year following a standard MBA programme because, Sutton explains, “we want our students to have the same business foundation that every MBA student would have, so they’re integrated with other MBA students. We really start integrating sports in the second year, when the internships and residencies begin”.
The opportunities presented by the internship placements are diverse, says Sutton, reflecting the college’s desire to offer a comprehensive business education of the sports industry and not focus too closely on any one area. “No matter what you’re interested in we have an opportunity for you,” he says. “There are ten places at the Lightning, there’s [MLB team] the Rays, the [NFL’s] Tampa Bay Buccaneers, there’s the Sports Commission, there’s University of Central Florida Athletics, there’s the Hard Rock Casino. The residencies are in sales, sponsorship activation, event management, customer analytics, marketing. It’s very diverse. And we try and do that. I don’t want to have 20 kids here looking for the same job. We make sure we have a diverse student body looking at different things.”
Another major point of differentiation, Sutton says, is the international trip to experience a different sports industry and culture. In 2017 the class went to London, an excursion set to be repeated in the coming years. Sutton identified the lack of understanding of the global sports market as a “key weakness” of the programme, so took the decision to take each class on an international trip each fall.
The inaugural journey to London saw students visit the UK offices of global sports and entertainment marketing company Octagon, receive a presentation from IBM as part of the computing giant’s partnership with Wimbledon, and partake in an academic conference at the University of Worcester. More than anything else though, Sutton says, the hope is to introduce students to “the passion and history of the English Premier League”. In 2017, he took the class to visit Crystal Palace; in 2018, they will spend time at Premier League champions Manchester City.
“I think understanding the way football works in the UK and Europe is crucial to understanding how the sport industry is different over there,” says Sutton. “It’s in the generational support of the EPL. It was your great-grandfather’s team, your grandfather’s team, you father’s team… I think that relationship is less commercial than the US in that you have an obligation to these generations of fans”.
Unlike the US, where fans are almost resigned to being at the mercy of franchise owners, changes to pricing or anything else in the UK “have to be well thought-out and well presented to the people, and you have to honour this trust,” Sutton adds. “I also want them to see that US sports are very over-commercialised. They take longer to play and they don’t have any flow. Whereas if you go to a game in Europe the sport has flow, because it’s not over-commercialised. So when you look at the numbers that they pay for the kit, that number’s as high as it because there’s not all these other things going on that sponsors have an opportunity to be associated with. These are the things I need my students to understand.”
There is also a domestic trip to Los Angeles, which involves a visit to esports giant Riot Games – something else which helps the course stand apart from rivals. “The programme is sports and entertainment, and I think we need to keep that in mind at all times,” says Sutton. “I need my students to know and understand how esports is growing and how that’s coming along, because it’s crucial to understanding the modern sports market.”
This global commercial education is certainly a factor in alumni’s high rating of the course, Sutton believes, and is also a contributing factor to what he calls the programme’s “biggest differentiation point”, post-graduation placement.
“Over the six years of the programme we’ve done, 98 per cent of our grads have got jobs in the sports industry within three months of graduation,” says Sutton. “That sets us apart, I don’t think anyone can touch that.” Indeed, over the six-month employment measurement used in the SportBusiness Postgraduate Rankings, only five schools rank higher than USF.
“We have all these opportunities, and so our students have a variety of options to pick from and by the time they leave here they have two years’ work experience,” says Sutton. “We have students going to work at the Dallas Cowboys, the Miami Heat, the Miami Dolphins, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Cavaliers, Lead Dog, Bespoke, a variety of things all over the country.
“It’s exciting and it’s fun for us to see the students succeed and then it’s a motivational thing for the first-year students to see what’s happened to their colleagues a year ahead of them. It helps motivate them and keep them excited about what’s going to go on.”
This article features in the 2018 SportBusiness Postgraduate Course Rankings report. Browse the sections of the report or download the full PDF version here.