Teaching the business of sports
Professor John Drea ’80 pulls a chair up in front of his students in Del ’72 and Lisa Dunham Auditorium and sits down.
It’s the first day of the senior capstone class Drea teaches and he introduces the students to the format the class will take with a discussion of the concept of leadership — the topic of a book they will be reading. Over the course of the semester, the students will work on group research projects, analyzing data and gaining real-world skills under the guidance of the business administration professor and IC alumnus.
Many of the students in these classes work on projects for real clients, several of which are major-league sports organizations. Drea’s own interest in sports led him to spend the last decade and a half cultivating relationships with teams like the Milwaukee Brewers, the Indiana Pacers, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers. This year, a group of students will be working with an NFL team for the first time: the Chicago Bears. The new partnership formed after one of Drea’s contacts from the Brewers joined the Bears organization.
"I wish I could say that there was some great in — that I was former drinking buddies with Mike Singletary or something like that," Drea said with a laugh.
Students will analyze information from the Bears organization’s game-day experience surveys to learn more about how attendees from different groups answered the survey questions. Comparing responses after breaking the data down to the level of demographic group, season ticket holder status or even where the respondent's seat is located in the stadium can give the organization a lot of new information to help them understand their fans, Drea said.
“There are a lot of things that we can kind of dive in on this,” he said. “And this kind of stuff is just right up my alley because I love going through data and trying to find something that nobody else has found. It kind of appeals to the Indiana Jones, I think, that is in every college professor. It's just that what I do isn't nearly as cool."
"This kind of stuff is just right up my alley because I love going through data and trying to find something that nobody else has found. It kind of appeals to the Indiana Jones, I think, that is in every college professor."
The Indiana Jones of sports data
Drea graduated from IC in 1980 with a double major in English and business. He went on to get his MBA from the University of Notre Dame and a doctorate in marketing from Southern Illinois University. Before returning to IC in 2014, he taught for nearly three decades in public higher education, spending most of that time at Western Illinois University, where he retired as associate dean for the College of Business and Technology and was granted the title of professor emeritus.
At IC, Drea was instrumental in reorganizing the College’s business administration program — formerly called management and organizational leadership — and transforming the sports and recreation concentration into a sports management concentration. During the same time, Drea chaired a subcommittee of the College’s Sustainable Foundations Task Force on new and revised programs, which accelerated changes to the sports management concentration to give the curriculum more focus and to better prepare students for careers in the industry. As part of that transformation, Drea also introduced the student projects working with professional sports teams. The program has continued to grow in popularity and this spring 20 students will graduate with degrees in business administration with a concentration in sports management, Drea said.
The first project Drea did analyzing sports business data was during his doctoral program. He gathered minor league baseball attendance data, created a predictive model and published a paper, he said, adding, “That's kind of how it all got started." In 2004, while teaching at Western, he found himself getting tired of the same old projects and had the idea to seek out clients that would be more interesting for both him and his students.
“So, I started sending out emails and making phone calls,” he said, “to teams like the Chicago White Sox, to the Milwaukee Brewers, to the Pittsburgh Pirates, to the Kansas City Royals, just to see: Did anybody have any interest?” He had almost given up when he heard back from someone in the Brewers organization. It took time to develop trust with contacts in the organization, but eventually one of Drea’s classes did a project for the team and his classes now do projects with the Brewers regularly.
Since that first Brewers project, Drea has carefully developed working relationships with multiple major league teams. It’s a small community, he said, so successful projects can build credibility and new partnerships. But Drea warns his students of the stakes: If success gives the student projects credibility, then failure can destroy it.
"The client is depending on the information and I'm depending on it because we are always just one bad project away from losing a client."
"The client is depending on the information and I'm depending on it because we are always just one bad project away from losing a client," he said.
Jessica Frausto ’18, who graduated with a business administration major with a concentration in marketing, now works as a customer service representative with Chicago-based Wheatland Tube. Her second project with Drea was the first time one of his classes had partnered with the Cardinals. There was a lot of pressure to make a good first impression and the idea made her nervous. She told Drea she wanted to do an alternative project.
"And he stared at me. He said, 'No, Jess, you have what it takes. You can do this project. You just need to believe in yourself,'" she remembered.
‘Welcome to the rest of your life.’
Dozens of Drea’s students have now worked on these projects, which he has tailored to give business students the life-changing, hands-on experience that is a hallmark of an Illinois College education. One of the biggest skills he hopes students walk away from projects with is the ability to sort through information, determine what is relevant and use it to solve the problem. They also learn how to adjust course when an unexpected roadblock surfaces. Despite being stressful for them at first, the experience, which involves presenting their findings to real executives and business people, has given some students a confidence boost Drea had not planned for.
"They're so used to presenting to faculty that when they present to people who are non-faculty, who have no problem telling them if their work isn't very good, it’s a shock,” he said. “And that's one of the things most of them have to get ready for."
Some students think professors can be harsh, Drea said, but it is nothing like the real world — and if you are not prepared, people will call you on it. He recalled one student who began her presentation with unnecessary information and was abruptly cut off by an executive who told her to move on, leaving her shaking. When she talked to him afterwards, he said, “Welcome to the rest of your life.”
Max Stutsman ’18 said Drea is upfront with students about the workload involved and holds them to a high standard, while also making himself available to answer questions and assist them in any way he can as they prepare their research and presentations. Stutsman studied business administration, with a minor in finance, and now works as a commercial banking analyst at Busey Bank in Champaign. For graduating seniors preparing to join the workforce, he said “a ton of experience” is gained from doing a project with Drea.
Frausto said the MLB projects taught her how to be a team member and how to manage her time, in addition to helping her improve her public speaking skills. She said Drea is a serious person when you first meet him — it takes time to get to know “his goofy personality” — but that “he cares about your personal development and he really cares that you are doing the best you can." He also gives very blunt feedback, which she wasn’t ready for at first.
"In the end, I'm so happy about how forward he is with the way he critiques us, because I take that with me every day now — in the workplace,” she said. “I try to be as serious as possible and I try to critique myself a little harder. That way I'm giving the best performance."
"In the end, I'm so happy about how forward he is with the way he critiques us, because I take that with me every day now — in the workplace.”
In addition to the skills students develop, Drea said the projects give them "a talking point on a resume.”
“Most of them end up listing that they spent a semester working with the St. Louis Cardinals on this or they spent a semester working for the Indiana Pacers on that,” he said. “And, if nothing else it becomes something to talk about with a prospective employer, even if the job has nothing to do with sports."
That was true for Lauren Mense ’17, who is now the assistant ticket manager for University of Illinois Athletics. Mense worked on two MLB projects while earning her bachelor’s degree in management and organizational leadership — now the business administration major — with concentrations in marketing, management and sports management. Those projects resulted in papers that were published in Proceedings of the Society for Marketing Advances and Journal of Applied Sport Management.
“As someone who was looking to work in the sports industry, these projects were the perfect opportunity to gain real-world, hands-on experience,” Mense said. “Having presented research to the Brewers front office made me feel more prepared and confident when it came to interviewing for full-time positions post-undergrad. It also helped enhance my problem solving skills, creative thinking, time management and ability to work with a group to accomplish a task.”
To learn more about the sports management program at Illinois College, visit www.ic.edu/business-administration/sports-management.