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Cracking the Code: An Interview with a Sport Business Professor

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From left, United States Sports Academy doctoral degree alumnus Dr. Alan Ledford; doctoral student James Mattern; doctoral alumnus and non-resident faculty member Dr. Dexter Davis; and doctoral student Josh Greer visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame exhibit at the NFL Experience during Super Bowl LI week in Houston, Texas in 2017,

By Dr. Dexter Davis and Dr. Lajuan Davis  |

Approximately 55 years ago, when Walter O’Malley of the Brooklyn Dodgers,  approached James Mason of The University of Miami to discuss the concept of a sport management curriculum, the two worlds of sport and business began to collide and today remain symbiotically intertwined (Masteralexis, Barr, & Hums, 2012).  Additionally, industry leaders  have long recognized and continue to support the importance of new-hire employees having participated in internships to enhance their educational experiences and provide valuable skills and assets to the companies that hire them.  Authors Schultz and Nichols (2020) avidly recommend, “If you want to assure a successful experience for both employer and intern, you have to create one” (p. 22).

          One sport business professor in west Tennessee takes the subject of internships, and the opportunities they provide to students, very seriously and has moved his students to a whole, new level of experience:  Short-term, high-impact experiences, working with the NFL (National Football League) at its championship event, the Super Bowl.  In this article, readers will meet the professor as he responds to interview questions about the how-to’s of arranging of  these student experiences with the NFL and how he developed a gateway to the most powerful sport brand in the U. S.

Interview Results

            The following 14 questions were formulated after reviewing several questionnaires concerning internships.  The questions were given to the interviewee who then answered the questions in his own workspace without the interviewer present.  The results of the questions are as follows and no changes have been made to the material without the knowledge or consent of the interviewee.

Questions and Answers for the Sport Business Professor

  1.  First, who are you and what are your educational credentials?  

Answer:  My name is Dr. Dexter Davis and I am an Associate Professor of Sport Business at The University of Tennessee at Martin.  I hold a B. S. in Physical Education from Houghton College (alma mater of Mrs. Kim Pegula, co-owner of the Buffalo Bills), an M. S. from Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, and an Ed. D. from the United States Sports Academy (the only “stand alone” sport specific university in the U. S.), located in Daphne, Alabama.

  •  How did you get and develop the idea of securing short-term internships with the NFL for students?  

Answer:  I have been a long-time advocate of experiential education; my early professional career was as a college soccer coach, and coaching is all “experiential learning.” It was only natural that such an approach would follow me into the academic arena of the college experience.  Ultimately, I saw [having] a strong experiential-learning program as a competitive advantage for a new sport management program and worked hard to make opportunities available to students.

  • Did you have any special contacts in the league that gave you an advantage toward getting your students involved? 

Answer:  As I previously mentioned, I wanted to develop experiential opportunities for my students.  One such opportunity was [available] at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida.  I was able to get students involved in assisting at Spring Training, with the St. Louis Cardinals and Florida (now Miami) Marlins and through that experience met an employee of the Miami Dolphins.  Long story short, she invited me to bring students to work at the Super Bowl in Miami.  The program has just grown from that starting point.

  • How did you meet/collect those contacts?  

Answer:  I believe that one’s network is vital for continued success with any aspect of your professional life.  Therefore, I talk to people any chance I get and work to “collect” contacts for my network.  My list of contacts has become quite extensive, but one of the keys to developing a network is to have a good reputation in your respective fields.  When people know and understand that you are reliable, helpful, and provide quality students or assistance to an organization, word-of-mouth spreads quickly, and decision makers are not hesitant to call you when opportunities arise for students to contribute to a project.

  •  What are the how-to’s of setting up these internships?  

Answer:  First, and most importantly, is the development of personal relationships with the decision makers or at least the gatekeepers for these events.  The sport industry is really a small, tightknit community, and these individuals talk to each other on a regular basis so that developing relationships is vital for success.  Second, and almost as important, is making sure you select the right group of students to be involved.  Honestly, the success of this program has very little to do with me, and everything to do with the outstanding kids I am honored to have join me on these experiences.  Finally, another important element is to stay on top of the registration process for   opportunities and complete the required “paperwork” in a timely and professional manner.

  • What processes do the students traverse to be chosen for the internships?  

Answer:  I can only speak for my process:

1)  A general announcement for an informational meeting goes out to students shortly after the Super Bowl is completed.  At that time, I give an overview of the process, the experience, and my expectations for the students.

 2)  After the informational meeting, students are given a deadline to submit a cover letter and résumé. The cover letter has to address the following items:  (a) previous experiences that are relevant to this opportunity; (b) specific learning outcomes that the individual student is looking for from the experiences; and (c) how this experience (and those learning outcomes) will help students achieve their immediate- and long-term career goals.

3)  I use a rubric to “rank” these applications numerically.  The rubric contains items like students’ majors (of course sport management students get more points than an accounting student), GPA (I just plug that number into the spreadsheet), academic standing (seniors get a 4, freshmen get a 1), and some very subjective items as well such as quality of students’ cover letters and résumés and how well their goals align with my goals.

4) A formal interview is held in which students express their reasoning for being selected into the program.  Again, this part of the process is very subjective, but over the years, I have gotten pretty good at “weeding out” those students with the wrong motives.

5) Students are ranked again and the top 10 – 14 students are selected.  Once this selection process is underway, the top performers are clearly identifiable.

6) Selected students are informed and given the link to the registration material and given a deadline, usually 14 days, to complete this part of the process.

  • Where do students secure the funds to pay for their travel, etc?  

Answer:  Again, I can only speak for my institution.  The College of Business and Global Affairs here at UT Martin has this incredible fund call the “Experiential Learning Fund” as part of the College budget.  This program has a “standing” request and typically the fund pays for hotel and ground transportation costs and $150/student toward meals.  The students are asked to “buy-in” to the event by covering their transportation costs to the site of the event.   The University’s student government also has funding available that students can apply for as a scholarship, if needed.

  • What specific learning outcomes are expected for students?  

Answer:  My focus really is on soft skill development because the technical skills are very specific to the situation. Customer service is an important part of the experience, so the students and I complete some training on customer service both before we leave for the Super Bowl and with the staff of the event.  Teamwork and interpersonal communication are important as well, so again, a focus is placed on these skills both prior to the event and while onsite. Perhaps the most important skills students need and work on developing are problem solving and critical thinking.  I could tell you a story from each event the students and I have attended in which students have had to problem solve and think through a “situation.”  The importance of students’ having and using these skills cannot be stressed enough.  I also have expectations that students will work on developing their own networks.  I really push them to interact with the event organizers and even go as far as rewarding those who collect the most business cards.  But the networking does not stop there:   I require that students send personalized thank-you notes to the people with whom they work after the event.  I really believe that the students and I need to show how grateful we are for the opportunity to be involved in each event.

  • How are students graded for the experience?  

Answer:  No grades are given.

  1. Do students get course credit for the internships?  

Answer:  The students do not get course credit currently, but the College administrators and I are exploring that possibility.

  1. What are the positives students (and the University) reap from these experiential experiences?  

Answer:  This answer could become a short novel:   Countless positives, many of which are covered in the learning outcomes section, are incurred from students’ participation in the Super Bowl each year.  I have seen self-confidence soar for the students involved in these experiences.  Imagine the value of the NFL brand on your résumé . . .  another impressive positive.  The University gets a ton of PR out of the Super Bowl experience.   The students and I do a lot of local media the month or so leading up to the event.  I always try to get students involved in the media process as well, they really are the focus of these experiences.

  1. What are the negatives?  

Answer:  How do I say this nicely . . . some professional jealousy has been noted due to the notoriety associated with working with a world-class sport event.  I have colleagues who seem to get “offended” by my relationship with the Super Bowl and other events in which my students participate.  Additionally, you always have that one kid that gets on everyone’s nerves, so you will have to deal with the personalities and conflicts while traveling and at events.  The reality is that the positives for everyone far outweigh the negatives.

  1. What advice would you give an educator who is interested in setting up similar internships?  

Answer:  First, start slow and start small.   As I answer this question, I remember a faculty member who was “upset” because his students did not get premium positions their first year of attending the Super Bowl.  A hierarchy, whether right or wrong, has been established so that students must work their way up the ladder . . . much like they do in a business setting.   Second, understand that this opportunity  is about the students, an your job is to make sure that your students have the best experience possible . . . while adding in other things such as cultural activities (in Miami I took my students to Little Havana so they could have that experience), tours of other facilities, etc.  Use your network to expose your students to other opportunities.

  1. What resources would you recommend educators use to assist them?  

The biggest asset you have is your network.  Reach out to those who have experience in developing and implementing experiential education opportunities, there is a significant group of faculty that have worked very hard to develop these opportunities and each is willing share their insights.  The National Society for Experiential Education (NSEE) has a variety of resources available to assist in developing meaningful opportunities.  Perhaps the best source of information is the Local Organizing Committee (LOC); this committee can provide insight as to what it is looking for and what its needs are going to be for each event.  Each LOC is different, and each has its own “way” of dealing with volunteers, so be flexible and adjust your expectations to their needs.

Conclusion

Davis concludes his interview by stressing the importance of internships in today’s educational landscape. 

Research is being released daily that speaks to the learner revolution and the increased need for a workforce with more specific skill sets in this country.  Giving students the opportunity to serve in an internship assures businesses that they can hire students with unique skill sets that will be beneficial to the business from day one.

Students need, want, and deserve to have the opportunities to reap the optimal benefits a higher-education degree has to offer, and frequently that means leaving the confines of campus and “getting your hands dirty” by creating authentic experiences.   

References

Masteralexis, L. P., Barr, C.A., & Hums, M. A. (2012).  Principles and practice of sport

management (4th ed). Jones and Bartlett Learning.

Schultz, D., & Nichols, T. (2020). Creating internships with value:  How both sides can reap the benefits.  Sports Destination Management. July/August 2020, pp. 22 – 25.

Dr. Dexter Davis is an Associate Professor of Sport Business at The University of Tennessee at Martin, where he has served for seven years. A graduate of the United States Sports Academy’s Doctor of Education in Sport Management program, Dr. Davis is a member of the institution’s national faculty. He holds an Experiential Educator Certificate from the National Society of Experiential Education and is a certified trainer for the Techniques for Effective Alcohol Management Coalition. Dr. Davis previously taught at Niagara University and Alfred State College, both in upstate NY. A former soccer coach, Dr. Davis served as the Northeast Regional Chair of the NJCAA All-American Selection Committee for the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. A former volunteer emergency medical technician, Davis also makes presentations on sports marketing, leadership, and most extensively, in the area of experiential education and its impact on student learning outcomes.

Dr. Lajuan Davis is an Associate Professor of Business Communication Information Systems in the College of Business and Global Affairs at The University of Tennessee at Martin.  She has 18 years of work experience, primarily in the field of management and 21+ years of teaching business communication courses at university level.  She is a published author and regularly writes and researches to publish best practices in her field.  She currently works at her university on an experiential-learning committee that hosts an academic conference on the topic with West Texas A & M University. 

The two Dr. Davis’ are not related, just colleagues.

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