Last Updated on August 20, 2021
Interview with Dan Matheson
John Cody of SportsDegreesOnline.org interviewed Dan Matheson from the University of Iowa. They talked about his experience working with the New York Yankees, the NCAA, and his current role as Director of the Sport and Recreation Management Program at the University of Iowa. Dr. Matheson has some pearls of wisdom on how to be successful in the sports industry, current trends in the industry, and some of the impacts of Covid-19.
About Dan Matheson
Professor Dan Matheson is the Director of the Sport and Recreation Management program (B.S./M.A.) at the University of Iowa, where he also teaches courses in Sports Law and Baseball Salary Arbitration. Prior to his career in academia, Dan Matheson worked for the NCAA and the New York Yankees, where he won four World Series rings and was Director of Baseball Operations from 1998 - 2001.
John: If you could, maybe just start by telling us a bit about your career and your trajectory to becoming the director of sport and recreation management at the University of Iowa.
Dan: When I was in undergrad, I studied sport management and I had the opportunity in my junior year of college to work for the Chicago Cubs as the media relations intern for a ten-month internship. During that internship, I started evaluating graduate school options.
When I finished my sport management degree I decided I would go to law school. During law school, I stayed connected to baseball and thought about working in a non-traditional legal career and taking my legal training back into baseball. But I wanted to work in baseball operations. During my last semester at law school, I was able to get a spring training internship with the New York Yankees. That internship went very well so they gave me a job offer to join the baseball operations player development and scouting division.
My career started after law school as a baseball operations player development assistant and over time I was eventually promoted to director of baseball operations for the Yankees. I spent the first six years of my career with the Yankees and at that stage of my life it was exactly what I wanted to do but as I was getting into my early thirties, I was starting to recognize that there were other aspects of my personality that were never going to be fulfilled just working all the time. And when I was at the Yankees, I worked all the time. In my early thirties I made the decision to move on from the Yankees and I ended up going to work for the NCAA at the national office in Indianapolis. I used a different side of my legal training there.
When I was involved with the Yankees I was involved in managing player contracts and more transactional work such as baseball rules and compliance, things like that. At the NCAA I was an associate director of enforcement. We were tasked with investigating and processing major rules infractions, major recruiting violations, academic fraud violations, things like that. It was much more using my advocacy skills from law school, sort of like being a prosecutor under the NCAA rules. I did that for nine years and really enjoyed working at the NCAA.
As I was getting into my forties, I was starting to look for something different and new challenges. I had actually grown up in Iowa City, Iowa where the University of Iowa is and I was interested in putting down more permanent roots in Iowa City. I started guest speaking in classes at the University of Iowa and mentoring law students at the college of law here that wanted to work in sports and through that experience I was also evaluating what steps I wanted to take next in my career. I also realized how much I enjoyed mentoring young people and helping them follow a similar path to the one that I had, navigating their way in this very competitive business. I had the opportunity after nine years at the NCAA to come here and join the faculty full time.
At that time, what has now become our sport and recreation management program was going through a reorganization, as academic departments usually do and it was being restructured as more of a sport management program. The program had a long history of recreation management. The program was at a stage where it was making more of a transition into sport management. I was an early faculty hire for that new reorganized program. I have been here ever since and now this is my tenth year.
John: That’s definitely quite a ride. I myself had an internship with a minor league ball club when I was in college. There was definitely some repetitiveness to it in terms of every day selling tickets but there were definitely some days where I had to put on the mascot uniform and do a quick little meet and greet. Things like that which popped up. I’m wondering if you had any similar experiences, some funny anecdotes from your time at those internships. Was it varied or did they have a very structured program?
Dan: Good question. You are right, your experience is quite common and something I coach students on before they go out to internships, be prepared for anything. Between my two internships, the Chicago Cubs was more regimented. As the media relations intern at Wrigley Field every day, there were interns for each department so I had pretty specific responsibilities. Interview requests would come in from the media and I would communicate with the players in the club house and set those up. Or working in the press box during games, ensuring statistics from the game were being sent out and media notes were prepared. So that was more predictable and regimented.
On the flip side, my internship at the Yankees was much more, “be prepared for anything.” When I was in law school, one of the mentors I connected with was the assistant general manager of the Houston Astros at the time. He had followed a similar path to the one I was on and since I was interested in breaking into baseball operations, a highly competitive area to get into, his recommendation was to find a team that would let you come down and work during spring training.
Every baseball decision maker in an organization is gathered in one place at one time during spring training. If you can find a team that will let you come down and be in that environment for the month of spring training, it’s like earning a PhD in baseball. It’s great exposure to that side of the business and to the people who run that side of the business. I did go down there with that mindset, to be prepared for anything. I really was asked to do everything. I was going there as a third year law student, just a couple months away from graduating with my JD, and they had me working with the clubhouse guys, hanging laundry in lockers and moving equipment on the field. It was great. It exposed me to all aspects of spring training and what goes into a well oiled spring training schedule and what makes it run successfully.
Not that they ever told me this, but knowing what I know as someone that’s worked in the industry, it’s a bit of litmus test. Bringing an intern into a baseball operations environment like that, helps remove the mystique and glamour right away and really test, “do you really want to be here once it becomes a job?” Once I got a job offer after graduation, I moved into the office, but that internship was sort of an audition to the rigorous schedule of being out on the field in the hot sun. Helping set up spring training on the field demonstrated that I had the work ethic and desire to be there no matter what.
John: Just being humble enough to hang laundry, shows that you are committed to the organization for sure. You have a varied career in the sports industry as you mentioned working for a number of years for the Yankees, NCAA and now a large public university. Can you tell us a little bit how the working environment changes within the different subsets of the sports industry?
Dan: Sure. In professional sport, in the player personnel job like I was in at the Yankees, that was a 365 day a year job. There’s really no down time when in a player personnel job, especially in baseball where it’s being played all over the world at all times of the year. When you’re in the business of signing new players and developing them through player development systems, we worked seven days a week all year long. That was the lifestyle but also a lot of amazing opportunities came to me through that.
I was with the Yankees when we won four World Series Championships. That is an incomparable experience. It’s everything you dream about when you break into a job in professional sports, especially when you work in the player personnel side of things. Winning is what it’s all about. Those were the pros and cons of the professional sports world. The demand of work which consumes your entire person, but with the opportunities to experience things very few people that have an interest in sports get to experience.
When I made the transition though to the NCAA, I was looking for a better balance in my life. As I alluded to before there were other aspects of my personality that were never going to be satisfied working 365 days a year. So I was in search of a better work/life balance and I found that at the NCAA. It was a more consistent and balanced work/life situation.
When you work for a governing body like the NCAA, your life isn’t as dictated by games going on.If you work in an Athletics Department on campus, there are sporting events going on all academic year. Part of your schedule is dictated by who’s playing tonight, where do I need to be to attend an event. But when you work for a governing body like the NCAA or the United States Tennis Association or the Big Ten conference office, your life is not as dictated by games scheduled on evenings and weekends. So working at the NCAA I had a more predictable, daily schedule. There was more freedom to pursue other interests and hobbies.
Making the transition to higher education was another dramatic pivot but in some ways it was similar to the NCAA in that I had a fair amount of independence as a faculty member. I teach my classes and meet with students but I have a lot of freedom outside of those core responsibilities. That was more so my first five years being in the university. But five years since that time, as you progress in a faculty career, you start to get more involved in service responsibilities with the university, serving on committees and in other capacities. That’s all good, it’s not a negative.
One thing I’ve really enjoyed about the university faculty lifestyle, I love working with students that are in the same position I was when I was in college and wanted to break into this business. I have a lot of experience to share that can help them overcome some of the obstacles of trying to achieve their career dreams. But I’m also able to get involved and stay involved with our industry in ways that are meaningful to me. I had the opportunity and have been very supported by the University of Iowa in designing experiential learning classes which are really meaningful to me, having come from the industry, a non-traditional academic background.
I really enjoy connecting back to the industry with my students and exposing them to real world projects. For example, the last seven years I’ve taught a summer practicum class where my students and I work on sports marketing projects with the Cedar Rapids Minor League baseball team locally. Then after that experience, all of us move to downtown Chicago and the students get to work for two weeks on projects for the Chicago Blackhawks organization. Those are experiences that help keep me connected to the industry that is important to me, as somebody who came from the industry. It’s also an important way to connect my students to the industry for future internships, jobs and professional development opportunities.
John: Totally. They are going to be so well prepared for interviews having actual on the ground experience with professional organizations. It’s great. Speaking a little bit about your experience with law school, what made you want to go to law school and what doors do you think a law degree would open for someone who is interested in a career in sports?
Dan: When I interned at the Cubs, one of the mentor relationships I developed there was with the general counsel for the Cubs at the time, Geoffrey Anderson. At the time I was debating whether I wanted to go to grad school after I finished my undergraduate degree, to get an MBA, go to law school or what to consider in terms of further education.
Geoffrey Anderson was a very influential mentor. He helped me realize that going to law school doesn’t pigeonhole you or require you to go into the traditional practice of law. Law school teaches very transferable skills in critical thinking, communication and analytical thinking. It sharpens all of those abilities and teaches you really to think like a lawyer in ways that can be transferred to any industry you go into. You can find non practicing attorneys in many walks of life and he helped open my eyes to that.
I didn’t know that I really wanted to practice traditional law but I knew that I wanted to have more doors open in my sports career down the road so I was looking for a graduate education degree that would give me some potentially unique opportunities in the sports world down the road. With his encouragement I went to law school without feeling like I had to practice law. Although my mind was open to it while I was in school, I soon realized that I did want to go back into sports not to practice law.
In terms of what doors opened in law school, for me I think one of the reasons the Yankees were interested in me when I approached them first for a spring training internship and then when they offered me a job, is that I had that legal training. They were going to be giving me assignments that they could trust me with because I had the writing and reasoning skills of a law student. I could write contract language, I could write an agreement that wouldn’t have required as much editing and could be inserted into a contract with very little changes needed.
Working with any rules like the MLB rules, NCAA rules, it’s very much like interpreting legislation. Having those critical reading and thinking skills gives one an opportunity to apply those in sports, depending on the job you take. At the NCAA as I indicated earlier, I was utilizing my advocacy skills. Often, I would be presenting the NCAA’s case, to the committee on infractions and on the other side of the room would be a lawyer representing the school or a coach and all these different sides are putting forth their evidence and arguments advocating to the committee on infractions to find for the position that their side is supporting. In all of those jobs I had to utilize my legal training in some capacity. Going into my faculty role, having that degree helped make me eligible for a faculty role because you need to have a PhD or a JD for most faculty jobs.
John: That is good perspective there. This wouldn’t be a proper interview without touching on Covid. Covid has had a tremendous impact on the sports industry, how do you see the industry as a whole rebounding? Do you see the same jobs in 2021-2022 that we had in pre-Covid or do you see new types of jobs coming out of all this? I’m just kind of curious to hear your perspective out of all of this.
Dan: As somebody who is sending a lot of students into the industry and staying connected to the industry, the new areas I’ve seen potential to develop after Covid or staying around after Covid are in the digital space. That’s everything from social media to gaming; teams, leagues and sports brands getting into Twitch and different platforms digitally where their brand and product can be consumed. Those are just expanding day by day.
I think you are going to see continued growth in the use of analytics as an important element of the decision making process, in all areas of sports. Analytics gets a lot of attention on the player personnel side, on the field and on the court but analytics will play a big role in all aspects of an organization from sponsorship deals to social media and game presentation. Another area I think you’ll see continued growth in is gambling. With the legalization of sports gambling by so many states and so many more to certainly follow, you’re already seeing teams creating new opportunities for fans to engage with their product and their brand through gambling. And not just team level but leagues and trying to figure out how to leverage gambling to elevate their brand and their product. The digital space, analytics and gambling – I think all of those are going to continue to expand post pandemic.
In terms of industry rebound, I think there will be a rebound. We’ve seen a lot of people in the industry losing jobs unfortunately. There are jobs without fans in stadiums but there are not opportunities for people to work in some of the jobs they have been working in sports. When fans do come back to stadiums I think there is going to be a hiring phase. I think for a lot of graduates, the sports industry feels like a little bit of a wasteland, difficult to find opportunities in. But hopefully as we get beyond the pandemic and fans are able to congregate in large numbers I think there will be a bounce back in terms of hiring and the need for entry level recent graduates from sports management programs.
John: That makes a lot of sense. Speaking of the sports management programs, there are of course so many different programs out there. It could be overwhelming for a high school student who is looking at all these options. What advice would you give? What sorts of things should students keep in mind when selecting and pursuing a program?
Dan: I encourage prospective students to evaluate sports management programs on three criteria.
One is the industry experience of the faculty that they would have the chance to work with. Our industry and area of study on a college campus is not one where you’d want to solely be learning from people teaching out of a book. As a student who wants to work in the sports industry, you should want to learn from faculty that have experienced the sports industry in their career somehow.
Then closely related to that, as high school students evaluating undergraduate programs, they should consider the accessibility of the faculty for them as an undergraduate student. What I mean by that is, when students are evaluating the faculty, there might be a star faculty member that they want to be able to work with or a couple star faculty members they are really intrigued by. But make sure you learn about what courses those faculty teach. Do they teach many undergraduate courses or are they spending most of their time with grad students?
A third criteria I encourage students to evaluate a program on is what experiential learning opportunities will that program provide. I mentioned before, a summer practicum course that I teach. That’s one of a dozen or more practicum courses that our program has developed and offers over time. When students are looking for experiential learning opportunities we’ve had those project based, real world courses working with NBA G League teams, NASCAR, PGA golf tournaments, MLB teams, NHL and minor league hockey teams. You name it, there’s something for every student interest area within our program and I encourage students to look for that type of experience. What kind of experiences are you going to be able to get? Because you need to be able to apply what you learn in the classroom to realistic projects you would face in the industry.
John: That makes a lot of sense. Along the same vein, what kind of advice would you give to that same student let’s say, four years later as they’ve made their way through their respective program? What sorts of things should they keep in mind as they start searching for jobs?
Dan: Graduates from sports management programs need to understand that it’s very common to have to do an internship after graduation because it’s such a buyer’s market. There are so many people that want to work in sports and a limited number of jobs. It’s not uncommon to have to go do an internship, even potentially a couple internships and use those internships as auditions that hopefully open the door to a job offer. Or at the very least if you go and do an internship after graduation and it goes well and the employer you’re working with doesn’t have a job to offer you at the time, if you’ve done great work for them, they are going to want to pick up the phone and call their colleagues elsewhere and tell them, “we can’t hire this young person right now, but you should if you’ve got a slot for them.”
You need to be prepared to go do internships and create opportunities and advocates in the business that want to help you get to the next level. On top of that, recent graduates need to be prepared to move wherever the job opportunity is. Far too often I see graduates of the sports management programs that have narrowly identified one market they want to work in. “I want to work in sports. I want to work for a Chicago pro sports team.” That’s great, but you may need to go to Seattle, California or Texas and take a job. I counsel students, “your first or second job may not be exactly where you want it to be but after you’ve built up a reputation in the industry and some experience you might be able to call the shots on where you end up on your second or third job, five or ten years into your career.”
If you’re serious about this, you need to have a much more open mind to the entire country. One last piece of advice I give students when graduating is, you’ve got to make a great first impression. That comes down to attitude and work ethic and all the things employers will evaluate you on. If you get an opportunity and you don’t go in with the appropriate expectation of doing whatever it takes, spending long hours at work and maintaining a positive attitude, you might now last very long in the sports industry.
(Check out our Internship Guide for some more helpful insight)
John: I think that’s good advice for not only jobs in the sports industry but all jobs. In your opinion, what do you think sets the University of Iowa’s sports management program apart from other programs?
Dan: I think the three areas I mentioned a few moments ago are areas where our program stands out. We have an experienced group of faculty. I’ve worked at the highest level of professional and college athletics administration. I’ve got colleagues that have been high school athletics directors, college coaches and marketing and sales professionals. We have a very experienced faculty that is very undergraduate focused. We all teach undergraduate classes and the vast majority of our students are undergraduate students with a much smaller group of graduate students. Students coming in as a first year freshman on their first day of freshman year, have access to everyone on our faculty.
As I described before, we offer an incredible menu of experiential learning opportunities and have a faculty member that is dedicated to helping our students find those experiences. Not only in our practicum that we curate for them but helping our students identify and thrive in the more traditional internship settings with organizations. So we have a faculty member whose majority of time is spent on supporting students in that search and the successful completion of their internships. Those are the three main areas in which the University of Iowa stands out.
John: Ok, so moving on then. What if any current trends or issues do you see in the industry?
Dan: A couple stand out to me. One, there was a really good article in the Washington Post about the sports industry’s challenge to engage the Gen-Z population, with Gen-Z being the newest up and coming consumers of sports and fans of sports. The sports industry is trying to determine how to connect fans that fall into the Gen-Z category, how to connect them with their sport or brand that the industry is marketing.
I think along with the challenges engaging the Gen-Z population, comes the expansion of sports in the digital space and different strategies for packaging and delivering the sports product to a new generation of consumers that don’t have the same habits of previous generations in terms of how they consume sports. They may be sports fans but the majority of what they consume, speaking in broad terms obviously, the majority of sports they consume may be of the highlight reel variety. How can Major League Baseball, the NBA, or the NFL package and put out short highlights on Instagram, Tik-Tok, Twitter or whatever program.
You want to identify where Gen-Z is hanging out so they can consume because their habits may not involve sitting in one place and watching a game for three hours. One of the issues you are seeing with trying to engage the Gen-Z population is packaging the sports product in different ways so as to attract that digital consumer that’s never had a cable television subscription and is not going to sit and watch two and half, three hour sporting event, but would be interested in highlights of the astonishing slam dunk that LeBron James had the night before. They might watch that, and that changes the way sponsors try to reach fans. As opposed to buying a static billboard or arena sign, they will activate their sponsorships on digital platforms where the young consumer is going to look at what the NBA did the night before. That’s one issue and trend.
Going along with that is potentially seeing transitioning the old model of season tickets that fit new fan and consumer habits. Sports can’t rely on the traditional model of selling a certain number of season tickets, all this guaranteed revenue up front as opposed to fans who want to make different game consumption decisions that don’t involve an obligation to use a ticket for a Major League Baseball game eighty one days a year. It’s going to be interesting to see how the industry responds and adapts to some of these changes in their consumer habits. You’re definitely going to see changes over the years as this continues to evolve.
John: That is interesting. Ok so final question here. Do you have any advice for either career changers or students who are on their way to start their career in sports. I know that throughout this you have given a lot of good advice but maybe in a general sense about attitude or mindset.
Dan: A couple things. One, students and career changers should build in informational interviews to their job, internship and search and exploration process. Informational interviews are one way to connect with somebody in the industry. Ask them questions about their journey or advice for a young person that wants to break in. Make an authentic connection with somebody in the industry that is of interest to you and potentially become someone they identify as someone with potential for an internship or job down the road. Job seekers have to apply to jobs that are posted publicly. In that process you generally become one of seventy five or one hundred to one hundred and fifty applicants and it’s very difficult to stand out in that environment. But once you start doing informational interviews, reach out and introduce yourself professionally to someone in the industry that has a job of interest to you, ask them if you can schedule ten minutes for an informational interview about their journey and their advice, when you do that, you open up the opportunity that they may say, “You know what, why don’t you send me your resume, I’d love to help you out if I can.” That’s important, doing these informational interviews.
The other thing I’ll summarize briefly. I’ve identified what I’ve referred to as the five keys to success in the sports industry. (See blog post here)
One, arrive early.
Two, stay late.
What I mean by those first two, to break into sports and be successful, be prepared to work long hours.
Three, always exceed expectations. Don’t be satisfied with the bare minimum the supervisor has given you. Always look to impress them with how much more you are able to accomplish and how much better you can do it.
Four, pay excruciating attention to detail. One of the top qualities that employers look for in new young hires is an attention to detail. That is one great way to stand out. Not making little mistakes, not failing to proof read. All of the things where a supervisor can feel confident when they hand off an assignment to you that you’ll get it done right. They can put their name on it without fear of you embarrassing them or the organization.
Lastly, number five, always be positive. Nobody wants to work with crabby people. If it’s the tenth day of a home stand in the baseball season and you’re moping around because you’ve been at the ball park long hours for ten straight days, you’re not going to last long. People don’t want to work around negative attitudes. Everybody’s in the same boat. If you want to be there, you have to choose to accept all the good and the bad that comes with sports. Positive attitudes can go a long way in helping people thrive in their careers.