Last Updated on August 6, 2021
Interview with Dr. Mary Beth Chambers
John from SportsDegreesOnline.org spoke with Dr. Mary Beth Chambers from Pfeiffer University. They touched on her career in the sports industry, opportunities for students just breaking into the field, and why North Carolina is such a great place to work in sports.
About Dr. Mary Beth Chambers
Dr. Mary Beth Chambers, Assistant Professor and Program Director for Global Sport Management Program at Pfeiffer University, has experience working the U.S. Olympics & Paralympic Committee, running her own business, as well as working in academia. She has worked in North Carolina, as well as other states across the country.
Do you mind introducing yourself a little bit?
I would refer to myself as a pracademic. Basically, it is a combination of two words. It’s a practitioner which in normal language means roll your sleeves up, boots on the ground person, but also an academic. So, a practitioner and an academic together is a pracademic. My philosophy in terms of teaching involves not only introducing students to ideas and concepts about sports management, but also introducing them to the people and the events and all the fun hoopla that I fell in love with when I was their age.
In terms of my background, I have a Master’s in Sport Management and as of May 7th, 2021, I have a Ph.D. in Sport Management as well. I spent the first half of my sports career working for professional sports teams. I interned for the US Olympic Training Center with USA Wrestling when I was 25. Then, I was hired straight out of grad school to be the marketing director of an LPGA golf tournament out of Toledo, Ohio which is near my hometown of Bowling Green. I leaned on my network to have fun volunteering for the 1996 Olympic Games when they were in Atlanta. I ran press conferences for eight sports in the main Super Sub Center.
I needed a bigger bubble after about three years of being in Toledo, and I moved to Detroit to work for the Pistons organization. I sold sponsorships and media across eight properties for Palace Sports and Entertainment. At the time they owned the Pistons. They owned the WNBA team The Shock. They owned the Vipers which was an ECHL hockey team. They started an arena football team. They had the Palace of Auburn Hills. And they had two or three outdoor amphitheater venues. I sold sponsorship, radio, and television advertising and promotions across all of those properties. I did that for about three years. Then love came knocking, and my husband and I re-met, if you will. My husband was (and still is) involved with motorsports. He was in Detroit working in motorsports, and when he was sent to Charlotte, he asked me to join him. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I followed him to Charlotte. I worked as the sponsorship director for an ECNL hockey team down here.
When the Whitewater Center was built, I threw my name in the hat to work for USA Canoe/Kayak, which is a national governing body for Olympic sports that moved to Charlotte at the time. I was the marketing director for the NGB for a year or so which brought me back to my love of Olympic sport.
Then when my husband and I decided to start a family, I felt really strongly about staying home. So I stayed home for about eight years. While I was home, my husband and I started our own race team and we ran on the GrandAm (now known as IMSA) series. It was an arrive and drive team called Raceworks. He built the cars, and I ran the hospitality, taxes, insurance, and all the business side of it. People hired us to bring our set up to the track and they had fun putting on their racing suits, racing our cars and being part of our race team. Providing this sort of service enabled us to help people to enjoy participating, even if they did not have the knowledge of how to prepare a competitive race car (or the time!). We still have some race cars hanging around and he has fun with the Champ Car Series right now. Now that the girls are getting older, he’s having fun helping them learn car building skills.
When my youngest started in kindergarten, that’s when I reinvented my love and passion for sports, and that’s when I joined academe. That was about ten years ago, and I’ve been teaching Sport Management at a university for about the past ten years.
In academe, I can still call all my friends that I worked with and folks here in Charlotte that I’ve gotten to know over the last decade, and now I have fun being a pied piper of sorts, helping others discover what I’ve enjoyed for so long. “These are my friends, let me introduce you.” That’s the approach and the philosophy that I have with my students. So, it’s been a lot of fun. I’ll be interested to see what the next ten years bring, now that I’ve finished my Ph.D.!
That’s really interesting. So many different experiences working in racing and the Olympics. It sounds like you had your hand in a lot of different pots.
A lot of my friends go an inch wide and a mile deep, and I’ve chosen the opposite approach. I’m an inch deep and a mile wide. There’s not a whole lot that I haven’t experienced at least on a cursory level, and I have at least a frame of reference. It’s been fun. I enjoy the variety and it enables me to help a diverse spectrum of students plug into the interests they have.
From your perspective, when students are looking at different sport management programs, what things should they keep in mind as they are comparing different programs?
There’s a couple of things I would recommend. In general, I suggest students start by looking in the mirror and understanding what their curiosities are, and what they like to do…what their basic skills are that come naturally. A lot of times students don’t necessarily know where they want to go, but they do know what they enjoy doing as a hobby, or the classes they like to take. They know what they are curious about and what they are interested in, and I would use those tendencies as breadcrumbs to lead them where they need to be. That’s the first piece of it.
The second piece is: I would look at the faculty at the institutions and see the nature of what they’ve done and where they are now. Again, I come from a hybrid sort of scenario, but some academics are doing some really cool things by partnering with more teams and industries, getting involved helping out by doing research with all sorts of sport organizations. I think that the faculty involvement with the industry is pivotal because at the end of the day, sports – like a lot of different industries – is networking. The opportunities that come to students are going to be because of the doors that the faculty can open for them.
Also, potential students need to think about their goals; what do they want to do with the degree? Do they want to work in sports? Or do they want to stay in a more academic type of program? If they want to have more of an academic focus with their degree, they’re going to need a master’s and then, in turn, a Ph.D. to be in academe and teach. If that’s the case, then I’d look for programs that develop academics.
If you are, for example, an athletics director at a college level, you’re going to need a master’s degree at a minimum, so a program that offers a curriculum in collegiate athletics will be of great value. If you want to be a coach in high school, a sport management and/or coaching minor emphasis will help you. So, a lot of it has to do with understanding where you want to take your career. Each program will have it’s specialization (hospitality, facilities, economics, analytics, media, etc.). That’s why I said the first piece of it needs to be looking in the mirror and really starting to understand yourself and your goals.
People should start by asking things like: Do I want to be a coach? Folks who enjoy teaching would most likely do well in coaching. Do I want to be a communicator and enjoy persuading people? In that case, you would enjoy sales or leadership or marketing. Do I love to work with gaming? In which case, you can work with eSports and analytics. Am I interested in writing and social media? The sports industry over the last 20 years has professionalized and specialized and it has discipline experts in each of a myriad of fields. It’s overwhelming when you’re getting started because it seems so big, but the industry is kind of like a big family reunion of sorts. After a while, you start to see and encounter the same people. It’s kind of like the seven degrees of knowing Kevin Bacon. It’s all about networking.
To summarize: 1) know yourself; 2) find out the faculty and find individuals who are connected and opening doors to students, and then I would pick an institution that has good marks with accreditation. Are they teaching what they say they do? I would say those would be my big three.
What do you think is a good selling point for North Carolina in terms of it being a good place to study sport management?
Well, I would argue that Charlotte is one of the best sports cities in the country because of how much there is here. Every major sports league has a presence here, yet, we don’t have 25 million people like some of the other bigger cities across the country who have similar sport assets such as the Queen City. So, you’re not necessarily competing with such a large group of people for positions for jobs.
The nature of Charlotte, in general, is very colloquial. It’s a very small town. Charlotte is a big city, the sixth busiest airport in the world, yet the people that are involved with the sports industry here are a very small community. You can connect and network with some of the top people in town very easily. So in that sense, the nature of the city is amazing. We have basketball, NBA. We have the NFL. In a month from now, we’re getting Major League Soccer. Professional lacrosse is here. ACC tournaments and bowl games are held here. ESPN is here. Fox Sports is here. NBC has a presence here. NASCAR has its headquarters here. We have the NASCAR Hall of Fame. We have Charlotte Motor Speedway and SMI, which is Speedway Motorsports Incorporated. It’s headquartered here. They have ten or twelve racetracks across the country that they manage. We have probably two dozen advertising agencies like Octagon, GMI, Bespoke, Red Moon Marketing. Coca-Cola has a regional bottling presence here. We have Bank of America headquarters here along with, many Fortune 500 companies, each with departments that specialize in sports activation.
There’s just so much here in Charlotte. The Charlotte Knights, for a long time, held the number one minor league baseball team in the country in terms of ticket sales. They are top of the list in that regard. We have hockey here, the Charlotte Checkers AHL is here. We have so many different things here – the Whitewater Center. It’s a man-made whitewater channel that draws its water from the Catawba River. It’s similar to what was created in Sydney, Australia for the Olympics when they were there. It’s now a training site for the Olympic Whitewater team. There are so many different things. The World of Outlaws is headquarters is here. It’s another racing NGB (national governing body). Sports attorneys are here that represent all different kinds of professionals. You have Fuel Management Group. Those folks represent NFL, MLS, and NASCAR athletes. I could go on for hours about the people, and the events, and the opportunities that are here. A lot of it comes from going back to that community of leaders that exists here that knew they wanted to build Charlotte into this really cool place where people could come and have fun and build a town with a really neat quality of life.
Is there anything that you think separates Pfeiffer from other programs in North Carolina?
I would say that Pfeiffer is a small institution. We’re a liberal arts college. We are a place where people can build relationships. You’re not going into a classroom with 500 of your cohort and getting lost in the back row because your professor has to do multiple choice bubble testing in order to do testing. You’re going to be working on projects. You’re going to be able to connect with professors who hopefully are extending opportunities that they have out into the next phase of your life whatever that may be, whether it’s the working world or on to graduate school. So you’re going to find a closer community of people here and we are a faith-based institution so you’ll have opportunities to express your faith in a variety of ways. Those sorts of experiences are part of our world. That may or may not be part of a larger or state type of an institution.
Do most of your students graduate and stay in North Carolina for the most part? Or is it kind of a mixed bag?
My students traditionally have stayed in North Carolina. A lot of them are regional. Pfeiffer draws from probably a 100 or 200 mile radius in terms of the student body. I’m starting my third year here. Prior to Pfeiffer, I was at another small liberal arts school on the south part of Charlotte called Belmont Abbey College. It’s the same type of similar institution. Belmont Abbey is a Catholic institution, and the students, in general, from both of those places come regionally. When I was at Belmont Abbey, I was in the motorsport management program which was specific to motorsports. In that situation, we drew people from all over the country and all over the world. I had students from the Caribbean, England, and Canada, but in general, the sport management students are from the area. They tend to stay close to home. There’s so much here in Charlotte to work with and such a variety. Unless they are following a significant other, or have a specialized curiosity, they find what they need here in town.
Is there anything you would like to add for people who are interested in studying or diving into sports management as they are doing research and looking into different programs? Any final advice?
Take courage. A lot of people these days, students coming through, don’t necessarily have the courage to follow their passion. If you have the courage to step out of your comfort zone, the sports industry will receive you. Especially now when so many people have been furloughed or let go, it’s forced people to change industries. Sports teams and organizations are at a point now when they’re getting started. They’re having events, but they’re still trying to ramp up the human side of it. Also, it’s a unique opportunity for students to get involved as interns, as volunteers, or as entry-level people because of the nature of what’s going on.
It’s an unusual time that I think is more accessible for people who are focused. It’s not a place if you’re a fan thinking you’re going to hang with the athletes on the court or the field. This industry is looking for passionate professionals. They’re not looking for rabid fans. They sell tickets to rabid fans. They’re looking for passionate professionals who get the fact that you show up at seven in the morning to your job and work hard from 7 until 5. Then it’s game time, and you go down to the basketball court or out on the baseball field at 5 o’clock, and you work hard until midnight. You do that 200 times a year.
People learn quickly that working in sports is not a job, it truly is a lifestyle that is embraced. Sport organizations need committed, passionate professional people, and a lot of times students fantasize about what they think the sports industry is. It’s a grind. But it is a lot of fun. You get to see a lot of cool things. When I volunteered for the ‘96 Games, it was absolutely the most incredible experience of my whole life. I watched the women win the gold medal in basketball. I ran press conferences for Kurt Angle and when Kerri Strug hurt her knee. I ran press conferences for the men’s and women’s basketball dream team. Men’s and women’s gymnastics…moments like that I will take with me for my whole life. I could go on and on about that. It’s because you’re a professional first, however, that you get to experience those things.