Interview with Dr. Natalie L. Smith
Tim Porter-DeVriese of SportsDegreesOnline.org interviewed Dr. Natalie Smith of East Tennessee State University. They discussed the benefits of knowing where your strengths lie, the importance of getting outside your comfort zone, how to get the most out of advice from mentors, and the rise of Esports.
About Dr. Natalie L. Smith
Dr. Natalie L. Smith is an Assistant Professor of Sport & Recreation Management at East Tennessee State University. She is the esports academic program coordinator, and teaches classes in esports, strategic management, research, and organizational behavior. Her research focuses on innovation and creativity in sport. She has 8 years of experience in the sport industry across many different sectors. Her PhD is from the University of Illinois, Master’s from the FIFA Master Program, and Bachelor’s from Pomona College.
Tim: Can you tell us about your journey and how you forged a path in the sports world?
Natalie: I grew up a big sports person, if it isn’t obvious by my bio. I loved women’s soccer growing up. I was of the Mia Hamm era. I also swam quite competitively and I wasn’t very good to be honest but I just kept showing up. I was energetic, so people encouraged me to stay on the team. I kind of stumbled into division three athletics. I wasn’t recruited. I ended up playing two sports at Pomona College. I always knew I wasn’t very good. I didn’t have any illusions of grandeur on my athletic prowess. A real turning point was when I got cut from my college soccer team my junior year. So I thought that was the end of the road for my sports career at the competitive level and my coach, who had recognized I had been coaching a bit here and there said “hey, I want you to come work with the team.” I told her that I didn’t just want to be the person who fills up the water. I wanted to learn and do something of value. She took me really seriously and that is something that is kind of interesting; how I forged a path was being really insistent on growth. That was kind of a great example of when I said that I wanted to go and do something different. I wanted to go above and beyond and that sort of launched me into the rest of my career working in all sorts of sports, non-profit sports, college sports, pro sports, women’s sports, men’s sports and international sports. It seems I am a lot older than I am just by the amount that I have already done but that’s kind of how I started with all of it.
Tim: The take away for me here is the importance of understanding your strengths and weaknesses. I like what you said about being insistent on growth. How do you think you cultivated that attitude where you were really insistent on moving forward to the best of your abilities?
Natalie: I think part of it was my parents themselves are people who grew in very different ways. I think also when you are not particularly good at something but you love it, you sort of have to learn how to be uncomfortable. I’ve never walked onto a team and thought I was the best person there. With that experience my entire life, I thought, “this is going to be ok.” You just have to try things, it might fail and it might be very painful but you’re going to learn something as long as you make sure you are being reflective and growing from those experiences. So a sort of a combination, the family upbringing and having those experiences relatively early on.
Tim: Did you have family members, teachers or mentors that have helped you find your way? If so, what were some of the more helpful things those older folks said to you when you were a student that ended up being meaningful and helping you along the way, maybe in ways you didn’t fully realize at the time?
Natalie: I’ve been really lucky. My family loves sports. We’re from Pittsburgh so obviously the Stealers, Pirates and Penguins are a big part of life. But they didn’t really know what working in sports would look like, so I had to find people that would help me with that. Certainly my coaches. I was quite lucky and pretty fortunate that I had some pretty amazing coaches in my career. I’ve had some pretty terrible coaches that fortunately I was still able to learn from. The most influential coaches in my life were always the ones that were not only really good coaches, they were really good people. One of the better pieces of advice I ever received came from a college coach. I was in college trying to figure out what I wanted to do afterwards. I was talking to my college coach who shared a room with a senior women’s administrator, who happened to be friends with the Athletic Director at Cal State Fullerton, which is a division one program. She said, “why not?” If you really want to work in this, you need to get more experience, different experience, and she really helped me connect with a division one program. It really opened my eyes to what it looks like to work at the college level. At Cal State Fullerton they average three or four thousand fans for a baseball game, so it was a decent-sized program. Their baseball team was fantastic. Then the second thing, and this is where female students having female mentors can be very helpful, I was in England doing my master’s program and the FIFA master’s program which is based in Europe. I was at graduation, on this beautiful lake in Switzerland and one of our professors was an expert in women’s soccer. She was talking to my parents and myself and said, “you know, Natalie should get a PHD.” I had just graduated from my master’s ready to be done with school forever and I laughed. “Dr. Williams thank you but no. No, absolutely not. Never.” That is really interesting to me now, because three years later I was trying to figure out how I was going to get a PhD!
Tim: Had you done a thesis track with your Master’s degree?
Tina: No, I had done very little research. I was actually very practitioner-focused. Right after that master’s program I went and worked in Major League Soccer. I really tried hard to get into the highest level of soccer. I think if I had gone into a PHD as soon as my previous master’s teacher had recognized it, I don’t think I would have had the same experiences I have and enjoy now. I think it’s important to ask why someone is giving you that advice. She was obviously right; I did have the capacity and temperament to be a professor, but instead of just laughing I should have asked why she thought that. I think that would have helped me understand a bit more of what she saw in me. Maybe I could have overcome some frustrations I had later in my career if I had figured out a bit earlier what are the things I actually enjoy and what am I actually good at. That’s my piece of advice, that idea that people are always going to give you advice based on their own experiences and sometimes that advice ends up being bad. However, they might be giving you that advice based on underlying factors that they see in you and those are things you want to get at because those are things that might illuminate your path. If someone had told me in 2010 that women’s soccer was on the downfall so don’t try to go work in it, that would’ve been true. However, everything changed in 2012 and there are more jobs in women’s soccer than ever. But their advice was not about women’s soccer in reality, their underlying advice was about understanding the volatility of niche sports and embracing whether or not that is something you want to engage in. And that is very different than saying, “go do this or go do that.”
Tim: I think that’s really great advice and I like how you frame it that way. I think a lot of us, when we’re younger students looking up to professors and coaches, we just want to hear advice that lines up to our own ideas and self image. If they are telling you what you want to hear, you will be more inclined to follow them anywhere, even off a cliff. And if they are giving you any kind of advice that is running contrary to what you are hoping to hear from them, you might think they don’t like or understand you or that you’re in the wrong place. But taking the time to ask why people gave you the advice they did, no matter what it was, teaches you so much more than just accepting or rejecting it.
Natalie: Yes. I’ve been a professor for four and a half years so there are certainly people who know about this more than I do but I think that is something I have been trying to learn as I deal with so many students. We have almost two hundred, if I count everyone that I interact with. That’s a lot of people and I want to make sure I don’t do them a disservice.
Tim: You’ve researched and studied sports from a lot of different angles from coaching to marketing and analyzing fan profiles for Major League Soccer and now teaching. What have been some of the highlights of your career to date and what aspect of the sports industry is the most interesting to you at the moment?
Natalie: Not surprisingly since I am a professor, I love research. I love seeing patterns. I love understanding the human condition as it relates to sports. It’s funny when I look back on my career within the sports industry, it has felt kind of random: business development, operations, non-profit, marketing, event management. All of it related to this idea of understanding patterns and understanding people. That I think is probably where my research interest lies, in terms of organizational behavior, innovation and creativity. It’s this idea of understanding and helping people. I will say one of the highlights in my career that has really helped shape me was my experience with the women’s pro soccer team called Sky Blue FC. In 2009, the season was kind of in a mess, to say the least, and somehow in that season the players in that team managed to rise above it all and win the whole championship. We were definitely the underdogs so winning the championship was a real highlight for me because it was incredibly inspirational, especially for the staff. We were going through some hard times, so it was a really amazing moment. To be able to have a moment where we realized we not only survived but thrived and won the whole league was really illuminating. I find the changes that are happening in sport right now to be super interesting and really exciting for everybody involved. I know that change is hard. I research innovation and creativity, the positive and fun part of it all but in general change is hard. Overall I think there are a lot of positive changes happening. The process may be painful, but the end result will end up making sport a better place.
Tim: You are a person that thinks about creativity and innovation within the sports industry and researches that topic. What are some examples of creativity in the sports world today or some instances where creativity and innovation have elevated sport?
Natalie: I love this question. I think there are some obvious ones such as sabermetrics, dynamic ticket pricing and luxury suites. Most of them are about profit maximization and on field competitive advantage that sort of originates in sport. And everything else is usually adopted from the outside world because sport is very small. I think that is something people don’t understand until they work in the industry, that you only have so many resources. You can be a really powerful sport organization and still have a relatively small number of employees. The rest of my family works in manufacturing. They work in a company that’s about four hundred people and that size organization in manufacturing would be considered a drop in the bucket. It’s a medium sized manufacturing company. No one really cares about them except the local news. But that’s probably more people than are employed by most NFL teams. We sort of assume that because these organizations live so large in our minds, they have the capacity to be really innovative and creative, when in reality they don’t have the money or the personnel to do that. I think what I am really excited about in terms of sports industry is how to collaborate with external stakeholders. I have a really crazy example about this. My sister’s brother-in-law is a computer science professor at NYU. He ended up collaborating with Major League Baseball on a new technology. He’s Brazilian and at the time didn’t really know much about baseball, but MLB realized they didn’t know much about computer science either, so they were able to collaborate on something that ended up being really cool. I see the sports industry more and more kind of engaging with this. They are no longer, “we’re sports and you’re everything else.” They seek out external stakeholders and partners to encourage thinking about sport in a new way. Most minor league baseball teams are maybe ten or twenty people in terms of employees so they definitely need to utilize these outside resources. I think these outside resources are fun for them. Sports to a lot of people is just a game, just a fun thing they did as a kid or something they watch on the weekends. It can be something a little different for the outsider perspective as well, which is really exciting in terms of the innovation and creativity possibilities: sport collaborating with outside partners and coming up with really new and exciting things.
Tim: And what are some examples of those outside partners that could be collaborating with sports teams in the future?
Natalie: I think social media companies. Google, Twitter and Facebook and those sort of companies. But you’re also seeing the social innovation happening. Sport is seeing some things come to light that should have come to light a long time ago. These scandals related to abuse, racism, sexism or homophobia. They are not new to sport but they are being brought to light a lot more often now. It’s the players and the staff who are facing these external stakeholders, whether it be university programs or nonprofits. It’s really exciting to see that because if an athlete is really good at their sport and they have the capacity to be good at something else, they can use the platform of sport to bring these issues to light and come up with solutions. If sport could be the driver for that, then society, we hope, will follow.
Tim: How do you see esports fitting into the future of sports management? Should we be thinking about esports in the same way we think about other professional sports? What’s going to happen there in the next couple of decades?
Natalie: It’s interesting you asked me about this because that is the question now. It’s pretty fun to watch my sport industry friends start to ask me about esports. It reminds me of how the sport industry started to engage with tech. We know that there are potential collaborations here, potential synergies. How do we fit together? They don’t really know what’s happening on the other side and that’s the interesting thing about esports. It has so many unique ecosystems. I have a lot of awesome friends that work in esports but at the same time people can be kind of closed off to anyone trying to break in and I completely get it. When I worked in women’s soccer somebody would come in from baseball and try to tell us how women’s soccer could improve. I spent fourteen hours a day working on it, something I loved and have done since I was five, so the feelings sometimes was, ‘how dare this person come in and decide that they knew what was right for us.’ Even if the person did have great ideas. So I get that reaction but as many people as there are that are hesitant to collaborate with people external to esports, just as many people are excited and willing to have those conversations because I think the key to all of it, to those who are interested in sport business and management and how it relates to esports, it’s really about cross pollination. It’s not sports coming in and knowing all the answers. It’s not colonizing. Esports are doing just fine on their own. They don’t need sport management people coming in. However, if both sectors wanted to get together and do something cool together, they could. It’s the same thing with music. When you think about it, you look at Atlanta FC or what Fortnite is doing with Travis Scott. When you transcend your sector, that’s when exciting things happen. For the sport folks out there, do some digging before you go talk to somebody. Fighting games have a totally different subculture than Dota 2 or League of Legends. One of the biggest complaints I get from my friends in esports is that for example, you can’t just copy and paste what works in soccer to Rocket League. You watch Rocket League and you think, it’s just soccer with cars, but it’s not. The fans and the players aren’t that same. The whole situation is different and that’s where innovation and creation come into play. It’s not just a copy-and-paste mindset. It is seeing what works based on the context you are in and utilizing your diverse knowledge to come up with something potentially completely new. I think that’s where the exciting potential of Travis Scott and Fortnite collaboration come into play. There is a lot of potential with the FIFA and Madden video games as well where a lot of innovative things could be coming out of. That is one piece of advice I have, just do your homework before jumping into things.
Tim: What’s the attendance for esports programs, either your own or others you know about? What’s the level of interest out there amongst students?
Natalie: It is growing. It’s a unique group. It may be a sports kid who also plays video games like Fortnite or NBA 2K and they think, “ESports is kind of like sport management, so I will do both.” But they don’t actually know anything about the business side. Then on the other side there are these esports folks who are massive Overwatch, League of Legends or Dota players that tend to have a higher profile in terms of the esports industry but they play and that’s all they do. They know about the best players and the best strategies of their favorite game but if you talk to them about partnership marketing, they have no idea what you are talking about. However, esports exists through things like marketing and sponsorship. I’m excited. I think there is real room for growth. However, I also think there is a real chance for administrators to see this as the next big thing. They can see it as a chance to build something and do it with the right mechanisms in place. It’s a hard thing. I am the only person in my program who can teach this right now. I have no plans of leaving but it can create a potential situation where I get hit by a bus and I don’t know who else is going to teach this in our program. This is just something that should caution administrators, if you think this is going to be your next tuition generator and you do it for the wrong reasons, it may not go very well.
Tim: 2020 was a big year for the nation to consider the issues of equality. Sports industry has a long way to go in closing the gender gap and eliminating the barriers faced by women, in particular in sport management. What is your view of the industry as it relates to gender equality and what advice do you have for young women who are careers in sports? What challenges are they going to encounter along the way?
I think being very explicit about the privileges we have based on our class or our race, by listening to other groups within our gender, we can better recognize as a whole, the unique challenges within the industry.
Natalie: I am passionate about this topic as a woman who worked in the sports industry. I think the first thing, let me acknowledge that it’s not even equal within women as a population. For example, one of my BIPOC friends had a very different experience working in the same sports organization as me. I think that’s something that white women in particular in this industry, need to understand. When we talk about gender equality we need to recognize the differences within women. I think we all innately know that but when you talk about fifty percent of our population, obviously there are going to be challenges that are different. But I think being very explicit about the privileges we have based on our class or our race, by listening to other groups within our gender, we can better recognize as a whole, the unique challenges within the industry. The first thing would be for the whole industry to recognize that there are differences across a variety of factors. Unfortunately, sexual harassment is just far too common. It varies in terms of the level of it. Women in sport media probably deal with it the most because they are such public figures. I personally know the only way we are going to stop it is if we have real consequences for those who perpetuate it. In my experience, I definitely brushed it off far too many times and I know a lot of colleagues in the same boat and we just kind of ignored it, put up with it, so to speak. That can have consequences. Certainly in my own experience, I was definitely shaped by it. When I was twenty three years old and working in pro sports, I finally spoke up one time. I went to my boss and said, “hey this guy is making me feel really uncomfortable” and she kind of downplayed it. She made me feel like I was overblowing the situation. Later on that guy got fired for harassing like a dozen other women. Maybe if we all speak up, we’ll start to get people to understand that what they are doing is not ok. I think the second challenge is that some women feel they are just the diversity hire. I think it’s especially true for women of color. It’s kind of this depressingly effective mechanism for white people to devalue the contributions of women of color in the sports industry. If there is anything I have learned from teaching hundreds of people of all genders and races is that each person is unique and everyone brings something to the table. That idea that you’ve been hired because of your race and gender is so detrimental because it not only immediately devalues a person’s contribution, it puts them into a box. It might feel like a great power trip for the person doing it, but in the long run all those people need to understand how detrimental that is to the industry. You may think it’s just one person but if everyone does it then in the end you are removing a large portion of the labor population from effectively doing their jobs. And whenever you remove large portions of the labor market, you’re immediately removing really good ideas and talent. I don’t understand why people want to make the labor market smaller.
Tim: If you feel your level of privilege allows you to benefit from a smaller number of competitors, then you might be someone who consciously or subconsciously wants to maintain a status quo that absolutely holds us all back overall.
Natalie: And if you’re that person who ends up the boss, you’re now in trouble because you’ve limited your own labor pool. And who wants to work for a person that everybody knows is a sexist, racist, and/or a homophobe? People don’t realize that we talk to each other. This industry isn’t that big and people will find out if this is the kind of organization you are working in, and you might not end up with the best candidates because of your viewpoints. That’s sort of depressing, but I think we have a long way to go. I think until we face it, we’ll never change it. I’m excited that people are facing it and looking at their own biases, situations, organizations and looking at being called to task by outside folks. How can we change that? I think there are amazing people out there doing this work and I am just using their ideas. I encourage everyone to get on Twitter and follow really smart people who are doing this work. You will learn so much and really find out how to impact your own organization. One piece of advice I have for women is, if you want to go into this industry, there are a lot of supportive organizations out there. I currently work in one. My boss is a big ally of women and my colleagues are very supportive. We really try hard for each other and our students. There are lots of organizations out there. Even though you see on the news, an endless list of organizations that have done terrible things, there are good organizations out there that are doing good things, they just don’t get the press. There are also amazing mentors out there. I would encourage anybody, not just women, to seek out good mentors and supportive organizations, but ignore where they are from. You might have love for soccer but maybe the best organization for you to work in is baseball. Maybe you’ve always wanted to work in D1 athletics but maybe pro sports might have a better avenue for you. When you are younger and early in your career it’s about having those people that are going to help you develop and grow. That’s where you want to be. Let’s just say you grew up in Dallas and your dream was to always work for the Mavs. Maybe this is five years ago before everything went public about their toxic work environment, hopefully they’ve sorted out their stuff since then. But maybe your dream was to work for them, but it just isn’t worth it. Go out and get a job that is going to be supportive of you, then you can be the person who goes back to that organization that you have loved since you were ten and you could be the one that fixes their problem. Also, don’t assume because it’s an organization of women that they aren’t going to adhere to misogynistic or racist things. Really evaluate each person as an individual and evaluate each organization or work group by itself because that can vary wildly. It’s not necessarily based on how old the person is or what their gender is. I find in my experience that people can surprise you in good and bad ways in terms of their support for women. Ask tough questions. If they really are an ally, they won’t be surprised or offended by those questions.
Tim: What do you love about East Tennessee State and the sports management program there? What are the strengths and unique qualities?
Natalie: First, I love our students. They are really passionate about sports and work really hard. It’s just fun to come into the classroom. It’s really different from other teaching experiences I have had and I really enjoy helping them. The second thing is my colleagues. I’d say that they are the number one strength of our program. It’s Amy Green, Charlie Jones and Nikki Stewart. The four of us, we have these strong relationships with local and regional sports organizations. We’re very dedicated to each other and our students. They are always going above and beyond and they’ve made me a better person because I always see them doing really cool things for our students. I think, “oh, I should do that too.” We all really value experiential learning. For example, this semester I am splitting my class into two groups. One is working with a rec-focused organization and the other is working with a sports organization and they get real insight into the sports industry, but also relating it back to classroom topics. The best learning doesn’t have to happen just from doing or sitting in class, but from doing and learning at the same time. We really try to do that in and outside of our classroom, give our students as many opportunities as we can. The final thing I love is that we are constantly evolving. Esports is a new thing for our program in the last year but we’re also adding other potential electives. We’re really listening to both the needs of the industry, our students, and potential exciting collaborations with practitioners. I always get really excited when students get opportunities out of this. One great example is one of our students got a job through this experiential learning and esports class. We ran our own event with sponsorship, streaming on Twitch, the whole thing. Through that he got the chance to work with esports and is building content for them. That is just one example of the many things our students have been able to do through really trying to maximize learning and doing at the same time.
Tim: What are some of the amazing things that East Tennessee State Sports Management graduates have gone on to do?
Tina: We actually have a good number of our students who end up at power five schools. We have graduates that work at Texas A&M, Kentucky, Wake Forest, and Michigan. One of our alum works at NCAA. Technically our AD was an alum of the program too. The GM of our local minor league baseball team is an alum of our program. The sports director of the Johnson City Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) is also an alum. So we have a strong regional connection but at the same time, because we try to connect our students with people in diverse areas, they do very well. Our sports sales class had sixteen different guest speakers from all over the country because it was online this fall due to COVID. Our students are getting connected to people all over the US and we are highly encouraging of that. We also have one student that works for Orlando FC, and these are all students who have graduated in the last five years. It’s really exciting. If you leverage your opportunities you can go anywhere, and it’s really up to them. We put as many opportunities as we can in front of them but at the end of the day if they leverage those opportunities, they are the ones that can go out and achieve the dreams they are trying to achieve.
Tim: What are you listening to or reading in terms of podcasts, books or articles that is inspiring or relevant now?
Natalie: This may be my hobby, reading random articles. It’s sort of a pretty intense habit that I have. There are two things I do. I’ve been on Twitter since almost the very beginning. I’ve really realized its power to help me learn new things. I am very pointed in terms of who I follow. Some of it relates to sport but a lot of it doesn’t. It’s really about learning new things and getting new perspectives and understanding what are potential ideas that are out there that could be helpful. It’s not certain websites. I know Twitter now has a lot of vitriol but I think it has a lot of potential for getting new perspectives. I’m constantly learning from people that I follow and hearing their thoughts on things. I feel I know a lot about stadium subsidies and the economic principles of that but I realize it’s almost entirely because I follow certain sport economists on Twitter and I read what they say. The second thing, I actually work for the North American Society for Sport Management called NASSM. We have a blog where we ask researchers to write an easy-to-read version of whatever they’ve researched. This blog is so random in its topics but it always relates to sports management. Because I edit that, I get to read and learn about sponsorship, social justice, marketing, education and all sorts of these other areas that aren’t my expertise. I love it because it’s unrelated to what I do. I love Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. I read academic articles as part of my job, so I like non-academically written books that I can read when I am falling asleep. Right now I’m reading My Grandmother’s Hands and it’s nothing to do with sports or leadership. It’s about the world and human experience. I teach management and it’s all about effectiveness and efficiency. But life doesn’t need to be a management textbook. I’ve lived a life well lived if I’m learning new things and growing whether it relates to sports or not.
Tim: Can you tell us some of the topics you’re following these days?
Natalie: #sportsbiz or #highered can help anyone connect to people they might want to talk to. It ends up snowballing because those initial follows can introduce to other people to follow and so on and so forth. It’s almost a little cheat sheet (Twitter) because I get to see what’s happening in the sports industry and with sports research. I probably spend too much time on it but I don’t care. I love it!