Last Updated on September 22, 2021
Interview with Dr. Rebecca Achen
Dr. Rebecca Achen connected with Bryan from SportsDegreesOnline.org. She discusses her academic journey, sports marketing, social media, Illinois State’s Sports Management Program, as well as some practical advice for young people looking to break into the sports industry.
About Dr. Rebecca Achen
Rebecca M. Achen, Ph.D., is a professor of sport management at Illinois State University. She has extensive experience in sport marketing and sales and concentrates her research on relationship marketing and social media in professional sport.
Bryan: Dr. Achen, please tell me a bit about your academic journey into sports leadership and sports management.
Dr. Achen: Sure, so I actually had quite a few majors as an undergraduate. I actually started out thinking I wanted to teach English and quickly learned that wasn’t going to be as fun as I thought. I was an athlete all throughout school. I started coaching basketball during my freshman year at college and really enjoyed that. I realized sport was a potential area I could go into so I looked into physical education which at the time was where almost all sport management programs were housed, which sounds like eons ago now.
I realized that was a potential option for me and took a couple courses in the kinesiology and anatomy field. Although I liked it, I didn’t see myself pursuing it as a career. However, I quickly realized I could match business and sport together so I did an undergraduate degree in sport management. I worked a little bit in independent baseball and college sports, and eventually decided to go back and work at the university in college admissions for a couple of years.
That’s when I decided to get my master’s degree in educational leadership with emphasis in sports management. Some of those courses were about higher education, while other were about sports marketing and finance. I knew at that time that there was a good chance I would get my PhD however I didn’t know that I wanted to teach. I went the thesis route for my master’s and when I finished it, I was at a crossroads as to whether I wanted to pursue a career in corporate wellness or get back into the sport industry.
At the time, a friend of mine worked at the National Center for Drug Free Sport in Kansas City. They had a position in nutrition and marketing and thought I would be a good fit. I did that for a couple years and got a certification to be a personal trainer and group fitness instructor. There I realized how much I loved teaching. Really, my love for teaching came out of my love for being a personal trainer.
I then hit another crossroad trying to decide if I’d go into the fitness area full time or if I needed to go back to school to get my degree to teach. When I realized the hours I would need to keep to work in fitness full time (really early mornings and late evenings) I decided to go back and get my PhD at the University of Kansas. I kind of fell into that program with one of the best advisors I could have asked for. There I found I had not only a love for teaching but a love for the research side as well. I credit a lot of the mentorship I was given on the academic side with helping me decide where I wanted to be as a teacher. Once I graduated there, my first job was at Illinois State University and now this is my sixth year here serving as the sequence coordinator for the sports management graduate program, which is quite large. So that’s how I ended up here.
Bryan: You mentioned some professional experiences before your master’s degree, including working for a minor league baseball team and as a personal trainer. Can you talk about some of the professional experiences you’ve had in the sports industry and how they have impacted your research interest in academia?
Dr. Achen: Sure. My primary line of research is looking at relationship marketing in sport. I have chosen to look at social media as a means to build relationships with customers. My interest tends to lie in professional sports. When I was working for the baseball team, I was hired in the sales department. But anybody that has worked in independent or minor league baseball knows that when you are hired as an intern, you are kind of hired as an intern for everywhere. You do anything they ask you to. I got a lot of different experiences and they asked me after the internship to come on full time in their ticket sales and service area. They kind of created a position called a season ticket holder concierge which at the time, was unique and different.
My job, which was the greatest job, was to talk to season ticket holders, find ways to make them happy and find ways to build a personal connection with them so they continued to renew their tickets every year. When I started that in March before I graduated, I literally had a three ring binder where I was calling up season ticket holders, chatting with them and making notes about their families, interests and where they were at retention wise. I had a list of how often I had contacted them and that was my poor woman’s version of a CRM system. The company did have [a CRM system] but since I was working remotely, I couldn’t access it. Again, this was back when remote accessing was not quite as easy as it is now. That was a really cool experience and that’s really where I got excited about the idea of taking care of your customers and building long term relationships in terms of building a successful business.
Research shows retaining customers is less expensive and more fruitful in the long run so having the means to do that through personal connection really got me interested in researching that in my academic career. Along with that, in the fitness industry, the reason I was a successful personal trainer wasn’t because I had this super cool program where people got extremely strong and lost all this weight – it was because people liked to talk to me. That was another experience in an industry that showed me the importance of building real, authentic relationships with customers. Again, that’s where my research interest came from. I focused on social media because ten years ago when I started in the research area it wasn’t a well researched in in the sports management realm.
Bryan: Continuing with that point – obviously you’ve been in this branch of sports management for a while now, social media and relationship marketing. Please talk a bit about what you are seeing today in this area and how you expect it to evolve over the next decade.
Dr. Achen: This area of research is rapidly evolving and changing because the networks we are using to communicate are rapidly changing. New ones are being created and the old ones evolve in different ways. I think it is an interesting area to research because there is a lot of data out there and information you can get your hands on.
At the same time though it can be difficult to research because of its nature, [which is changing] constantly. For the sports industry, we’re going to want to look into how social media has been effectively used to reach customers and leverage sponsorship. We’ve seen a lot of information talking about how it has been used but don’t really know what has been effective. That has to do with the main issues of social media marketing and how its effects are quantified. You can’t necessarily say, “this person typically bought tickets from Facebook.” It’s not usually that linear. Most of the content sports organizations are putting out there isn’t designed to drive sales anyway. It’s information about scores, player trades and what the teams are doing with the community.
As it continues to evolve, I think a lot of the research is going to switch to measurement. A lot of my recent work has been about how we measure it and how we distinguish between what content is effective in driving certain behaviors such as clicks, shares, purchases on the website, or referral/word of mouth. I think we are going to see shift that way as networks like Tiktok become more leveraged by sports teams and we start to see more research in those areas. One of the biggest challenges for anybody in the academic realm and social media research is making it relevant because when you talk about how to use Facebook effectively, they are always changing their algorithm or how they show content. Then all that research you did isn’t as beneficial. So we have to take a step back and think how social networks can drive behavior, what things can be applied similarly across networks and what things have to be looked at individually by networks.
Bryan: That approach seems a lot more sane than trying to follow each platform and figure out what they are doing individually. My next question has to do with the sports industry as a whole, and how it will change in the near future. There is no doubt it’s a tough time across the industry at the moment, but there are signs that a rebound may be coming. When the sports industry starts to bounce back in the coming years, how will it be different than what we knew before?
Dr. Achen: I’m glad you said ‘in the coming years’ because one thing I am stressing with my students in classes now is the time frame. It’s not like the pandemic will all of a sudden get under control and sports will go back to how it was. [That’s simply] not realistic. A lot of my students want to work in college sports and I’m constantly telling them that you’re not going to see the budget impacts of this magically change. It will take multiple years for the sports industry to recover from this one year of lost revenue. Looking at the NFL salary cap difference will tell you all you need to know.
Now, a couple things I think will be a positive of this all. The pandemic has forced us all to rethink how events work and rethink the customer experience. The flow of stadiums and venues is going to be improved. You’ll continue to see these cleaning measures improve long term which in the long run make venues better for fans. Most places were moving to mobile ticketing already, but those that were still waiting it out will grab onto that. We’ll see how that impacts the secondary ticket market, group tickets or company season tickets. I think all those things that were being pushed by the sports and entertainment industry to change are now here to stay.
I always think like a marketer so what’s fascinating to me is the different revenue streams, signage and sponsorship that we will potentially be seeing. The ways fans can attend games virtually will continue to be leveraged by sport teams. I especially think sports teams are going to be open to jersey sponsorship. We were already starting to see the NBA embrace this but we’ll see this start to permeate other industries because it is an additional revenue stream and they will need that money for years to come to make up for this past year. I think those are all great changes. Sports has always been a relatively stable industry during economic downturn so this is the first time it’s been forced to consider how it operates. They’re finally forced to think outside the box by necessity and this is the best outcome of the Covid pandemic on the sports industry.
Sports has always been a relatively stable industry during economic downturn so this is the first time it’s been forced to consider how it operates. They’re finally forced to think outside the box by necessity and this is the best outcome of the Covid pandemic on the sports industry.
Bryan: Some great points there. Shifting gears a bit – looking at different sports management programs, many are either housed in kinesiology departments or business schools. At Illinois State, your sport management master’s program is housed in the kinesiology department. Can you explain the advantages of this orientation and why prospective students should consider this approach?
Dr. Achen: I think it’s interesting how sports management came to be housed in these different areas and we see a lot of programs purposefully switching to being housed in the business school because it makes sense. Being housed in kinesiology is a cool opportunity to connect with students who were maybe interested in the physical aspect of sports or coaching but we’re able to have them take our classes as electives and see the sports industry in a broader perspective and understand the business of sport.
I think we really benefit the rest of the degrees in our school from that perspective. We benefit from being in the school of kinesiology because we have students who are athletic trainers who want to be in the fitness industry and it forces my students to think outside of just working in college or pro sports. In my experience as an instructor, almost all my students come in thinking of D-I college, big four pro sports teams and that’s where they want to work, in marketing and operations. Having students in other fields (like kinesiology) allows our sports management students to see the bigger picture of the sports industry and [understand] the diverse range of jobs [that are out there].
Bryan: There are obviously a lot of sports management programs out, more all the time in fact. As prospective students are trying to compare different programs, what sorts of factors do you think they should keep in mind when selecting and comparing programs to study?
Dr. Achen: I would say the number one thing, what do those programs offer outside of the classroom. What extra experiences are they exposing students to? And if you can’t find those on their website, social media, or when you ask their faculty members then you may want to consider a different program. Just like every industry, getting hired relies a lot on experience and getting to know people. Those extra experiences are where you get to network with industry professionals who in the long run will be your connections for jobs in the future.
I also think it’s great to see who is teaching the classes. What have their experiences been? Do they have some practical experience? If not, do you have evidence showing them trying to stay connected to the industry in some shape or form? What are they researching? Because those relationships with faculty can help students find their path. There are so many areas of sport you can work in so your faculty tend to help you figure out where your interests lie and where they actually fit in the grand scheme of the industry.
I also think it’s important to see if there are opportunities to get a minor in business or communications so that you have exposure outside of the sports industry. It’s important not to get too siloed if you can avoid it. Those are things I would look for. You can also look at the course load and see if it’s more business versus sociology focused or college versus professional focused. That may help students who have an interest in one of those areas make their decision.
Bryan: Along the same vein, qhat general advice do you have for students whether they are bachelor’s or master’s graduates as they enter the professional world over the next few years?
Dr. Achen: Embrace the idea that life is always about learning. You aren’t going to graduate and magically know all the things you are going to need to know. While you are a student and getting ready to enter the professional realm, it’s important to find journals, websites, podcasts and email lists and join them so you know what is happening in the sports industry. You will be sitting in an interview and they will ask you, “how have you seen the sports teams adapt to the Covid pandemic and how could you implement that our institution?” If you don’t stay up to date on the trends then you’ll struggle to answer that. Embrace the idea of being a lifelong learner now and get into that habit of listening to a weekly journal or podcast as soon as you can.
In addition, do things that force you out of your comfort zone and aren’t necessarily in your job description. We all struggle to find what we want to do with our lives but it’s a lot easier to find out what you don’t want to do. Stepping outside your comfort zone, volunteering with a different department even if it’s not your particular job responsibility, can help you find your way a little quicker. Whereas if you put your head down and only do what’s asked of you, you may miss out on those opportunities to find more about yourself through those experiences.
Bryan: My next question has to do with gender dynamics. We’ve spoken with quite a few professors and heads of departments of sports management programs and there are significantly more men in the field of sports management than women. Can you tell me how you found your way through the gender dynamics of the sports industry and what advice you have for people following in your footsteps?
Dr. Achen: You’re right in that the majority of people in the industry are males. At ISU we are proud of the fact that both of our faculty members are female who have industry experience because it’s not common. For me starting out, I made a really good friend who at the time was also an intern when I worked at the Sioux Falls Canaries.
We were essentially the only females there and we really supported each other. I think too often women in the industry, we tend to see that there are too few roles for us, so we tend to get competitive rather than holding each other up. One thing that was beneficial for me was connecting with her and trying to be successful together in that environment versus being competitive. Also, finding other women who were successful in sport and reaching out to them and asking them how they were successful was helpful.
I consider myself lucky not having experienced any overt sexism or being treated differently by my colleagues. I also recommend that you connect yourself with people who will support you. There are plenty of industry men and women who want to help women and minorities be successful. So whenever I found someone I thought was supportive and going out of their way to help those groups, I connected with them and let them push me forward and support me. It’s also critical to not be too prideful and to allow people to help you. We talk about the ‘good ol’ boys’ group and that exists in sports. So instead of trying to prove you don’t need the ‘good ol’ boys’ to be successful, create your own network and embrace somebody willing to help you up and push you through.
The other thing that has helped me handle times – where students or clients struggled with the fact I was a woman in a male dominated field – was standing up for what I believed in, which is that I am capable and strong. When they were making comments or treating me differently, I just called them out on it. I know it’s more of a personality thing, but you just have to be willing to tell someone, “I am capable and here to help you. You don’t need my male supervisor because you are dealing with me.” I didn’t have a lot of negative experiences. I am lucky in that respect but I think it’s about finding people to be champions for you and using your network to help you succeed.
Bryan: My next question is about Illinois State’s sports management master’s program. What do you feel sets your sports management program apart from others?
Dr. Achen: One thing I think sets us apart is that we are only a graduate program so the faculty we have are very focused on advising our graduate students, helping them find their way and getting them attached to additional experiences to help them be successful. We don’t have that large undergraduate program, which keeps us very focused on [our small cohort of master’s] students.
As for our extra experiences, we organize every year an industry emergence trip where we take our students to a city within driving distance (Milwaukee, St. Louis, Chicago) and do facility tours, network with professionals and build some camaraderie within our program itself. It’s intense but it definitely helps our students in the long run. We also organize a symposium every year where we bring professionals on campus to meet with and network with our students.
Before the pandemic, we also did a lot of additional types of experiences. We had alumni speakers that talked with our students. We had a book club that helped our students integrate that lifelong learning in industry related literature and apply it. We will hopefully continue these things post pandemic.
Our final thing that sets us apart is our vast alumni network [which has an amazing reputation for staying involved and eager] to give back to ISU. Illinois State University in general is this really unique place where once you are here, you don’t want to leave because it’s so supportive and positive. Because our students have such a great experience in our graduate program, they want to give back. They want to talk to our students and help them out. I’m not an alum of the program but my faculty counterpart is and can also attest to that desire to give back.
Bryan: Sounds great. My last question for you. Are there any books or podcasts you can recommend to young people that are trying to stay up to date with the latest industry news?
Dr. Achen: I love the Sport Business Journal Unpacks podcast which they started during the pandemic. If there’s anyone that wants to do a history walk of what happened in the sport industry during the pandemic, start at their first episode and listen to the first fifteen. It’s cool because you can see how rapidly things changed. They’ve actually kept up with it and it continues to talk about important things in the industry. The SBJ has a couple daily and weekly podcasts that I listen to that I think are really good ways for sports management students to remind themselves that the player trades are great, who won the game is interesting, but that the whole industry behind sport is much bigger and much more involved than that.
Sport Business Radio also has a good podcast. I would recommend students to subscribe to SBJ daily and weekly if they can. I have the CollegeAD send their nightly nightcap email that I think is really useful for keeping up with things happening in college sports. Those are some of my favorites that I try to keep up with.
Bryan: Thanks for sharing and that’s all I have for now. You’ve been so generous with your time. There are so many good insights here and it was great to hear all your perspectives.