Interview with Professor Steve McKelvey
Bryan Haggerty of SportsDegreesOnline.org interview Steve McKelvey from the Uniersity of Massachusetts, Amherst. They discuss Dr. McKelvey’s experience interning with Sports Illustrated, working in the MLB’s Commisioner’s Office, working as a Sports Agent, and what it takes to be successful in the sports industry.
About Professor Steve McKelvey
Steve McKelvey is the Department Chair and Graduate Program Director of the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management in the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His research focuses on issues at the intersection of the law and sport marketing, and he is a noted authority on ambush marketing. Prior to joining the UMass faculty, he spent 15 years in the sport marketing and sponsorship industry, including six years in Major League Baseball’s Commissioners Office and another eight years on the sport sponsorship agency side where he consulted numerous national brands on activation strategies. Additionally, for over 25 years he has been a partner in a baseball agency, representing over 125 professional players including 11 who have played in the Major Leagues.
Bryan: Professor McKelvey, your impressive career has taken you through various parts of the sports industry. I see you’ve been involved in corporate sponsorships, marketing, and you’re a partner at a firm that represents baseball players now. Do you remember when it was that you decided you wanted to seriously pursue a career in sports and can you tell us a bit about your journey?
McKelvey: I’ve played sports all through growing up, particularly baseball. I came from a baseball centric family and I always had an interest in writing. So my initial career path was sports journalism. I went to Amherst College and got a degree in American studies. I wrote my thesis on sports violence and the mass media, so there was a sports piece there. I was the sports editor of the student newspaper for a couple of years, [and I] interned one summer at Sports Illustrated. Then when I graduated, I worked for two years as a sports editor at a daily newspaper in Western Massachusetts. Through making some contacts while I was there, I was pointed towards the UMass sport management program. I took a couple of classes there while I was freelancing, made a couple of calls to some folks about getting into the baseball business, because although I was a sports editor and I was a baseball person, I thought my next move would be as a PR person with a baseball team. So I made some calls specifically to Dan Duquette and Harry Dalton who are both Amherst College alumni. They both pointed me to Albuquerque New Mexico and the Albuquerque Dukes. So I went to the Albuquerque Dukes (affiliate of the Dodgers) to work for that team [to serve as their] PR person [and as a] “jack of all trades” – selling tickets, everything you do at a AAA baseball team – for a year. Then, I decided to go to the UMass sport management graduate program [to earn my formal education]. [Following graduation, I got an internship at] Major League Baseball, where I] ended up staying for six years. As they say, the rest is history. It was never any conscious realization of, “I’ve got to work in the sports industry.” It just kind of happened that way. One thing led to the other and it was a very networked career because other than that first job that I applied for at the Westfield Evening News job straight out of college, I never actually applied for any other job after that by mailing out resumes.
Bryan: This last point about the importance of networking is a theme that seems to be very important in the sports industry. You did go to law school at some point later – tell me a bit about how you fit your law degree while also navigating your career.
McKelvey: I was encouraged to go to law school through a couple of my UMass connections – one of them being the head of the UMass Sport Management program [who] I had done a lot of legal work with on various articles. Another [good friend of mine], Rich Ensor, who is now the commissioner of the MAAC Conference, also encouraged me to go to law school. I was working full-time at MLB at the time, so I went to class at night. It was a four year slog at night, [and I mostly went that route because my mentors] said it was a good thing to do. I never had any intentions to go practice law at a law firm or to clerk for a judge. I left MLB with one year left in law school, finished law school and didn’t [realize] at the time [that this degree would] give me a terminal degree to be a professor at a college. [At the time] I didn’t know how that worked, [but] I’m glad I got it because I couldn’t have done this next step in my career as a college professor if I hadn’t secured my law degree. It also helped with my baseball agency which I have been doing for twenty five years.
Bryan: To be a partner at an agency – and to work as a baseball agent – do you need to have a law degree? Is that a prerequisite to be a partner at an agency that represents baseball players?
McKelvey: First of all, I’m a partner more as a title, because there are three of us. We are a small boutique agency based here in Western Massachusetts. In fact you do not need to have a law degree to be an agent. It’s a common misconception. It just so happens that myself and my other two partners, who are spouses, Jim and Lisa Masteralexis, both are lawyers, but that doesn’t necessarily need to be the case.
Bryan: Comparing your quality of life and your work-life balance with your fellow graduates at Seton Hall Law School, do you feel you’ve got a better work-life balance working in the sports world? Or do you think it’s exactly the same, and that work is work?
McKelvey: I think it depends on what work you are doing. I think now I certainly do [have a better work life balance than most of my fellow graduates] as a professor of sport law, but if I was working in the industry it’s just a different kind of work. You always hear if you work in a law firm, particularly as you are working your way up and it’s ninety hours a week with billable hours,, the work-life balance [in a law firm] is probably not the same as if you’re working in a marketing role for a league or for a team. The hours are different if you work for an MLB team where you work all day, stay for the game, watch the game and do some networking and schmoozing with your clients. That to me is a different kind of work than cranking out law briefs for fourteen hours a day. So in some respects work is work and it would depend on the kind of work you are doing, but certainly what I do now is a much better work life balance with my professor hat.
Bryan: Looking specifically at the field of sports management as a degree field and professional field, do you think this is a good industry to get into, especially for those who are passionate about sports?
McKelvey: First of all you have to be a fan of the business that is the sports industry. [If you are simply] a fan of the sport, you are going to be weeded out very early as someone who is just interested more in watching the game than doing the work. You really have to be a fan of the business of the industry. That entails getting a strong foundation in business principles and business foundations. You certainly don’t need a sport management degree to work in the sports industry. I would suspect most people working in the sports industry do not have a sports management degree. However, the benefit of having a sports management degree and particularly if it’s in a school of business, you’re going to have that business foundation and you’re going to learn everything in the context of sports management. With sports marketing 101 we talk about how the sports industry is different from other industries. Sport is a different animal for the reasons of the passion of the consumer and the fan. It’s not whether you win or lose. You can’t be selling your product based on wins. We actually have a whole laundry list of things detailing what makes the sports industry unique. If you are in a good sports management program, then you are getting a lot of opportunity to do experiential learning projects that specifically touch the sports industry. You are more likely to get a summer internship that is in the sports field so when you do go to apply for a job you have some sports [experience] on your resume. If it’s a good program there’s also the opportunity to engage in student clubs. We have four undergrad student clubs at UMass and each one of them is doing tremendous things,. So if you are in a sport management program you are going to get exposed to a variety of sport- related opportunities and come out with a lot of [relevant experience] on your resume. And it’s going to be in an area that you’re going to enjoy as well.Why sports management specifically? You are going to be exposed much more to the industry directly and its alumni network which is critically important. If I’m a sports management student and I want to network with one of our alum who works at the Celtics, I’m going to get a much better response from that alum if I call up or send an email and say, “I’m a sports management student, I’d like to talk to you about your career.” Versus an accounting major saying, “I’m an accounting major, I’d like to talk to you about your career.” You see what I’m saying? So I think if you’re a sports management major it’s just going to give you the ease of access to the industry, the network and the alumni network, projects and so forth. And all of this, learning within the context of the uniqueness of the sports and sport industry. Now again, I’m sure there are thousands and thousands of people in the sports industry who went to small liberal arts NESCAC schools who didn’t do sports management as a major and good for them. I’m just telling you what I feel are the advantages of pursuing an undergraduate sports management degree.
Bryan: UMass is one of the few schools that offer a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, a dual degree program that combines the master’s in sport management with an MBA and you also have a PHD in sports management. You mentioned the clubs at UMass as being one of the benefits of choosing a well established program, you also mentioned some of the unique connections available through the UMass networks. Are there any other highlights of your program that you’d like to touch on?
McKelvey: On the undergrad and grad level, when you are seriously looking at a program, my personal bias is that you want to be looking at programs in business schools because you are automatically going to be exposed to a business environment. You’re going to be heavy up on business courses and business foundations. That doesn’t happen if you are doing a sports management degree in a school of education or kinesiology and so forth. In terms of other things you want to look for are the breadth and depth of the faculty, particularly full time tenure track faculty because those are people researching and becoming authorities in a specific area of sport management education research. Our program has twelve full time faculty, with nine tenure track, and three full time lecturers who work within our department. So you’re going to get taught by the experts in their area – not by generalists – [which allows for) a more robust education. You are also going to have access to a lot more areas of expertise. The example I use is, you will be taught sports law by someone who has a law degree. You will be taught sports marketing by someone with a PHD in sports marketing. You will be taught sports organization behavior by someone that has a PHD in sports organization behavior. A lot of programs are taught by adjuncts who come in one night a week for three hours. They work in the industry which is really [appealing] to some people because you are being taught by somebody that works at MLB and comes down once a week for three hours but they aren’t PHDs in that degree. [However, those adjuncts] aren’t trained as professors. So you want to make sure to look at the breadth and depth of the faculty, how big it is and their areas of expertise. The other thing is the alumni network. The longer you’ve been in this business, the bigger the alumni network. And not only the alumni network but the access the students have to it. That’s one area we do a really good job. We train all our students how to use this alumni database effectively and efficiently. We have four general managers in the MLB and if we didn’t train these students we’d have thirty students coming in as freshmen who would mass email all four of these people saying, “I’d like to talk to you about your job.” We teach our students strategies on how to use the alumni network and database. That’s another factor when looking at schools, is the size of the alumni network and the access to it.
Bryan: Along those lines, something that’s a standout aspect for the Isenberg School’s Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management is the executive in residence program and the graduate mentor program. Could you talk a little bit about those?
McKelvey: We have an industry icon come on campus for three days [every fall]. Every different cohort gets exposure and access to this executive in residence. They do a McCormack’s Innovator Lecture which we record and share out with everybody including our alums. They also have lunch with our first year dual-degree students, they have a formal breakfast with our club leaders, and they’ll visit some of our grad classes and undergraduate classes. So we have about eight different opportunities for students and the executive in residences to have smaller setting meetings. Our most recent executive in residence, in the fall of 2019, was former NBA Commissioner David Stern. Obviously we didn’t have an executive in residence this past fall [due to COVID. Switching gears, our grad mentor program is unique because of the strength of our alumni network. We are able to pair every one of our grad students with somebody from the industry who serves as a mentor for the entire year. That really is about providing guidance, advice, counsel, maybe opening up their rolodex once a relationship is built. They’ll review their resumes and cover letters as well. Everyone’s a little different but it usually works very well. I pair them based on their career interests. I typically pair them with someone that is a mid-level executive so it’s a little more relevant. And because our senior level executives are so busy, only once in a while I’ll be able to get one to commit. I typically look for alum at a mid level in their career because they are much more relatable for the students that they are aligned with.
Bryan: Needless to say, COVID-19 has changed so many aspects of the economy and we’re finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel but it’s going to take some time before things return to normal. Within the world of sports management specifically, are there any important changes that graduates should be aware of as we ride out the next few years and how is the job market generally for sports management graduates at the moment?
McKelvey: Let me answer the last question first. It’s not good [at the moment], and it’s not a surprise. It’s going to be tough [for a while yet], but if you think of all the positions that have been laid off, at some point when everything gets back to normal, all these jobs are going to open back up. So what I’ve been telling our grad and undergrad students is that they need to be much more flexible right now. They need to think about sport and non-sport jobs. They need to think about where they could work and what skill sets they could develop that could be readily transferable when the sport market opens back up. So if that means going to work for a non-sports marketing agency, market research firm, ad agency or promotion agency that’s not in sports then you’ve got to be open to that right now. If it’s in the section of the industry you didn’t think you wanted to go into but that’s where a job is now, you’ve got to be willing to take that job. Also this is a great time to be networking with alums and non alums because people are sitting at home by themselves. I hear this continual theme from the alums we talk to, now’s a good time to be asking them career advice and how they got where they did. Zoom fatigue notwithstanding, people still feel that they want to be helpful. They have more time and in some cases it’s actually easier to reach people and talk for fifteen minutes over Zoom about somebody’s career. We’re stressing to continue the networking process right now, be open and more flexible to jobs that you wouldn’t ordinarily think about taking even if it’s outside of sports, as long as you are gaining skills. You also need a paycheck. We have a lot of undergraduates who want to go into sports sales, but nobody is selling anything in sports now. People are selling software programs and everything else not sport so if you can go get trained up and get some sales experience in those businesses, those are skills that are easily going to transfer over when teams start re-hiring to help sell sponsorship tickets.
Bryan: Imagining three years or so down the road when the market fully emerges, what sort of changes do you anticipate? How do you think things will be slightly different than they were before and what can students be doing to prepare themselves for that new world?
McKelvey: I think the trend towards business analytics isn’t going to end. To the extent that you can continue to build your analytics skills, I think that is going to be key across all different sectors of the industry. Revenue generation isn’t going to go away either. It’s going to become more important because of all the money these teams and leagues both will have lost. Anybody who can demonstrate ability to generate revenue is going to be in high demand for sure. I also think that a lot more business is going to be conducted over Zoom. A consistent refrain I’m hearing from our alums is they’ve all kind of figured out they don’t need to fly to California for three hours of meetings and take two days to do that. Now they can take a Zoom call and get the same thing done. Zoom isn’t going to go away in terms of getting business done. So learning Zoom etiquette, having charisma electronically will be important.