Last Updated on September 21, 2021
Interview with Kieran Kelliher
John from SportsDegreesOnline.org chatted with Kieran Kelliher. They talked about living and working in the midwest, how working in the sports industry is different than other industries, and the power of relationships when breaking into the sports industry.
About Kieran Kelliher
Kieran Kelliher serves in the CFO role for the Chicago Bulls, with a particular focus on business operations. He leads the finance and retail operations of the team, the business operations of the Windy City Bulls G League franchise, and is the Treasurer of Chicago Bulls Charities. He serves as a member of the NBA’s Risk Management Advisory Council, and previously on the NBA All-Star 2020 operating committee.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience in sports and what got you to this point in your career?
I’m the VP of finance for the Chicago Bulls. I’ve been working with the Bulls for seven and a half years at this point. And before that the Bulls were my client for about three years. I am a CPA and was running audits of public and private companies. The Bulls were one of my clients at the time, actually my smallest client, but certainly my most fun. So my break into sports was first with the firm, Deloitte getting involved with a couple of sports jobs and the partner that worked on those audits. And then the team itself had a couple of key employees in the finance and legal space retire at about the same time. And frankly, they came to me and I told them I would be interested, and it was an offer I couldn’t refuse to come work for them directly as opposed to just auditing them once a year.
So that was my break into sports. I’d tell you that it’s not like I had this planned out from high school or college or anything and executed it according to some type of plan. It was really just intentionally building relationships and putting myself in a position where if something opened up I could jump into it. Certainly, this was a bit of a dream job in terms of a landing spot. Growing up around Chicago, a team I certainly loved and rooted for during my youth, it is a privilege being able to work for them directly and help guide, influence, and steward the resources of the team.
How important is it for students to have professional certifications when breaking into the world of sports? Can internships and persistence fill the void if a student is lacking a professional certificate like a CPA license or a master’s degree?
I would say that ultimately I believe the power of relationships is going to be more critical to your career path than the letters on your resume or the degree that you have. But each of those things, whether it’s a professional certification or key applicable education, can help you down that path for a couple of different reasons. Staying on education first. Some of the value of going to a university, going to a master’s program, etc. is the material you learn, but also its those relationships you get to build and that network. That can really open up doors or distinguish your background and experience relative to others who maybe don’t have that network to tap into, that time on campus or in a remote community.
I’d say professional certifications are much more job dependent. There are certainly elements of sports that are maturing and have matured to be very professional and look a lot like your for-profit businesses. So sports teams, sports facilities, organizations, whatever it might be, they are looking for some of those professional folk who have that type of outside expertise to come in and help them grow and mature and run a business like it’s a for-profit business. They cast off the historical view of a lot of these sports teams just being these family run small companies, but there’s still some element to that. I was brought in to modernize our finance and accounting team, replace a lot of technology, update processes, things like that.
I look at where growth is right now in sports and it’s heavily in sports analytics. Not only on the sports side, but especially on the business side. Seeking customer insights, deep dives into data. How can we collect and analyze data to deliver a more tailored or customized product or element of the service? That relies on a degree of skill that doesn’t just naturally grow up inside a sports team. A lot of these organizations are going outside to get someone who has data analytics experience and is really good with statistics. Even some elements of behavioral economics which again is outside experience, outside degrees that are really valuable to a lot of companies, but especially sports with the high volume of fans that we have to connect with and speak to.
In terms of hiring, are franchise teams like the Bulls or teams operating within the sports industry, do you think they are recruiting people that have experience in the tech industry, or are they open to other industries? If you have data analytics skills, but you’ve been working in healthcare, does that easily transfer over or am I wrong?
It can. It really depends on the role. I’ll step through a few examples. If you’re looking to get into ticket sales, historically the view was that you start as an intern and then grind your way up, and you had to hit certain numbers and prove that you could sell. Similarly for corporate partnerships and sponsorship sales, I’ll tell you that teams are a little bit more open-minded about people with sales experience in general. It’s not that every industry is directly applicable, but there’s a broader pipeline that the hiring managers and the department heads are open to, where if you know how to sell, we’ll teach you the product of corporate sponsorships. But if you’ve got professional sales experience, that’s valuable.
That’s an example where it’s growing more open-minded in industry. I would tell you though that the nature of sports has continued to evolve beyond just live attendance at the games. It’s broadcast, it’s technology, it’s second screens through digital and social channels. Those types of industries have natural overlap or synergies. So you are going to get a lot of folks from tech or service-oriented industries filling a lot of those types of roles when teams or organizations look outside of their staff to add to the department or promote someone in the department, whatever it might be.
What makes working in the sports industry different from other industries?
In client service for nine years at Deloitte, I got to see a number of different industries. I didn’t just focus on one industry. So my clients were a sampling of working in construction, financial services, retail, food and beverage and restaurant. I think what differentiates sports for me is, especially once you settle in, it’s not about the star power or the stars in your eyes. Like, “Oh I get to occasionally see or interact with this athlete or this coach,” or whatever it might be. I think that wears off quickly, especially if you’ve got some experience and have a more mature perspective there. I think there’s a differentiating element that you have an opportunity to inspire or unite a fairly large group of people with your product or service. On top of that, have those memorable surprise and delight moments of entertainment for them. Going to a sporting event versus going to – what’s a competitive product? – it’s not even necessarily another sporting event. You’re competing for time. How else will someone use that time? A sporting event versus going to a movie – very different. Going to a sporting event versus going out to a restaurant – a very different experience.
The scale of who you get to work with and interact with in terms of your fan base both live and remotely through the broadcast is great. At the professional level it’s a very big scale of fans and it’s something that is naturally a little bit more memorable and engaging than other forms of service entertainment, like hospitality, whether it’s restaurants, hotels, things like that. That element of engagement with storytelling, call it tribalism of, “This is my team.” That relationship you build is naturally a little bit deeper and stronger. We’ve probably both seen or have personal stories of sports being a part of our relationship with someone, a common interest, a common thing we get to enjoy together and also draw memories and draw experiences from. And then you can look at another element in my mind is how sports can inspire. Inspire some change. Inspire some growth or investment in certain things. So there’s a social and cultural element of sports that’s fairly unique in my mind.
What separates Northwestern from other Master’s level programs?
Let’s get beyond just the fact that Northwestern is a university that has certainly got a great reputation, great resources. What makes it a compelling sports degree in my mind, and what attracted me when they recruited me to come teach for them, was they’ve got a very practical mindset to this master’s program. So it’s not theoretical reading from a textbook and a lot of hypothesis-type stuff. It’s very much practical application-focused.
We’ve got instructors that are working in the industry, myself, others, etc., and we’re drawing from very real examples, case studies, tools, resources that we use in our own jobs. Maybe we need to cleanse them so we’re not leaking confidential information, but in my class for example, we get into a series of things that are relevant to a sports finance person to understand. We’re going to use a real budget template from budgeting from a company I’m involved in in the sports industry. We’re going to use a real business valuation template. We are going to do a simulation of the due diligence of an investment from a real case study. I get to draw from my experience. I use those examples as reference, but that’s very much how all of these classes are designed for practical application.
It’s also mindful of the fact that each class individually is not the students’ major. I’m not working with students who major in accounting, who major in finance, so how do I equip them in a way that practically sets them up so they can have those conversations in a future situation with my type of folk? So that they can run a budget process in their department interacting with the finance folks and speak their language. Again, I keep going back to this point that there’s a practical element that is woven through every class so that students can take what they learn and apply it and adapt it to what their career path and goals are for the future, wherever this degree would take them.
The other differentiating factor I’d say is going back to the Northwestern location. Chicago is a great sports city and a great sports network. So you’ve got a number of professional teams, but get out of even the big four professional teams, you’ve got universities, the Big 10 conference all based here. You’ve got great sports facilities, great sports industry vendors, etc. You’ve got all these different elements of sports and entertainment that are based here. It’s not number one in the world. I get it, New York and LA are big cities, too. But you’ve got a great Midwest location, one that has an incredible sports network to tap into.
Northwestern integrates really well and has a number of those relationships through the program and through the career center. Geographically a lot of alumni are spread throughout this area. So that geographic element of the Chicago sports network is really valuable.
What are some roles or jobs out there that students might not know of when they first start learning about working in the sports industry? I’m wondering if you have roles that might be interesting, but may not be top of mind for a young person getting into this field.
One of the biggest things in the last few years that we’ve intentionally reviewed and worked on in the program as a whole is career exploration. Again, incorporating that into the core classes, but also some of the electives, where you can start to explore a career in Esports, a career in sports marketing, sports technology, all the different ways you can go. Including the specialization of data analytics. That element leans into the practical application and value of how we’re trying to make this valuable to the students.
One position that I feel is over-requested and over-expected is to be the athletic director at a power five school or I want to be the GM of a sports team. Cool. That’s a great goal and a great aspiration, but there are only so many quantities of those jobs available. So that may not be the ultimate destination, but that can at least get you in the general direction. So what I tell folks to think about is – I’ll give you two primary responses. One is at the job level- sports businesses are maturing. They’re trying to get more professional and mirror what you see in for-profit businesses especially in emerging industries around technology. Because of that, you’re getting jobs in sports that are going to look and feel a little more like a normal corporate job because not everyone needs to sell tickets to run the business. Not everyone needs to do game entertainment to run the business. So areas like, again, I go back to data analytics, business analytics, in particular, has been a really hot and growing area that people five or ten years ago would not have thought about much. We’re seeing a lot more applicants and a lot more students that are aware of that, aware that is one of the hotbeds of growth in the sports world. That’s one that has gotten more attention, and I’d say is the path of future growth. It’s this strategy and analytics element of how you develop your business or how you engage with fans and sell through your channels.
Then the other thing I’d say is – and I’m not talking about specific jobs, but more broadly – don’t focus only on the sports teams or the athletic departments of universities. There are other ways you can plug into the sports industry upstream and downstream. I look at facilities. I look at vendors. Key vendors like concessions and marketing agencies. Then also, again, look beyond just the biggest names. So I’m a huge fan of where that next tier of sports leagues are going like the MLS. Some of these things that, frankly, are growing into just as complex just as prominent professional sports platforms. That’s another thing I want people to think about. Think about not working for the Chicago Cubs, but think about whether Minor League Baseball, Major League Soccer, you can go through all of these other leagues. Then finally, think about league offices too. Working not at the team level, but at the league level or for Olympic and organized sports, working at the federation levels as well.
What sort of advantages are there to studying and working in the sports industry in Illinois?
I’m going to speak a little bit broader to the region. We spoke a bit about Chicago itself being a great hotbed for sports, professional, college, etc. If you look at Chicago, a lot of folks might come here and study. I went to the University of Illinois down in Champaign. It doesn’t mean I stayed in Champaign to work, but I stayed in the general region. So if you look outside of Chicago within Illinois there’s another layer of great universities if you’re looking at the college sports world in terms of jumping into the industry. You’ve also got some really nice midwest cities that have their own professional college opportunities and sports just north of us, east of us, etc.
We’re in the heart of Big Ten country. We’re in the heart of a number of Division 1 colleges, where there’s a nice density. It’s not quite the Northeast, but it’s a nice density of professional sports opportunities that are within a 3 – 5 hour drive of Chicago as well. So to the extent that you come to Northwestern or one of these colleges for any degree especially in sports, you’ve got a world of opportunities in Chicago that you don’t need to go too far for. But you also have opportunities to get recruited or seek jobs at some of these other cities that are within a fairly short distance but are still offering professional and college-level opportunities like Indianapolis, Milwaukee, going down to St. Louis, east to the Ohio cities. That’s all fairly tight, and if you’re in Big Ten territory, Big Ten degrees tend to be well regarded and reflected. I recall that I lived in Ohio for a couple of years while my wife was doing her masters at Ohio State, we were both in Illinois for undergrad, and it was easy for me to get a job in Ohio because I had a University of Illinois degree. The prestige and the brand and name recognition of a Big Ten university carried really well, even if I was outside the state of Illinois. I think about the region more than just the state. However, the leading point here is that the city of Chicago is a fantastic city to work in.
Do you have any examples of interesting strategies or case studies that you have taught to master’s students?
I name-checked a little bit of the budgeting exercise that I was talking about. I pulled from effectively an event budget, and I change it every once in a while, but we hosted the All-Star Game in 2020. So that’s an example of where I can pull some of our thought processes and templates and budget and then that becomes an assignment for the students. Based on what we’ve talked about in the class, what we’ve learned about revenue streams, types of expenses you incur for a business or an event, use all of what you’ve learned and apply it to additional research you need to do on your own, and develop a budget for this event. Whether it’s NBA All-Star or one I’ve used in my class a number of times is the Gold Cup for soccer which every once in a while is held at Soldier Field. It’s a very local event, one that we know. One that we can get information on. That’s one of the more well-regarded case studies or one of the ones that students give me feedback on. They say, “Wow. I can take this from what I’m learning, and now when I’m tasked with developing a budget for my marketing idea or for my department in my future job…” they feel more comfortable about thinking through how granular you have to get, how detailed you have to get, and how you have to disclose where you’ve got a high degree of confidence and show your math. Versus, “Hey, there’s some risk here. I don’t know what this is going to look like. So we’ve got a placeholder or a contingency for this expense.” It’s a very practical, real example, but it’s one that’s drawn from both my own experience or a cleansed version of similar events that we work with.
Again, I’ll flip to a different course that I’ve helped mentor and counsel on in our front office operations. They do effectively an example negotiation including some role-playing but it’s all the prep work to get to that point for a team and a facility negotiating a lease. A sports team trying to extend a lease with a stadium, for example. So they have to think about, “If we’re the stakeholders, what are some of the goals and objectives of each party? What data? What analysis? What due diligence do you need to do ahead of time?” Define your outcomes and define what’s your measure of success, and then go in and actually roleplay the negotiation with the professor moderating it. That’s another example. I can go through a few others, but those are examples of something that the instructor has done himself in his job and he’s developed effectively, a final project for a class or a capstone project for the class that draws from that real experience and gives them translatable skills now I’ve got at least a little bit of. I might not ever negotiate a lease for a sports team, but I understand the work that needs to go into preparing for any type of negotiation whether it’s something 7 or 8 figures like that, or just working with this vendor and trying to manage the spend and the goals of the project and things like that. Again, just the practical application of it’s not as simple as you get to go do this, it’s how much work do you have to put into it? What are the tools and templates and resources that are useful to get you prepared for whatever that project is or whatever that negotiation is?
Do you have any interesting books or podcasts that you recommend for someone looking to learn more about this topic?
At least specific to modern trends and things like that, I really don’t actually do much in terms of podcasts and stuff. I stay on top of a lot of reading. So I’m a big fan of Sports Business Journal’s website which is a paid subscription, but it’s fairly modest. And they do a really good job of tracking and aggregating news of anything about the business of sports. That includes anything from marketing and league-level stuff. It doesn’t focus so much on players. It doesn’t focus on player transactions and whatnot. It’s really about the business around that. So it’s very helpful to me to stay up on industry news there. Northwestern actually, one of my colleagues, I have to sit for that podcast soon. They do a podcast through the Sports Master’s program at Northwestern called “Revenue Above Replacement” which has a very career exploration focus to it. Like, “Hey we’re going to sit down with this person and talk about their job.” It’s not so much that Bryce, the host, is there spouting his perspectives on everything. It’s very much more of an interview format about career opportunities and explorations. So in this mindset of, “How do we take students through a degree program, but then also equip them with next steps?” That’s another podcast that I’m aware of and I have to participate in here. But beyond that, I would say I’m a big reader of whatever local city business publication like Crain’s in Chicago. And then beyond that, just trying to be thoughtful about what types of books I read that help or support what I’m trying to do.
Any final advice for young people looking to break into the sports industry?
As a general mindset, I preach humility. Not in the way that the world defines it as, “I’m terrible at whatever.” It’s more of “Know who you are. Know what you’re good at. Know what you’re not. Discern what lights you up and sparks you versus what is kind of a burden and a drag.” Then when you get into any type of opportunity like an interview, internship, whatever, know when to be the sponge. Like, “Hey I don’t know much about this. I’m just going to listen and absorb.” Or know when you need to speak up like, “Hey, I’ve got some relationship to bring into this conversation that would help. Or I actually know something about this and it’s important then to raise my hand and share a perspective.” So that’s just a general mindset applicable in any work setting, to reflect on what you do and don’t know.
In terms of getting into a career in sports I go back to something I said earlier which is the power of relationships is huge here. There are places you can develop those relationships that are incubators for that type of network. I’d say Sports Master’s programs like Northwestern’s is one of them, but not the only one. But just be intentional about developing relationships even if there’s no immediate payoff, because that is frequently how folks can then get into the conversation or be top of mind if something opens up.
Also I think I said earlier is to think of sports broadly. Don’t think of just your favorite team that you want to go work for. It’s not only the teams. It’s the leagues. It’s the venues. It’s the vendors. It’s college and pros. It’s different levels of professional leagues. As long as you have an open mind in that, and you break in somewhere, then it’s easier to start developing. And to the extent that you desire it, start to move within the industry from point A to point B. That initial break-in is important.
With maybe a final thought being, if you want to get into sports, maybe go get that relevant experience somewhere else first. And then bring it into sports at a higher level as opposed to saying, “Okay, I want to eventually work in sports marketing so I’m going to go do a ticket internship.” That’s going to be a tough grind to get to where you want to go. It’s not always about you’ve got the right internship day one out of your degree. It’s maybe that degree sets you up 2, 3, 4 years down the road and you’re going to go get relevant experience somewhere else and then bring those together at the right point in time.