Last Updated on April 26, 2023
Interview with Dr. Michelle Harrolle
Sports Degrees Online had the chance to speak with USF's Dr. Michelle Harrolle. In this wide-ranging interview, they touch on topics including the growth and evolution of Esports, the importance of networking and experiential learning in the sports industry, and more. Professor Harrolle also shares some advice she has for students and young professionals about how to get started in sports.
About Dr. Michelle Harrolle
Dr. Michelle Harrolle is the Director of the Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program at the University of South Florida. She holds a PhD in Sport Management, and has spent past five years at USF dedicated to 100% student residency/fellowship placement.
Dr. Harrolle, prior to your career in academia, you had extensive experience working in various capacities in the sports industry, including in the number of high-profile collegiate institutions. Can you talk about some of the roles that you’ve held over the years?
Professor Michelle Harrolle: I am an athlete by nature. I always have been, always will be. Started off as a swimmer, swam in college, at the University of Florida. I was an all-American swimmer there and really have always enjoyed helping others, so, I got into coaching. And so, I coached at Florida State, Ohio State, and Providence College. I was a head coach, Aquatics Director at Providence College for both the men’s and women’s programs – one of only three in the country to be a female to coach both men’s and women’s swimming and diving at Division I level.
But recognized that I much prefer educating versus training. I didn’t enjoy waking up early and making people do things they didn’t want to do at six o’clock in the morning. It really wasn’t my passion. I really enjoyed just teaching. If could just teach you a skill, I was super happy. So, I said, ‘okay, I really enjoy the collegiate space, I want to teach at college’. At Providence College, I was at the same time preparing to teach a class and I found out that I needed to get a PhD’. I said, ‘sure, I’ll go do that’. So, I went and got a PhD. I make it sound super easy, right? Yeah, just go get it…
I went straight and got my Master’s after my Undergraduate at Florida, and then worked out in the industry for about six or seven years. Then came back and got a PhD at Florida where I fell in love with research as well as the business of Esports.
My degree was in sport business, with a concentration looking at Fan behavior of Latinos and Latinas. I’m actually Cuban, as my father came from Cuba. And so, I was really interested in understanding the market segment of Latinos and how they consumed sports and how ethnicity could play a role in their consumer behavior. So, that’s what I did for my dissertation and then my research has evolved into really looking at consumer behavior in general, in particular fandom and how your identity can influence what you do.
I soon got a fantastic opportunity to be a professor at NC State. I was at NC State for six years and then my dream job at USF came open. And now I’ve been here for almost 10 years at USF. I started off as an Assistant Professor, now I’m the Program Director.
Looking at your current role at USF – you’ve spent the last five years plus focusing on residency and fellowship placement for USF programs, USF students. Can you talk about the value that this work brings to the USF program and what you enjoy about it?
Professor Michelle Harrolle: I’m all about hands-on experiential learning, and what’s better than actually working with one of our partners. So, we have partners at USF that span all aspects of sport and entertainment. Everything from our founding partner, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Mid Sports group to Hard Rock Casino to Advent Health, looking at the brand side of sport.
We work with leagues, we work with the WTA, United Soccer League, individual teams, the (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), the Rays, among others – and it’s that opportunity for our students to get hands-on experiential learning that’s the key to their success.
You go to school, you learn some principles, you learn some concepts, you do amazing projects for our partners in the classroom, and then you get to take that and translate that into real world experience. So, our students work Monday, Wednesday, Friday with our partners and they have an opportunity to see what it’s like behind the curtain. [We have a student currently working at Fanatics, for example.]
There are so many opportunities to learn and then Tampa Bay area provides those opportunities. The sports commission, I can go on. When students are part of the fellowship, they really have an opportunity to do instrumental important projects. It’s not just your traditional learning experience, it is, ‘I’m responsible for this event, I am making sure that all of Fanatics are activations are happening the way they want them to happen with their partners, I am looking at contracts’, etc. It is very hands-on learning.
“When students are part of the fellowship, they really have an opportunity to do instrumental important projects. It’s not just your traditional learning experience, it is, ‘I’m responsible for this event, I am making sure that all of Fanatics are activations are happening the way they want them to happen with their partners, I am looking at contracts’, etc. It is very hands-on learning.”
Can you explain what the experiential learning opportunities look like at the Undergraduate and the Graduate level at USF?
Professor Michelle Harrolle: At the graduate level, they work with our partners on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. That’s happening while they’re getting their MBA and MS. Primarily, their MS is when they’re doing the fellowship program.
At the undergraduate level, our students are getting a marketing degree – which is so instrumental because as we know, there’s only a limited number of jobs in the sport industry. So, our students get a marketing degree and then they get a concentration in Sport and Entertainment Business. And that’s because they can have the opportunity to work in the sport industry but also work in any industry, and that’s what’s really nice about the MBA and MS. They’re with us because they want to work in sport and entertainment. That’s a given. But [with that degree and expertise], they have an opportunity to work outside of sport, if that opportunity becomes available and that’s what they want to do.
“At the undergraduate level, our students are getting a marketing degree – which is so instrumental because as we know, there’s only a limited number of jobs in the sport industry. So, our students get a marketing degree and then they get a concentration in Sport and Entertainment Business. And that allows them to specialize in the sport industry, but also work in any industry [if they desire to do so in the future].”
There are so many Sport Management programs at the Bachelor’s and Master’s level today that it may be overwhelming for prospective students to make a decision on which program is the best fit. You mentioned that experiential learning is a key component – what are some other factors that students should consider as they’re trying to choose a program?
Professor Michelle Harrolle: For us, it’s all about relationships and the people…We are very student-centric and my job is to help students reach their dreams, whatever they may be. And that means providing them with skills.
We do a lot of work on professional development, both in and out of the classroom, including mock interviews, and conversations about soft skills, and networking.
On day one, students begin reading a book about having a growth mindset. And that follows all the way through with the two years that they’re with us, where we’re constantly developing all the skills that are outside the traditional classroom curriculum. Building relationships is really important to us.
“For us, it’s all about relationships and the people…We are very student-centric and my job is to help students reach their dreams, whatever they may be. And that means providing them with skills.
We do a lot of work on professional development, both in and out of the classroom, including mock interviews, and conversations about soft skills, and networking.
On day one, students begin reading a book about having a growth mindset. And that follows all the way through with the two years that they’re with us, where we’re constantly developing all the skills that are outside the traditional classroom curriculum. Building relationships is really important to us.”
We not only do that with professional development, but we are also continuously building relationships between our students and our partners. We have a mentorship program as well where students are actually paired up with alumni, [and it is really incredible the kinds of opportunities that arise from these relationships].
How are alumni incentivized to stay so involved with current students? Is it just because they received the same kind of love when they were students?
Professor Michelle Harrolle: I love the fact you use the word ‘love’. We definitely let them know that they’re loved when they get here and that we care about them. And so, the reality is that [the alumni] do it because we ask.
We ask them and if they can’t, because they have other commitments, they’ll say, ‘Hey, I can’t do it this year – I’m super busy right now but I’d love to do it next time’. Our alumni just want to give back because they were given so much while they were here as well. And that’s a big part of it.
Our students are excellent students – we teach them about mentor-mentee relationships [from early on]. And they need to understand their part in the relationship. I think sometimes the onus is sometimes on the mentor, whereas, for us, the onus is on the mentee. The students are educated in the process and taught what makes you a good mentee, what’s a good mentor, etc. Having those expectations is really important [in these relationships].
“The students are educated in the process and taught what makes you a good mentee, what’s a good mentor, etc. Having those expectations is really important [in these relationships].”
Switching gears a little bit, with regard to market research and fandom in sport business, what are some of the interesting trends that you’re seeing in the space that students today should be keeping an eye on?
Professor Michelle Harrolle: Adaptability. We’ve always been very customer focused but being adaptable to your consumer base is just so important. And I use that word, it’s like a very broad term but the ability to pivot when things are just changing so fast [is key].
I know we’re going to talk about Esports but also cryptocurrency. I’m having conversations now with people and learning and providing education for what’s happening in the sports space with cryptocurrency, NFTs, and blockchain and how that is starting to become more mainstream. [As an example], only 10 years ago, we were one of the first programs to offer social media as a course – and look at what social media is now.
“Only 10 years ago, we were one of the first programs to offer social media as a course – and look at what social media is now.”
The next year, we offered data analytics. USF was one of the first programs to offer data analytics, and look where data analytics is now. Esports, we were on the Esports boat about three or four years ago, and so, look at where Esports is now.
I think the next innovation and next thing that students need to be adaptable on is understanding FinTech and understanding all of the nuances of the virtual space, whether that’s the Meta-verse, or something else. So, I think that’s probably, from a student perspective – adaptability is very important.
And two – this is more about teaching, not about more the fan experience – we wrote an article about andragogy, which is the idea, a little bit different from pedagogy, in that the student and the teacher learn together. It’s the opportunity where a student will bring an idea forward and then you learn about it together. And I think where things are changing so quickly, which we do a fantastic job of, is getting the students involved in educational experience.
So, if there’s something that they’re seeing that’s like TikTok, for example. I – the professor – didn’t have a TikTok account, but all of our students are in that space, and that’s [an example of why] being adaptable is so important. So, talking about fans, I think it’s the same thing. Being prepared [to respond quickly to change by] customizing and adapting to what they need.
Professor, you were part of a collaborative team that wrote a book about the business of Esports called ‘The Wild West is on Fire’. I’ve heard your son’s also a gamer and a streamer. Can you talk a bit Esports, how it’s unique within the sports industry and what the Esports market could look like five years down the road?
Professor Michelle Harrolle: Esports is all about community. And I think when people are skeptical about Esports, if you come at it from that, from the lens of ‘it’s a community’, you get it.
About nine years ago, at one of our analytics conferences, a gentleman, [got on stage and made a presentation saying], ‘I don’t believe in Esports.’ [At the end,] I raised my hand, I’m like, ‘you’re missing the picture that it’s a community’. And now look at it. In 2019 – only 2019 – viewership of Esports worldwide was about 400 million. In five years’ time, it’s already up to almost 600 million. In the US alone, it was a bit over 25 million in terms of viewers in the US. We’re expected to get close to 50 million in 2023.
That is incredible growth.
Professor Michelle Harrolle: Yeah. And so, understanding the Esports space – it’s not my generation, it’s everyone younger than me. I think that’s important for an institution, a program, as the Director to understand that we are teaching students for their generation not for ours. So, Esports is one of those where it’s growing so fast and becoming mainstream. And the Covid pandemic really elevated the space because they were the only ones providing content for a short period of time.
What was everyone doing when the world was locked down? My son, he [was hanging out with his friends] through video games. It’s about community.
“I think that’s important for an institution, a program, as the Director to understand that we are teaching students for their generation not for ours.”
With the kind of growth that we have seen in recent years, are advertising revenues in Esports comparable to elsewhere in the sports industry?
Professor Michelle Harrolle: Esports is behind [other sports right now, but] they’re an emerging market in the sport and entertainment business. I use that word ‘entertainment’ a lot because at the end of the day, the big umbrella is entertainment. A lot of leagues and teams get a [large portion] of their money from media rights, but because of the way Esports are streamed is different, [advertisers are] catching up.
They’re not quite mainstream where they’re visible on EPSN all the time, but they’re getting there. And I think when the younger generation starts to become older, you’ll see Esports really elevated to more mainstream [media]… [But in short], I think it’s only going to continue to grow exponentially.
One of the things about Esports is that each game is like its own sport. I mean, we use this big umbrella about Esports that it’s like saying ‘Esports is sport’ where well, you know, every game, whether it’s League of Legends, Smash Brothers, Overwatch, Mario Kart, Rocket League… Each one of those games is a different sport. Each athlete has to learn how to participate differently, and strategy involved with that specific game. But I think viewership will only rise.
What advice do you have for young people out there who want to set themselves up for success in the Esports business? Is getting a degree in Esports the best way that they can prepare for a career in the business of Esports?
Professor Michelle Harrolle: Esports is a form of entertainment, and I think if you understand the business of consumers that are more highly identified with any sport – whether that be sport or Esports – the more you can understand the consumer, the better off you will be. Getting a business degree is probably the most important piece of that, and then tying in an understanding of that specific market segment.
“Esports is a form of entertainment, and I think if you understand the business of consumers that are more highly identified with any sport – whether that be sport or Esports – the more you can understand the consumer, the better off you will be. Getting a business degree is probably the most important piece of that, and then tying in an understanding of that specific market segment.”
In an ideal world would be a program like ours at the University of South Florida where you get a business background, and then you get to dive in a little bit more [to learn] about the actual consumer and their unique experiences. That way, you get the best of both worlds.
At the end of the day, Esports is just like any other business, and understanding that business is their fundamental business practices, but the consumer is different. The famous line is ‘nobody’s getting a toothpaste brand tattooed on their shoulder’ but they are getting Team Liquid, they are getting the Tampa Bay Lightning – they are getting the actual team or player tattooed on their shoulder. That’s true identification.
Be sure to check out or Esports Management Degree Guide for more information
Regardless of which area of sports and entertainment industry students choose to pursue, many positions are quite competitive. What are some ways that students can separate themselves from other candidates when it comes to getting their first job?
Professor Michelle Harrolle: Having conversations with people. I mentioned this earlier but having a conversation with someone, figuring out who you can talk to, shadowing people, just asking for advice.
We like to refer to it as ‘using the student card’. Use the student card. When you’re a student and you say, ‘I am a student and I am learning’, the professional that you want to speak to, they don’t have any expectations you want anything from them, they’re just there to give you advice. If you use “the student card”, you are able to open a door and have a conversation, build a relationship. And that’s where we have our most success.
Everything that we have done in our program is predicated on relationships. During the pandemic, when we were shut down, when sport was shut down, we were able to cobble together 25 internships in three weeks. And that was all predicated and based on relationships. I called people and said, ‘listen, I need opportunities for my students to learn, our students need to learn, do you have any projects they can work on?’ and that’s what we did.
And just being kind to people. Being kind and talking to people will get you a long way. I know that’s so simple but being kind and be a good listener.
“Being kind and talking to people will get you a long way. I know that’s so simple but being kind and be a good listener.”