Inspired by our q and a with Paul Swangard last week, we are going to try and make Thursday’s “Teaching Thursdays,” doing a q and a with some of the brightest educators in sports business. This week we got some time with Rick Burton, the David B. Falk Endowed Professor of Sport Management in Syracuse University’s David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics. Rick’s career has literally spanned the world, from his work with the US Olympic Committee to Commissioner of Australia’s Sydney-based National Basketball League. He is also an accomplished author, with his latest work, Sports Business Unplugged, out this month (his full bio is at the end).
We caught up with Rick to talk education, the ACC, sports in Oz, and what he is on the lookout for in the coming months…
How has the Falk School evolved since launch? What are the things you are most excited about?
I think all academic departments evolve over time. Ours has gone from a small program (a few students, fewer faculty) to a department with a cutting-edge faculty, a thriving enrollment, a significant donor in David Falk and a proactive college now known as the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics. What I’m most excited about is how our industry has been acknowledged by academic institutions (by creating signature programs in sport management) and how quantitative and qualitative research is changing the way the world thinks about the importance of sport. If you look at our Falk program we now have a major in Sport Analytics and are requiring our students to take courses in finance, the sciences, economics, advanced math plus research and methodology. Sport management has become a legitimate field of study and not something just for individuals who like sports.
The new book (Sports Business Unplugged) is a compilation of your columns in Sports Business Journal. Looking back over those, what are the 2-3 things that stand out that have evolved in terms of the business, or that have surprised you that they have not yet become a bigger deal?
I think I’ve been surprised by the way in which America has remained parochial about its domestic major leagues (meaning: being so cautious about overseas expansion) and yet I’ve been pleased how we’ve been a leader in the development of inclusion for women courtesy of Title IX. I think one of our next beachheads will be inclusiveness for students with physical handicaps/disability and at Syracuse I think we’ll see that happen through our committed efforts on behalf of Veterans and Military Families.
You have done so much work over the years in Australia. What is the most surprising thing about the Australian Sports Business market that those in the States aren’t aware of?
That Australians may love sport more than Americans do. That and the fact that the Australian government really believes in sport for life. That sport is for everyone all the time. I really believe that is a healthy outlook and one our country should consider emulating. I also think Australian rules football (the AFL) could make it in the U.S. as a co-ed sport that would open more opportunities for female, trans-gendered and non-gendered student-athlete scholarships.
The sports business education space has exploded in the last five years; what do you tell prospective students to look for when choosing a school, either graduate or undergraduate?
I tell them about Mark Cuban’s belief that sport management programs are viewed by many as easy and unlikely to teach enough of the business basics for a highly competitive business. Mark has done all of us a favor by making it clear sport management and sport marketing programs must drive a hard academic bargain. So I tell prospective students not to expect sport management to be an easy major and any school that offers them that prospectus will fail them.
Having had such a hand in the Olympics over the years, how will that business, the business of athlete marketing in non-Olympic years, continue to grow?
I think the exciting thing about the Olympics is that it can add sports at almost any time and change the rhetoric of what constitutes global sport. Rugby 7’s was a great addition for Rio 2016. So too the new sports coming in for 2020. We should not be surprised if the Olympics move quickly in the area of electronic gaming which will rely less on physical performance and more on endurance, hand-eye coordination and strategic thinking. Augmented and virtual reality will change the sports landscape in the next decade and certain brands will be the beneficiaries. The IOC could be one of them.
You have spent a good amount of time now at Syracuse, what has been the biggest difference from a sports branding standpoint for the school since it entered the ACC?
The ACC is such a great conference and if a school is known by the company it keeps, then the ACC provides not only the academic imprimatur but also the athletic one as well. Commissioner John Swofford has done a masterful job of bringing 15 schools together that really would be the pride of any conference. There’s a great blend of state schools as well as private institutions. I think the ACC is an exciting conference and well-positioned for the future.
When you started in the business, who gave you your push and how?
There have been many but during my time at Miller Brewing Company an ex-Pepsi guy named Dick Strup came in to Milwaukee. He took me under his wing in different ways but ultimately gave me the advice and courage to leave Miller and broaden my business skills. He also made playing basketball at lunch really cool and lit a competitive fuse under a lot of butts. Mine was one of those and I’ve been indebted to him since. I’ve also got to give a shout out to Alex Nieroth at what was then Clarion Sports and Entertainment (later Velocity and Team Epic). I’d like to think Alex made me a lot more strategic and a lot more nimble.
What areas looking ahead do you see as the biggest potential for growth and why in sports business?
I’m fascinated by the eSports space and by the holographic future for sports. Nicholas Negroponte (author of being digital) predicted a lot more technological platforms once we fully accept the eventuality of a digital and global economy. I think certain sports will make the transition easily and others will struggle.
Is there a property that you have your eye on that would surprise people?
I’m bullish on UEFA, the Rugby (Union) World Cup and, as I mentioned earlier, Australia’s AFL. Sports that involve a lot of players and require very little equipment would seem to hold some appeal in markets where the cost of entry can’t include (or cover) outfitting new players with expensive gear. And then there is the frontier that is electronic gaming. This space reminds me of the historic Oklahoma Sooners who raced out to claim new land. That land grab is going on now.
Lastly, how does one judge real life experience vs. academic learning in sports business today. With so many options what is the balance that you have seen work for young people, and what are the 1-2 things that never seem to change?
Kindness and compassion never go out of fashion. Nor integrity, hard work and a curious mind willing to make projections. We all have to get smarter at different phases of our life and academic institutions (both residential and on-line) allow for the rich development of gray matter .. of brain cells. Academic institutions have adapted for the last 200+ years at preparing the next generation of leaders. But to think that educational process can only happen between the ages of 18-22 seems narrow. As people find they need to re-invent themselves faster than ever before, they will need places capable of bringing them up to speed on where tomorrow is going. Wayne Gretzky’s famous line about skating to where the puck is going … not where it is … is really valuable advice for young people.
About Rick Burton
Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Endowed Professor of Sport Management in Syracuse University’s David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics. He is the co-author of the textbook Global Sport Marketing: Sponsorship, Ambush Marketing And The Olympic Games and recently finished a book for SU Press on his collected opinion columns from Sports Business Journal titled “Sports Business Unplugged: Leadership Challenges from the World of Sports.” During the last 20 years, his scholarly research and commentary has been published in Sport Marketing Quarterly, the International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship, Journal of Applied Sport Management, Journal of Sport, Nine, SAIS Review, Marketing Management, Journal of Brand Strategy, Journal of Marketing Communications, Industrial Marketing Management, International Marketing Review, Football Studies and Journal of Sponsorship, among others. He is Syracuse University’s Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR) to the NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), teaches in Syracuse’s Renee Crown Honors Program and has served as a visiting professor at Kufstein Tirol University in Austria as well as the International Olympic Academy (IOA) in Olympia, Greece. He was selected as the Falk College Faculty Member of the Year for Teaching in 2011 and 2013.
Prior to his appointment at Syracuse in August 2009, Burton served as the chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, where he directed the USOC’s partnerships for International Olympic Committee (IOC) and USOC sponsorship activation at the world’s largest sporting event.
From 2003-07, Burton was the Commissioner of Australia’s Sydney-based National Basketball League (a two-continent league with teams in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore) and was responsible for every aspect of the NBL’s development and growth, including securing broadcast rights fees, naming rights sponsorships, player and referee collective bargaining agreements and league profitability. By placing a team in Singapore, the NBL became the first western sports league to place a team in Asia.
From 1995-2003, Burton led the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center to international prominence serving as both its director and executive director (1998-03). During this time, Burton initiated Oregon’s engagement with Fudan University in Shanghai, China, and worked closely with Nike as it developed business efforts in China. While at Oregon, Burton also created the Burton Marketing Group working almost exclusively in league management and sponsorship for entities such as IMG, Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), Japanese Pro Soccer League (J-League), National Football League (NFL), National Hockey League (NHL), Australian NBL, Visa, Oakland Raiders, FedEx, Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills, Professional Bull Riders, Sport Accord, and TSE.
In the mid-1990s (1993-95), Burton supervised numerous clients ranging from the NFL, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Gillette, Sprint and Universal Studios while serving as a vice president for sports and entertainment marketing agency Clarion Performance Properties in Greenwich, Conn.
During his varied career, Burton has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Ad Age, Sports Business Journal, SI.com, Sport Business International, and Stadia and hosted a sports business television show in Portland, Oregon. He has provided national radio network commentary for the Sporting News Radio Network and is in frequent demand as a commentator on the sports industry. A frequent conference host/moderator and inspirational/motivational speaker, Burton’s most recent engagements have included Intel, Chip Ganassi Racing (NASCAR and Indy Racing), the Association of Luxury Suite Directors and Real Salt Lake (MLS).
Burton began his career as a sportswriter in Syracuse before moving to Miller Brewing Company in Milwaukee, where he worked for 12 years in brand management and sports public relations. He served as national advertising manager for Miller Lite’s award-winning “Less Filling – Tastes Great” advertising campaign and also as a brand manager (Sharp’s and Lowenbrau).