The idea of sports as a business is a relatively new concept, but one that has recently gained significant traction. And Samford University’s Center for Sports Analytics has led the pack in coaching a new, specialized generation of business executives — those who understand sports and how to best leverage data.
“In a lot of ways, Birmingham is becoming known as the Silicon Valley for sports analytics,” says Darin W. White, Ph.D., executive director for Samford University’s Center for Sports Analytics and a Margaret Gage Bush Distinguished Professor. Birmingham is “one of the top cities because of the programs we have here at Samford designed to train and create that type of unique talent. Not many other schools are doing this yet.”
Samford University recognized this evolving mentality early on and launched its Center for Sports Analytics in 2017, the first-of-its kind collegiate program in the country. The program has since grown dramatically and now partners with Samford’s Brock School of Business to offer several degree options.
“It’s just been amazing. Twenty years ago, no one really thought of sports as a business,” says White, a former collegiate soccer coach who helped to found not only the center but also the sports marketing program and sports business MBA program at Samford’s Brock School of Business.
“It used to be that teams would approach businesses with the idea that money came mainly from ticket sales and some merchandising,” he says. “Even in professional sports, television deals were done at the league level. But about 20 years ago, that mentality started to change, with Jerry Jones and other owners starting to recognize that their success on the field directly related to the business side of their organization and started hiring MBAs to help manage everything. Once that mentality changed, it rapidly swept through the entire sports industry at every level.”
And the business of sports is quite different from regular business, explains White.
“There’s a huge difference between fans and customers. While most business decisions are based on logic and comparing things like cost and benefits, sports is a different beast. We use the emotional side of our brains to drive us to make sports purchases. Think about it — your favorite team, if they lose every game, you’ll still be a fan and support them. That kind of thing does not happen in regular business.”
This unique business model has created a need for business-trained executives that understand the sports industry. “We first started seeing business schools create these programs about 20 years ago,” says White. “Oregon was the first one with Nike money. We followed a few years later and were the first ones in the Southern United States with a specific sports business program. Being at the front of this movement, as more and more leagues and teams have started adopting sport business practices…they need what we’re producing and it’s just opened up door after door after door…it’s been pretty remarkable.”
White helped launch Samford’s Sports Marketing Program in 2011. “From there, we built a sports marketing board made up of about 30 top people from all over the country who basically run sports,” he says. “They come to campus every year and serve as our connection with the industry and help make sure we are doing what we need to do.”
Around 2015, the whole analytics tidal wave hit — and not just in sports, adds White. “Companies started getting inundated with data from people’s smartphones and internet usage. Almost overnight, companies were being drowned in data and needed help to understand and use it.
“My board basically said we need sports marketing executives, but we need those that also understand data.
“Because we already had our board and the marketing program in place,” he explains, “we were able to launch our Center for Sports Analytics in 2017 and we were the very first university in the country to do that.
“Now, our students are majoring in the business school learning the business side of sports, but they also are trained in analytics and can take big data that’s being collected and leverage that to make business decisions for sports organizations,” says White. “It’s a more specialized kind of role. We are still in the beginning stages of this.”
Pro sports teams all across the country are now adding entire sports analytics departments. Graduates who understand business — sports business specifically — and analytics…there’s not a lot of schools producing that unique combination.
And that means lots of opportunities for Samford students.
Brooke (Jenkins) Stuckey graduated from Samford in 2019 with a degree in sports marketing, already having amassed an enviable professional resume.
While at Samford, she worked with the athletic department, where she put together a full marketing program used by the university’s softball team. She interned with several professional teams, including the Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans and the Houston Astros. She even earned a World Series ring, having interned with the Astros during their championship season. She currently works as the marketing events manager at Amegy Bank in Houston, still leveraging her sports marketing knowledge.
Stuckey credits White and the opportunities she had while at Samford with her success. “I would not have this championship ring without him,” she says. “The relationships he has throughout the entire country in the sports industry is just incredible. He genuinely cares about his students, both current and former, and that really makes a huge difference.”
White says there were a few tough years for graduates during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the sports world basically shut down for a while, but that things have rapidly grown in the few years since then.
“Over the decade we’ve been doing this, our job placement rate hovers right around 90%,” he says. “And this is the hardest industry in which to get a job — everybody wants to work in sports. We took that into account when creating our program.”
The Wall Street Journal recently ranked Samford University as the top school in the nation for faculty-student engagement. “We strive to have an in-depth, experiential learning kind of relationship between faculty and students,” says White. “And so in my program, what that means isn’t just a student who has been in a classroom for four years, but someone who has actually experienced working in the industry and can hit the ground running once they graduate.”
White and his students have done ground-breaking projects for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Southeastern Conference, the Minnesota Vikings, the Seattle Storm and even a European professional soccer team, and the opportunities just keep coming.
A Winning Combo
Samford University athletics has even benefited from the center, says White.
Samford athletic teams experienced a historic athletic season in 2022-23, becoming the only NCAA Division I school in the country to win conference championships in football, soccer and volleyball last fall and the men’s basketball team was named the regular season champions earlier this year. Samford coaches credit a unique initiative involving the Center for Sports Analytics with their success.
Launched in 2021, Project SAMson is a combined initiative by Samford, its athletic programs, Andrews Sports Medicine, American Sports Medicine Institute, Brock School of Business, the College of Health Sciences and the Center for Sports Analytics to create a new approach to sports performance. The goal of the initiative is to enhance athletic performance through improved strength and conditioning training, reduced injury risk, advanced injury prediction and treatment, and data-driven return to play protocols.
Samford student-athletes across 17 NCAA Division I programs use wearable technology that tracks a wide array of performance metrics. The data is then analyzed by Samford students in Brock School of Business and the Center for Sports Analytics. Students from various areas within the College of Health Sciences then work with coaches and athletic trainers to develop unique training regiments and nutrition plans for each athlete.
Coaches credit Project SAMson for providing new insights for both injury prevention and performance and helping student-athletes compete at higher levels of play.
“The difference in us being near champions in previous years and conference champions [last] year is directly related to the benefits our team received through Project SAMson,” says Head Football Coach Chris Hatcher.
The program and center have shown so much success that Samford is doubling down and investing in their future. Earlier this year, White agreed to commit 100% of his efforts into running the center and growing the sports business programs. He had split his time between the center and sports program with serving as a Margaret Gage Bush Distinguished Professor of Marketing with the Brock School of Business.
And plans are underway to expand the center within the business school. “As cool as all the stuff is we’ve been doing, it’s about to go to a whole ’nother level,” says White. School officials are looking not only to grow the physical space for the center, but also to add personnel to help it expand.
“To have legs and longevity, we need to have more than just me running the center,” says White. “That’s the goal — to eventually hire a full-time assistant director. Over the next 5-10 years, there’s so much more potential…we’re going to try and capitalize on all that and truly become the Silicon Valley of sports analytics. That’s my vision.”
Jennifer Williams is a Hartselle-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.
This article appears in the November 2023 issue of Business Alabama.