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Sport management students pump up the fan experience for men’s volleyball

Mar 07, 2019

If you’ve ever attended a big-time professional or college sporting event, you know that the game is never the only thing vying for your attention. You may not have given much thought, however, to what goes into creating the flurry of activity outside the playing field.

Students in the Sport Marketing class taught by Assistant Professor of Sport Management Jason Rice have been working all winter term to find out. In one of the coolest class projects ever conceived, Genny Bernardoni ’20, Dylan Brady ’20, Jake Fiedler ’20, R.J. Hensel ’21, Abby Moravek ’19 and Michael Trunzo ’20 were tasked with designing and implementing the in-game entertainment for a North Central College athletics contest. On Friday, March 1, they presented a series of attractions during the men’s volleyball team’s victory over Trine University at the Residence Hall/Recreation Center.

Sport management students Genny Bernardoni and Jake Fiedler discuss in-game entertainment ideas.

Sport management students Genny Bernardoni and Jake Fiedler discuss in-game entertainment ideas.

“We wanted to explore how it all works together,” Rice said. “You have to have an on-site team, you have to have a script, and everything has to be planned out and ready to execute on game day. It’s where all the elements of your event—operations, in-venue experience staff and marketing team—work together under one umbrella.”

Fans enjoyed a rare live performance of the American national anthem—typically played on a recording before games—by Sonata Problem, North Central’s original student a capella group. The College’s burgeoning student cheering section The Nest was in attendance, along with North Central’s mascot Chippy, and students received a free Hawaiian lei for joining in. There was popular music played in the arena during breaks in the action, “fat head” posters in the audience, and public address announcements providing the starting lineups and information during the match. 

To build fan interest, the sport management students had publicized the in-game elements before the match, encouraging fellow students to attend “Hawaiian night.”

Sonata Problem, North Central's original a capella singing group, performs The Star Spangled Banner. Sport management students arranged to have them perform.

Sonata Problem performs The Star Spangled Banner before the match.

Learning from the pros

In preparation for their task, Rice’s students consulted with numerous experts in the field. Chief among them was Doron Tamari, assistant director of branding for the Big Ten Conference. Tamari’s experience with in-venue entertainment for athletics is extensive, and as part of the branding team for the Big Ten he works with prominent sports programs like the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, The Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin and many others.

It was Tamari, however, who reached out to Rice to get involved after meeting him at the annual North Central Sport Marketing Conference in 2017. “Dr. Rice sends so many students to volunteer for our events that I started learning about the program at North Central and was impressed by how involved they were in the Chicago sports landscape,” Tamari said.

Tamari had a desire to teach and connect more extensively with the students, so he and Rice worked together to create the position of industry mentor.

“More than anything I try to be a resource for the students,” said Tamari. “Whether that’s bringing in speakers from the industry, answering questions about putting on an event, or telling them about my previous experiences. It’s important they do most of the work and gain the experience themselves but I can help guide them in the right direction.” 

Students have also met and spoken with sport management experts like Matt Agase, senior manager of business development for Big Ten Sports, and Michael Gett, coordinator of in-venue entertainment at championships for the NCAA.

North Central mascot Chippy greets some young volleyball fans.

Chippy greets some young volleyball fans.

Paying to play the sport management game

An important function of in-game entertainment comes from marketing, and a big part of the job in sport management is securing sponsors for events.

In January, Joe Piraino, who is a corporate partner of Cardinal athletics, came into our class and students pitched ideas to him,” said Rice. “Our students learned that if you sell something on the marketing side—sponsorships and corporate partnerships—you have to execute it.”

Piraino, who is a real estate agent with Baird & Warner in Naperville, Ill., as well as business development manager for Pivot Point International, agreed to sponsor the “fat head” posters used by fans at the game, including one bearing his likeness. He was also named as the sponsor for in-game announcements.

“The students did a lot of work setting this up, and they laid their pitch out perfectly,” Piraino said. “I of course said yes right away. They’re really having fun with it and to me, that’s the most important thing.”

Student fans watching the North Central College men's volleyball game intently, holding up "fat head" posters made by the sport management class.

Fans watching intently and looking for any opportunity to raise their "fat heads."

An experience to grow on

Tamari says that a price tag cannot be put on the value of this project to students.

“Applying what you learn in the classroom to a real-life situation is an amazing opportunity,” he said. “You see your work and planning come to life and then debrief after to see what worked and what could be improved upon.

“This will be a great case study for the students and I think it will really benefit them in internship and job interviews because they’ll have something tangible to speak about.”

Rice hopes that this event will inspire more entertainment experiences created by sport management students at future Cardinal athletic events.

“We can go in and make a little bit of a difference—we want the fans and the players to notice and say, ‘Something’s [special] about today,”” said Rice. “We want to do something for our athletics program because it’s developing great products. I could see this maybe sticking around.”