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Future Shock

Power Play

The higher learning of the National Hockey League
University Business, Dec 2008

AS AMERICAN AS MOM, APPLE pie, and baseball? As futurists, we think this heretofore timeless axiom could use an extreme makeover to better reflect the popular professional sports of our contemporary culture.

These days the conventional “big three” professional sports (baseball, basketball, and football) look on from the sidelines as America’s new power sports—NASCAR, extreme sports, and hockey—ignite the next generation of athletes.

Insiders predict that an ever-increasing cohort of NHL players will be drafted from colleges.

What do NASCAR drivers, extreme sports athletes, and professional hockey players have in common? They are smarter, faster, and more nimble than their traditional predecessors. This first month of winter we take a closer look at collegiate and pro hockey trend lines. Gone are the days of assuming that those who play hockey are all brawn and no brains.

The National Hockey League (NHL) is, ironically, the second oldest of the four major pro team sports leagues in North America, yet only recently has hockey become a game of finesse, nuance, and strategy—all intricately executed on ice for a blend of excitement, speed, and action. According to a recent Simmons Market Research Bureau consumer study, NHL fans are younger, more educated, more affluent, and more digitally connected than any other fan base. No wonder hockey’s popularity on and off campus has grown exponentially over the last decade.

Last year, approximately 1,500 student athletes participated in NCAA hockey, which reports a hockey graduation success rate of 83 percent, in comparison to baseball’s 68 percent, football’s 67 percent, and basketball’s 62 percent. Who says that hockey players don’t have intellectual prowess?

In years gone by, the typical NHL player would be selected from Canadian Junior A Leagues, composed of teams that recruited players from middle and high schools. Fast-forward to the 2009-2010 year: insiders predict an ever-increasing cohort of NHL players will be drafted from U.S. colleges and universities.

According to Professor John Wong of Washington State University, American collegiate hockey has elevated its ability to produce players capable of stepping into the NHL, as the number of players in the past decade being picked in the first round of the draft demonstrates. At the same time, it seems the NHL is leaving individual teams to explore their own new markets and, with increasing frequency, those markets include American colleges and universities. “Each year, the National Hockey League works with its member clubs to grow the great sport of hockey on and off the ice,” said Keith Martin Jr., NHL vice president of community and diversity programming, when he announced that Spelman College in Atlanta had won the NHL and Atlanta Trashers’ marketing challenge.

Clearly, collegiate hockey is no longer an interest of a handful of remote, snowbound institutions. Big-name schools known for traditional sports dynasties are getting into the mix—including Boston University, Boston College, Notre Dame, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Whether players use their degrees in post-NHL careers or in careers immediately following college, the role of higher education now has a significant impact on a player’s future and a pro team’s popularity on campus.

According to Charlie Titus, vice chancellor for athletics and recreation, special programs and projects, at the University of Massachusetts, Boston (UMB), “Our hockey players have to make smart choices both on and off the ice. It is imperative that they excel in the classroom so that they can succeed with discipline on the ice. UMass Boston hockey players rank in the top 30 percent in terms of academic performance of our entire student athlete population. The goal of UMB is to consistently achieve a cumulative 3.0 grade point average among all of our intercollegiate teams. This high priority on creating an environment where scholar athletes thrive is a reflection of UMB Chancellor Keith Motley’s commitment to excellence across all academic disciplines and competiveness across all team sports.”

Beyond collegiate hockey, institutions are partnering with pro hockey teams to educate and train future graduates in the growth fields of sports management, sports marketing, sports media, and sports hospitality. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that Roosevelt University, in the heart of Chicagoland, is carving out its own NHL brand awareness with the rising young stars of the Chicago Blackhawks. “The Blackhawks are proud to partner with Roosevelt University in this groundbreaking venture,” says Jay Blunk, senior vice president of business operations for the team. “The program combines the challenges of professional athletics with the values of higher education. We hope that this partnership will pave the way for many young men and women who choose pro sports as a lifelong career. The Blackhawks hope to provide a unique opportunity to students who are eager to learn about professional sports as a business.”

With the United Center as the backdrop, RU and the Blackhawks are provided with chances for cross-marketing—co-branding and alumni pro hockey nights. Students will have opportunities for job shadowing, developing entrepreneurial instincts and business skills, and engaging in mentorship and internship experiences. RU President Charles Middleton notes that “having pro sports partners like the Chicago Blackhawks reaffirms Roosevelt’s mission and historic commitment to civic engagement in the city of Chicago. This Roosevelt-Blackhawks collaboration provides an immediate, career-relevant bridge between the worlds of higher learning and higher earning in distinctive world-class venues like the United Center.”

Partnerships with pro hockey teams train future graduates in fields such as sports marketing and sports hospitality.

Consider also Robert Morris University (RMU) in Pittsburgh. For 30 years, the RMU program has prepared graduates for successful careers throughout the sports and recreation industries.

In a recent interview with Smart Business Pittsburgh, RMU President Gregory G. Dell’Omo said, “We have one of the few sports management programs that results in a degree in business. You have to compete where you are strong and where [others] might be weak.” As a shining example of business savvy and pro sports and collaboration in higher education, RMU’s 32-acre Island Sports Center on Neville Island stands out. With this state-of-the-art facility, RMU continues to strengthen its men’s hockey program while developing its relationship with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

After a score of interviews with sports industry professionals—from top executives, to hospitality managers, to stadium operations personnel and ticket sellers—we have learned what UMB, RU, and RMU have already discovered: for students to be successful in this industry they need to be responsive to customer service expectations and have effective interpersonal communication skills, a genuine work ethic, strong problem-solving competencies, and innate qualities of leadership and teamwork. For the next graduating classes at these institutions, pro sports, and pro hockey in particular, represent a whole new set of professional aspirations and business career possibilities.

James Martin is a professor at Mount Ida College (Mass.). James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance. Their upcoming book is Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).