Prober's Business of Sports Elective Takes Students Behind the Scenes

Cognizant of the vast network of professional operations necessary to field a professional sports team, Dr. Larry Prober launched the MBAD 697: Business of Sports elective four years ago to bring the lesson home to Rider’s M.B.A. students.

Pick up the phone and give the defending World Series champions a call, and the first three words you’ll hear from a cheerful receptionist are, “World Champion Phillies!” It’s a fun reminder of the business behind the game, how the marketing minds of Philadelphia’s Major League Baseball franchise eagerly seize the immediate appeal of the team’s recent on-field success.

Cognizant of the vast network of professional operations necessary to field a team at all, Dr. Larry Prober launched the MBAD 697: Business of Sports elective four years ago to bring the lesson home to Rider’s M.B.A. students.

The course, taught by Prober at the graduate level and, more recently, by Dr. Ira Sprotzer at the undergraduate level, focuses on the strategy and management of professional sports from perspectives of the league, team and player levels to the marketing and valuation of professional sports franchises. In addition, college athletics are addressed along with related issues for stadiums and the media. 

“I originally got the idea from a course at Stanford University, which uses a text written by George Foster, Stephen Greyser of the Harvard Business School, and Bill Walsh, the former coach of the San Francisco 49ers who also coached at Stanford,” said Prober, who himself has been an associate professor of Accounting at Rider since 1991 and on the faculty since 1987.

Prober says that while his own lecture material continues to develop with each year, the Business of Sports is truly brought to life by the guest speakers – distinguished executives from the realm of professional and collegiate sports – he brings in to provide lively first-person accounts. “Students want expertise and that is exactly what is going on here,” he said. “It’s really the speakers who make the course.”

Speakers have included Harry Gamble ’52, a Rider alumnus and former trustee, who is the former president of the Philadelphia Eagles; John Nickolas, the chief financial officer of the Phillies; Sandy Lipstein, the former CFO of Comcast Spectacor, the ownership group whose holdings include the Philadelphia 76ers and Flyers; Rick Giles, the founder and president of Gazelle Group, a sports marketing firm; and Don Harnum, Rider’s director of Athletics. 

“One of the great benefits of his course has been the opportunity to hear from leaders in the sports industry about issues beyond revenues and player salaries such as management and player relations and the responsibilities of leagues to active and former players,” Prober explained. “In his visit last spring, John Nickolas began class by discussing the Phillies’ commitment to environmental issues and the significant role sports can play in meeting those responsibilities. Thus, while winning championships and the bottom line are important, these other goals are noteworthy too.”

Prober has also brought in Jim DeLorenzo, the president and CEO of JHD Enterprises, a public relations firm with sports ties, and John Meindl, the president of SportsBrandedMedia, to speak to his class, with Lipstein, Gamble and Nickolas scheduled to return in April.

“This class has been a great experience for me, too,” Prober said. “I’ve learned a lot, and feel like I have even more to talk about now in class.”

Prober said that the executives who speak have typically worked their way up in non-athletics fields before joining their sports-related organizations. “Nickolas worked for KPMG in public accounting and moved to the corporate side of business before joining the Phillies, for example” he explained, stressing that the class is not about the action on the field, court or ice. “More than anything, it’s marketing, management, and finance as well as a strategy to achieve the desired objectives of the organization.”

The Business of Sports class employs cases developed by experts at some of the top business schools. They focus on such topics as long-term contract commitments, public financing of stadiums and ethical issues at the collegiate level, according to Prober, who says that the dual approach of knowledgeable speakers and the course text makes for a full class syllabus.

“The fact that top management in the sports world have been willing to share their wisdom and experiences with Rider students makes our Business of Sports course valuable regardless of one’s major,” Prober said. “All in all, students get much more than just a textbook approach to learning.”

Prober said that the elective reflects some of the unique ways sports enterprises differ from the typical business. “From the limited number of games played, thereby restricting revenues, to the quest for greater talent and related league salary structures, to the relationship of a team to a city and the impact of a weakened economy on team business, the challenges in sports management are constantly changing and growing,” he said. “Our class, which affords students the opportunity to learn business through the lens of sports-related enterprises, seems to coordinate their interest in sports with high-quality management that is responsive to the many stakeholders of sports enterprises. For all those reasons, I think the business of sports is alive and well at Rider University.”