The Rice University Sport Management Program conducted a seminar entitled “Sport & the Community” for a group of 14 people from different sporting bodies throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland who traveled to Houston to learn more about “sport” in the United States.
In conjunction with The Irish Institute at Boston College, the delegates came to Rice to gain knowledge about the best practices and successful strategies used by franchises and organizations in Houston in hopes of taking back ideas that could then translate into success within their own organizations. To this end, Dr. Clark Haptonstall, the Director of Rice’s Sport Management Program, set up three panel discussions on the Rice campus. In the afternoon the delegates and Rice students received a tour of Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, and a discussion session with Pam Gardner, President of the Astros.
The first panel discussion dealt with issues in Community Relations and featured speakers Rosi Hernandez, Vice President of Market Development for the Houston Astros, and Sarah Joseph, Director of Community Relations for the Houston Rockets. The discussion, moderated by senior Sport Management student Natalie Kirchhoff ‘09, focused on the importance of forming a bond between the community and the team. Hernandez also discussed effective ways to engage sponsors who seek to develop a presence in the community and how the sponsor’s money could be used to further the community goals of the organization. Of particular interest to the Irish contingency was the Astros’ Grand Slam for Youth program which is designed to allow the Astros to restore a dilapidated baseball field in the greater Houston community each year. In addition, the Astros are able to provide equipment, training, and additional funds to jump-start the use of that field by the participants.
The next set of panelists included Butch Robinson, Chairman of the Board, and Joe Bruce Hancock, General Manager, of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo; Jen Cooper, Director of Volunteers for the Houston Dynamo; and Carly Caulfield, Operations Director of the Chevron Houston Marathon. The moderator, Tom Stallings, asked the panel to talk about ways to attract and retain volunteers while also making them feel like an integral part of the success of the event. Cooper discussed how she established a program where her volunteers received more rewards, and higher-quality rewards, the more games they worked. Caulfield spoke on the importance of empowering the volunteer by giving them meaningful tasks to do. Robinson and Hancock, who are in a unique situation with more than 21,000 active volunteers, nonetheless stressed creating a strong sense of belonging and the necessity of a hierarchy of volunteers to create order during and in preparation of the event.
The subject of the last panel, moderated by Dr. Jimmy Disch, was about media relations. The panelists were Tony Wyllie, Vice President of Communications for the Houston Texans; Chuck Pool, Media Relations Director at Rice University; and MK Bower, a writer for Rice University athletics for the Houston Chronicle. Wyllie and Pool discussed the difference between working in Media Relations for a professional team and a University, but agreed that of crucial importance was promoting a positive image to the public and the media. For Wyllie this involved briefing players and coaches before they spoke to the media to ensure that no matter the question, the team’s message was relayed in the answer. For Pool, his concern focused more on providing an interesting story about Rice athletes, and their accomplishments on the field and in the classroom at all times. A little good-natured argument occurred as all three discussed the tension between a writer trying to find his story and a PR representative trying to protect his players from saying the wrong thing to the media.
After two hours of panel discussions and meet-and-greets, the contingency from Ireland and Northern Ireland, and a group of Rice Sport Management faculty and students, headed to downtown Houston to Minute Maid Park. A 30-minute tour of the park followed which included visits to the Press Box, the Diamond Club (Minute Maid Park’s exclusive seating club underneath the main concourse), and a special visit onto the field. After taking pictures at home plate and in the Astros’ dugout, the group moved up to the board room to meet with Gardner.
The discussion, led by senior Sport Management student Charles Hampton ‘08, focused on how sport is being affected by the current economy. In Ireland and Northern Ireland, all sports are played by amateurs creating a stark contrast between their sports environment and that of America, where players often sign contracts in excess of $100 million. For this group, this discussion was an eye-opening experience as to the wide differences between the definition of Sport in the two countries.
Gardner spoke about how the Astros are freezing ticket prices in 2009 for the first time since moving into Minute Maid Park in 2000. She mentioned how tough a decision that was to make for a franchise trying to maintain the balance between increasing fan loyalty, building a championship contender, and keeping the business side of the Astros profitable. Gardner answered questions about the lack of a salary cap in Major League Baseball and the role of the luxury tax and revenue-sharing which are inherently connected to the salary system in baseball.
Thanks to the hard work of Rice University Sport Management faculty and students, the group from Ireland and Northern Ireland was able to meet a collection of some of Houston’s top executives in the sport industry and interact with them via panel discussions on topics ranging from community relations to the media to volunteering.