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Game on: How Harvard taught me the business of sports

By Gretchen Ho, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 06, 2022 5:00 am Updated Feb 07, 2022 12:21 pm

How many hours of screen time do you spend in a day?

In a pandemic, where our worlds — the personal and the professional — seem to have blended online, taking time away from the constant barrage of tiny bits of information can give one an unexpected sense of relief.

It has been weirdly refreshing to be completely immersed in the simple chore of washing dishes, or on the other end of the spectrum, burying one’s self in a book instead of staring at a screen all day.

I’ve spent years being immersed in social media because of work, but never have I felt more fatigued than the past two years. Having been spoiled all these years by short articles, tweets, snippets and highlights, I feel like my attention span and memory have been severely affected, and I’m unhappy about it.

So, in an effort to improve my learning habits, I’ve become more intentional with the media I consume and how I spend my time.

At Harvard Square, ready for school!

Apart from writing in my journal, I deliberately set aside time to read, listen or watch long-form content like books, podcasts and documentaries. In an even greater effort to go counterculture against the School of TikTok, I decided to enrol myself in a short course and go back to school, thousands of miles away from home.

Off to Harvard Business School

Last year, before the year ended, and right before Omicron invaded the world, I had a chance to slip out of the country and head to Boston to take a short course on the Business of Entertainment, Media and Sports (BEMS) at Harvard Business School (HBS).

It’s been a while since I had a class photo! 67 students from 18 countries around the world participated in the first-ever December edition of Harvard Business School’s Business of Entertainment, Media and Sports. It is usually held mid-year, but due to the pandemic, in-person classes for the course only opened in December 2021.

This course had been on my mind since 2020. I had already applied for it and got accepted back then, but COVID shelved many plans. So, when HBS began in-person classes again, I pounced on the opportunity. I thought it was a good way to end 2021, before life got busier with the return of more sports leagues and the national elections in 2022.

With NBA stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, as well as renowned performers Ciara and LL Cool J among those who'd attended it in the past, I was curious and interested to find out why Harvard would offer such a course.

Well, we all know that Hollywood is big business, and so is the NBA, the NFL, and UEFA Champions League, but I wanted to find out how exactly the industries of entertainment, media and sports can be synergized to create good and impactful value for the world.

With Omar Wilkes, head of basketball, Klutch Sports (Lebron James’ management)

Out of 18 countries and 67 students, I was the only one from the Eastern part of the world. Apart from having a fully-vaccinated status, we had to take a self-swab RT-PCR test upon arrival. We each had a room to ourselves inside the campus, and it almost felt like a fancy hotel dorm with free food, overflowing coffee and rooms being cleaned every day.

It was a four-day short course, but we had three full days to parse through 10 case studies with a minimum of 20 pages each. Harvard, as I have been told, is famous for its case study method.

We went over the case studies of Lebron James, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Paris Saint-Germain, Walt Disney Studios, Netflix, Buzzfeed and even tackled how Nike developed its iconic sneaker culture.

What made the discussion even more robust was the group of people I was with. We had professional athletes with us in the room, including former MLB star Alex Rodriguez, former NBA player Channing Frye, newly-retired NFL player Larry Fitzgerald, cricketer Carlos Brathwaite and European footballers Dacourt Olivier and Nigel de Jong.

We also had executives from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Sony, Sony Music, Klutch Sports, NBC Universal, WWE, NFL Network, La Liga, Bloomberg Philanthropies, CNN, Morgan Stanley and more.

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A post shared by Alex Rodriguez (@arod)

From analyzing talent life cycles, risky career moves and investment decisions, to understanding new trends in business and technology like the streaming wars, it was interesting to see how “blockbuster strategies” or investing in big stars and big hits made a huge difference.

To share one valuable insight I got: in a digital world, where the digital space seems to democratize content creation and publishing, the more options that people have, the more they choose more of the same.

Panel discussions

To be honest, the whole time I was there, I felt like I was always 10 steps behind in the discussion, not because I couldn’t catch up, but because the situation in our country always felt like 10 steps behind.

Inside the classroom of Harvard Business School

While we are still talking about athlete’s rights here in the Philippines, and making sure our athletes get the funding and support they need, they are already talking about which venture capital investments to make. While we are still making sure our athletes have a voice and are not silenced by traditional politicians, they are already talking about their athletes using their global platforms to create social impact around the world.

It was a humbling experience that showed me the wide disparity between how athletes are valued abroad vis-à-vis our athletes back home. With this disparity, the things that were lacking in our country became very clear to me. Bad politics and limited financial resources will always hinder the growth of the sports industry, but the lack of long-term planning for our athletes is a huge deterrent in making a career out of their sport.

Takeaways

Former MLB star Alex Rodriguez: “When you get in the room, it’s up to you to stay in the room. Follow up.”

NBA champion Channing Frye: “The NBA understands that their athletes are the faces of the league. So they put you in rooms like these (Harvard) to prepare you to understand how it is to be in this world. The education process is as important as giving those kids money.”

Dutch footballer Nigel de Jong: “There’s always an inferior feeling for athletes. How do I present myself walking into a corporate room? Your business is a reflection of yourself.”

French footballer Dacourt Olivier, Carlos Brathwaite, Larry Fitzgerald, Channing Frye, Nigel De Jong

American football star Larry Fitzgerald: “Every off-season, I go and take internships in different companies and industries, to help me figure out what I want and prepare me for the future.”

Cricketer Carlos Brathwaite: “Back in 2018, I had a personal crisis where I was asking myself what do I play for? I was looking for my purpose. While it might be difficult for me to change the world, I now realize I can give back to my friends, my community and be a shining light.”

Dream come true

Before I left Harvard, I took the time to thank my professor for coming up with the course. She says she’s a former football player herself and now has a book on the entertainment, media and sports industry called Blockbusters.

It’s not every day you see athletes and entertainers get that amount of respect and value in an Ivy League school. Graduating from that four-day short course felt like, in many ways, gaining a college degree. Dream come true.