Start your engines: Engage U.S. transports sport management grad students to Indianapolis

First-year graduate students in sport management magnified their credentials this month with a behind-the-scenes look at operations of the NCAA, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Purdue University’s athletic and recreational sport facilities.

Steve Howell and Claire Schaeperkoetter

Part of the NIU College of Education’s Engage U.S. program, the overnight trip to the Hoosier State came together through professional associates of Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education faculty Steve Howell and Claire Schaeperkoetter.

Both professors in sport management believe that the hands-on learning sets NIU apart from its competitors and offers a strong marketing point for recruitment.

“We want to provide some industry insights into the overall learning experiences of our students,” says Howell, an associate professor and director of graduate studies for the department.

“Given that Indianapolis isn’t far from NIU, and Claire’s connections at the NCAA, and my relationships with various folks at Purdue University, we thought it would be a good fit,” he adds. “These applied and practical sides of the sport management industry are nice complements to what students learn in the classroom.”

Schaeperkoetter, who Howell says was “instrumental in organizing the nuts and bolts of the trip itinerary,” chose Indianapolis for its proximity to DeKalb and its vibrant cluster of collegiate and professional sport venues.

“Any sort of undergraduate or graduate program is looking for ways to provide unique experiences to their students,” says Schaeperkoetter, an assistant professor. “It’s good for students to hear industry professionals reiterate a lot of the concepts we talk about in class. It really adds that practical component. They can have those lightbulb moments and connect the dots.”

The first stop on the trip, which took place Thursday and Friday, April 19 and 20, was the NCAA headquarters.

NCAA staff conducted three panel discussions covering such topics as finance, marketing, compliance, championships and ticket sales. Students asked questions – “How did you get to where are you now?” – and heard valuable tips for success.

During a subsequent tour of the NCAA facility and its Hall of Champions, the students were able to learn more about the storied history of the college sports organization while they exchanged business cards with their hosts.

Enhanced networking took place that evening when NIU’s group gathered at a local restaurant for dinner with NCAA employees, some of whom had not participated in the panel discussions.

“Our students were able to chat with people from [the] industry,” Schaeperkoetter says, “and pick their brains a little bit about their own career experiences, how they got their feet in the door and climbed the proverbial ladder.”

Friday morning began at the legendary Speedway.

“We toured the race track, got a historical overview of the facility, got a better understanding of some of the operational aspects and heard about what goes into hosting the races – the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400,” Howell says. “We also got a nice tour of their museum.”

Riding on a bus around the rectangular oval, the NIU travelers also began to understand “just how many people are able to fit in the stands,” Schaeperkoetter adds. “You think that a major football stadium maybe seats 100,000. They can fit three to four times that. When you think about the management of that, the sponsorship opportunities, the logistics – it’s really interesting.”

The last stop came at Purdue, where Howell earned all three of his degrees, served as a graduate assistant at the France A. Córdova Recreational Sports Center and interned in the Athletics Department.

NIU’s group toured Mackey Arena as well as the Rec Center, which was transformed in 2012 with nearly $100 million of renovations and expansions. “It’s one of the best rec centers in the country,” Schaeperkoetter says. “We took a tour for an hour, maybe an hour-and-a-half, and, honestly, we could’ve spent three hours on that tour. That’s how big it is.”

Back in DeKalb, students expressed their gratitude for the opportunity and their willingness to promote the value of Engage U.S. experiences to next year’s first-year grad students in Sport Management.

Schaeperkoetter and Howell, meanwhile, are pleased with the results of their maiden voyage.

“It opened our students’ eyes to even more opportunities in the field of sport management. I can’t tell you how many students came up to me and said, ‘I hadn’t even thought about that as an opportunity,’ ” Schaeperkoetter says. “This kind of real-world experience, outside of our dynamic classes, just adds another piece to the grad school puzzle.”

Howell enjoyed watching the students interact outside of their Anderson Hall classroom.

“They really enjoyed not only the learning component of this but the opportunity to network and the opportunity to bounce ideas off of each other,” he says. “We’re already very excited to start organizing our trip for next year.”

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