June 15, 2024

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The Sports Fanatics

New UMSL sport management program jump starts students’ careers

Alton River Dragons interns posing on baseball field

Sport management students (from left) Eddie Cooney, Connor Horack, Myles Cephas and Lucas Marroquin interned for the Alton River Dragons, a collegiate summer baseball team in the Prospect League, this summer. They gained valuable experience in a variety of roles including ticket sales, community relations, game day operations and inventory. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Eddie Cooney was taking classes at St. Louis Community College–Meramec and working full-time at Best Buy as part of the Geek Squad. Lucas Marroquin had just transferred to the University of Missouri–St. Louis to study business.

Though deep down, the two sports fanatics wanted to pursue careers in professional athletics.

“I’ve always really liked sports because it was something that everyone had in common regardless of their background,” Marroquin said. “Sports was always something that could unite people. Something about competition, athletics, I think it’s very powerful. If I wasn’t going to play, I wanted to work in sports and be a part of it.”

However, Cooney and Marroquin saw no clear path to their ambitions. At least, it seemed like that until UMSL added a Bachelor of Science in Sport Management in 2020. Cooney transferred to UMSL to enroll in the program, and Marroquin changed his major without a second thought.

As director of the new degree program, Karen Boleska has helped students like Cooney and Marroquin seize opportunities to gain valuable experience and build connections in the sport management industry.

“Her list of promises that she has is something very high to hold up to, but so far, she’s done a phenomenal job – tons of opportunity,” Cooney said of Boleska’s mentorship. “I’ve done internships with UMSL now. I’ve done internships with the Alton River Dragons, so lots of opportunity. I’ve been able to capitalize on it because of her.”

Marroquin – and two other classmates, Myles Cephas and Connor Horack – joined Cooney this summer to intern with the Alton River Dragons, a collegiate summer baseball team in the Prospect League. Other students secured internships with the Major Arena Soccer League, Minor League Baseball, POWERplex STL and UMSL Athletics.

While the program has provided an abundance of opportunity to students, it also represented an opportunity for Boleska. She was able to build the program from the ground up and reshape the curriculum to be responsive to such a fast-paced, evolving field.

The Office of Admissions fielded numerous requests for a major in sport management in recent years, and the plan to add the degree was officially approved in 2019. The inaugural cohort entered the program during the 2020-21 school year.

The program is housed in the College of Education’s Department of Education Sciences and Professional Programs and run in conjunction with the College of Business Administration. The flexible degree is designed for undergraduate students seeking training in organizational, logistical and managerial aspects of sports and can be used to pursue a variety of roles in professional athletic organizations, intercollegiate athletics and youth recreation and sports programs.

Boleska possessed the perfect mix of experience – as an athlete, graduate assistant and professor – and vision to bring sport management to UMSL.

She was born and raised just outside of Toronto and came to the U.S. as an undergraduate to play soccer at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee. After graduation, she decided to stay in the country to attend graduate school at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.

At Incarnate Word, Boleska worked as a graduate assistant at the campus Wellness Center and founded a club sports program – a first at the university – in addition to completing her master’s and PhD. In 2018, she moved to Husson University in Bangor, Maine, to serve as an assistant professor of sport management.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Boleska had time to reflect and decided she needed a change. That impulse led her to UMSL.

The blank slate allowed Boleska to revamp the traditional coursework she saw at Husson, which she felt quickly fell behind the times of the fast-paced industry. She built the new curriculum at UMSL around contemporary digital media such as TED Talk videos, podcasts and online news articles.

“I came in with a different approach,” she said. “I got rid of all textbooks. I think in the sport industry things move too quickly for textbooks to keep up.”

The innovative approach even caught the attention of Work In Sports, a members-only sports job board, and the organization produced a case study on Boleska’s approach to sport management education.

At first, Cooney and Marroquin were surprised by the shift, but they were receptive to the new model.

“I loved everything she did with the classes and all the changes she made,” Marroquin said. “Nowadays, when you think about it, kids aren’t really learning as much from books. It’s more videos, they’re listening or watching an expert talk for an hour.”

Additionally, Boleska put a high priority on practical skills that aid students in finding internships and full-time positions after graduation.

Students focus on developing their communications skills through video essays, refining their resumes throughout the school year and networking through the program’s guest speakers, LinkedIn and webinars. Boleska also meets with each student at least once a month to evaluate their progress.

Cooney was unsure if he’d like those aspects of the program at first. However, after committing to networking and building his resume, he’s seen the work payoff.

“She’s done a great job at making it her own and basically trying to mold the sports management program,” Cooney said. “She’s made her genius idea come to life.”

He completed his first internship with UMSL, where he was involved in nearly every aspect of game day operations. It prepared him for his next internship over the summer with the Alton River Dragons, where he and Marroquin did a little bit of everything including selling tickets, community relations, game day operations and inventory. Marroquin even got to suit up as the River Dragon’s mascot during games and community events.

They both learned valuable lessons working for the River Dragons. The internship made it clear to Marroquin that employees have to be multifaceted and versatile to work in sports, and Cooney found that doing community outreach and making cold calls to sell tickets improved his communication skills considerably.

Cooney is entering his final year in the program, but he’s leveraged his experience with the River Dragons and LinkedIn connections into a part-time community ambassador position with the St. Louis Cardinals. He’s optimistic that it will lead to a full-time position after graduation.

“This position presented itself, and I wanted to hop on it immediately,” he said. “It’s a straight shot into corporate sales. I would like to do that a little bit – get that corporate sales aspect. Being able to learn the methods of talking to someone and being able to negotiate – I feel like that’s just such a big aspect in sports that not very many people want to do. But if you can master it, it keeps you going for years.”

Marroquin, who graduated this past spring, recently accepted a full-time position with St. Louis City SC as a ticket sales account executive. Boleska sent the job opening to him in July after a representative from the new professional soccer club contacted her about several entry level positions.

He’s thrilled to be working in professional athletics and also to help make an impact on St. Louis.

“I feel so blessed and kind of lucky at the same time,” Marroquin said. “I know it’s not common for a graduate to land a job with a well-known brand right after graduation. Getting my bachelor’s was already a huge step in my career and landing this amazing job just makes me more excited for the future.”

But these successes are more than luck. Sport management students have learned that achieving their goals is more like making their own luck – networking and taking each and every opportunity that presents itself.

Though Boleska puts it a bit more succinctly to students: “From the start, if you work the program, the program will work for you.”


Short URL: https://blogs.umsl.edu/news/?p=90505