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The Sports Fanatics

Sport management partnership with CITY SC offers opportunity, expands access to soccer in region – UMSL Daily

Members of the UMSL community including Karen Boleska (second from right), director of the sport management program, join Chancellor Kristin Sobolik (fourth from right) and Louie the Tritons mascot on stage after announcing a new partnership between St. Louis CITY SC and the university at an event on Jan. 19 in the the Millennium Student Center. (Photo by August Jennewein)

In May 2021, the inaugural cohort of sport management majors at the University of Missouri–St. Louis graduated from the College of Education with bachelor’s degrees.

It wasn’t too long after commencement when Karen Boleska, director of the program, fielded a call about two graduates. Mandy Rupp, director of ticket sales with St. Louis CITY SC, was on the line. Rupp was prepared to hire the pair of UMSL graduates for entry-level positions in ticket sales after a one-day, on-the-job internship – a unique element of the new Major League Soccer club’s hiring process. She just had to complete her due diligence and check their references.

After discussing the program and her former students, Boleska asked why they stood out among the many applicants. Rupp rattled off several qualities the club was seeking: They were first to raise their hands, they took the lead in group environments and they had ideas they were able to express clearly.

“I genuinely think it’s because of the way we run the program,” Boleska said. “We do video homework. We get them into internships. We bring external people in, and we make students talk with them in the classroom.”

Boleska kept in touch with Rupp, and during the next academic year, she brought her and several CITY SC colleagues into the classroom as guest speakers and also as sales coaches ahead of the 2022 National Collegiate Sports Sales Championship.

It was an excellent foundation to a budding relationship, which has now flowered into an official alliance. On Jan. 19, CITY SC Chief Revenue Officer Dennis Moore announced that UMSL is now the official higher education partner of the MLS club. The new partnership will grow the next generation of esports players and fans and also foster professional development through the sport management program.

“Selfishly, I couldn’t think of anything more important for the vitality of our organization,” Moore said at the kickoff event held in the Millennium Student Center. “Future athletic directors, coaches, facility managers, sports marketers, ticket sellers, you name it.”

Students in the sports management program, as well as interested students in other academic programs, will have access to increased internship and gameday opportunities. The club will also keep working with UMSL students in the classroom. CITY SC representatives will continue to act as guest speakers and mentors, work with students on joint research initiatives and potentially help lead certain courses.

Boleska had no idea a partnership was being formalized until a few months ago. She received a message from Chancellor Kristin Sobolik about discussing future partnerships, and soon afterward, she met with Sobolik and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost Steven J. Berberich. They asked Boleska what she would like to see included in the partnership. For her, the top priority was internships.

The sport management program heavily emphasizes practical skills and seizing opportunities for professional development. Students develop their communication abilities through video essays, network through the program’s guest speakers and refine their resumes throughout the school year.

However, working in the field through internships and volunteer opportunities is where students often learn the most. Internships are also a key factor in employment after graduation.

“For me, it was making sure that we were doing our due diligence of connecting with the companies here in St. Louis for the students who live in St. Louis,” Boleska said. “If we know that 75-80% of our students are going to live in St. Louis after graduation, I need to make sure that I connect with people in St. Louis. It was a very logical thing for a new program.”

In addition to increased access to paid internships, sport management students will also work with CITY SC on public-facing projects. Boleska’s students have just begun working on the first such project in their Educational and Community Athletics class. Over the course of 16 weeks, students will work with the CITY Futures Program to identify soccer fields and soccer clubs in the St. Louis metropolitan area and create an interactive map.

The map will be available on CITY SC’s website under a dedicated tab, and residents will be able to click into individual counties and see an overview of fields, clubs and leagues. The map will also note the fees associated with each club. CITY SC representatives are checking in each week to evaluate the students’ progress with the aim of launching the map in early May.

“The goal is to help make soccer accessible for people,” Boleska said. “They want to be able to use this data and identify places that maybe need a field or where they want to put on free clinics every other Saturday for kids because there’s no soccer out there. It’s really a one-stop shop for people as a resource in St. Louis. We’re very big on inclusion, equity and accessibility, and the students are excited because they see the big picture.”

Boleska said future projects could include identifying coaching and referee clinics.

“If we want to educate these coaches so they can be better to the kids, are these clinics even happening?” she said. “Do we need to put them on? Do we need to have a program that funds them? So, every year, there’s going to be a really great way that can impact St. Louis.”

Beginning next school year, students will also participate in site visits at CITY SC.

“Next semester, the freshmen are going to have to do a job shadow,” Boleska said. “They’re going to have to job shadow twice in a semester – once has to be with CITY. They get to look through their directory and say what job sounds interesting – ‘What do I want to learn about for the day?’”

The club has also expressed interest in co-leading a course in the future. Boleska said the program’s Sports Media and Technology course would be a good candidate for a collaboration, considering the club’s access to resources in those areas.

Overall, Boleska hopes the partnership will provide greater exposure for the program and let students in the region know sport management is a viable career path.

“We’re working with students who are like, ‘I love sports. I want to stay involved in it. I’m not playing college athletics, and I can go to school for this,’” Boleska said. “Those are the kids that we’re getting. It really is just an additional leverage point, but I think the exposure we’re going to get from CITY is just going to allow us to create more conversation. Telling students, ‘You can go to college and afford it and get a degree in sport management.’”

At the moment, she’s excited about the future of the program, the club and St. Louis.

“I grew up near Toronto, Canada,” Boleska said. “When I was in high school, we got an MLS team. Going to those games was insane because we were a brand-new team at the time. We all got to see the stadium being built. We saw all the partnerships; we saw everything come to life. Seeing that and knowing that it’s about to be like that in St. Louis is so exciting because I lived through one of these before.”

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