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The 11th annual Michigan Sport Business Conference kicked off its annual event Friday in the atrium of the School of Kinesiology. First founded by students in 2012, the conference provides students insight into the changing landscape of sports media and entertainment. 

Kinesiology senior Jack Moore, senior partnerships account manager for MSBC, commented on the theme of this year’s conference, “The Ball Is in Your Court.” Moore said the event was designed to help students feel empowered to find active roles in the industry.

“What do I want it to look like? Where do I see myself in 10 years?” Moore said. “This year we transition to ‘the ball is in your court,’ which is kind of adding onto that idea that your future is really in your hands and that students can really come here, learn more about the industry, talk to our recruiting partners (and) connect with industry professionals who are in roles that they aspire to be one day to ultimately work toward.”

The second keynote speaker of the event was Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of ESPN and Sports Content within Disney. Pitaro discussed a wide range of topics such as the use of third-party platforms, the digital ecosystem and traditional cable in conjunction with growing the ESPN audience and ESPN+ app. He also said entering the industry often entails persistence.

“Form as many relationships as you can,” Pitaro said. “You have to get up to bat and to get a hit. You get one job and you’re good. Keep getting up at bat and you’re gonna get a hit.”

Later in the afternoon, there was a series of “101” panels hosted by industry professionals. Bomani Jones, host of The Right Time Live @ MSBC, discussed how the pandemic has affected sports media as well as how being a Black man has affected his career and relationship with sports audiences. 

“If I try to go to a radio station and get a gig, the thing that’s gonna hold me up from getting a gig is that the guy behind the table thinks the audience is too racist to enjoy me,” Jones said.

During the panel, Jones described how he was raised in school with working class students while living in an upper class neighborhood, an experience he said allowed him to relate to and connect with any listener, regardless of what traditional media may expect from his racial identity.

Jones advised students interested in sports podcasting to lend a keen ear to their audience and respect their audience’s intelligence. He also discussed the challenges of being noticed in such a saturated digital space.

“Don’t get too cute,” Jones said. “Originality is a little bit overrated. Not that you should do the same thing everybody else does, but you’re not gonna reinvent the wheel.”

Industry professionals also discussed how industry professionals could provide better opportunities for underrepresented communities. During this time, students were able to work in small groups to converse about how sports media companies, such as Turner Entertainment Co., can seek to become more inclusive in employment.

Kinesiology junior Sarah Scheff remarked on how the conference has become increasingly more dedicated to helping minority students overcome barriers for inclusion.

“One of the greatest benefits of organizing has been helping people like me find better opportunities and chances (for employment),” Scheff said. “That’s what I do it for.” 

The conference then hosted a panel titled “The Ball is in Their Court: How NIL Is Changing Collegiate Athletics” to discuss the implications of new name image and likeness regulations (NIL). The panel was joined by representatives from NIL firms, such as Klutch Sports’ Brittany McCallum, along with Jim Cavale, CEO and founder of INFLCR, a software platform that provides student-athletes, coaches and athletic departments with information necessary for NIL deals. 

When asked how educational institutions are becoming more involved in the NIL process, Cavale said student-athletes need better resources and assistance to properly navigate how NIL fits into their athletics career. 

“Schools are trying to find ways to be more involved, because student-athletes deserve that,” Cavale said. “If a student-athlete gets hurt, they go to the trainer and the team doctor. If a student-athlete is struggling in school, balancing that, they have a tutor and academic advisors. If a student-athlete gets a contract put in front of them and they have a question, they deserve to be able to get an answer.”

Student organizers were also quick to comment on how planning and organizing the conference contributed to their professional development and networking. Business junior Isabel LoDuca, speaker management staff member, said the conference was a great way for her to meet individuals in the industry. 

“A lot of people that are really big names are actually really, really approachable people and nice people and I think that’s not what I expected,” LoDuca said. “But through all the conversations I’ve had, everyone’s excited to be here no matter what level of a company they are.”

Alum Justin Rufen-Blanchett graduated from the Ross School of Business with an MBA this past spring and prioritized returning to the conference, saying that he felt that the experience was a major factor in helping him start his career. He now works for McKinsey & Company within Technology, Media & Telecommunications (TMT) focusing on Media Entertainment in Los Angeles, Calif. 

“Many of the people that you’re trying to find or speak to on LinkedIn, especially if they’re Michigan alumni, are probably here today,” Rufen-Blanchett said. “So to have them all in one space in a more informal setting is fantastic. It’s like a sandbox environment so especially if you’re trying to learn the cutting edge of what’s going on in the industry or to meet professionals who are leading it, there’s no other place to come.”

Daily Contributor Mia Valiotis can be reached at erismiav@umich.edu.

Daily Contributor Sirianna Blanck can be reached at sirianna@umich.edu.