Philly a hotbed for academic study of sports [The Philadelphia Inquirer :: ]
(Philadelphia Inquirer (PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 11--In a basement classroom just off Walnut Street, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania took his undergraduates on a tour of an industry.
For 90 minutes, Scott Rosner talked of "a possible line in the sand" drawn by television distributors that could eventually cut this industry's revenues. Consolidation and realignment, Rosner said, were "not unlike when banks get rolled up."
He pointed out how expenses in this industry have been outgrowing revenues by a 2-1 ratio -- "Let's think about the sustainability of this."
He was talking about college sports.
"As a leading business school, we look at sports the same way Wharton looks at health care and finance and other leading businesses," Rosner said in his office before class. "By all metrics, it's one of the largest industries in the United States."
Local academics do more than teach in the classroom. In recent years, Philadelphia has become a leading center for the academic study of sports. Research is focused across the spectrum, from the economic benefit of naming rights of local arenas, to diversity in sports. For instance, Temple professor Joel Maxcy is starting a project with some colleagues using Flyers data to look at the secondary ticket market.
Academics do sometimes look at everyday questions that might pop up in the paper or on sports-talk radio -- are Philadelphia fans really crazier than the rest? (No, at least not crazier than Cleveland's.)
Sports isn't a new field of research. Temple has one of the first and leading sports-management programs. History professors at schools such as St. Joseph's and Swarthmore have long considered sports history a legitimate field of research. John Lord at St. Joseph's teaches a course on the history and traditions of baseball. David Karen and Robert Washington at Bryn Mawr have studied integration patterns in that sport. Swarthmore's 37-year tennis coach, Mike Mullan, also is a sociology professor at the college who has studied how Gaelic sports played into the assimilation of the Irish in Philadelphia.
Maybe what's changed lately is an acknowledgment by academia that sports is worth studying in real time, that it can tell us interesting things about ourselves.
In December, Rick Eckstein, a sociology professor at Villanova, began a spirited discussion of an honors seminar on sports in society by showing an excerpt from the "Crack Baby Athletic Association" episode of South Park, a belly laugh-inducing parody of the NCAA.
What was the point of all this? And why does Eckstein study sports? Eckstein said he's been working for the last seven years to try and answer that question.
In 2003, Eckstein and Kevin Delaney at Temple wrote a book, Public Dollars, Private Stadiums.
"We would go on book tours and people always wanted to ask about sports," Eckstein said, remembering how they'd respond: " 'The book isn't about sports. It's about stadiums, about politics, about power, about corporations. It just happens to be about sports stadiums.' And we would dismiss it."
The questions never stopped, Eckstein said, depressing them to no end. Until they realized, he said, "it really was about sports."
A Philly laboratory
Ken Shropshire explains that as "a Los Angeles guy," that city might offer the best laboratory for studying sports -- "if they had an NFL team."
Since they haven't for almost two decades, the Wharton professor figures that Philadelphia is right at the top as a place to study sports at all levels.
"There are very few cities with all four major sports franchises playing in the city limits -- with MLS very nearby -- and none with the league and union offices a train ride away," Shropshire said. "If Penn was a sports powerhouse, then there would be no better place to sit." Shropshire then noted that "top powerhouse schools in cities don't have top business schools -- so again, tough to find a better real-life 'lab.' "
For the last decade, Shropshire has headed a think tank, the Wharton Sports Business Initiative.
Sports franchises looking at pricing models, for instance, can contact the Wharton Sports Business Initiative to collaborate on research. It doesn't have to be the major-league teams, either. One piece of funded research several years ago was titled "Sports Branding, Community Enhancement and Social Impact: A Longitudinal Study of the Camden Riversharks."
Shropshire, a special counsel at the Duane Morris law firm, always has side projects. He worked with the Big East on realignment issues for Duane Morris; led a mayor's task force on where to put the Philadelphia stadiums; and has done a lot of work on diversity issues, including leading a research effort for Major League Baseball's on-field diversity task force and heading an NFL diversity workshop at Wharton.
Shropshire has written a textbook with Rosner, The Business of Sports. They've begun cohosting a sports-business show on Sirius XM, part of a Wharton Business channel.
If you want to find copies of all the collective-bargaining agreements, from all the major leagues, current and past, Rosner has them in his bookcase on the sixth floor of Huntsman Hall.
In the classroom, Rosner broke down the economic factors behind all the recent college sports realignment.
"Let's say you had a generic sports franchise and you were allowed to move from the National Hockey League to the National Football League, wouldn't you do it? Of course you would," Rosner told his class.
A critical eye
The day after the Wharton class, several blocks away, just off Market Street, Drexel undergraduates gave final presentations for a sports and technology class.
Students talked about the evolution of golf clubs; how Major League Baseball will increasingly use instant replay, with retired umpires possibly sitting in front of screens in New York; and new laser markers that can allow football fans and players to see first-down lines like they are seen on television.
"In an age of drones and cyborgs, the sport of today may look and be experienced very differently from the sport of tomorrow," their professor, Ellen Staurowsky, said later. "My students are both enthusiastic about the possibilities but also cautious about what this all means for the human condition."
In her academic research, Staurowsky is a sharp critic of the NCAA. In 1998, she cowrote with Allen Sack a book titled College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA Amateur Myth.
A former Division III coach and athletic director, Staurowsky said: "The driving consideration is twofold: How can my skills as a researcher be brought to bear in the interest of the public good and the fulfillment of higher education's role in society, and how does my engagement with the research process serve to enhance the experience for my students?"
Geography has played a role in her recent research choices. When Jerry Sandusky was in court, Staurowsky was at the trial each day and anticipates writing a longer paper on "all its attendant issues" at some point. She also is working with Drexel colleague Karen Weaver, former athletic director at Penn State-Abington, on the history of "important women leaders in college sport" from this area.
Weaver focused her own doctoral dissertation on the launch of the Big Ten Network.
"Comcast's headquarters are 10 blocks from campus," Weaver said. "Their acquisition of NBC/Universal has made them a major international media player for both delivery of content and content development, not to mention all of the live sports properties they currently control. Add to that the issues that face the Division I programs in the area -- conference realignment, broadcast rights, arms race, etc. -- and I don't lack for interesting local topics."
A benefit to the brand?
Temple economics professor Michael Leeds and his wife, Eva Marikova Leeds, a Moravian College professor, listened on the radio as someone from Wells Fargo's marketing department talked about the benefits of having the firm's name on the South Philadelphia arena.
"My wife and I both looked at each other and asked, 'What about profits?' " Leeds said.
That led to their research project on naming rights, done with a Temple honors student, Irina Pistolet.
Their findings? "No net impact on the companies that bought them," Leeds said. "They would have done just as well putting their money into more traditional advertising -- or into the bank."
Leeds used similar analysis to look at whether the rise and fall of cyclist Floyd Landis impacted the stock of his primary sponsor, Phonak. If there was any long-term impact of the Lancaster County native's testing positive for elevated levels of testosterone and forfeiting his 2006 Tour de France victory, it was positive, Leeds said.
"Any sort of news regarding him was a positive for Phonak," Leeds said. "Like Oscar Wilde said, 'The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.' "
Breaking the mystique
It was Eckstein at Villanova who is helping a former student, now in law school, publish a paper on public perception of sports "hooliganism" in Philadelphia and Cleveland. This started, he said, from an honors thesis done in 2012 by Caroline Goldstein. Their survey found media in the two cities covered specific incidents similarly, but the national media focused on Philadelphia much more.
"This work is still in its infancy," Eckstein said of the findings.
In last semester's honors sports in society class, a December morning was spent discussing college sports.
"Is it real or is it an illusion -- this whole student-athlete thing?" Eckstein asked his class early on.
Students batted around subjects such as paying players -- and which players would be paid. Do college sports really add to a college experience for regular students? Why should nonrevenue-sports students get scholarships rather than students who work with the Special Olympics?
"I think the dollar value of the education is way more than what they're providing," one nonathlete said, referring to all the sports except basketball.
Another student asked about basketball players, "Why shouldn't the NBA be paying , since they're a proving ground?"
As Eckstein played devil's advocate and the hour passed quickly, with no more resolution than the average NCAA discussion.
"The big gap in sociology anyway, there's not that much research done in how sports as an institution perpetuates social inequality," Eckstein said. "There is a lot of good stuff on gender inequality . . . stuff on racial inequality. But not much on social-class inequality and political inequality."
In his class, Eckstein said, "I find, because of the cultural power of sports, there's a lot more resistance by the students to think critically about sports.
"They think critically about poverty, about race and gender, but sports -- they hang on to their beliefs really hard. And it's a lot of fun as a teacher to try and get them to just crack a little bit. . . . They believe the mystique that's been created about sports, even if they don't play sports."
He's now working on a book on female athletics, he said, trying to make the connection between the commercialization of youth sports for girls with the existence and lure of college scholarships.
"That's the holy grail that has in some sense ruined youth sports for girls," Eckstein said, explaining part of his theory. "It's not about the fun anymore. It's not about the friendships."
Probably a third to a half of his Villanova classes now are on sports, said Eckstein, who said he is proud to have been named one of America's "101 most dangerous academics" in a 2006 book by conservative author David Horowitz.
The sports in society class has been very popular, Eckstein said, "not for the reasons that they end up learning about," and he's just as interested in the subject himself, he said. Most of his research now involves sports.
That goes back to his studies with Temple's Delaney on building stadiums, how they finally came around to admitting they were studying sports.
"We said, 'You know what. It's really big.' "
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