Entertaining New Possibilities

Shayne Gelbard (MBA ’24), Industry Insights and Satire Editor

The Media Entertainment and Sports Conference widened the aperture on possible careers in these industries for those with an MBA skillset.

This past Sunday, March 26, over 220 students and 50 speakers descended upon the HBS campus to hear from top executives from across multiple sectors within the entertainment industry for the Media Entertainment and Sports Conference (MESC). Historically, the school’s entertainment conference focused specifically on ‘traditional’ media industries (film, television, and news), but this year the conference leadership expanded its scope significantly. Speakers discussing technology, investing, and consumer trends complemented career-related events. But the largest departure from years past was the addition of the business of sports to roughly one-third of the scheduled programming. 

Earlier this year, it was decided to combine sports programming as part of the Entertainment and Media club’s annual conference, leveraging the marketing and cost synergies possible with hosting on the same day. “Both sides – entertainment and sports – lifted each other up for this conference,” said Tanner Crouch (MBA ’23), a co-president of the MESC. The journey to adding sports as a core pillar to this conference was not linear, and was years in the making. 

Crystal Yao (MBA ’23), also a co-president of the MESC, commented that the Business of Sports club (which she is a co-president of, too) had long-explored the idea of launching its own conference, but the idea never got off the ground. One of the chief reasons for this is that the market for ‘sports-business conferences’ was largely dominated by the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference over the last 10 years, growing to such scale and prominence that it is broadcasted annually on ESPN. In 2022, the cost of attendance was upwards of a thousand dollars, even with more than 2000 attendees. “The Sloan conference has become prohibitively expensive for most students to attend. It seemed like there was an opportunity to create an industry gathering that was smaller, more intimate, and more affordable that also leveraged the depth and power of the HBS community,” said Crouch.

As well, the business of sports in the U.S. has undergone a great deal of change in recent years that make the MBA skill set more attractive, creating the need for a more direct recruiting pipeline to this kind of talent. Changes in regulation have opened the possibility for institutional investors to own minority stakes in franchises. “Sports teams are now a true investable asset class,” said Mac Levin (MBA ’24), a member of the MESC conference team. In addition, as more teams achieve billion-dollar valuations, functions like strategy and business analytics have become even more critical to their management teams. Even successful private equity executives such as Josh Harris donated $5M to Harvard to support sports management careers post-graduation, according to a 2022 article in the Harvard Gazette.

Reading the tea leaves of industry change, in 2022 the Business of Sports club ran a successful pilot ‘live case’ event with more than 10 industry guests, taught by HBS Professor and leading entertainment thinker Anita Elberse. The live case served as a springboard to finally launch a day-long sports event after proving that there was significant student demand for this kind of programming. 

But there was also more overlap in the audience than one might think at first glance; sports and media are both highly networked industries, unconventional post-MBA paths, and sectors of deep passion for those who pursue roles in them. “While there isn’t a crazy overlap in the people who pursue both these industries for jobs, at the conference, many students bopped around between speaker events across both sports and entertainment,” Crouch continued.

When taking a closer look at the event’s agenda, the fusion of media and sports is clear. At the centerpiece keynote speaker event, Jimmy Pitaro (Chairman of ESPN) was interviewed by Professor Elberse through a wide-ranging discussion on the changing nature of sports media. Topics included the shift from ‘legacy’ broadcasting opportunities to streaming services, and the impact this has on bid prices for rights to live sports content. But he also commented on changes happening throughout the entire media ecosystem given ESPN’s high stature as a cash-flow-generator within the entertainment behemoth that is Disney. At the second-last speaker event, Jacqueline D. Parkes (Former CMO of MTV and MLB) also offered her perspective after spending a wide-ranging career in entertainment across pop-culture media and sports. In addition to keynotes that covered common ground for both sectors, the conference was broken up into two separate streams with differentiated programming throughout the day. 

Instead of covering familiar territory around ‘breaking in’ to the entertainment industry, a bulk of the content focused on consumer and technological change. Michelle Luo (MBA ’24), a co-president of the MESC leading the media stream, commented that a consistent theme among speakers was that disruptive technology is an enabler for artists, not a threat to their existence. In a panel on the future of film and television production, there was discussion about how advancements in the technical capability to render 3D models in virtual and extended reality (otherwise known as VR and XR) could be expanded into both films and games, bridging the gap – or blurring the lines – between interactive and visual media. As well, generative AI gives artists the opportunity to eliminate or automate menial tasks, so they can focus on what they do best: creating. Other interesting topics included advances to video gaming, news media, and content production in the post-COVID era. The feedback from speakers and students was beyond positive, with one entertainment industry veteran noting that this conference is “the best kept secret in Boston media.”

The sports stream focused more on overall industry trends, with the goal of solidifying HBS as the place for top industry executives to get exposure to cutting-edge ideas and research. “Our hope is that it would be a ‘meeting of the minds’ of sorts… that people would actually be learning,” said Crouch. He also stressed the importance of vulnerability by speakers and guests for this to happen. “There were no phones, cameras, or video allowed…we wanted to make the environment as intimate as possible.” In one session, three co-owners of top sports franchises (Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, and the New York Islanders) shared sensitive details on highs and lows of sports team ownership. One highlight was a private lunch for sports-industry speakers hosted by ESPN analyst Kirk Goldsberry, who shared some new ideas he was working on. While the specifics of the content were not shared with the Harbus, Crouch assured us that one team owner walked away saying their team needed this new capability in their front office. It was clear from the conversation that this new leg of the conference not only delivered on its mission, but established itself as an ‘instant classic’.

While the educational component of the conference clearly delivered in the eyes of attendees, perhaps the larger impact that the conference had was solidifying in students minds that entertainment, media, and sports are viable career paths to pursue post-MBA – even if they require a little more self-direction and risk than traditional industries. “People don’t typically think of HBS as an entertainment school, but we’re near the top in terms of recruiting outcomes,” said Luo. “As such a network-driven industry, our conference – and its timing so close to the end of the school year – are critical in helping to keep recruiting pipelines open. It would be great if this became a foundational industry at HBS.” Crouch had similar sentiments in the sports industry. “Many of the largest, most important franchises and teams are littered with HBS alumni. The MESC is a perfect opportunity for them to re-engage with the community, and source some of the best talent. Our goal is to be the number-one conference to do this.”

“The key takeaway from successful production executives like Schuyler Weiss and Tara Razavi,” says Moira Fennell (MBA ’24), a conference attendee, “is that to make it in an industry you’re passionate about, you have to maintain that entrepreneurial spirit.” While a structured recruiting path may be years away, the energy behind pursuing careers among the HBS MBA student body in entertainment is only getting stronger. Year-on-year, the number of attendees at the MESC increased by over 50%.

Shayne Gelbard (MBA ‘24) was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. Prior to HBS, he founded a venture-backed software startup and worked in brand management at a global healthcare CPG company.