Inside the NHL

An ambitious new Seattle University program, based on an idea prompted by the Kraken, hopes to eliminate the oldest excuse in the book for why sports teams haven’t hired more women and people of color for management positions.

For decades teams have bemoaned the lack of interested or “qualified” candidates that would enable them to diversify in a meaningful way. But after discussions launched by the Kraken that quickly included the Mariners, many of Seattle’s pro sports teams have agreed to financially and logistically support a new MBA program focusing on diversity and aiming to boost the supply of such management candidates.

Seattle U’s MBA in Sports and Entertainment Management, a 24-month program that begins this summer, will accept white male applicants within its ranks. But it will do so from a pool of candidates it hopes can be as diverse as possible by actively pursuing applicants from underrepresented communities. It also will offer scholarships to make access to the program as inclusive as possible.

“Inclusion has to come first, and then diversity will follow — and I think most organizations have been doing the opposite,” said Maylon Hanold, the fledgling program’s director and a former world-class kayaker. “So we believe that we will be able to attract and recruit individuals from a much wider variety of diverse backgrounds than we have been able to do in the past.”  

The program’s key selling point will be its second year, when students go on paid, nine-month fellowships working directly for the participating sports teams and organizations — including the Kraken, Mariners, Seahawks, Sounders, Storm, Oak View Group (OVG) and Climate Pledge Arena. Students also will be required to complete 19 in-class courses, many leaning heavily on what Hanold calls the “leadership traits” of teaching how to build a diverse and inclusive sports workplace.

Among events that led Hanold, 57, to spend her academic career championing inclusion and shaping workplace culture was her upbringing in South Carolina, where she saw racism ingrained in all aspects of society.

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A former Olympic kayaker in the 1992 Summer Games, she also later competed in extreme kayaking and witnessed firsthand how the sport’s “hyper masculinity” applied pressure to men and women. 

“I became very aware of the extreme-sports culture and had to deliberately say ‘No, I’m not going to run that waterfall today,’ or ‘I’m not going to run those rapids today,’ ” Hanold said. “And I’ve had eight friends die — all men — from kayaking because they didn’t say no.

“And that’s just not fair,” she added. “It’s not only unfair to women. It’s unfair to men. I think that’s what prompted my original desire to educate in this space. I mean, the culture was literally killing my friends.”

Hanold feels there has been a growing demand the past decade from sports teams that want to become more inclusive with their staffs. She said the probable “tipping point” for teams happened last summer, when the police killing of George Floyd — an unarmed Black man — in Minneapolis set off nationwide protests, including calls from pro athletes to end systemic racism.

“I believe that it just gave a little bit of an extra nudge for teams to say, ‘You know what? We really do want to do something,’ ” Hanold said. 

The new program morphed out of a previous Master’s degree in sports-business leadership that Seattle U had offered for several years. This new offering awards an MBA instead of a straight Master’s degree and is worth seven additional credits because of its 24-month length, compared with the previous length of 22 months.

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Seven of the 19 required courses will be classes comprising the core of the school’s existing MBA programs, in which students will mix alongside those studying other business disciplines. The majority of courses will be taken the first year, with the hands-on work with teams encompassing much of the second. 

Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke agrees it’s time for pro-sports teams to do something about better diversifying their business and management ranks. 

“The consistent alibi is, ‘We just can’t find the right candidates,’ ” Leiweke said. “But if this program catches fire and there are 20 or 30 others like it, then you would not be hearing that alibi.”

It was Leiweke who approached Seattle U and its Albers School of Business about setting up a program similar to one he had assisted while CEO of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Starting in 2012, he arranged for the Lightning to sponsor paid internships for students from a new Sport & Entertainment Management MBA program at the University of South Florida.

That USF program, headed up for years by since-retired director Bill Sutton, expanded to other teams and by 2017 had been bolstered by more than $6 million in donations from Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his wife, Penny. The renamed USF Vinik Sports & Entertainment Management program boasts a near 100% job-placement rate in the field and last September was ranked No. 5 in the nation and No. 6 globally by SportBusiness International magazine. 

One difference between USF and the Seattle U offering would be the additional focus on diversity here, an idea that took shape once the Mariners expressed interest in coming aboard as one of two founding partners for the program.

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From there, once they approached other teams and OVG — the company renovating Climate Pledge Arena that was co-founded by Leiweke’s older brother, Tim — the diversity angle was something on which they found common ground. The organizations have committed to pay for about 15 of the roughly $15,000-per-person stipends that will finance the nine-month student fellowships within their ranks.

Seattle U has hired former USF department head Sutton, who retired in 2019, as a consultant to seek other companies that can help fund an additional 10 to 15 fellowships. Sutton also will help the school identify companies and foundations with sports affiliations to see whether they offer external scholarships that can be applied to financially aid prospective students.

“It’s really about making sure the opportunities are all out there,” Hanold said. “And then, when we get a really good pool of applicants, we’ll have a much bigger choice in terms of selection.”

And leave no more excuses for teams still hoping to avoid change.