Photo by Mary Neiberg

By Joe E. Cervi 

Aspiring to be a general manger for a team in the National Basketball Association – it’s a big ambition. Then again, ambition, by definition, is supposed to be big.

For Trevaun Arnold, the desire to work for an NBA franchise formed after he grew up in Metro Denver and graduated from Bear Creek High School, a three-sport standout in basketball, football, and track. He had offers to play small-college football but opted to attend Colorado State University and major in business administration, with no athletics aspirations beyond attending Rams football games and playing intramural hoops.

Still, it’s a leap from arriving on campus – a first-generation student with a mini fridge, a duffel bag of clothes, and hundreds of questions about the future – to developing the dream of becoming an executive in pro basketball. Arnold’s plan coalesced through his love of the game, his growing knowledge of business, his exposure to opportunities in sports management, and a deep consideration of personal values – with a critical assist from an academic institute formed four years ago on the campus in Fort Collins.

“The Sport Management Institute has prepared me for a future that I see myself in. I want to work in the NBA, and I believe I have the skills to make that dream come true.”

– Trevaun Arnold, student

Smart and personable, Arnold, at 22 years old, is a self-proclaimed seeker, always looking for the next piece to his life’s puzzle. Maybe that’s why a flier hanging in the Lory Student Center caught his eye as Arnold hustled between classes during his first year on campus. “It was about an organizational meeting for the Denver Broncos Sport Management Institute,” Arnold recalled. “It was a blessing. I don’t know why I even looked at it, but I knew right when I saw it that it was going to be the path I took.”

Arnold soon enrolled in the institute designed to help students score careers – not as athletes, but in front-office and other managerial roles critical to the sports industry, whether pro sports franchises, college athletics, amateur and youth sports, or organizations focused on health, fitness, and recreation.

The Denver Broncos Sport Management Institute launched in Spring 2015 as the first academic partnership that pairs a top-tier research university and one of the world’s leading professional sports franchises to offer an interdisciplinary sports management curriculum. Students in the program graduate with a minor in sports management, which may be paired with virtually any academic major; that makes the minor an eminently flexible way to enrich and tailor preparation for a career in the sports industry. Each student completes a curriculum that combines classroom instruction with hands-on learning, highlighted by a 150-hour internship. The experiential opportunities come from the Broncos and other high-profile organizations in the sports industry, ranging from Vail Resorts to the Washington Capitals pro hockey team.

In the program’s first four years, 213 students have graduated with a minor from the Denver Broncos Sport Management Institute. As the institute approaches its fifth anniversary in Spring 2020, it is planning to begin offering a master’s degree – a promising sign of program growth on the horizon.

“Our partnership is a great way for the CSU System to join with the Broncos, one of our state’s most recognizable and reputable organizations, to deliver more value to Colorado through the doorway of education,” said Tony Frank, Colorado State University System chancellor. “We’re helping to create opportunities for students in a growing industry through a direct partnership with that industry, so students are learning precisely what they need to know to be successful right out of the gate.”

Given the exposure institute scholars have to the Broncos, it might not be surprising that some alumni are now working in public relations and marketing with the franchise. Other graduates have landed impressive entry-level jobs in other sectors of the sports industry: as coordinator of hockey development with the Los Angeles Kings, director of football recruiting at the University of Southern California, and in front-office jobs with the Colorado Rockies, Mountain West Conference, and Fresno State Athletics, among other positions.

Sports management programs are flourishing at universities across the country, largely driven by the thriving sports industry. The North American sports market is expected to top $73 billion by year’s end, according to Forbes magazine. As universities develop programs to help students compete in the arena, the CSU institute is distinctive for its close affiliation with the Denver Broncos: In addition to offering practicums and internships, executives with the franchise have helped design curricula by providing insights about the knowledge students need to succeed. The organization’s contributions are summed up in the institute’s motto: “To study with the Broncos, you have to be a Ram.”

Megan Jordan, above, worked at Broncos Stadium at Mile High during her marketing internship with the Broncos.
Megan Jordan, above, worked at Broncos Stadium at Mile High during her marketing internship with the Broncos. Photo by Matthew Swiren / Denver Broncos

For other indications of the institute’s relevance, consider a few key facts about the Denver sports market. The Denver Broncos are ranked No. 23 on the Forbes list of the World’s 50 Most Valuable Sports Teams of 2018. It is the only Colorado team on the list, keeping company with the likes of the Dallas Cowboys, Manchester United, and the New York Yankees. That standing is further notable because Metro Denver, with an estimated population of 3 million people, is much smaller than many cities with the highest-value sports franchises, a sign of fan interest and industry vibrancy here. In fact, Denver is known as one of the smallest cities in the nation to host teams in all of the big four leagues – the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League – as well as Major League Soccer. Add in all the other Colorado organizations with ties to the industry, and the need for sports management expertise in the institute’s home state is clear.

Several years ago, as leaders with Colorado State and the Broncos began considering an academic alliance, they wondered how the two organizations could work in a new and different way to give students and the sports industry an edge. Gary Ozzello, CSU director of community outreach and engagement, who earlier worked for 35 years in university Athletics, was instrumental in bridging academia and professional sports.

“We asked, ‘What fills a need for our students and Colorado State University, as well as for the Denver Broncos organization?’” Ozzello remembered.

Institute alumnus Tyler Voigt completed a marketing internship with the Broncos.
Institute alumnus Tyler Voigt completed a marketing internship with the Broncos. Photo by Matthew Swiren / Denver Broncos

Mac Freeman, chief commercial officer for the Broncos, had the answer.

“There are a whole bunch of really good and interesting programs out there. But I hadn’t seen anyone take the leap to go deeper in those engagements with professional properties,” Freeman said. “In one of our first meetings with some of the academic people at CSU, I was explaining that, ‘Hey, we’re close enough. We’ve got a lot of research projects that would be great for students. We’re willing to create internships and willing to create things that give students unique assets.’ The only thing that is important to us, if we’re going to build this, is that we build a great program.”

Freeman and others wanted to reach for excellence, to create a sports management institute that, in his words, “might be the most unique program of its kind in the country.”

“We recognize our brand is special. That’s been part of Pat Bowlen’s tenure in ownership of this team,” Freeman said. “We have high standards. On the field we’re about championships, and we’re about being champions in the communities in which we live.”

“We are giving students a firsthand, close-up look behind the scenes and showing them that there are careers in many different types of fields working in sports management.”

– Albert Bimper, Jr. academic leader, Denver Broncos Sport Management Institute

Building a curriculum with those elite standards was not easy. Yet Colorado State had a faculty member with the credentials to serve as the institute’s academic leader: Albert Bimper Jr., a former center for the CSU football team in the early 2000s, who is now the university’s senior associate athletics director for diversity, inclusion, and engagement. He is also an associate professor of ethnic studies, and much of his research and writing has focused on cultivating meaningful opportunities for students in the sports industry.

“When we started, it was important that we had two topics – leadership and diversity – at the forefront of what we wanted our students to gather,” Bimper said. Before starting a career in academics, he played for the Indianapolis Colts and was part of the team’s Super Bowl XLI win in 2007.

“From a leadership perspective, we think it’s important that the students are thinking around their own self-exploration – who they are, what their values are, and how they fit within the organizations that they aspire to work within,” Bimper said. “In diversity, we want to show how sports connects us to diverse communities, diverse climates. We didn’t want to shy away from race, class, gender, and how historically in sports these always come up.”

Bimper said arming students with tools to compete for high-level jobs in the sports industry – in any industry, really – was paramount.

“I teach from the point of view that I wish I could have been a student in my own class,” he said. “That sounds egotistical, but it’s not meant to. I wish I could have been a student in this type of program because it opens up a whole new world. We are giving students a firsthand, close-up look behind the scenes and showing them that there are careers in many different types of fields working in sports management.”

Grant Larson
Grant Larson completed a media relations internship with the Broncos before landing a full-time job. Photo by Matthew Swiren / Denver Broncos

The program is paying off for students. Grant Larson, an alumnus from the institute’s first cohort, wasn’t an athlete; he was a stats freak who thought a career in the number-happy world of sports would be paradise. Larson, 24, worked for the Rams’ sports information department and then interned in the Broncos’ communications department. Those experiences provided professional connections and immersed him in a work ethic that led to his job as coordinator of digital media, public relations, and marketing for the Denver Outlaws, the premier organization in Major League Lacrosse. It is no coincidence the Outlaws are owned by Bowlen, are a part of the Broncos family, and Freeman is the team president.

“The biggest thing I learned was what it takes to succeed in this field, and how hard these people work, and how devoted they are, and how if you keep working that’s how you succeed,” Larson said of the lessons he took from the Denver Broncos Sport Management Institute. “You kind of know right away if this is for you or not.”

Carlee Craddock, who interned with the Broncos alongside Larson, was attracted to the institute having been raised in a football family. She is the daughter of Dave Craddock, longtime football coach at legendary Pueblo Central High School, and all but grew up at Dutch Clark Stadium in Pueblo. “Football was all I ever knew. I literally was raised on a football field,” the 23-year-old said with a laugh. Craddock’s experience in the institute led her down a different path, to a job in the Corporate and Community Relations Department of Children’s Hospital Colorado. Yet she holds on to a core value delineated during her studies with the institute and affirmed through her internship with the Broncos.

Carlee Craddock led a tour of Broncos Stadium at Mile High while working as an intern for the organization.
Carlee Craddock led a tour of Broncos Stadium at Mile High while working as an intern for the organization. Photo by Matthew Swiren / Denver Broncos

“What I learned most is that you can make a real impact in communities while working for a professional sports organization,” she said. “You can use the brand to do good and give back. I realized that’s where my passion was, and it was through that opportunity that connected me with my current position at Children’s Hospital.”

Olivia Knoll, 23, grew up in Fort Collins and knew she would be a CSU Ram “from the first day that I could walk.” Last month, she walked across the commencement stage with a degree in hospitality management and a minor from the Denver Broncos Sport Management Institute. Through the program, Knoll worked as an intern with the CSU football program, helping with the ever-important recruiting process. Knoll said she’s confident in her skill set, having learned, among other lessons, that all victories are sweet. In a world filled with challenges, successes big and small should be celebrated, whether it’s completing a simple task or helping to land a standout player, she said.

“I have to keep reminding myself to be proud of my small accomplishments and to be aware that is what the world is going to look like,” Knoll said. “I don’t want to go in being ignorant in any way, so I keep reminding myself that it’s going to be a challenge.”

Arnold, the business major with his sights set on a management career in the NBA, likewise graduated last month and had several job interviews set up, including one with the Denver Nuggets. He, too, took self-confidence and self-awareness from his studies through the institute. “The Sport Management Institute has prepared me for a future that I see myself in,” he said. “I want to work in the NBA, and I believe I have the skills to make that dream come true.”