Authors: Dexter J. Davis, Ed.D. & Timothy J. Newman, Ed.D.

Corresponding Author:
Dexter J. Davis Ed.D.
11O Business Administration Building
University of Tennessee-Martin
Martin, TN, 38237

Dexter Davis is an Associate Professor of Sport Business and Program Coordinator at the University of Tennessee at Martin, where he oversees a robust Experiential Learning program. He is also a non-residential faculty member at the United States Sports Academy

Timothy Newman is Clinical Assistant Professor and Sport Management Program Coordinator at Georgia State University, the author of textbook Social Media in Sport Marketing, and a non-residential faculty member at the United States Sports Academy.

Perceived Impact of Short Term Experiential Education Activities: The Golfweek Amateur Tour Case Study

The “big business” of sport has captured the attention of both students and administrators across the country and around the global, resulting in nearly 230 sport management programs across North America alone. The purpose of this article is to examine one approach to assisting students to create a competitive advantage for themselves in the job market, a short term experiential education activity at the GolfWeek Amateur Tour National Championships. Using a post-event survey, student perceptions of the impact of this event on their professional growth were examined. The results indicate that students felt that this experience had a positive impact on their professional growth and preparedness for a career in the highly competitive sport industry. Future research is needed to determine if short term experiential education activities have an impact on student learning outcomes.

Keywords: Experiential Education, Sport Management Education, Foster Five-Step Experiential Learning Model

The sport industry is often seen as a place of much glitz and glamour. Estimates are that globally, the sport industry generates close to $91 billion of revenue annually (A.T. Kearney, 2018). This “big business” has captured the attention of students and administrators across the country and around the globe. Students flock to sport business/sport management programs in hopes of gaining entry into this industry. While one can safely assume that ample “classroom activity” is present in the nearly 230 programs self-identified on the North American Society for Sport Management website (NASSM, 2016), most successful students engage in a wide range of experiential learning activities, often starting very early in their academic careers (Hayes-Sauder & Davis, 2017).

In the textbook, Experiential Learning in Sport Management: Internships and Beyond, Susan Foster sets forth an experiential learning model that engages students across the entire curriculum, encompassing everything from early career exploration and shadowing activities to culminating internships (Foster & Dollar, 2010). This model was developed from a large body of scholarly research, gleaned both from general research studies (Bridgstock, 2009; Dewey, 1938; Kolb, 1984; Thiel, & Hartley, 1997) and within the sport management discipline (Cunningham & Sagas, 2004; Schneider & Stier, 2006; Southall, Nagel, LaGrande, & Han, 2003).

In addition to this strong scholarly base, accrediting bodies such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), and the Commission on Sport Management Accreditation (COSMA) have long touted experiential learning as an important piece of the educational process. A quick search of any of these organizations’ websites reveals a wide range of material regarding their positions on the importance of, the implementation of, and numerous other topics related to experiential education (AACSB, 2016; COSMA, 2016; SACSCOC, 2016).

As a result of both this scholarly support and the expectations of accrediting bodies, the University of Tennessee at Martin (UTM) has been very intentional in the development of experiential learning activities for its Sport Business Program. Using a slightly modified version of the Foster Model, the program has developed a sequence of experiences that have provided it with unprecedented exposure to both internal and external publics and has led to continued growth, even in a time of declining enrollments across the larger University.

Approximately five years ago, the Sport Business curriculum (then called Sport Management) was relocated from the Health and Human Performance Department (HHP) into the Management, Marketing, and Information Systems Department (MMIS), housed within the College of Business and Global Affairs (CBGA). During its time in HHP, the Sport Management program was basically a hybrid degree, with course-work in exercise science, education, and general business (D. Gibson, personal communication, 2016). This structure was “unworkable” and therefore the move to MMIS was made. At that time, an intentional decision was made to make experiential education the primary focus of the program, using the Foster Model as the framework for this approach.

The Foster Model
Since its inception as an academic discipline, Sport Management (or Sport Business) has had an emphasis on practical applications of the unique nature of the implementation of general business principles to the sport industry (Masteralexis, Barr, & Hums, 1998). The first
sport management program grew out of a proposed curriculum that was jointly developed by the owner of a professional baseball team, Walter O’Malley, Los Angeles Dodgers, and college physical education professor, Dr. James Mason, University of Miami (Parkhouse, 1991). Even that earliest curriculum was “hands-on” in which pronounced importance was given to the internship component, allowing for the application of skills examined in the classroom in a practical setting (Mason, Higgins, & Wilkinson, 1981). In one of the early professional conferences relating to the business of sport, Kelly, DeSensi, Beitel, and Blanton (1989) stated that “it should be noted that students need assistance in making the transition from theoretically based course work, and principles learned in the classroom, to the direct application of these theories in the sport management setting” (p. 4). Since that early proclamation of the need for applied activities, a steady stream of academic research has been published that examines the value of a variety of experiential learning activities, which led to the development of the Foster Five-Step Experiential Learning Model (the Foster Model) (Foster & Dollar, 2010).

The first element of the model serves to introduce students to the sport industry and provides them with opportunities to begin to explore what the industry has to offer. This step is extremely important in the very competitive arena that is the sport industry. With an ever-increasing number of sport management/sport business programs, generating ever-increasing numbers of graduates, all competing for a finite number of positions within the industry, students must understand the nature of the industry (Mathner & Martin, 2012). Students often are drawn to the sport industry because of a strong connection to sport, whether as an active participant or as a fan (Schwab, Dustin, Legg, Timmerman, Wells, & Arthur-Banning, 2013). However, Schwab, et. al (2013), also reveal that these students may have not given adequate thought to the realities of such an industry before choosing their academic major, making this decision based on their emotional attachment to, and a desire to remain involved in sport. Therefore, the goal of this portion of the Foster Model is to provide students with experiences that will increase their understanding of the complex nature of the sport industry.

Step two in the Foster Model entails student being exposed to “entry level” work experiences. Recently, increased attention has been paid to the preparedness of students as they enter the workforce (Grasgreen, 2013). In response to questions being raised about preparedness, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) released a report outlining the value of work while pursuing postsecondary education. Key findings in this report are as follows: 1) work helps promote the development of skills necessary for workforce success, and 2) this work is very powerful as an educational tool when it complements what students are learning in the classroom. In a recent study, Hayes-Sauder and Davis (2017) examined the impact of having practical work experiences early in the curriculum on student development in subsequent capstone experiences. Results of this study indicate that these early experiential experiences have a positive impact on career development, seemingly validating the value of these experiences in preparing students for the workforce.

The third piece of the model involves the use of experiential learning activities within the classroom. In her outline of the model, Foster (2010) relates a wide variety of experiential learning to the classroom, from case studies involving sport organizations to practical projects undertaken for the benefit of an outside entity. Solving case studies provide students with an opportunity to develop real solutions to real problems within the context of the classroom (Forman, 2016). Project Based Learning (PBL) has been a part of educational practice for many years and continues to grow in popularity as employers stress the need for students developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills (Larmer, Mergendoller, and Boss, 2015). Southall and colleagues (2003) put forward a model in which students and faculty interact in “quasi-corporate” structure and faculty “serve as mentors, advisors, and managers for student-employee.” (p. 34). In this model, students work with clients to solve actual problems, from market research to event management (Southall, et. al, 2003). The opportunities afforded in this element of the model are only limited by the imagination and creativity of the faculty member and the willingness of students to engage in the opportunities afforded them.

Foster’s (2010) fourth element is an optional component: an opportunity to gain additional experience within the sport industry. This piece of the model is used as a means for students to continue to develop the skills that they will need to successfully complete their culminating internships. Some institutions have required practicum or pre-internship experiences, while others simply provide opportunities for students to continue to gain experience and hone both the technical and soft skills needed for success in the highly competitive sport industry. While looking at employment in general, Soule and Warrick (2015) identify communication, collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving, and creativity and innovation as skills that managers and other executives see as vital for employment success. In another study, specific to the sport industry, Porreca (2015) found that human resources representatives working in the sport industry concur with those findings, identifying communication, interpersonal skills, and creativity as the most valued competencies when selecting a new employee. While this element of the model is not set up to specifically develop these skills, the intention is that students will use this opportunity to gain more experience and sharpen their skills, both those identified here, and other, more technical skills needed for sport industry success.

The final component of Foster’s (2010) model is a capstone internship in which students work full-time, making the transition from academia to industry. Numerous studies have described the internship as vital for career success. As early as 1987 (NASPE, as cited in Sutton, 1989), internships have been considered a core component of the sport management curriculum. More recently, McNiff (2013) and Harris (2015) have identified full-time internships as having significant impact on the employability of students. Looking specifically at graduates of sport management programs, McNiff’s (2013) research indicates that both “experiences” in sport management and industry internships were identified as having a significant impact on success in obtaining “first positions” within the sport industry. Harris (2016) expanded this idea to examine the impact of internships on employment adequacy. This research indicates that undergraduate students who completed full-time internships were much more likely to be adequately employed than their peers whose internship was a part-time positon (Harris, 2016). From this historical perspective, one can assume that this piece of the model is very important for student success in making that academic-career transition.

The University of Tennessee at Martin Approach.
As mentioned in the introduction, UTM has been very intentional in its approach to developing an experiential learning-based Sport Business curriculum. The first class in the program, Introduction to Sport Business, is not only the starting point for the academic curriculum, but also serves as the starting point of the Foster Model of Experiential Education. In this class students are given the opportunity to explore the career field of Sport Business through an observation assignment and an interview assignment. The observation assignment requires students to take a critical look at three different sporting events of their choosing and analyze them, looking at very specific aspects of the industry, including marketing and sponsorships, and safety and legal liabilities. The interview assignment requires students to find someone within the sport industry and ask that individual a series of predetermined questions to gain insight into that individual’s path into the sport industry. Both assignments are designed to provide students with an early glimpse at the complexities of the sport industry.

After successful completion of the Introduction to Sport Business class students are admitted into the major and the remaining upper division classes require students to gain practical experience, most frequently with the UTM Athletic Department. These experiences provide an opportunity to explore various aspects of the enterprise, giving students real experience in concession management, game operations, and marketing and sponsorship fulfillment. Each of these experiences is designed to give the students the opportunity to not only explore these areas of Sport Business, but also provide them with managerial experience in a controlled environment. As with many smaller athletic departments, these experiences also help fill staffing gaps and provide the department with a cadre of “middle managers” who are motivated to succeed because of their interest in pursuing a career in the sport industry.

In addition to the practical experiences, these upper division classes are taught through an extensive use of case studies and practical projects for real “clients.” Case studies, widely available through a variety of sources such as Human Kinetics’ Case Studies in Sport Management, provide students the opportunity to hone their critical thinking and problem- solving skills, as well as learning how to function as part of a team. The use of case studies is supplemented with practical projects, designed to provide a real product or service for a client. Past projects have included assisting with the planning and execution of a golf tournament for a charitable organization and providing an intercollegiate athletic department with an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance audit. Again, in addition to academic preparation, team work, critical thinking, and problem solving are the focus of these activities.

The differentiating factor for the UTM program is the “extra” opportunities offered to its students. Every year students are provided the opportunity to gain additional experience through a week-long experience at the Golfweek Amateur Tour (GWAT) National Championships, a week-long experience with the On-Location Experiences at the Super Bowl, and a week at Roger Dean Stadium, assisting with St. Louis Cardinals/Miami Marlins spring training. Each of these experiences provides students with a unique look at different pieces of the business of sport. From grassroots sport, such as GWAT, to the largest single-day sport event in the world (Super Bowl), to the intimate setting of spring training, UTM students have the opportunity to be involved at the “front lines” of these events. This additional experience has proven to be a differentiating factor when the students are being considered for both capstone internship opportunities and entry level.

The GolfWeek Amateur Tour National Championship Experience
Every October, approximately 950 golfers arrive on the island of Hilton Head to participate in the final event of GWAT season, the National Championship. Throughout the year, members of individual tours compete in regularly scheduled tournaments to qualify for this 54-hole event in which champions are crowned in five different flights (Champ, A, B, C, & D, determined by each golfer’s USGA handicap.) Over the past ten years this event has grown to the point that the tournament directors have needed assistance to ensure that the participants continued to have quality experiences. This assistance has come in the form of a group of sport management students selected from a small number of institutions in which experiential learning is a cornerstone of the curriculum.

Early in the fall semester, a cadre of 15 – 20 students are selected to take part in this experience. The selection process is part of the experience as well. An announcement is made at the institutions involved in the event. This announcement includes a brief overview of the experience and job description for the tournament “interns.” Students are then required to submit a cover letter and resume to their individual faculty member, addressing the skills and qualities outlined in the job description. An interview process is used to narrow the candidates down to the 15 – 20 total students needed for the event, with each institution providing 5 – 7 students selected by the faculty of that program. The goal of this portion of the process is to give students real experiences with preparing resumes, writing cover letters, and interviewing as a means of assisting in the development of the skills needed for success in that part of their professional growth.

Once the selection process is completed, the “real” work begins. Using Skype as a platform, the selected students are introduced to each other and to the faculty who will be accompanying them to Hilton Head. They are also introduced to the scoring programming and the event staff that they will be interacting with during the tournament. While the system is not particularly complicated, given the need for both speed and accuracy, the students spend a significant amount of time practicing transferring scores from the official scorecard to the scoring program. Although nothing can duplicate the actual process during the tournament, the goal with is exercise here is make sure that the students are comfortable with the way the system works. Should errors occur, students will know the steps to take to correct those problems on location.
Arrival on Hilton Head takes the students’ experience to another level. The tour directors secure condominiums for the students and faculty taking part in the experience. This event hosts students from a small, private Catholic institution, students from a large, urban state institution, and students from a medium-sized rural unit of a larger state university system, each with its own unique approach to instruction and selection of participants. Because these students represent very different universities, the goal is to use that diversity as a teaching tool as well. While this element may seem minor, ideally the goal is to have no more than four students from each university is each condo. As referenced previously, the soft skill of being able to work with a diverse population is something employers are looking for in employees and housing students from different condos is one method of helping students acquire that skill.

The early part of tournament week is focused on the logistics of preparing for the arrival of 950 golfers. Swag bags need to be stuffed, registration forms need to be checked against the pre-registration lists, pairings need to be finalized, and numerous other pre-event tasks must be completed. In many ways, these tasks become team-building exercises, as students work together to determine how to most effectively and efficiently complete these tasks.

Simultaneously, preparations for the “unofficial” start of tournament, the Director’s Dinner, are also taking place. This event is part celebration, part pep rally, as Directors of individual tours gather to reflect on the golf season that is coming to an end with the National Championship. The students are both employees and invited guests at this event. Prior to the dinner, they help set up, moving tables and chairs, setting tables, arranging flowers, and any additional prep work before the dinner. As the dinner unfolds, students serve as parking attendants, greeters, bartenders, and wait staff. During the formal portion of the dinner, the students are recognized by the tournament staff for the assistance they have provided and the skills they will bring to the event going forward.

“0 dark thirty” Friday, as the day is referred to by tournament staff, is the official start of the National Championship. The goal is to have each pair of students on their assigned golf course by 6:30 a.m. that morning, arriving before tournament participants. This day is the busiest and most stressful day of the tournament for everyone involved. Golfers are anxious to get started, tournament staff are holding their breath as they hope for a smooth start to the Championship, and the students are ready to put all of their training and pre-event preparation to the test.

Prior to play beginning, students must check-in all the golfers, confirming their playing partners, assigning their cart, and directing golfers to the correct starting hole. Adding to the workload is the collection of “skins” entry fees. The “skins” game is a game within the tournament, in which participants have the opportunity to win a cash prizes within each round of the tournament. This activity requires the students work as a team, one team member collecting and handling the cash, the other handling the confirmation of entry into the game on the scoring system. As with all the other elements of this event, this team approach is intentional, as “cash handling” is often a skill that sales positions within the sport industry are looking for in new applicants. Additionally, as mentioned previously, teamwork and the ability to work as part of a team is other highly sought-after skill for applicants in nearly any position.

Saturday is the most “relaxed” day of the entire event, with the only major responsibility being making sure the golfers are checked in, in the correct pairing, and starting on the correct hole. Frequently golfers have voluntarily removed themselves from the tournament, so the students must engage in critical thinking and problem-solving, adjusting pairings or starting positions as needed due to these withdrawals. Once the round starts, the students are free to either work as a team or individually marshal the course to ensure that play is moving at an appropriate pace and that no other problems arise as the round progresses.

The final round brings its own level of excitement and pressure. Developing professionalism is one of the goals of this experience, and the final round is when this component is essential. As with the other rounds, Sunday finds the students back on their assigned courses, checking in golfers, ensuring pairings and start positions are correct. However, this all takes place with the pressure of the “championship” round. Players in contention for a championship are on edge, tournament staff are on edge, the students are on edge, all of this adding to the need for speed and accuracy as the round comes to an end. This culminating event is also where all the practice with and understanding of the scoring system comes into play, as everyone from golfers to event staff want to determine the results are and who will be crowned “National Champion” as early as possible.

Throughout the week the students have built-in time for reflection on the experience, a hallmark of experiential education. This time has jokingly become known as “family dinner” because it usually occurs during the group meal that takes place at the end of the day. During each of these gatherings students are asked to share their thoughts on the events of the day. This reflection can be guided with a question such as, “Share one thing that happened today that your classroom experiences helped you be prepared to deal with.” Other times the reflection is merely “What did you learn today and how will you use that information to be better tomorrow?” In addition to these rather informal reflections, at the end of the experience students are asked to complete a survey that gathers both qualitative and quantitative data on their experiences. These survey results provide insight into the student perception of the event and gives them the opportunity to provide reflective feedback on the impact of this experience.

Survey Results Yield Students’ Perceptions
At the conclusion of the 2017 event, students (N=16) were asked to complete a short survey to gauge their perceptions of the “value” and impact this experience has had on their professional growth. The survey included both quantitative and qualitative responses and was designed to give participants the opportunity to reflect on how their experiences at the GWAT National Championship are related to their academic experiences as well as their professional growth and employability. Additional responses were gathered regarding the “value” of experiential education for all those involved: organizers, educational institutions, and the students.

The first series of questions dealt with student perceptions of the application of theory learned in the classroom. The responses to these questions were overwhelmingly positive, with 100% of the responses being either “strongly agree” (62.5%) or “somewhat agree” (37.5%) that the experience reinforced or enhanced classroom learning. Students also felt that this experience would increase their ability to contribute to classroom discussions, with 93.8% responding to either “strongly agree” (43.8%) or “somewhat agree” (50.0%). These responses seem to indicate that this specific experience is beneficial in assisting students as they apply theory to practice.

One of the benefits often touted for experiential education is its positive impact on “employability” and the students’ networking ability. The responses to the series of questions that examined this aspect of experiential education seem to indicate that this cohort of students perceived their involvement in this activity as being positive. Students overwhelming perceived this experience as having a positive impact on their professional networks and their resume. Responses regarding network development indicated that 100% of the students felt that this activity enhances their networks; with 68.8% responding “strongly agree” and 31.2% responding “strongly agree.” When asked about the positive impact on their professional resume, the responses were nearly identical with 68.8% responding “strongly agree” and 25.0% responding “somewhat agree.” These results give some credence to the anecdotal evidence, where students reported being offered other internship and employment opportunities subsequent to their involvement with this event.

A final area of interest was the students’ perceptions of the “value” their involvement in this experience brought to both the event organizers and the educational institutions represented at the event. Again, positive perceptions of the experience were relayed by the students. When responding to their impact on success of the event, 56.3% of the respondents “strongly agreed” that their involvement was beneficial, not only to themselves, but to the event organizers as well. The students felt very strongly (68.8% “strongly agreed”) that their institution’s image as a provider of effective experiential education activities was enhanced by their involvement in this experience. These responses seem to indicate that students perceive their activities as providing benefits to the event organizers and to their colleges and universities as well. These results are another indicator of the level of impact that these activities have on the three major stakeholders involved: the event organizers, the academic institutions, and the students.

In addition to the quantitative data, students were also asked to respond to open ended questions regarding their experiences. These responses were examined to determine if a theme emerged. When responding to the questions about the positive aspects of the event, the two major themes that were note were: 1) the opportunity to learn in a “hands on” manner and 2) the networking that occurred. A common response was as follows: “The best thing about this activity was getting hands-on experience, dealing with customer service, dealing with real people in real time.” Another student said: “The best thing about this activity was learning the ins and outs of running a tournament and gaining a lot of connections for my career in the future.” These two comments are representative of a majority of comments received from students regarding the positive impact of this event on their personal and professional development.

Another area of interest the survey assessed was how students felt the experience fell short and could have been better. As with the other responses, a theme emerged that touted the need for better organization from the event management. A representative response was as follows: “event management was a bit unorganized, they gave us a lot of information all at once and when I asked for clarification I was given different information by different directors.” Another comment echoed these thoughts: “I was told different things by different people and then was told I did it wrong because they had different ideas on how to do things; it was very confusing and frustrating.” As a result of these comments, plans are underway to change the communication channels, with the goal being establishing a clearer chain of command and thereby helping the students to have a better experience at the event.

In a recent article Coker, Heiser, Taylor, and Book (2017) reference the trend on college campuses toward shorter experiential activities as the result of numerous internal and external factors. Also included in this conversation is the feeling that these shorter programs may be given less credence by employers and less credibility by educators (Coker, et. al., 2017). However, Gaia (2015), when examining study-abroad programs, concluded that, when long-term programs are not viable, short-term activities “may serve certain student populations well” and “could include applied experiences that will benefit graduates as they apply for graduate school or employment” (p. 29).

One population that might be served well by such programs are students interested in pursuing a career in the sport industry. This industry is unique in many ways, but one of the most pronounced unique factors is the fact that many sport “events” are short-term in nature, much like the GWAT National Championship. Research revealed that the students who were engaged in this experience perceived that it was beneficial to their personal and professional development. These students had the opportunity to apply the theories they are learning in their classes to a real experience; they had the opportunity to develop their personal networks, and they saw the benefits that accrued to all the parties involved in the event. As a result of this experience, students have been afforded the opportunity to develop nearly all the skills needed for professional success. Given that outcome, one can conclude that, at least based on student perceptions, short-term experiential activities are an important part of the overall educational experience for students enrolled in sport management/business curriculums.

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