A Beneficial Union
How Fisher’s graduate sport management program developed alongside a unique and revolutionary partnership for students.
One was designed with the other in mind. St. John Fisher College’s new online M.S. in Sport Management and Rochester’s new pro soccer club are set to offer graduate students something other programs around the country do not—a front office role with a professional sports organization.
“In our industry, young men and women have to fight tooth and nail for positions like this,” said Pat Gordon, director of the new program. “We wanted to craft a program that would grant them access to those roles. We didn’t have a partner that could do that, so we created one.”
In 2020, the Sport Management Department at Fisher began to develop curriculum for an online graduate program. That fall, sport management faculty members Dr. Todd Harrison, Dr. Katie Burakowski, and Gordon—along with two undergraduate students—met with Mark Washo, a 30-year veteran of the sport industry who also serves as an adjunct faculty member for Fisher’s undergraduate program, to discuss the return of professional outdoor soccer to Rochester. The goal was to fulfill two needs: bring professional outdoor soccer back to a city that has a strong soccer support system; and establish an organization that would supply opportunities for Fisher students at both the undergraduate and graduate level through quality internship experiences and front-office positions.
The group pitched the idea to David Weaver, CEO of Aphex BioCleanse Systems and a 30-year New York state emeritus soccer referee and former youth soccer administrator. They soon found themselves applying to join the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA). In November 2020, it was announced that soccer would be coming back to Rochester.
As soon as the calendar turned to 2021, the group started working with Chris Payne, a San Francisco-based soccer brand designer who specializes in creating unique brands for soccer clubs. He got right to work hosting focus groups to learn more about Rochester as a city, Rochesterians as individuals, and what soccer means to the community.
Branding the team began with choosing a name. “We wanted to be different,” said Gordon. “A lot of soccer clubs use the name of their city. We wanted to develop something that would stand out, and design something that is unique for the city of Rochester.”
Through focus groups, the lilac and rich Rochester history became emerging themes, and served as the inspiration for the team name. From there, Payne developed the brand and team crest, which were rolled out via the team’s website and social media channels. By April 2021, the Flower City Union’s roots were planted.
Harrison, Burakowski, and Gordon are actively involved in the development of the team, with an eye toward filling staff positions—from ticket and sponsorship sales to community relations and communications—with incoming graduate students this fall.
“The whole idea was that if we grind through the first eight to nine months, help is on the way,” said Gordon.
Help will come in the form of the program’s inaugural students such as Pittsford native John Betters who received his bachelor’s degree in sport management with a minor in marketing and management information systems from Ohio University this May. The pandemic took a toll on the sport industry across all levels. The scarcity of jobs available, as large arenas and stadiums are only now beginning to reopen, has made it harder for new graduates to get right to work. For Betters, this meant that pursuing his master’s degree was the best next step. The combination of an online curriculum with the opportunity for front office experience in his hometown were factors in his decision to apply.
“A master’s degree is one way to put yourself ahead of the pack when teams are looking at hundreds of applicants. But another thing is experience, and being able to put real-world experience on your résumé is critical,” he said. “Flower City Union is my opportunity to not only get experience, but it is an opportunity to give back to my community, which is what I am most excited about. Rochester has a rich history of having minor league teams, and being able to help bring fans back to a downtown stadium for professional soccer is a great opportunity.
“Fisher is putting its faith in their students to help bring this new team to glory, which you won’t find at any other program.”
Ryan Eddy, a 2021 graduate of Fisher’s undergraduate sport management program, is looking forward to some of those same opportunities. He, too, missed out on internships when such experiences in sport were largely put on hold due to the pandemic.
“I was only able to complete my practicum experience in the field due to the effect the pandemic had on the sport industry. When I heard that the graduate program at Fisher was going to provide an experiential opportunity, I thought it would be very beneficial for me,” Eddy said.
Graduate school was never on Eddy’s radar, but with his long-term goal of working in professional soccer, the experiential opportunity that the program brings and his familiarity with the professors solidified his pursuit of an advanced degree at Fisher.
“When everything started to shut down, I saw how competitive the job market was, and I thought that getting my graduate degree would be another way I could make myself stand out to potential employers,” he said. “I looked at numerous programs to see what they offered. Fisher’s program stood out more than any other. No other program was offering the ability to work with a professional soccer team. This opportunity will help me gain valuable experience that I will use throughout the rest of my career in the industry.”
For now, work continues off the field as the team builds its staff, searches for a head coach, and begins player recruitment. Fisher graduate Zach Agliata ’15 joined the club as its director of soccer development. Agliata will lead the team’s Homegrown Partner Program, focused on supporting Rochester’s youth soccer clubs with programming centered on player development as well as parent and coach engagement.
Come spring 2022, Flower City Union will face other NISA teams from cities that include Chattanooga (Tennessee), Los Angeles, and Detroit, to name a few. According to Gordon, the business side and the soccer development side will continue to work hand-in-hand to have staff and players in place for the start of the season.
“Flower City wasn’t designed on its own, and the graduate program wasn’t designed on its own,” said Gordon. “The two were rolling alongside each other the whole way, and I don’t think we’d have one without the other. It will be a partnership and marriage that, if successful, will be a benefit to the College, to Rochester, and to our students.”
The online M.S. in Sport Management program is currently accepting applications for fall 2021. Visit go.sjfc.edu/grad-sport-management to learn more.