Guest speakers Tray Thompson, Dallas Mavericks; Karl Crudup, Kings of Sacramento; Zenab Keita, Santa Cruz Warriors; and Ann Seeney, now with US Soccer, met in a virtual setting with BSBA co-founders Vincent Pierson (third from left) and Curtis Walker (far right) and academy members (at the top). Courtesy of Black Sport Business Academy
For years, Vincent Pierson and Curtis Walker aspired to establish a program for students like them at historically black colleges and universities that would enhance and enrich the student experience, while demonstrating that access to the sports industry is feasible.
While students at Virginia State University, Pierson and Walker met Professor Leon Bey, who quickly became a mentor and inspiration to the founding duo of the Black Sport Business Academy.
“If Curtis and I were the legs of this thing, Dr. Bey is the heart of it,” said Pierson, the former diversity and inclusion manager for Minor League Baseball who now runs his own diversity company. DEI consultancy, VSP Impact Strategies.
“Dr. Bey showed us the way to get us where we wanted to be, and his impact was something that always motivated me to pay it forward. Every time I broke into the sports industry , I have always felt I am indebted to the state of Virginia, especially them, in terms of helping shape the next generation of industry leaders,” said Walker, Vice President of TurnkeyZRG .
For years after graduating from Virginia State and while in graduate school at the University of Central Florida, Pierson and Walker shared a clear vision, but now was not the time to act on it. Everything changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. As businesses and schools nationwide made the transition to virtual environments, they saw an opportunity.
PiersonCourtesy of Black Sport Business Academy
With the rise of online learning, Pierson and Walker realized they could establish the BSBA virtually. That way, they could expand their reach to a handful of HBCUs without having to travel from school to school or requiring members to do so. “I think it was the perfect storm of virtual adaptation that we all did and realize there’s nothing in the way,” Pierson said.
THE FIRST YEAR OF BSBA
In the to fall of 2020, Pierson and Walker hosted a virtual academy pilot program, consisting of seven students from the state of Virginia. After a successful trial, they turned to the inaugural BSBA cohort for fall 2021.
Applications to the academy were open to anyone who met the criteria of being an HBCU student interested in a career in sports. Everyone who applied was interviewed by Pierson or Walker, who then compared notes and made selections.
CEO, VSP Impact Strategies
Age: 32 years old
Previous roles: Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Minor League Baseball
Assistant Director, Compliance and Student-Athlete Services, Colonial Athletic Association
Research Assistant, The Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport (now The Institute for Sport & Social Justice)
BS, Sports Management, Virginia State University
MBA/Masters, DeVos Sport Business Management, University of Central Florida
Pierson and Walker said they would never charge an HBCU or HBCU student for access to the academy. “That would completely defeat the spirit of this effort. Our goal is to build an ecosystem financially supported by donors, partners, sponsors and other friends of the academy who believe in our mission as much as we do,” said Pierson.
With distance no longer an issue, the inaugural cohort consisted of 28 members from 10 HBCUs. They embarked on a 14-week virtual journey that aimed to not only provide them with opportunities, but also a toolkit to maximize them.
Members took workshops to build their CVs, maximize their presence on LinkedIn, learn what it means to build a personal brand, work through crisis management and other skills essential to their development.
An integral part of the academy involved guest speakers from the sports industry taking the time to speak to members. These speakers showed members that “there really is a way, the bricks have already been laid on that way for me to go there,” according to Pierson.
BSBA members highlighted the impact of these appearances on them. Monét Brown, a senior at Howard University, stressed the importance of “just being able to talk to people who are in positions that I see myself in.” Brown was recently accepted into the NFL’s two-year junior rotation program, which begins in July.
WalkerCourtesy of Black Sport Business Academy
Brooklyn Irvin, a senior at Hampton University, appreciated the speakers’ “authentic perspective.” “It just allowed me to see the real world of what the sports business would be like,” she said. Irvin will be heading to UCF in the fall to pursue an MBA, as well as a master’s degree in sports business management.
Calvin Sykes, now a graduate student at Florida A&M University, said it “helped tremendously to really hear their experiences and understand that there are different journeys for everyone.” Sykes is pursuing her Masters in Sports Management, while freelancing for Andscape (formerly The Undefeated).
From the perspective of the guest speakers, the interactions were just as meaningful. Speaking to the BSBA, Byron Hatch, COO of the College Football Playoffs, said: “It energizes me and gives me a good, positive feeling of what the future holds.”
Vice President, TurnkeyZRG
Senior Director, Corporate Partnerships,
united football league
Senior Manager, Business Development and Media, Minor League Baseball
Director of Corporate Sales, Tampa Bay Lightning
Account Manager, IMG Learfield (University of South Florida) Championships and Alliances, NCAA
BS, Health and Physical Education and Sport Management, Virginia State University
MBA/Masters, DeVos Sport Business Management, University of
Lindsay LaBennett, senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Wasserman, said it made her feel like she was “actually making a difference in the lives of people like me who come from horizons similar to me, and it feels good. to help people who really want help, who need help and who deserve help.
Hatch and LaBennett also mentioned the importance of believing in the people involved in the cause, not just the cause itself.
“I believe in them,” Hatch said of Pierson and Walker, “and I can see firsthand the passion, knowledge and wisdom they have. These guys have always had the heart and the passion to help others, especially those who frequent HBCUs.
LaBennett agreed, “When you’re doing this kind of equity work, you want to be aligned with the people who are in it for the right reasons.”
The guest speakers weren’t the only ones to recognize Pierson and Walker’s authenticity. Irvin said he received “authentic mentorship” that “wasn’t filtered like previous experiences.”
Pierson and Walker strive to provide a program that they would like to have when they were in school, even if nothing they do involves financial gain. “We are not paid for this. It’s just the sweat equity and the satisfaction we get knowing we’re doing something that has an impact,” Walker said.
In addition to guest speakers, the academy received support from Walker’s employer, TurnkeyZRG. “One of the reasons why coming to Turnkey made sense is that it was a very natural extension of what I do with the BSBA,” said Walker, who joined the company in fall 2021.
Pierson and Walker credit their mentor and retired Virginia State professor, Leon Bey (center), for inspiring them to found the Black Sport Business Academy.Courtesy of Black Sport Business Academy
TurnkeyZRG provided all members of the inaugural cohort with access to the Sports Business Journal for six months, securing this investment. “It’s something where my position naturally aligns with the task of helping place students and providing them with opportunities. It’s another thing when your organization buys into that vision of what you’re trying to do,” Walker said.
He added that the support from outside sources allows the BSBA to “really stand up in this industry, to let people know that we are doing something impactful. It really sets us apart from being just another organization.
The BSBA is looking to recruit at least five experiential project partners this fall so that members can participate in real-life case study projects related to sports business and entertainment.
The academy has also begun to build relationships with colleges and universities committed to creating pathways for its members interested in pursuing postgraduate studies in business and sports administration. So far, these programs include: the DeVos Sport Business Management program at UCF, Seattle University (with help from Bill Sutton, formerly of the University of South Florida), and the Marketing Center sportsman from Warsaw at the University of Oregon.
“We need the resources that exist in the sport to be allocated to building the next generation,” Pierson said, “not just to identifying and training those who are ready.”