FAU Faculty Making Waves
Dr. Jim Riordan, Director of the MBA in Sport Management
Building Winners in Sports and Entertainment
Dr. Jim Riordan has experienced great success during his career. For the last 14 years, he has built FAU’s MBA in Sport Management into one of the best programs of its kind in the world.
But it’s how he responded to adversity and defeat 20 years ago that tells you the most about his character.
In 1983, shortly after earning his bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University, he was named director of security and event services at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, the city’s sports mecca and home to the NBA’s 76ers basketball team and the NHL’s Flyers hockey team, as well as host to innumerable concerts and other events. At 22, he was the youngest person in a major market to hold such a position.
He went on to hold similar management positions at arenas and convention centers in New York and Richmond, Virginia. In 1994, he was serving as director of training and quality control for the New York Mets, and assisting in the management of Shea Stadium.
That’s when Riordan was blindsided and thrown for a big loss. Major League Baseball players went on strike and eventually the World Series was cancelled.
“They fired 56 of us,” Riordan said, “and I was one of them.”
Riordan kept himself busy both working at the ticket window at St. John’s and as bar bouncer.
“I tell my students you can’t be afraid to take a few steps back,” he said. “You can’t let your ego get in the way. I learn something every day, and if I had to do something just to gain experience, even if it was taking a few steps back, that’s a learning experience.”
A couple months later, he saw an ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a position at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. The school was looking for a program administrator for its new master of science in sports administration program.
“So I put together a list of all the contacts that I had, and I sent it to them,” he recalled. “I said this is where we can get internships. I had people write letters from different sports organizations, saying, if they qualify, your students will be at the top of the list for jobs. Their eyes lit up at Canisius, so they hired me.”
Over the next five years, he built the program at Canisius. He also held management positions in event operations with the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, as well as two Super Bowls in 1999 and 2000.
While online one Halloween night during one of Buffalo’s many snow blizzards, Riordan was looking for jobs for his students when he came across an ad for a program director at FAU’s campus in Fort Lauderdale. The only reason he had heard of FAU was because the school had a year earlier hired Howard Schnellenberger to start a football program.
During his interview for the position, Riordan said he wanted to come to FAU to build a national program, detailing the necessary parameters and the money that would need to be spent.
“We were competing against some mighty good sport management programs at the time were 30 years in existence, so we had to catch up,” he said. “We had a tremendous advertising and marketing budget. We are in a great area of the country, and we had a lot of local people come out to help.”
The program quickly achieved a high placement rate for its graduates. Six years ago, the program moved from Fort Lauderdale to FAU’s Boca Raton campus. It’s now ranked number 4 in North America and number six in the world by Sports Business International. Plans are underway to start a part-time program for people in the industry, as well as an online program.
The key to the program’s success, Riordan said, is its students, faculty and the people at local sports organizations who hire its students for internships.
“The Dolphins, the Marlins, the Panthers, and the Heat have just been tremendous,” he said.
The program’s alumni can now be found in top positions in the sports and entertainment industry throughout the country. Organizations such as the NHL’s Boston Bruins, Palm Beach Sports Commission, Delray Beach Tennis Championships and numerous other professional sports teams and university athletics programs have hired FAU Sports Management MBA graduates. FAU Athletic Director Pat Chun has been “beyond amazing,” Riordan said, in providing employment and internship opportunities in FAU Athletics.
The program has gained a reputation for developing people who are ready to hit the ground running. Students are expected to hold jobs or internships in the industry throughout their time in school, not just when they are nearing graduation. While many people who spend countless hours watching ESPN and games on TV may think they have what it takes to succeed in sports management, Riordan is quick to point out it takes a lot more than that to make it in this business.
“It’s a very demanding program,” he said. “I’m a very demanding person, but you have to be.”
Those demands include a no-schmoozing policy that prohibits students from trying to cozy up to athletes and take photos with them. While incoming students are not required to have prior experience in the industry, they have to be willing to get it when they enroll.
“You don’t need the experience, we’ll find that for you,” he said. “And it’s not just at the end of your tenure here. You start from the very first day.”
Like Riordan, all faculty members are practitioners who have worked in the industry and have current, contemporary experience.
“In the end, it’s the students who come and represent you when they leave. And it’s the people who hire your students. I give them all the credit. I’m really proud of the people we have here.”
Masters students, he said, have to realize that “graduate school is its own universe.” Transitioning from undergraduate education requires radical changes in the students’ behavior and maturity level. Graduate students should do “anything and everything legally and ethically possible” to augment their classroom and textbook education.
“This will allow you to separate yourself from your colleagues who are also now your competitors,” he said. “Employers love to see volunteer and unpaid experience on an applicant's resume.”
Students pursuing doctoral degrees should prepare for the "walls and seemingly impassable obstacles. Absorb them, don't succumb to them.” He suggests taking very little time off after passing your comprehensive exams.
“It is a victory but a small one, but like all small victories should be celebrated,” he said. “Taking too much time off after passing the comps might lead to complacency and cause the student to lose his or her sense of urgency, which could lead to a greater catastrophe.”
After graduating from St. Anthony’s High School in Smithtown, New York, on Long Island, Riordan didn’t have to travel far, enrolling at nearby St. John’s University, which had recently launched a program in athletic administration. He met Jack Kaiser, the athletics director, and basketball coach Lou Carnesecca. He worked in the athletics office as an undergraduate and again years later when he returned to St. John’s to get his MBA.
When he came to FAU in 2000, Riordan decided to follow through on plans to get his doctorate in Higher Education Leadership. He credits Dr. Deborah Floyd, his program director, and Dr. Valerie Bryan, his dissertation adviser, with seeing him through to his long-sought Ph.D.
“I’m very blessed to say I’m an alum of the Graduate College,” he said. “I’m as proud to be an alum as I am to be a faculty member.”