June 1 marked the start of the season for the New York Collegiate Baseball League, an amateur summer baseball league founded in 1978.
Among the 12 teams is the Niagara Power, which kicks off its seven-week season June 6 against the Olean Oilers with Kid’s Day where children from local school districts get free admission. That day, there will be 16 people managing all game-day operations at the historic 4,000-seat Sal Maglie Stadium, built in 1939.
Not an unusual amount of opening-day employees, given that a crowd of 1,800 people is expected and the staff manages everything from concessions to promotions. These employees, however, are not your typical professional front-office baseball experts.
The game-day operators are students of Niagara University’s College of Hospitality and Tourism Management, and the baseball season initiates their Sports Management class. Assistant Professor of Sports Management Patrick Tutka, who also acts as the Power’s general manager, called the opening-day experience a baptism by fire for his students.
“It’s a really good opportunity for them because they learn very quickly to adjust, problem-solve and figure out situations,” he said.
In 2017, Niagara University purchased the Niagara Power and as of last year students manage all off-field operations including the press box, ticketing, concessions, merchandise, social media, advertising and marketing promotions every half-inning. Before purchasing the team, the university already had an internship program with the baseball team until it ceased operations in 2015.
By acquiring the Power, Tutka said it gave the university the opportunity to control 20 to 30 internships per year and place a faculty member at the head. Throughout the season, students rotate in teams from marketing, concessions and the press box to prepare for and manage game days. This shuffling offers students a full experience of operations as they constantly learn throughout the season. Students, not faculty, serve the leadership positions as director of marketing and promotions, director of concessions and operating the press box.
“We wanted to take on something that was operated by the students with faculty support,” said Tutka.
All employees fall under the supervision of Director of Game Day Operations Justina Conti, a junior at Niagara who is majoring in sports management and event management. Tutka noted that classes are mostly comprised of freshmen and sophomores with upperclassmen like Conti participating as well. Another aspect of this crucible environment, the small class size also means that more positions will need to be multitasked in order to achieve their goals.
“There’s not a lot of room to hide,” Tutka said. Together, the students do everything short of coaching the team. Even the hiring process is handled by student leaders of the program who act as recruiters. Student leaders, like Conti, work to recruit and interview students who they think will fill the position well.
Besides the obvious appeal of this program, it offers students a unique position of authority over game-day operations that they would rarely get through most internships.
“We deal with a lot of freshmen and sophomores. They’ve never really been put in that position of actually having ownership,” Tutka said.
While this is the greatest advantage of the program, it is simultaneously the most challenging aspect for the younger students who, for perhaps the first time, won’t have someone standing over their shoulder.
“I’ll give them some guidance and put them in the direction,” Tutka said, “but when it gets to actual game day operations, that’s their show.”
Tutka is grateful that he can offer this hands-off approach. A small team is a small risk for the university. That way, Tutka said that students have the elbow room to push the boundaries and experiment more than they would at a larger organization with more at stake. “We can take those chances and give a student that opportunity,” he said. When students have different and new ideas to try, whether through social media promotions or even trying a new special at the concession stand, Tutka tells them, “Go for it!”
Given their size, Tutka said that the team try some of those “out there” initiatives, such a “Star Wars Day” marketing campaign for fans. While there is a small risk involved, it is a risk nonetheless. Despite the risks Tutka said, “We either do, or we don’t survive.”
With risk comes reward. For Tutka, it’s been fun to watch as students take ownership of their duties.
“It’s always been surprising and exciting for me to the see the engagement,” Tutka said. “Students are more than willing to jump in.”
He said that being general manager of an operation made up of 18- to 22-year-olds can be a mixed bag. “You never really know how it’s going to turn out,” he said.
Yet, Tutka found the high level of engagement and buy-in to the program most surprising. One aspect of engagement has been related to community outreach where students work with local organizations directly. Along with the Kid’s Day, students also organize outreach events such as canned food drives with the local food bank and a youth baseball camp with the local Police Athletic League.
Tutka said that community outreach is something that the university has always stressed to all its students.
“We want to make sure we aren’t just taking from the community; we’re always giving,” he said. At larger organizations, fans might only interact with the players. However, with the Power, the student operators get the chance to also interact with the community as much as the players.
“From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, [students] get that hands-on experience to connect,” Tutka said. “It’s an eye-opening experience for them.”
He hopes that these opportunities show students how meaningful outreach can be to the community and that students carry this lesson into the future.
For the coming season, Tutka said his goal is to give the reins to the students as early as possible. Tutka wants his student leaders to be willing to listen to ideas that may not be their own.
“I think that’s one of the biggest challenges for the students. You are not the end-all-be-all answer to everything,” he said.
Tutka wants to create a continuous classroom culture that seeks open and transparent communication, where each level of the business listens to one another as last year’s class did.
“It started off as a group of students and by the end, it was one big family.”