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Conference gives Ivey students an inside look at the future of sports

Jan 27, 2023

Bobby Webster at Ivey Sports Leadership Conference

Bobby Webster, General Manager, Toronto Raptors, discussed his non-traditional path into the NBA for the keynote address at the Ivey Sports Leadership Conference.

Citing how widespread fan attention is driving unprecedented growth in sports, some of Canada’s most notable leaders in the industry encouraged Ivey students to seize career opportunities in the field at the 2023 Ivey Sports Leadership Conference.

Whether it was Laurence Applebaum, HBA ’94, CEO of Golf Canada, discussing sports marketing; or John Chayka, HBA '14, Founder of JKC Capital, speaking on sports industry deal-making; Ivey students learned about the many ways to make a mark in the business of sports. And they were inspired by success stories, such as Bobby Webster's non-linear path to becoming the Toronto Raptors' general manager (GM). There was even a chance to apply for internships with participating organizations, such as the Toronto Raptors’ Wayne and Theresa Embry Fellowship, and a case competition where students demonstrated their skills to industry professionals.

“We live in very exciting times as sports fans, athletes, and as people engaged and invested in the sports world. Never before in human history has there been such widespread attention, resources, financial backing, and truly dynamic growth in the world of sports,” said Max Livingston, an HBA ’24 candidate who spoke at the opening ceremony. “I’d like to challenge you all to think of the ways that you can apply your unique skill set to make waves in this new and dynamic world of sport.”

The student-led conference, co-chaired by HBA ’23 candidate Alex Spriet and DAN Management student Eric Zychlinski and supported by The Ivey Academy, focused on the future of sports. It brought together athletes, journalists, marketers, and executives to discuss topics such as finance, advertising, entrepreneurship, technology, and the growing global presence of sports. 

Combining business with sports

There was also a chance to hear firsthand how industry leaders carved career paths in the space.

Laurence Applebaum discussed during the opening ceremonies his fulfilling 30-year career in sports marketing.

“I get to go into a job and work with people who have been inspiring and have helped me with leadership and really make work not feel like work,” he said.  

He encouraged the students to network and learn from the wide range of sports industry leaders at the event.

“You have a chance to listen to a group of people who, quite frankly, are some of the best minds and hold some of the best positions in the world of sport,” said Applebaum. “Find a connection. Find something that really inspires you … Really engage yourself in it.”

And John Chayka gave advice on raising capital and mergers and acquisitions involving sports franchises/sports media and entertainment companies. Chayka is the former GM of the Arizona Coyotes and at the time was the youngest GM in NHL history, He scored the role in 2016, just two years after graduating from Ivey.

A non-traditional path to the Toronto Raptors

Another opportunity to hear about career paths came through a discussion with Bobby Webster, which was moderated by Sideline Reporter Savanna Hamilton. Webster was the youngest GM in the National Basketball Association (NBA) when promoted to Toronto Raptors' GM in 2017 at age 32.

He told how he switched from pursuing a career with the Central Intelligence Agency to exploring NBA jobs after being inspired by his college roommate, who worked for Comcast SportsNet and received free tickets to Washington Wizards games. At the time, Webster was studying economics at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“That just kind of sparked it … My roommate said, ‘You love basketball, why aren’t you doing this?’,” he said. “Growing up, I thought maybe I could be a player or could coach, but that’s really it … I started to look into the world of professional sports and realized there are billions of dollars and all sorts of jobs, whether it’s marketing or selling tickets. I think that’s what first gave me a peek behind the curtain of what I could do.”   

Webster encouraged the students to think beyond traditional jobs and find ways to combine business with their passions.

“I grew up in Hawaii, went to school in California, and studied economics and business where everyone was going into consulting, finance, and banking, but, for whatever reason, it didn’t really resonate with me,” he said. “I love basketball … and I was able to combine that passion of basketball with business and economics – I was able to meld the two worlds – but a lot of it was because I didn’t have this preconception of what I was supposed to do.”

Expand your horizons

He also encouraged the students to seize opportunities that move them outside their comfort zone, whether it be taking a risk, considering a different type of career or experience, or moving abroad.

“The challenge you have is how can you make your bubble bigger? That’s what will help you in this industry because sports are international,” he said. “How are you expanding yourself now and when you graduate so your bubble becomes the world? … I came from the tiniest bubble in Hawaii so you can do it.”

Webster said once that spark was ignited, he applied for and landed an internship with The Orlando Magic where he got to know the general manager and was intrigued by the role. Webster said he made a conscious effort to add value, get noticed, and build relationships with co-workers there and in his later roles with the NBA league office in New York. He also sought to build expertise in a specialty area – in his case trades and player contracts–, which led to various NBA teams, and eventually the Toronto Raptors, offering him jobs.

“I thought if I could be an expert in this area, maybe I really could be a GM … Once you figure out what you want to do, dedicate yourself to that,” he said.

The culture of sport in Canada

Webster also shared highlights of his career with the Toronto Raptors, including the joys of building a winning team from the ground up and the huge amount of fan support in Canada. He described how the team was exulted when greeted by thousands of fans at an earlier pre-season game in Edmonton.

“The enormity of the country and the amount of support that we have is incredible,” he said. “There’s no other team in the NBA that has this. That’s what makes Canada unique.”

The Ivey Sports Leadership Conference (ISLC) is co-founded by The Chayka Family and Golf Canada, as well as numerous corporate sponsors. ISLC 2023 was presented in partnership by BMO and The Parsons Group. For more information, visit the website or connect on Twitter Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram.