Duke - The Fuqua School of Business

Feature Story

Fuqua Helps Students Prepare For Leadership In Sports Business

In sports, relationships are everything.

August 09, 2012

In sports, relationships are everything. The relationships you build with your teammates, coaches, and competition can ultimately determine your success. We’ve seen this on display throughout the 2012 London Olympics as gold medal winners are quick to praise teammates, coaches and mentors. Relationships and collaboration are equally important in business, and it is something Duke’s Fuqua School of Business considers a core part of education. That team-focused mentality – combined with analytical expertise and an entrepreneurial spirit – is what has led several of Fuqua’s graduates into the business of sports. JD Lubenetski, a senior director in the consulting area at Wasserman Media Group, is one such example of this.

Lubenetski, a 2008 Fuqua graduate, was always a sports fan but that’s not where his career began. After earning an undergraduate degree in finance and management, he joined BearingPoint Consulting (formally KPMG Consulting) covering the finance sector. After a few years there, he started to rethink his career. He ultimately decided to pursue a career in sports and figured an MBA could help accelerate this. “Everyone’s a fan, and you should be. You should care. But you also need to be knowledgeable. You need proof points to show how you are investing in yourself to get this career,” he said.

Fuqua provided the opportunity to earn those proof points. The summer between Lubenetski’s first and second years in the Daytime MBA program, he landed an internship with the Philadelphia Eagles through Fuqua alumnus Joe Dupriest (then the marketing manager for the Eagles, now the vice president and chief marketing officer for the Washington Capitals). That experience helped him earn a spot in the Mentored Studies Program with Duke Athletics. The athletic director and the president of Duke University were evaluating the football program at the time and had recently received a substantial amount of benchmarking data from another Fuqua alumnus, BJ Naedele, who was working for the Duke Athletic Department at the time. Lubenetski used his business and consulting skills to help analyze the data and present a strategic plan for the direction of the football program.

The internship with the Eagles and experience with the Duke Athletic Department were some of his new proof points that he could highlight during his interview at the Wasserman Media Group. He landed the job with Wasserman and now leads the client relationship for Scotts Miracle-Gro, the Official Lawn Care Company of Major League Baseball. Lubenetski has been applying his business skills toward his passion.  He was involved in running a contest for Chicago Cubs fans to help choose the design for Wrigley Field during Ron Santo’s Hall of Fame induction game – the first time Wrigley Field has ever had a design on the field. For Opening Day this year, Scotts Miracle-Gro put grass down on an entire block in New York City around the MLB Fan Cave to raise awareness of Scotts, MLB Opening Day, and to drive funding for the Boys and Girls Club of America through Scotts Take the Field program. Throughout his career at Wasserman he has been able to attend epic sporting events including the World Series, NBA Finals, and the US Open. “I’ve definitely had some ‘wow’ moments,” he shared.

Lubenetski goes back to this value of teamwork as a key to success in the sports industry.

“If I am negotiating with the St. Louis Cardinals, I need to realize that people float to different jobs, and I may have worked with these people in the past. Relationships are everything. This was instilled in the Team Fuqua environment. You win and lose as a team.”

Ethics is also a priority, and Lubenetski continues to work with The Fuqua School of Business through the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics (COLE). Led in part by two-time Olympic basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K), COLE’s mission is to redefine leadership and develop leaders for emerging global challenges.  

“There are a lot of opportunities for ethical dilemmas in the sports business,” Lubenetski advises. “You must rise above those situations because long-term you know they won’t be the right play.”

One way in which COLE works toward its mission is through the Coach K Leadership Summits and Roundtables. These programs bring together leaders from different industries to discuss leadership lessons in sports that apply to business. For example, during the roundtable in New York earlier this year, Coach K shared how he was able to get top NBA star players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade to buy into a particular system during the 2008 Olympics. Coach K discussed the team’s path to gold, and encouraged those in attendance – executives from corporations, media and governments, as well as Fuqua leaders – to adopt similar leadership principles.

One of the past summit attendees was Fuqua second-year MBA student Deidre-Ann Nelson, a COLE Leadership Fellow. “As an athlete and a consumer of sports, I see the ability to ‘influence’ as a key driver for success. Teamwork is all about influencing others to achieve a goal, and when motivating yourself individually you are applying similar pressures to be your very best. If you can successfully influence in this realm, it easily translates into the business world. Forging the connection between lessons from the sports world and what we learn in business school has been invaluable.”

Fuqua has another unique link to the Olympics. The school’s faculty is among the highest ranked in the world – and it also consists of a former Olympian in Leslie Marx, William and Sue Gross Research Fellow and Professor of Economics. Marx has been on the faculty at Duke since 2002, with the exception of 2005—2006, when she served as Chief Economist for the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in Washington, DC. A member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic Fencing Team, Marx won two gold medals in the sport at the 1995 Pan American Games.

“One of the things my Olympic experience taught me is embodied in The Olympic Creed, written by Pierre De Coubertin, which is: ‘The most important thing is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well,’” Marx explained. “Hopefully the striving for excellence shows in my work at Fuqua, both in my research and in the classroom.”