Professor Frank Ryan is in his third year of teaching Financial Management in the Sports MBA program. Known for his love of the New York Giants and his quirky applications of all things finance, Professor Ryan’s course is an integral part of the program’s core business classes, and students come to his class excited to see what the day will hold. In the following interview, Professor Ryan discusses why he enjoys teaching, assesses the financial health of sports franchises and reminisces on his favorite moments both watching and playing sports.
Danny Roach: Professor Ryan, thanks very much for taking the time to talk with me. So, you’ve had a successful career in business, but what do you enjoy about teaching?
Frank Ryan: There’s something about teaching that I find energizing. There are always new people to meet, and even though I might teach the same material a number of times, it always has to be reformulated for the people I’m currently teaching it to. I just find it fascinating and I love the subject, so it’s a great combination.
DR: How does teaching in the Sports MBA program differ from teaching in other graduate programs and what do you like about it in particular?
Frank Ryan: It’s always fun to talk about sports and I probably do too much of that in my other classes, so it’s nice to be in an environment where that’s encouraged! I always use sports examples in my other classes to provide a means for people to understand sometimes complicated ideas, so this is a natural fit for that. And I think a lot of people in the business world are familiar with sports examples, so to the extent that you can understand typical concepts in a sports framework, I think it helps when working and communicating in the business world.
I also like that it’s a cohort program, so the class flows better since everyone knows each other and there’s an existing peer-to-peer sports network that I think is very helpful for everyone’s learning. Students don’t spend the first few weeks of the semester feeling uncomfortable about asking questions because you guys get to know each other so quickly. That allows for more fluid communication in the classroom compared to other classes. And since you’re dealing with the same faculty year after year, you can more tightly coordinate the curriculum.
The other thing that’s different about the sports MBA program is that there’s not as much variance in ages, and people that come from a sports background, there’s a high energy level. Students are also very willing to learn and there’s a familiarity in the idea of taking advice in a coaching context that’s a strong element of the sports students. That common background of having most students in the program participating in athletics either at the high school or college level makes a difference.
DR: Students, including myself, have actually been impressed by how aware you are of what we’ve covered in our other classes and in connecting those lessons with your own.
Frank Ryan: Well teaching is like any other profession in that it’s a process in improvement. I’ve been at this now for 12 years and there’s a learning curve but it’s not over, and I don’t think it’s ever going to be over.
DR: You use all sorts of examples in class that really make your lessons come to life (such as the 3-D exercise below that uses tennis ball-capped PVC pipes to explain regression analysis). Where do these come from?
DR: Has this always been the case, or did this mind set start at a certain time?
Frank Ryan: After my second semester of teaching, I felt like I needed to make the classroom more interactive. There was one or two weeks in which I felt like I was not only boring my students but boring myself, so at that point I actively looked for different ways to use classroom time.
I personally think that the classroom of the future is going to be radically different from the classroom of the past, and I think all professors should make the classroom a more interactive experience. I think the choice will no longer be there in 3-5 years. Technology has rendered the information delivery function of the lecture obsolete, which has certainly been going on for the 12 years I’ve been here. The rate of change of information delivery in the classroom is going to increase quickly. Most of the faculty in the sports program has already turned the corner on this issue, but that’s a major element I seek to improve.
DR: So how will the classroom look in 3-5 years?
Frank Ryan: I think most of the time will be spent integrating and using the material, and far less time just explaining the material. Since professorial explanations can be captured on video and put on YouTube now, there will be a strong expectation that students come to class prepared to do problems and to discuss ideas. Our other faculty members have done this already to a large extent and I think there’ll be more of that across college campuses soon. More time will be spent in groups and with one-on-one interaction, and in my opinion that’s the part that can’t be replaced by technology, whereas everything else will be.
DR: Many of your classroom exercises are risk-related. Do you see yourself as a risky person? Do you gamble?
Frank Ryan: Unfortunately I know the statistics too well to do anything other than very minor gambling in Vegas. I like playing blackjack in the few times that I’ve been to Vegas, but it’s been six or seven years since I’ve been. Growing up in New York I enjoyed going to the horse races, and at some point in high school I thought I could actually win, but I never did. I used to play cards with buddies in high school and usually broke even. We also played a lot of golf and typically there was money riding on everything imaginable…every time we touched the golf clubs there was a bet involved.
In every day life, as I get older my attitude towards risk in general has become more risk-averse. In my 20’s I went skydiving, which I’d never do now, and would fly my buddy’s airplane, which I probably wouldn’t do now.
Financially I’m more risk tolerant though. I’m involved with a couple start-up companies, namely as the CFO of Etaluma, Inc., which designs and produces microscopes. I’ve put a couple thousand hours into that and haven’t seen a nickel yet, so that’s probably my biggest financial investment considering that the value of time used up is substantial. It’s probably the riskiest thing I’ve done financially speaking. In my normal life I’m pretty risk averse – I drive pretty slowly – but financially I’m more risk-loving than I was 20 years ago.
DR: Is it because the odds are better, or do you just know more about the market?
Frank Ryan: In terms of Etaluma, I’m getting something out of it even if it goes broke. I knew going in that there’d be a chance of a 100% loss, but there are side benefits if I do end up losing everything.
With that said, I wouldn’t do it unless it involved a substantial financial reward!
DR: What do you most want your SMBA students to get out of your class?
Frank Ryan: I want my students to be able to think like a financial person and to recognize the financial aspects of both their everyday decisions and the explicit financial decisions they have to make. Most sports MBA graduates will not be working directly in finance, but as workers rise to upper levels of management, it becomes increasingly important to be comfortable with financial concepts.
DR: What is the biggest difference between how a sports franchise operates and how a regular business operates?
Frank Ryan: You’re dealing with the general public more with sports franchises. They are large organizations financially and their financing is more complicated in a lot of ways. The long-term prognosis for sports is going to be very good because as society gets wealthier — and data shows this is occurring — and since services as a percentage of GDP are increasing, and we in the US have an advantage in services, then entertainment as a segment of the economy will continue to steadily grow over time. As the country gets richer, they’ll also want to spend more money on entertainment. Another long-term trend is that the amount of time people spend at work has gone down over the last 60 years, which means they have more leisure time. So sports are at the intersection of a bunch of interesting trends in the United States.
DR: Why less time at work?
Frank Ryan: Well, as the country gets wealthier, people don’t want to work as much. There’s a substitution effect for leisure over work.
DR: As many of us know, you’re a big New York Giants fan. Do you remember where you were when Eli Manning completed the famous “helmet catch” pass to David Tyree in Super Bowl XLII?
Frank Ryan: Yes! I was at the game in the 13th row, and was jumping up and down with the person I was with, who initially wasn’t a Giants fan but was by the time the game ended. I saw the ball float into Plaxico Burress’ hands shortly after that and I was elated. There was a point after the Tyree catch where I went from, ‘Boy, I’ll be surprised if they can pull this out’ to ‘I know they’re going to win.’ The nearby Patriots fans had a sense of doom about them after that.
I was also at Super Bowl XXI, which was another big come-from-behind win against the Broncos. In the second half it became obvious that the Giants were running away with it. That was the game in which Phil Simms completed 22 of 25 pass attempts.
DR: You’re going to have to book your tickets for Super Bowl LXIII and it will nearly ensure a Giants victory!
Frank Ryan: Yes. My dad was a lifelong fan, his dad was a fan, so it’s almost like convening with your ancestors at this point.
DR: What’s your most memorable sports moment on the field?
Frank Ryan: My best moment was sinking an eagle putt in a golf match junior year of high school and finishing with a 37 on nine holes, which is still my lifetime best. I’ve since separated from golf as I just don’t have time for it, but maybe when I get older I’ll play again.
DR: What about your most memorable sports moment off the field?
Frank Ryan: Going to Super Bowl XXI at the Rose Bowl with my Dad. It was a pretty great time and a fantastic weekend. He wasn’t going to go but I encouraged him to have his friend put his name into the ticket lottery, and he won! I flew him out to Los Angeles for the game. We really weren’t expecting the team to win, so the fact that they did made it all the more memorable.