Published on March 7, 2024 by Kevin Scarbinsky  
Pittsburgh CaseCup
On the last weekend in February, Samford University sent a team of four Sports Business MBA students to compete in the Case Cup at the National Sports Forum in Pittsburgh. It was the first time the school had been invited to participate in the premier case-style competition for aspiring sports industry professionals.
It will not be the last.
Marshal Smith joked that he, Stephen Summerow, Michael Herman and Drake Anthony were "the guinea pigs" for the Bulldogs as they competed in the annual event with 11 other teams from traditional powers in the field such as the University of Oregon and Ohio University.
"Pioneers" would be a more accurate description. Although the Samford team did not advance to the finals from their four-team "Group of Death," as professor Darin White described it, Smith and company performed so well that an invitation to return next year is all but certain.
"We were by far the smallest school there," said White, the founding coordinator of the sports business concentration in Brock School of Business’ MBA program. "We gave a good-enough showing that we get to go back next year. One of the best takeaways from the experience is how strong our brand is in the higher-education environment and the sports industry, especially in terms of analytics. Our presentation was strong in that area."
In the competition, each team was given the same case: Create a three-day, two-night, sports-centric festival to celebrate the city of Pittsburgh for a real-world client, SportsPITTSBURGH, which is the sports development, marketing and planning division of VisitPITTSBURGH.
The teams were sequestered for 24 hours straight to create the event in detail and prepare a proposal, complete with an event calendar, financial model, marketing plan, etc. They could have no personal contact with the outside world. They then presented their proposals to a four-person judging panel of industry and academic professionals, with 20 minutes allotted for the presentation followed by a 10-minute question-and-answer session.
The start times for the teams on Sunday, Feb. 25 were staggered. The Samford team members started at 11:15 a.m. when they received the case, and they stayed up working on their proposal and presentation until 3 a.m., which gave them about three hours of sleep before facing the judges, Smith said. Except for Summerow. A self-described "night owl," he said he worked until 5 a.m. and got about 90 minutes of shut eye.
Samford's proposal involved a festival centered at Point State Park with popular Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward as the host. The event would include a Friday night launch party at PNC Park, the home of the Major League Baseball Pirates; interactive games such as pickleball, soccer and a wiffle-ball home-run derby; former Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and current quarterback Kenny Pickett throwing footballs at targets in the river from one of the city's famous bridges for charity; and a Sunday wrap-up concert with country music star Gabby Barrett, a Pittsburgh native.
"We took an hour to read the case," Smith said. "We took too long, about eight hours, to settle on an idea."
Before heading to Pittsburgh, the Samford students had settled on specific roles within the team based on their individual strengths. Smith, a native of the Geneva-Hartford area in south Alabama who earned his undergraduate degree at Samford, focused on the budget. Summerow, who played soccer as an Oglethorpe University undergrad and now competes for Birmingham's new National Indoor Soccer League team, the Magic City SC, handled social media and marketing. He has 1.3 million followers on TikTok.
Anthony, another former Samford undergrad, zeroed in on the presentation "to make everything come to life," Smith said. Herman, a native of Czechoslovakia who serves as a graduate assistant on the Samford tennis team, served as the team's "glue," Smith said, holding everything and everyone together.
Samford's presentation earned particular praise from the judges because the team based the various elements of its proposal on detailed, real-world analytics. To use one example, they used Zoomph, a digital measurement platform for social media, which showed the popularity of country music in the Pittsburgh area. As a result, they chose Barrett to headline their wrap-up concert.
One of the judges, a university professor, asked all the teams if they had actually gotten out of their hotel to make a site visit to the areas where their festivals would be staged.
"We were the only ones in our group who said yes," Smith said. The Samford students had walked the downtown Pittsburgh area twice, once to do some sightseeing before the competition began, the second time during their 24-hour competition window to better synchronize their proposed events with actual locations.
Smith said that Summerow "gave a four-minute, super-detailed answer about our marketing plan" during the Q-and-A session that impressed the judges - and also limited the number of additional questions they could ask.
"The question was why did we choose to put a certain amount of money to buy social media ads to promote the festival," Summerow said. "We used conversion rates to estimate how many people would attend."
Even as first-timers in the Case Cup, the Samford students did not arrive in Pittsburgh unprepared. They gleaned valuable insight from former Samford undergrad Dan Hall, who took White's first sports marketing class in 2009. Now a marketing and communications leader with FloSports, Hall won the Case Cup as a graduate student at Oregon, which White called "the Harvard of sports marketing."
The Oregon team won this year's competition with what White described as "an unbelievable presentation." It included a television commercial, a sizzle reel video and state-of-the-art graphics so good that SportsPITTSBURGH employees said they wouldn't share them with their bosses for fear that their own work wouldn't measure up.
"Now we know what to expect, and we can pass it on to the next generation (of Samford MBA students)," Smith said. "If we can get a graphic designer on our team, we can win it next year."
White already has begun planning for the 2025 Case Cup. He envisions "a more rigorous tryout process" during the fall semester, complete with "a mini-Case Cup" in front of Samford's Sports Marketing & Analytics advisory board members.
"The four students who went through it this year," White said, "will help coach our players next year." 
The value of the experience for the Samford students didn't end with the Case Cup, which is just part of the National Sports Forum, an annual gathering of more than 1,000 industry professionals. The students made valuable contacts with industry professionals in their fields. Summerow connected with the Nike partnership coordinator for Ohio State and the coordinator of digital strategy for Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew. Smith, a self-described "NASCAR guy," tracked down a former executive at Richard Childress Racing.
Smith found another way to spread the word about Samford on his first day in Pittsburgh by wearing a Duck Hodges jersey. Before he became a folk hero as the Steelers quarterback, Devlin "Duck" Hodges played the same position at Samford, where he led the nation in passing yards and total yards as a senior in 2018 and set the Football Championship Subdivision record for career passing yards.  
Multiple people, including the hotel bellman, stopped Smith to ask about Hodges and Samford.
"Apparently, he's a living legend in Pittsburgh," Smith said.
The Case Cup performance of Marshal Smith, Stephen Summerow, Michael Herman and Drake Anthony added more momentum to Samford's growing reputation as a prime destination for undergraduate and graduate students who want to work in the sports industry.
"Our undergraduate program is well-known," White said. "Our MBA program is not as well-decorated. Yet."
Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.