UCCS Sport Management students now have the chance to get real-world professional experience with organizations like the Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Rapids.

The university recently expanded a long-standing partnership with Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, the Denver-based sports, real estate and media holding company that owns the Nuggets, the Rapids, Colorado Avalanche, and other enterprises nationwide. It allows students to pursue their own research in semester-long assignments with some of the most high-profile sports organizations in the Centennial State.

It’s a partnership years in the making. Eric Olson, interim dean of UCCS’ College of Business and Administration and longtime director of the school’s sport management program, began laying the groundwork for the partnership well over a decade ago.

Olson began working with soccer clubs in the English Premier League in 2005, eventually collaborating with club CEOs so his sports management students could take internships overseas. Around that time, he met Tim Hinchey, who was headed for England to take an executive position with English Football League Championship club Derby F.C.

Olson and Hinchey kept in touch, and when Hinchey eventually returned years later, he took over as president of the Colorado Rapids.

“We had this little connection, so we started talking about the possibility of a soccer track [in the sport management program] and working as partners,” Olson said. “It took several years for that to come to fruition, but eventually we formed a partnership with the Rapids.”

The partnership with the Rapids went on for several years. It was great for UCCS students to gain work experience with a Major League Soccer club, Olson said, but because they had to commute to Denver and the partnership was limited to soccer, it “just wasn’t working out.”

So in later conversations, UCCS and KSE agreed on a six-year contractual partnership that will see as many as 12 sport management students per semester exploring career opportunities in a wide range of sports industries in Colorado, including the Nuggets and Avalanche.

Unlike a general, unstructured internship with a sports team, in which students might be relegated to pouring sodas at concession stands or doing low-level grunt work, the new partnership with KSE gives students work experience that matches their interests and specific skill sets, as well as the needs of the KSE entity for which they’ll be working.

“That’s the idea — to try to match up needs of the clubs with student interests,” Olson said. “So students may be interested in ticket sales, they might be interested in event management, or in partnerships and sponsorships … there are all these different areas.

“The club will talk to its senior executives and its middle managers, and say, ‘So what do we need? What information do we need? What can we utilize?’ And they will write up a description of what they’re looking for and then we will present those opportunities to the students.”

To avoid a burdensome Denver commute, the new partnership lets students complete much of the program remotely, only hitting Denver a handful of times to meet with their project supervisors, attend games, and present the results of their self-driven research project.

UCCS senior Patrick Miller was the first to complete the program since its implementation this fall.

Miller and his project supervisors with the Rapids discussed his interest in research and data assessment, and designed a project in which he would assess the relationships between the Rapids, their current sponsors, and sponsors the organization might want to target in the future.

“They said, ‘This is right up your alley. Just make the most out of it and if you find something else out there that could make it better, let us know. But have at it,’” Miller recalled.

Miller spent 5-7 hours a week evaluating and researching sponsorships through an online data platform called SponsorUnited.

“SponsorUnited is this partnership platform for sports, so I could go in and say, ‘Oh, the [New York] Yankees have partnered with these people,’ and, ‘The [Boston] Red Sox have partnered with these people’ … and just see who everyone sponsored with, including minor league teams, concert venues, and things like that,” Miller said. “So my goal was to find the best targets in each category. You could look at it by food sponsors, retail, insurance companies, and things like that. And I could kind of pick out the top 10 targets in each category for the Rapids, and then present that information to them…”

At the end of the semester, Miller delivered a presentation on his findings, detailing the top two potential partners for each sponsorship category.

His project supervisors, the heads of the UCCS Sport Management Program, and some KSE executives attended the presentation.

“I was able to present my findings to everyone,” Miller said. “So KSE, as a whole, got to kind of see what I was doing. And being a senior, that actually works really well because I’m in the market for a job, so I was able to show them that I’m capable of doing some of the things they do. That’s why I really appreciate the internship.”

But it’s not just the students who benefit from the program. Because KSE staff help guide the students’ projects from their inception, they too stand to gain from the experience.

In Miller’s case, Olson said KSE representatives are already planning to implement some of his ideas.

And while the newly redesigned partnership with KSE is the first of its kind for the university, it’s not the only way UCCS sport management students can get work experience while earning their degrees.

Past students have worked with minor league teams like the Rocky Mountain Vibes and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, collegiate teams including those at the Air Force Academy and Colorado College, as well as the United States Olympic Committee.

But with so many incoming students primarily interested in the marquee part of the industry — big-league professional teams — Olson knows the new partnership will be a huge draw for program participants, and a way for UCCS to round out its offerings in all levels of sports business.

“When we talk about KSE specifically, the No. 1 interest young people have coming in is with professional sports,” Olson said. “So this just fleshes out our program. We’ve now got collegiate, we’ve got professional, we’ve got the Olympic movement, parks and recreation-type opportunities, and then we have international — predominantly soccer — as well.

“So we think we’re really well rounded and give students the best opportunities academically and experience-wise, frankly, I think of anywhere in the country.”