Earning Her Stripes: Samantha Stevens

Samantha Stevens, the director of licensing at Michigan State University, knew she wanted to start her career in sports and event marketing, and she found herself in the perfect position to achieve that goal shortly after graduating from college.

Stevens’ foray into college athletics began with an internship at her alma mater, Wright State University, located in Dayton, Ohio.

“While at Wright State, I interned with the Ervin J. Nutter Center, which was our on-campus arena that housed our NCAA Division I basketball program and an East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) team, as well as hosted major concerts throughout the year,” she says. “It was in that internship that I was able to help with sales and marketing efforts for concerts and events the arena was hosting, but I was also able to pitch in during minor league hockey games and Raider basketball games on the sports marketing side.”

Upon graduating from Wright State, Stevens was offered a full-time position as a group sales coordinator at the Nutter Center. “I was in the right place at the right time,” she says, “because about six months later and one week before basketball season began, the sports promotion director for the Wright State athletics department left his position.” Needing to fill the vacancy quickly, the department turned to Stevens, whom they’d known from her work as an intern and as a full-time employee. That was the spring board for a nearly 12-year career in collegiate marketing and licensing.

“At Wright State, I fell in love with working on a college campus, working with students, and the excitement of working for many different sports teams,” Stevens says. “I knew quickly that I always wanted to work on a college campus.”

After working for the Raider athletic department for three years, Stevens realized she would need to look at other opportunities if she wanted to advance her career. She applied for a few jobs and was fortunate to land at Appalachian State University at a time when the Mountaineer football team was commanding a great deal of national attention for the Boone, N.C. school. Reflecting back on that move, Stevens exclaims, “Little did I know I was stepping into a gold mine!”

She began her duties as the App State director of marketing in 2006, and during her first year, the Mountaineers won their second straight I-AA football national title. Consequently, she was given the additional responsibility of managing the trademarks and licensing program for the entire university. The Mountaineers’ success would then grab the attention of the entire country when the team began the 2007 season by knocking off No. 5 Michigan on the Wolverines’ home turf. The squad would go on to claim the school’s third consecutive national championship.

“It was an unbelievable year, and this was where my licensing career path started to gain some steam,” Stevens recalls. “I was quickly thrown into the ‘hot market’ fire once we beat Michigan and didn’t get a chance to catch my breath until the fall of 2008. It’s very surreal looking back.” Following that banner year, Stevens was promoted to assistant athletic director for marketing and licensing.

She would remain at Appalachian State until 2013 when an opportunity to return to her native Ohio presented itself. Not only was Miami University looking for a full-time licensing director to revamp its program, but by then Stevens and her husband were the parents of two small children, and the prospect of moving back to their native state to be closer to grandparents was an enticing one.

Stevens’ stint at Miami was much shorter than she would have ever anticipated, as just a year-and-a-half after taking the position, Michigan State posted its opening for a new licensing director. “I decided to throw my resume into the ring and see if it got anywhere,” she says. “My ultimate goal was to run a major BCS licensing program. Having always been a Big Ten fan, and with the geographic location still being close to family, it was a perfect fit.” Stevens landed the job and began her new duties in December 2014. Hers is a unique position, as Michigan State is one of few major collegiate athletic departments with an independent licensing program. While she’s no longer housed in collegiate athletics, she still works with the department on a regular basis and attends many sporting events throughout the year.

A typical day in the office includes reviewing new licensee applications, approving artwork, connecting with licensees about new product lines, and reviewing samples. She also travels a lot, meeting with licensees at their headquarters, attending industry tradeshows, and visiting retailers throughout the region.

“I love the excitement of hot markets and the success of our athletics program and how that drives increased revenue and royalties,” Stevens says. “I also love that the royalties we generate support student scholarships and programming at MSU.”

Having worked at smaller schools prior to accepting her current position at Michigan State, Stevens says she would love to see more retailers value those institutions and feature more of their products. “Alumni are very passionate about their schools, and they will buy products just as often as someone who attended a BCS school,” she says. “The variety and availability of those products just isn’t offered at most retailers. It’s a battle over shelf space, and I get that, but I’d love to see more retailers give the local schools and the little guy a bigger chance.”

In terms of her personal sports interests and memories, Stevens roots for the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago Bears, and Ohio State Buckeyes – in addition to the Spartans, of course. “I’m an Ohio native, so it’s pretty hard to quit cold turkey and not cheer for them anymore,” she confesses.   She says she will never forget that magical moment of watching the Appalachian State football team notch its improbable win over top-five Michigan in person. Her most cherished sports memories, however, are of attending Reds games with her dad. “If you achieved a certain GPA in high school, you received two free tickets from the Cincinnati Reds each year,” she explains. “My dad and I would drive down and have the evening to ourselves. It was our alone time, and it was really special.”

Stevens’ advice to young women looking to break into collegiate athletics is to begin networking as soon as possible. “If you want to be in athletics, you need to start as an intern as soon as you can,” she says. “There are relatively few jobs in athletics, and a lot of people crave these jobs. The more experience you can show, the better.”

She also encourages young females to develop a thick skin. “Athletics is still a male-dominated industry, so you need to have a personality that you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and pitch in at all times, plus be willing to stand up for yourself and not let others push you around.”

To learn more about Stevens, visit her website, http://samanthamstevens.com.

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