Amy Huchthausen, EMBA ’18, is in her sixth year as commissioner of the America East Conference, an NCAA Division I college sports conference — and she’s the first woman to lead it. The conference includes large state schools with robust athletic programs like the University of Maine and the University of New Hampshire. Now, she is also a student in the MIT Executive MBA program.
Huchthausen’s America East tenure is peppered with accomplishments: a partnership with ESPN; the launch of its first digital network, AmericaEast.TV; increased attendance at games; and its first new member in 10 years, the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Last year it became the first conference to be included as a member of the LGBT SportSafe Founders Club and was named a Division I conference partner of the You Can Play project, an organization dedicated to equality and respect in sports without regard to gender, race or sexual orientation, in 2012. “Sports Business Journal” recently named Huchthausen a “2016 Forty Under 40” leader.
But despite this success, she thinks an advanced degree is key. After all, she might explore opportunities outside the conference world someday, maybe at a pro team, TV network, or agency.
“I’ve been working in college athletics for nearly 18 years, since I graduated. It’s been fantastic, and I’ve had great professional opportunities but never took time to get an advanced degree. I’m going to turn 40 soon, and I wanted to start thinking about what the next 20 to 30 years might look like,” she said. “I love college athletics, but I’m not convinced it’s where I’m going to stay forever. I felt like I needed something else and something really distinctly different than what I’m doing to truly explore and be challenged, and that’s what led me to MIT.”
In sports business, discipline and extra hours. Her role is especially challenging, she said, because college sports doesn’t have the same following in New England as it does throughout the rest of the country. This is a land of professional sports, dominated by Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots fans. Huchthausen’s work focuses on building the conference’s brand and visibility.
“It’s a lot to juggle. You have to stay disciplined. If you can’t manage yourself, you can lose track and get off the rails pretty quickly,” Huchthausen said. “You learn that right away. [Classmates] meet in person every two to three weekends, and the workload doesn’t stop. If you miss just a few days, it can really set you behind. You realize how much free time you used to have.”
Huchthausen spends about 20 hours studying on any given week, and she spends her days getting updates on tournaments, handling multimedia obligations, examining the conference’s internal performance evaluation system (a project she worked on for an MIT class this fall), and interacting with athletic directors. She also works on evenings and weekends, when games usually happen.
To that end, she’s careful to caution hopeful employees about sports as a glamour career. It’s gratifying, but it’s intense.
“It’s hard — it’s a lot of hours. It’s not just going to games and watching them, which people might think. You have to be there, like a normal schedule, and then also stay for the game that night, especially when you work on a campus. You’re not getting home until 11 or midnight, and people don’t comprehend that,” she said.
“Be willing to put in the time.” Many interviewees show up at her office saying how much they love sports. But it’s not enough, she said.
“The industry is a lot more competitive today. If I was coming out of school with the same background as I did, I might not have gotten the opportunities I had. It’s more competitive based on the ever-growing popularity of college sports — social media, et cetera — it just continues to drive interest,” she said. She urges college students to intern or volunteer at their school’s athletic department. Her first job was a compliance internship for the Big East Conference.
“A lot of universities have opportunities for interns. Be willing to put in the time and get that hands-on experience. Some people aren’t willing to do that, because graduate assistantships and internships don’t pay a lot. That’s a good filter for people who are really serious about it or just want to do it because it’s a cool thing to do,” she said. “What I tell people when I interview them at an entry-level job is this: ‘Just because you’re a fan doesn’t make you qualified to work in sports.’”
Despite nearly two decades in an environment where winning is the name of the game, Huchthausen said she is most proud of creating an open, inclusive atmosphere within America East.
“The thing I’m most proud of doesn’t show up in my bio. It’s rebuilding the culture. I work with nine universities, and if I can’t help them reach consensus on initiatives, things won’t happen,” she said.
She takes the same collaborative, open-minded approach to her career arc, and she urges others to do the same, even if they’re pursuing a coveted job like hers.
“Today, there’s this race to get to the top as fast as possible, but this was never my M.O. I was fortunate to be named commissioner sooner than I would have thought, but it was never what I sought out. It wasn’t number one on my list. Just by being patient, embracing challenges in front of you, and taking advantage of experiences and learning — good things will come to you,” she said.