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Brendan Ross was supposed to work for Learfield IMG this summer

RST senior Brendan Ross discusses his alternate internship in wake of COVID-19

Students in the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois have had to adjust their internships because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Periodically, we will speak with them about how those changes have affected their summer plans and potentially career paths. Brendan Ross was supposed to work for Learfield IMG in its Texas office, but instead was part of the inaugural Illini RST Undergraduate Consulting (IRUC) program, created by RST department head Carla Santos and clinical assistant professor Mike Raycraft. He talked to AHS communications about his experience.

If you encounter Brendan Ross, you'll discover a couple of things pretty quick: he loves sports and he loves to talk. So when he found out his planned internship at Learfield IMG in Texas was cancelled because of COVID-19, to say he was bummed would be an understatement.

"I was obviously disappointed. It seemed like it was going to be a really just cool and educational experience," he said. "It would've been great to get that experience and get the money I would've made from that. But at the same time, I always think of myself as someone who has pretty good perspective ... there's so much worse things than a canceled internship. People are sick. People are passing away."

With Learfield, Ross would have learned about marketing and multimedia rights for college sports, which includes selling advertising during radio and TV broadcasts as well as in-arena signage and other digital properties. As a big sports fan—especially the NBA—it seemed like a dream job for the gregarious senior. But with that opportunity dashed, Ross needed to find another internship in order to fulfill requirements to graduate this year.

"I obviously needed to find some sort of experience or some sort of something to be involved in that sports industry," he said, "And that's where Dr. Raycraft and Dr. Santos' program came in."

RST department head Carla Santos and clinical assistant professor Mike Raycraft collaborated to create the Illini RST Undergraduate Consulting (IRUC) program. IRUC is an opportunity for graduating RST students to connect with industry partners and agencies to provide pro bono, (and remote) consultation, and report on a variety of special topics.

The students work with organizations, such as the Cubs, White Sox, Blackhawks, the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder and Niagara Falls, in three-week cycles and they have a deliverable product at the end of that cycle. Each student must complete two cycles, and the program runs through July 31.

Ross' first cycle involved working with Illini basketball legend and NBA player Meyers Leonard. Leonard and his wife, Elle Bielfeldt, have a snack food company called Level Foods, and Leonard has an active social media life, which includes his own Twitch channel.

Ross and two fellow students were assigned to work with Leonard on a project called "Increasing Community for Meyers Leonard's Twitch Stream." If that sounds something like Kramer's internship plans for Kramerica Industries on "Seinfeld," Ross assured that was not the case.

"He's a professional basketball player, but he has a lot of different entities that he's involved with professionally, business, and then just kind of for fun. He owns a food company that sells protein bars and healthier side snack foods. He has his own merchandise brand. But his streaming and his video game playing is a huge part of what he's been doing the last couple of years, but specifically what he's been doing during this quarantine period when everyone's been at home."

Ross and his two classmates met with Leonard and Raycraft via Zoom for about two and a half hours, which Ross said was informative and "awesome."

"We just got a chance to learn all the operations he's been doing and everything that (Leonard) balances," he said. "And then his question for us was, basically, how can I expand my stream? How can I grow my stream while at the same time being an NBA player and managing a snack company and doing all this stuff?"

Ross and his team had a leg up because they knew and used Twitch—a livestreaming platform for gamers and a subsidiary of Amazon—and one member of the team plays video games such as "Call of Duty"—a Leonard staple–as well.

"He understood everything, and he was kind of our go-to guy in terms of video game questions or anything that we wanted to know about how that space operates," Ross said of one of his groupmates. "So it was a great dynamic of a group, to have those different levels of knowledge, but we were all familiar with Twitch and had used it in the past."

Ross said it was important for him not to add anything to Leonard's already full plate, especially with the NBA attempting to restart its season, expected at the end of July. They wanted to present the Miami Heat center with a plan that could be easy for him to understand and implement.

"Meyers Leonard, professional basketball player, hundreds of thousands of followers," Ross said. "He has access to so many different people and so many different resources. What can we access that he maybe can't? So we made a survey right away and disseminated it out through our networks. We wanted to just gauge, are people aware of who Meyers is? I think we had, like, 155 respondents. 87 percent were aware of who Meyers was. But only, like, 15 or 16 percent were aware that he even had a streaming channel to begin with. ... We made it our goal to educate those people and make them aware of the fact that he is playing "Call of Duty" and streaming basically daily to the group that would be interested in it."

Ross said the group also found that Leonard has a much larger following on Instagram than on Twitter and that he needed to capitalize on that.

"We really tried to show him things about his Instagram that he can do to use that to reach this market that are people just like me who are sitting around looking for things to do, looking for things to watch. ... It was a good balance, our group and how we went about it."

At the end of that three-week cycle, Ross said he presented the information to Leonard and that he was impressed with how inclusive and collaborative the 7-footer was.

"It was clear that he was really willing to listen to us and trust us and believe us from the survey and just being in the position that we're in to provide him recommendations," said Ross, who is now working on cycle two of IRUC with the Chicago White Sox. As much fun as working with an NBA star and the White Sox is, the outgoing Ross maintains some disappointment about missing out on the in-person training.

"Definitely, a huge part of who I am, not only as a person but as a professional, is that face-to-face interaction," he said. "Being able to gauge how the person I'm in a conversation with is feeling, based on body language and facial reactions. But like I said earlier, perspective is super key to me. I'm trying to have the best possible experience that I can have."

The alternative internship has also led Ross to consider different career options. He has in the past expressed his desire to work for the NBA, which was only fueled by his experience working the All-Star Game this February in Chicago.

"Yeah, I've always had a bit of a side passion for esports and video games," he said. "And I think it's cool, and there's so many people in the world who think it's cool. So while I don't think I would ever really switch all the way to dive into esports, I do think it's super important to have a knowledge of that space and carry that into whatever field I do jump into in these next few years, to at least know about it and know how it impacts people and know how it can help develop a personal brand the way Meyers has done it the last few years. I think that's just a really cool concept. And I think it's something that I'm definitely going to carry into wherever I end up."

As for what's next, Ross admits the shutdown of sports has him concerned about where the job market will end up.

"It's definitely a discussion that I've had with my parents, my friends, my peers, and it's a tough place to be in and not really desirable. But for me, I would definitely prefer to just jump right in and get a job if I can.

"I've always considered being a graduate assistant in an athletic department somewhere as an option, which would hopefully cover that master's degree and all the costs associated with that. But for me, it's a boring answer, but I just got to wait and see."

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