Image of Business Instructional Facility

May 13, 2024 Alumni Business Administration

Pairing Your Passion: From devoted fan to part of the team

Sometimes everything lines up in just the right way for a slam dunk career move. This was the case for Jonathan Starks, a proud graduate of the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business Master of Science in Management program, when he made the leap into the world of sports marketing as an Integrated Marketing Associate for the Chicago Bulls. 

Starks’ journey began long before he entered college. Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, he grew up watching Bulls’ stars like Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah. “I played sports growing up but never thought about the business side,” he remarked. “There is so much that happens behind the scenes to make it all work.” 

After high school, Starks took his talents to the U of I, where he pursued an undergraduate degree in Recreation, Sport, and Tourism. Reflecting on his decision, he shared, “I talked to a professor from applied health sciences and I said to him: ‘Are you being for real? I can work for the teams I’ve been watching my whole life?'” 

The program gave him valuable insight into the world of sports marketing, and after graduation, Starks knew in order to get hired with the teams he grew up watching that he needed to go the extra mile.

Eager to further enhance his skills and competitiveness, Jonathan decided to pursue Gies’ master’s in management (MSM). Open to learners with an undergraduate degree in any discipline, the nine-month master’s in management provides fundamental business knowledge for those looking to maximize their skills and grow in the world of business. Learners take core classes in areas like accounting, marketing, and finance, and everyone completes at least two consulting projects for real clients before graduation. The program provided Starks with the right tools to navigate the competitive landscape and the potential to stack the degree into an MBA  with Gies in the future.

“The pace of the MSM was perfect for me. While you’re in it, it feels like a lot, but it was quick and reflective of the pace of the business world,” he said. “I use my MSM degree every day, whether it be directly applying the business acumen that I acquired in the program, or by using interpersonal skills that were sharpened during my time at Gies. My MSM degree helped me hit the ground running as a new employee.”

Now as an Integrated Marketing Associate, Starks thrives in the fast-paced environment and enjoys working for a global brand. His role involves working cross-functionally amongst marketing and other internal teams within the Bulls organization to foster traditional marketing efforts, involving digital signage in the arena, uniforms, retail lines, All-Star events, and grassroots marketing initiatives. He also serves as a liaison for broadcast partners like NBC Sports and 670 The Score, as well as engaging with fans at the United Center, activating in the Atrium on game days. 

“People might not remember the final score, but will remember the experience,” he said, highlighting the importance of creating memorable fan interactions.

A die-hard Bulls fan since childhood, Starks sees this opportunity as a chance to continue growing with the team and move up in his career. Reflecting on his MSM program experience, he said, “A one-year program was the perfect timing,” and he expressed gratitude for the cohort style of the MSM that fostered lasting connections with fellow students. “We were all going through it together.”

Starks’ journey from a devoted Bulls fan to working behind the scenes for the team exemplifies the power of pairing passion with education and practical application. As he continues to make his mark in the sports marketing industry, Starks feels ready to take on the business world, armed with an MSM degree sure to make him an MVP employee.