Professor Anita Elberse with students at her Harvard Business School course
Professor Anita Elberse with students of her Harvard Business School course. Photos courtesy of Elberse.
Sports

The Harvard Professor Schooling Football and NBA Stars

The likes of Dani Alves, Kaká and Dwayne Wade line up to join Anita Elberse’s Harvard classroom.
February 23, 2021, 8:30am

This article was originally published on VICE Netherlands.

As a kid, Anita Elberse dreamt of becoming a footballer – but despite making the national under-17s team in her home country of the Netherlands, Elberse’s life took a very different course.

She’s now a “rockstar” professor at Boston’s prestigious Harvard Business School, teaching Business of Entertainment, Media and Sports – a crash course in being successful in the entertainment industry – to NBA stars, Hollywood celebrities and (former) professional footballers like Edwin van der Sar, Kaká, Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué and Oliver Kahn.

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To find out how Elberse draws celebrities back to school, I spoke to the Boston-based professor over Zoom.

VICE: Hi Anita. How have you drawn such a famous crowd?
Anita Elberse: It’s a funny story. I’ve been working for Harvard Business School since 2003, and started the executive educational course Media and Sports in 2013. The course got a lot of press and attention from some big names. After the second edition of the class, which NBA basketballer Dwyane Wade attended, things started moving especially quickly. More applications keep pouring in every year.

What do you teach them at Harvard?
I researched Maria Sharapova and LeBron James early on in my career and developed case studies to show how professional athletes can reach their potential in the business world. I don’t say what’s right or wrong – the cases are more like tools to make the students think and discuss. 

PROFESSOR ANITA ELBERSE WITH FOOTBALLERS ALVES, VAN DER SAR, KAKÁ, MELCHIOT AND SAHIN

ELBERSE WITH ALVES, VAN DER SAR, KAKÁ, MELCHIOT AND SAHIN. PHOTO COURTESY OF ELBERSE)

Do you get nervous with famous people in your classroom?
Not at all. At Harvard, I have the home advantage. It’s more challenging and exciting for the students to go back to school, and definitely when it’s Harvard. American athletes often have a college history, but a lot of footballers haven’t been to school since the age of 16.

I don’t care if someone plays for Barcelona, or if they’re a director of Ajax, or a TV star. It’s funny when someone who’s well-known in the US doesn't know a European celebrity, and vice versa. It means they get to know each other in a different way.

I read that the course costs €8,000 and that there are 80 students. Is there a first come, first served policy?
No, we have a commission that evaluates the applicants. We receive a lot more applications than we can handle. There’s a huge waiting list, so we often have to tell famous footballers to try again next year.

What are footballers like in your class? Are you ever surprised by their views?
Nearly all football players are active and involved, since they’re there to invest in themselves. Dani Alves was a bit quieter than the others. It was brilliant hearing him talk about his experiences with FC Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and the Brazilian national team. Outside the classroom, he was more of an extrovert and very funny. On the first morning of the course he showed up in Harvard attire, including tie, vest and trousers. I knew then and there things would run smoothly. 

The most vocal student was Gerard Piqué. He was already very active in the business world, and since we were discussing a case on FC Barcelona that year, he was obviously very outspoken. Then there were people like Oliver Kahn, who really impressed me – calm and quiet, but his remarks were right on the money. He told us he was named best goalie during the 2002 World Cup and was looking forward to making Germany proud at the 2006 World Cup. Unfortunately, much to his surprise, he was only made second goalie during that year. He opened up about the emotional rollercoaster dealing with that huge disappointment. 

Professor Anita Elberse with Sir Alex Ferguson

Elberse with Sir Alex Ferguson. Photo courtesy of Elberse

Can you tell me a bit about some of your case studies?
Last year I flew to Amsterdam. In my view, Ajax is the talent producer in the world of football. Maybe tied with clubs like Benfica and FC Barcelona, but not many are that consistent and that good. I followed Ajax for a few days and talked to people like Edwin, Marc Overmars, Erik ten Hag and communications manager Miel Brinkhuis about their inner workings and philosophy. 

I combined that trip with a visit to Paris-Saint-Germain and wrote another case about them. At PSG, I was mostly interested in the mega transfers of Neymar and Kylian Mbappé. I thought it would be an interesting idea to compare Ajax’s model, which emphasises developing players, with PSG’s model, which focuses on mega transfers. I ask my students: Which model is superior and why? Why would a Dutch club choose this model and a French club choose the other one? And why does a club like Barcelona seem to float in between the Ajax and PSG models?

I heard about your meeting with legendary ex-Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson in Boston in 2012. How did that happen?
I got a phone call from his manager. He asked if I knew Sir Alex Ferguson. Of course I said yes. “He’s in Boston right now, would you like to have breakfast with him this Sunday to exchange thoughts?” was the follow-up question. I didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be an audition of sorts.

He wanted to share his experiences in leadership with someone and put them to paper. We casually chatted about football and it actually felt like I was talking to my dad. Well, a dad who suddenly knew a lot more about football [laughs].

We published “Ferguson’s Formula”, which became one of the most popular articles ever in Harvard Business Review. After that we did a couple of events and he became a regular at Harvard. We still keep in touch and he sends me a Christmas card every year, although I’m not very good at keeping up that habit.