The University of Oregon is educating the next generation of sports and outdoor product management professionals. We learned about this degree program directly from the source: students.
Graduates of the Sports Product Management (SPM) master’s program at the University of Oregon have gone on to work for brands like Patagonia, Dakine, and Outdoor Research. And it helps that many professors cut their teeth at international sports companies like Adidas, Nike, Columbia Sportswear, and Under Armour.
If recent history holds true, students who get into the program immediately become part of a heavily head-hunted group. The University of Oregon SPM degree levels the playing field said Sara Nazim, who graduated from the Portland-based program last year.
“The outdoor industry has long been accused of being insular with no formalized talent pipeline,” she said. “Part of what I love about this program is the focus on helping students gain an entry point that is more about what you know than who you know.”
Concept to Commercialization
Nazim interned at Patagonia during the program. Upon graduation, she landed a position as associate product line manager at Outdoor Research in Seattle. She oversees the company’s headwear line.
“I once read an article that described Outdoor Research and the ‘industry’s greatest secret,’” she said. “That told me everything I needed to know. OR has a tight team that is dedicated to creating niche products for the core athlete. We build product for gnarly weather that really puts gear to the test.”
Nazim credits the experiential 18-month SPM master’s program with helping her refine her career goals. “The program introduced me to the full product life cycle from concept to commercialization,” she said.
The specialized schooling and in-the-field opportunities shifted Nazim’s interests from marketing, her undergrad degree, to product management. The SPM degree includes education in product line management, development, engineering, innovation, sourcing, and costing. It teaches demand planning and the management of materials, factory, sustainability supply chain, retail, and brand.
Her favorite part was learning the product creation process. “On my first day, I walked into the SPM Innovation Lab. It was full of sergers, strobels, heat presses, and 3D printers. I soaked in everything I could in that magical room,” she said.
“I often lost track of time and found myself many hours later with a half-dozen shoe tongues all made with different construction methods I dreamt up.”
A Global Perspective
Lauren Fukuhara grew up in Oahu, Hawaii. She’d never been to the mainland before attending SPM, and she soaked in every opportunity. She was able to travel the world through this program, which she graduated from this year.
“We went to Germany for ISPO and to the Adidas headquarters, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea to see the Olympic stadium,” Fukuhara said. “All this travel has opened up my perspective on so many things.”
Additionally, a summer internship at Maxport took Fukuhara to a cut-and-sew garment factory in Vietnam.
“Oftentimes, people in the industry get to travel to factories for a couple days to check out samples. However, I got the invaluable opportunity to live and work there for three months,” she said. “Besides learning how the factory works, I learned a lot about the cultural differences.”
Some of those differences extended to the program itself. “We had people straight out of college to people with families wanting a career change. We had designers to accountants to marketing to engineering backgrounds. And we had people from Hawaii (me) to the East Coast, and all over the world like Thailand, Iran, and Korea,” Fukuhara said.
“With so many different perspectives, I learned just as much from my cohort as I did from the academic side of the program itself.”
Putting the Education in Action
Today, Fukuhara is putting her experience and knowledge into action at Dakine, where she works as an apparel developer. She applies her new niche skills to bills of materials and spec sheets as well as insight into supply chain issues such as inventory and lead times.
She called the environment constantly creative, energetic, and collaborative. “I get to work on apparel across all categories, from graphic T-shirts to technical snow apparel jackets to the lifestyle line,” she said. “The SPM program definitely helped me in understanding the general 18-month creation process.”
Similarly, Nazim puts the technical skills she learned at SPM to use at Outdoor Research on the daily. She hit the ground running at her post-graduation position.
“Thanks to merchandising and finance classes, I’m able to analyze weak points and opportunities in my product line. Thanks to supply chain and logistics classes, I’m able to minimize material waste and allocate resources. Best of all, I can apply what I learned in SPM’s Innovation Lab and be an asset during rapid prototyping,” she said.
“I once shut down my spreadsheet and Illustrator file and went straight to the sewing machine to make a prototype bivy sack, because it felt like the most efficient way to communicate a product feature.”
Both graduates appreciate that they get to geek out in an industry that’s constantly evolving.
“Monday morning conversations usually revolve around something rad my coworkers did outside, followed by thoughts on their gear,” Nazim said.
“I get so into products that sometimes I forget that it’s not appropriate to feel the fabric on a jacket sleeve of a person I don’t know at a dinner party.”