U of A student interns for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals: (front row, l to r) Olivia Olson, Analisa Parr, Aubrey Couch. (Back row, l to r) Hunter Blankenship, Nolan Poindexter, Jake Bay.
U of A students majoring in Recreation and Sport Management are essential in helping the Northwest Arkansas Naturals cover its bases on game days.
Students have been interning with the Naturals since 2008, when the minor league baseball team kicked off its first season at Arvest Ballpark in Springdale. Both agree the relationship is a home run. Students gain practical experience in their field of study while the team gets a steady source of reliable, motivated part-time workers.
Every February, Dustin Dethlefs, director of marketing and public relations for the Naturals, visits the university and interviews students. “We’re interested in any students willing to work during the season to get practicum hours,” Dethlefs said. “Two of our most recent full-time hires started out as U of A interns.”
The team plays from April through September.
Six U of A interns rushed to get game-ready on a recent busy night at the ballfield. The first order of business was to gather props for children’s activities. The activities alternate daily, with variations on crowd favorites like dizzy mop and eyeball races (a local optometrist sponsors the latter), musical chairs, running the bases and Deal or No Deal-type games.
When the gates opened for the evening, U of A interns waited at the entrance with clipboards, stopping parents with children who seemed the right age to compete. Some kids enthusiastically agreed to be contestants, while others said they were too shy.
Analisa Parr, a senior recreation and sport management major, was among the interns. She helps coordinate fellow students’ hours for the Naturals.
“I get to know their personalities in April and plug them into jobs accordingly,” she said. “I love it. It’s so hands-on.”
Parr helps on the field and in the marketing office. Like most of the other interns, she was a high school athlete and wanted to remain in the sports field as a career.
“I was in cheer all four years of high school, but I’ve always loved sports,” she said. “My freshman year of college, right before classes started, I got an email about the street team for the university. I went to the meeting and never stopped signing up to work the sports games. After COVID hit, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and that’s when I changed my major to sports management.”
Parr’s long-term goal is to be a marketing director for an MLB team, but she’s open.
“The sports industry has so much to offer. I’m just going to see where this takes me,” she said.
She said the Naturals internship is propelling her forward. “They have really invested in my education and future,” she said.
General Manager Justin Cole said he and other executives take time getting to know the students to provide a richer experience. They share their unique career paths and invite questions. “We want our interns to have a chance to meet everyone, in all roles, maybe those they wouldn’t cross paths with typically,” he said.
Cole said it’s important to show students all aspects of the recreation and sport management experience. So, in addition to helping with game-day fun, interns are also encouraged to participate in fundraising efforts, ticket office sales, retail store sales, payroll and video production. They even occasionally volunteer to suit up in Strike, the Naturals’ primary mascot, for appearances at local schools or with partners. Or put on the rooster, hen or fried egg mascot suit to entertain fans during the newest in-game promotional race at Arvest Ballpark, “The Poultry Derby.”
Cole recalled his own internship experience with a minor league baseball team while a college student in Buffalo. He appreciates that he and his staff have the opportunity to mentor and encourage U of A students similarly.
“We want to help them, to reach back,” he said.
Most importantly, Naturals leadership wants the interns to feel part of the team. That means if it rains, they all go out and help put a tarp down on the field to keep it from getting too wet. And it’s all hands on deck when they need to pull the tarp before the first pitch, he said.
Cole encourages students to try multiple jobs represented in the company. “I tell them to get as much out of the internship as they can. And to always be asking themselves, ‘Is this job for me?'”
Assistant professor Craig Edmonston, who coordinates practicum/internship opportunities for Recreation and Sports Management Program students, said the Naturals partnership has been invaluable.
“Minor league baseball provides one of the best work experiences in any sport, if not the best,” he said. “The Naturals’ staff provide more than just a place to work; they provide an essential learning experience that cannot be duplicated in many other sites. I appreciate how they go well beyond the call of duty with our students.”
The program works with more than 170 field experience sites to help prepare students for their future careers.