Dan Matheson’s career path has been sprinkled with unconventional decisions.
As a junior sport management major at Iowa State University, he took a semester off to fulfill a 10-month internship with the Chicago Cubs. During his last semester of law school at the University of Minnesota, he spent the entire month of March working spring training for the New York Yankees. Those unconventional decisions paid off: he worked for six years for the Yankees as director of baseball operations and nine years as an investigator with the NCAA.
Now, Matheson, an Iowa City native and West High School alum, is in his second semester as a lecturer in the recreation and sport business program in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, using his past experience to teach students who are interested in following a similar—perhaps more conventional—path.
Matheson recently sat down with fyi and discussed the business of sports, how he’s enjoying teaching, and what it was like to work with George Steinbrenner.
What sparked your interest in the business of sports?
I was a high school athlete, but when I graduated from high school that was the end of my competitive athletic career. I had a passion for sports and wanted to find some way to merge that with what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I was fortunate because my parents supported the idea of getting experience through things like internships early on.
When I got to Iowa State I started doing internships and volunteer opportunities, one of which was working as the baseball team’s student manager. After that, I decided that I wanted to get a higher-level internship in baseball, and I was fortunate enough to get an internship with the Chicago Cubs organization during my junior year at Iowa State. That gave me my first real glimpse inside professional sports management.
When you were with the Yankees, you were the director of baseball operations. What were you doing in that position?
I basically handled the division that is responsible for acquiring new players and developing them for the major leagues through a minor league system—handling player contracts and handling budgets in the player development and scouting divisions. I worked with a $20 million budget; I managed the operational aspects of the training facility in Tampa.
During the off-season, we would hold organizational meetings with Mr. Steinbrenner and everyone would fly down from New York. We would go over the major league roster and make decisions about personnel moves at the major league level to be pursued in the off-season and going into the next season. Those were fascinating meetings. Mr. Steinbrenner wanted me to be in there to learn that end of the business, and I would crunch budget numbers. We came up with endless scenarios; if we would drop one player from the scenario and switch out another, I would change the numbers in the budget. That would help Mr. Steinbrenner make decisions about our major league roster and what players we would want to pursue.
It was an incredible time to be a part of the Yankees. It was during a six-year period where the team won the World Series four times. It was an amazing experience.
What was it like to work with Steinbrenner?
He was a great man. I loved and respected him. He was exceptionally good to me in my career development. He was a very demanding employer but he didn’t demand things of others that he didn’t expect of himself. If we were going to be sitting in a conference room meeting all weekend long—and maybe over the holidays and all hours of the day and night—often he was right there with us. He was passionate about winning, and when you work in the player personnel side of the business, all you can ask for is an owner who gives you all the resources you need to do everything you can to win. We always knew as a baseball operations staff that Mr. Steinbrenner would be supportive financially of decisions that would allow the organization to win. For that I was grateful because not every ownership group is like that.
A few of my favorite things…
Lunch at Leaf Kitchen
The TV show Louie
The movie Annie Hall
New York Yankees
What was it like to transition from Major League Baseball to working as an investigator for the NCAA?
There was certainly a learning curve in the first year or two on the job. One of the highlights of the job was presenting for the NCAA Committee on Infractions. When we would conduct an investigation and complete a case—and some of these cases would take a year or two to investigate—my role would be to present the case for the NCAA in the hearing room. That hearing was like the Super Bowl—a chance to showcase all of the information that I had been so focused on for the past year.
I covered all divisions, but in major infractions, a vast majority of our cases are Division I, and in that area, a majority are football and men’s basketball cases.
There were some pretty high-profile cases going on in collegiate athletics while you were investigating for the NCAA. What was it like to be working on things that had been splashed across the news nationally?
I was probably uniquely prepared for that having come from the Yankees. It doesn’t get much more high profile than the New York Yankees. I was fortunate on the enforcement staff because we were basically required to have a no-comment policy.
The difficult part: seeing news outlets perpetuate misinformation. Things would be reported as fact that I knew were wrong, and people nationwide were forming strong opinions about the NCAA, the work that I was doing, the nature of the case, and whatever it may be based on incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information that was being reported. I had to learn, as everybody does there, that it’s part of the deal and it doesn’t impact you and your job.
Why do you think it’s important for the NCAA to be doing these types of investigations within college athletics?
One reason, certainly, is to maintain as level a playing field as possible. All the member schools that have chosen to be a part of the NCAA have chosen to abide by the same rules. The reason for many of the rules is to maintain a level of competitive balance between member schools. At the end of the day that’s the single most important reason.
Tell me about your new role at the university.
The area that I’m teaching in is housed within leisure studies. This fall, leisure studies opened up the recreation and sport business area of study; students can declare that they are recreation and sport business majors. We’ve had a huge increase in majors who have declared this emphasis.
I’m teaching three courses and I’m able to tie my experiences into the courses. I have found a lot of opportunities to bring in anecdotal experiences and my perspective from the professional and college sports environment. It’s been really enjoyable. I think I’ve been able to help my students see that a career in sports is attainable and show them a way that they can possibly go about it. That has been a highlight of this year for sure.