Pirates Meet In Vegas

Second year of Super Bowl management class presents new networks

Whether it was current East Carolina University students, former students like track and field three-time Olympic gold medalist LaShawn Merritt, or ECU alumni working in the sports industry, “Go Pirates!” was a phrase heard in Las Vegas as part of Super Bowl LVIII activities.

It was Merritt who spotted Darius Lawton — one of the 11 students who volunteered at the Feb. 4 Super Bowl as the focal point of this semester’s sports studies event management class in the College of Health and Human Performance — wearing ECU apparel. That led to more conversation and Merritt taking a picture with the students, joined by Dr. Stacy Warner, professor and sport management graduate coordinator in the Department of Kinesiology, and Mack Keenan, a two-time ECU alum and HHP’s director of outreach.

Track and field Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt takes a picture with ECU’s group that experienced Super Bowl LVIII for a unique event management class opportunity.

Students also had the opportunity to chat with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith thanks to ECU alumnus Kevin Jones, founder and CEO of Blue Wire Podcasts, and other Pirate connections included soaking in words of inspiration from National Football League agent Mollie Edick, a former student of Warner’s at ECU.

“One of my favorite parts was being able to see there are ECU alums more than just on the East Coast,” student Josh Harrelson said. “We are all the way in Nevada, it’s crazy. Seeing how successful ECU alums in sports are really helped fuel my fire. … We all wore ECU all the time there, and we could be walking to our next spot and hear, ‘Go Pirates.’ That was awesome.”

After star players Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers, 25-22 in overtime, ECU students described their Super Bowl experience as incredible and amazing.

“This weekend has been absolutely amazing,” Ethan Long said. “Seeing what goes into an event of this magnitude, compared to a smaller game that I’ve worked before, is kind of mind-blowing. Overall, this has been absolutely great.”

The game was the longest Super Bowl in history. Harrelson said ECU’s representatives arrived at the stadium around 8:30 a.m. and remained busy and engaged until leaving at 9:30 p.m.

Students pose with a Super Bowl LVIII sign in Las Vegas as part of their event management experience with the Department of Kinesiology.

Usher was the lead halftime show performer, and there was plenty of attention surrounding Taylor Swift in pregame buildup, during the game and after the Chiefs won their third championship in five years.

“Being in Las Vegas for the Super Bowl, and I’m sure the Swift factor, there was more of an entertainment than a sporting event feel,” said Warner, who along with Dr. Andrea Buenaño, led the class for the second straight year. “We saw more celebrities and athletes, and a lot of that had to do with the stadium being so close to the strip. It felt like there was more buzz. Las Vegas did an amazing job and was ready to host. The logistics and flow were really impressive. We had an unplanned 3-mile hike around the stadium on the Wednesday prior for game-day training. It couldn’t have been a better teaching moment, as the students saw roads and entrances being shut down for the big game.”

Students were either a coach, captain or teammate in contributing to the fan experience by assisting fans and security. Harrelson, who also is in Army ROTC, was a coach for designated fan sections.

“The whole coaching aspect in my role of how I was thrown in there a little bit and given a little bit of time to find my way, it’s the same in ROTC with our missions and stuff that we run,” he said. “I was able to correlate that and the understanding to take a second for a deep breath and understand what is going on. We call it tactically evaluating a situation, to make sure it’s done properly. ROTC definitely prepared me for that spur of the moment kind of thinking, and I knew I could take a second, think about it and then make a decision.”

Like the initial students in 2023 who volunteered at Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Arizona, this year’s group had an unforgettable experience rooted in experiential learning.

“No matter what your role is in sports, it’s a lot of work and can become stressful at times,” Harrelson said. “But just to be there in that environment and see all the fans having fun and engaging with each other, knowing we were there as part of the reason why they were having fun, it was really rewarding.”

Class assignments prior to traveling to Las Vegas focused on reviewing research related to mega events and the Super Bowl. Next, students will submit research proposals based on their observances.

“I am again appreciative of how ECU and its leadership allows us to run with these outside-the-classroom learning opportunities,” Warner said. “From alums, Student Government Association to ECU HHP donors, they are key to these high-impact learning practices. I am also so grateful for the expertise related to experiential learning that Dr. Buenaño has brought to our program. Experiences like these raise the bar on where an ECU degree in sport can take our students. We know what it takes for them to be successful, and we are going to give them the path.”