In early December, high school girls basketball teams from three states took part in the inaugural Sophie Cunningham Classic, a three-day shootout in Columbia created by women athletes for young female athletes. The Classic allowed those athletes to take center stage and allowed Cunningham to give back to the community where she dominated opponents on the court as a high school player at Rock Bridge and a college athlete at the University of Missouri.
The Classic also allowed students in the parks, recreation and sport degree program at the University of Missouri the opportunity to gain valuable hands-on learning experiences at a high-profile event.
“We strive to provide our sport management students with plenty of hands-on opportunities,” said Michelle Brimecombe, assistant teaching professor in the School of Natural Resources. “With an event like this, we want our students to experience the ups and the downs, the anxiety, the drama, the successes and the failures. We are obviously here to keep them organized, but a key part of learning is giving the students the ability to make their own decisions.”
Sport management is one of four tracks within the parks, recreation and sport degree program. Students in the PRST 3400 course (Sport and Recreation Marketing), which is taught by Brimecombe, helped with numerous facets of the Classic, from early marketing strategies to helping with actual game day activities. The students also worked closely with Cunningham and her family.
“The Cunningham family is obviously legendary, and I’m so thankful that Sophie has been willing to help our students,” Brimecombe said. “Her family is very big on providing opportunities for female athletes and we were thrilled to play a small role in that. I know our students were incredibly excited to jump at an opportunity of this nature.”
Cunningham’s standout career at Mizzou included numerous national honors and ended with her name etched across the MU women’s basketball record books. She is MU’s all-time leading scorer (2,187 points), all-time leader in free throws made (537) and holds multiple top-five spots in other statistical categories. While Cunningham was dominant on the court, she was also involved in the parks, recreation and sport degree program. She chose the sport management track, too, earning her degree in 2020.
“I love being able to give back to CAFNR,” Cunningham said. “Being a former parks, recreation and sport student, I know how valuable an opportunity of this nature is for students to grow. I’m so happy that the students wanted to be part of this and they did a phenomenal job throughout our time working together. I’m hoping to keep this relationship going long-term.”
Cunningham just finished her fourth season as a member of the Phoenix Mercury, a team in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). She was drafted in 2019 and set personal career highs in nearly every statistical category this year.
The Sophie Cunningham Classic is an extension of the Norm Stewart Classic, an annual basketball shootout that began in 2007. While the Norm Stewart Classic includes a mix of boys and girls games, Cunningham wanted to have her shootout focus on giving young female athletes an opportunity to have the spotlight.
“My main focus is to empower young girls who are going to become young women out in the world doing amazing things,” Cunningham said. “It’s important to create an environment where they can be successful. There wasn’t an event like this for me and my sister, Lindsey, growing up. I now have this great platform that I’ve been blessed with, and I want to do everything I can to give back.
“It’s important for me to inspire these girls and give them a positive role model. It’s my pleasure to do this. The Columbia community has given so much to me and my family, and I’m happy to give so much back.”
The students were tasked with a variety of projects leading up to the shootout. They researched best practices for marketing campaigns, including sales, promotions and sponsorships. The group also studied consumer relations and how to create an exciting experience for those in attendance. During the actual event, students were handed several responsibilities, such as coming up with halftime activities for the fans.
“It’s been really exciting to be involved throughout the entire process,” said Noah Haskamp, a junior parks, recreation and sport major. “I’ve watched the Norm Stewart Classic for years, so to see the girls get the spotlight, it’s really cool. I’ve enjoyed being part of the first Sophie Cunningham Classic, and in five to 10 years when this shootout is even bigger, it will be fun to look back and say we played a role in the first one.”
Students in the PRST 3400 course actually helped with the Norm Stewart Classic two years ago and did the same last year. It was that experience that built trust between students and the organizers.
“When we talked through how we would be helping with the Sophie Cunningham Classic, everyone wanted our ideas, which was a huge boost to know that what we were saying was being valued,” said Gwen DeWaele, a junior parks, recreation and sport major. “Sport management gives us an opportunity to gain experiences inside and outside of the classroom, and this work is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“My proudest professor moment in all of this is seeing the students exceeding expectations,” Brimecombe added. “It’s been a ton of work, and I think we were all a little exhausted, but I’m so incredibly proud of their work. This is something that I hope they can carry with them as they go out into the world.”