MBA Olympics: Spotlight on Europe's Epic MBAT Tournament!

Olympic Games for the MBA World

Currently in its 25th year, MBAT is the largest inter-graduate school sports tournament in the world, bringing together 1500 MBA students from sixteen international MBA programs for three days of sporting competitions and festivities on HEC Paris' picturesque campus.

President of MBAT 2015, Daniel Connell (HEC Paris '16), kindly shares background and insights with us on organizing this huge event and the invaluable leadership skills gained during the experience. Originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Daniel studied in Chile during high school and lived in the United States for most of his life. Prior to pursuing an MBA at one of the top business schools in Europe, he studied Biomedical Engineering and worked in sales and marketing in pharmaceuticals/biotech industries (with a brief stint exporting Chilean wine, as well).

Q:  Welcome, Daniel!  Can you tell us how MBAT began?

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Back in 1991, Briac Pinault of HEC's MBA program was elected president of the student council and his platform was to create a sports tourney that united all the "top 8" European business schools. They successfully secured sponsors, though communication proved difficult. They faxed and made phone calls to each school in the top 8 and in the end LBS, Bocconi, IMD, IESE, RSM, Manchester & Cranfield attended (INSEAD was a late scratch, and HEC had an exchange student from Cranfield who was really cool and helped bring in his colleagues on short notice).

Q:  How many participants, schools and different sport competitions will there be this year?

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This year we will have the largest audience ever of 16 schools, with 3 new schools participating, and we have reached our max capacity of 1500 people (space limitation of our party/events hall). There is actually a waiting list that has formed among our partner schools pending cancellations from participants at schools already confirmed.

This being the 25th anniversary we have 25 sports lined up, plus a start-up competition to be judged by VCs who are ready to fund the best ideas. Sports range from basketball, soccer & rugby to rock climbing, battle of the bands and salsa dancing.

Q:  Does MBAT result in a closer knit contact circle of MBAs across Europe?

Being brand new to MBAT and having not yet lived it, I can't comment on how connected the students become afterward. Though MBAT is definitely a unifying force throughout European MBA programs. Whenever one mentions HEC Paris in European MBA circles, talk of MBAT is usually the first topic of conversation. There are various MBA competitions throughout the year (PE, FT.com, Finance, etc) and we hear that MBAT is always mentioned as a highlight of every program's academic calendar. Note that the first day of MBAT takes place on a Thursday every year, and our partner schools actually have MBAT penciled into their academic calendars as well.

This is a major leadership event for all schools, not just here at HEC. Imagine coordinating travel and communications for 200+ students, including medical forms, payment, transportation, you name it. Each school has a dedicated representative to handle all internal & external MBAT-related communications throughout the year.

The competition is intense, the thrill of victory is incredible, and the parties each night are beyond expectations.

Q:  Does the naturally competitive nature of the MBA candidate arise during these sporting events?

Keep in mind, even though there is a party atmosphere, these are 25 heated sports competitions running in parallel. The winner of the ping pong tournament thinks he/she just won the gold medal at the Olympics. Representing your school and beating the cross-town rival in front of all your friends is a rewarding experience. I have not lived it yet but I hear the competition is intense, the thrill of victory is incredible, and the parties each night are beyond expectations.

Q:  What are some of the challenges in organizing an event of this scale?

The biggest challenges are managing one's time and managing other people in an organization without true hierarchy. Sure I am the "General Coordinator" but if XYZ person is not prioritizing a certain MBAT initiative, I can't fire that person. In the end, this is a leadership exercise where skills of motivation & negotiation are put to the test.

Aside from that, from a functional perspective, securing sponsorship is definitely a challenge. We have tried some new angles this year and were fortunate to land some pretty cool sponsorships. CampusGroups for one, Uber is another, we got Hurley to donate some prizes, we secured a consulting-related start-up called preplounge.com, and a currency exchange startup called Transferwise as well. One of the most exciting partners this year is a company that organizes the African Poker Tour that has offered to give prize money to the winning poker player during the first night of MBAT, our Casino Royale themed party. The stakes have been raised!

Q:  How has the tournament evolved since its inception?

The biggest evolution of MBAT is we now have email and all sorts of technological communication advantages. We have notes from previous years and a number of suppliers have been working with MBAT for 5, 7 or up to 12 years. So the infrastructure is supremely better than when they first began in 1991. That being said, everything was free back in '91. Absolutely free! They secured so much sponsorship money, so many free supplies and free alcohol, HEC wound up providing everything for free and even assisting with some schools' transportation costs. Briac (Pinault) said they had too much money, overflowing coffers. Definitely not the case nowadays, though Briac said it best: "Charlie Chaplin may not have created a more brilliant performance than the potato dance, and beaucoup amounts of money can't compete with human ingenuity."

Q:  If the US would like to mimic your success, what would be your recommendations?

To mimic our success, US schools would need to have an established network they could count on. The Ivy League comes to mind, or the M7 for instance. Geographically it would need to be convenient to get to, and the campus should have plenty of local hotels to accommodate guests. From there it's all about hussle. US programs are 2yrs in length so they would have more time to plan it, we only run 16 months and some European programs are 10-12 months, so coordinating with everyone's schedules is difficult. But where there's a will there's a way, and so long as people have the mindset to tackle all challenges it is definitely possible.

Q:  Could you share the most absurd story that has come out of MBAT?

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The absolute best story I have heard is back in 1991, since it was free for everyone, Manchester Business School arrived with ~250 people. Maybe only 100 were MBA students, the rest were girlfriends, friends, friends of friends, etc. They apparently partied their asses off, and competed well enough but in the end HEC won the overall points tally. However Briac, the original founder ofMBAT, appreciated how intensely Manchester competed (both during the day and at night) that he and his friends went behind the scenes, made a few scoring changes and wound up giving the final trophy to Manchester Business School to honour the spirit of the event as welcoming, festive and rewarding for all.