Sunday, May 2, 2021
Nicole Schmidt

Dusty and exhausted after hours of play at the ball field, Nicole Schmidt (BBA06) relaxed in the passenger seat as her dad drove, feeling the breeze from the open window and listening to a baseball game on the radio.

“Harry Caray was like third grandpa to me,” said Schmidt of the legendary Chicago Cubs radio announcer.

Sports were always a part of her childhood. “Growing up in a family with three kids all playing multiple sports, things were usually pretty hectic. Looking back, I really appreciated that little bit of slowdown with baseball.”

Along with the Cubs, the Schmidt family are Hawkeye fans. When she was in kindergarten, Schmidt’s parents, Jane Schmidt (MA90) and Craig Schmidt (MBA90), moved the family from Harlan, Iowa to Iowa City to attend graduate school. One of her earliest memories is sitting in her dad’s business school classes scribbling on a notepad while he was working toward his MBA. They even signed up to be a host family for an out-of-state football player who would come over for dinner and games of UNO.

When it was time for Schmidt to go to college, the University of Iowa was a natural fit. She studied finance at Iowa and credits the Hawkinson Institute with launching her career with the business consulting firm, Monitor Group.

She enjoyed consulting, working through business challenges like a Rubik’s Cube, spinning the problem around and finding a new way to solve it using market research and data. Yet after five years, she realized her heart wasn’t in it.

“So I stepped back and thought, what do I care about? The answer was always sports.”

Schmidt had a vision of the role she wanted. It was buried at the end of a classic book on baseball statistics, “Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning in Baseball” by Vince Gennaro, who argued that analytics could revolutionize the business of sports just as sabermetrics could revolutionize how managers build baseball teams.

She returned to school for her MBA to help make that vision a reality. But there was one problem. “At the time, not many sports teams were interested filling a role like that.”

Schmidt pushed every connection. “I talked to basically any team in the NBA, NFL, MLB, and a few hockey teams that would connect with me.” But in the end, it was Gennaro himself who connected Schmidt with the Cleveland Indians after Schmidt approached him for advice at a conference.

“Over the course of my career, my finance background has served as an invaluable foundation. It’s given me the context to be a better business leader and the tools to tackle tough challenges in a structured, analytical way.

Now as vice president of brand, strategy and analytics for the Cleveland Indians, Schmidt is living the professional life she first envisioned over a decade ago. She and her team use data and strategy to drive demand forecasting, product development, and fan experiences.

Some high points include helping shape a major renovation at Progressive Field and the team ownership taking she and her dad to Wrigley Field for game three of the 2016 World Series between Cleveland and the Chicago Cubs. “I told him, ‘Dad, you can’t wear Cubs gear.’ So he came decked head-to-toe in Iowa gear. He said, ‘If I can’t wear Cubs gear, this is the next best thing—and Cub fans know what this really means.’”

With so much of the fan experience traditionally happening in the ballpark, COVID-19 threw a major curveball at Schmidt and her team. Yet it also brought a number of innovations that Schmidt expects will endure after the pandemic is over.

Other transitions are on the horizon for the organization in 2021, including changing the name of the team which has been known as the “Indians” since 1915. It will be the next chapter of a story not just of a Cleveland institution, but of a uniquely American game built on narrative and connection.

“I love the rhythm of baseball,” reflected Schmidt. “It's a pace that invites you to slow down, take a breath, and have a conversation. Growing up it was a space to spend time with my dad listening to the game, or with my family watching a game. It was time to be together.”


This story appeared in the 2021 issue of Exchange magazine.