Business grad shows how to step up to the plate
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Winter commencement at Grand Canyon University features many overachieving brainiacs who work extra hard and graduate in 3½ years or even sooner.
Then there’s Payton Kuhnel. He’s an overachieving seamhead.
That’s baseball-ese for someone who lives and breathes the game and knows it inside out. Not only did Kuhnel show his book smarts by graduating summa cum laude Friday morning with his Bachelor of Science degree in Sports Management in just 2½ years; he did it even though he was working the whole time, first in hockey for the Arizona Coyotes and then in baseball for the Cincinnati Reds.
It gets better: After the ceremony in GCU Arena, his next stop is as a video intern for the Reds’ Class AA team in Chattanooga, Tenn.
That means recording every game, charting and logging every pertinent statistic, and providing the analytics to players. For someone who loves the game as much as he does, that’s baseball heaven.
“Baseball’s always been the main passion,” he said of his childhood. “As long as you can remember, you’d come home from school, turn baseball on and watch it until you go to bed.”
Kuhnel also played baseball, among other sports, at Liberty High School in Peoria, then went to a small Great Plains college for one year of football and baseball before deciding to transfer to GCU and concentrate on an off-the-field career in sports.
He caught on with the Coyotes during his first semester at the University, helping with 50/50 raffles, used equipment, memorabilia auctions, fundraising, etc. – a little bit of everything, like most sports jobs of that nature.
His next stop was even more to his liking. He got a job in spring training at the Reds’ complex in Goodyear and continued on there through the various player-development activities that keep those complexes busy far beyond the spring.
“They kept asking me, ‘Hey, can you stay through the summer? Can you stay through rookie league? Can you stay through instructs (instructional league)? Fall league?’” he said.
He was aided by GCU’s Sports Business program, which he calls “really interesting” and often had him anticipating what the topic would be that day.
His favorite of aspect of it, he said, was that “they gave you a lot of freedom, especially on your projects. You could go out and branch out and find your own stuff and find something that made you click. I’m a big hunting and fishing guy, so I’d go back and forth – ‘This project I’m going to focus on baseball, this project I’m going to focus on opening some type of hunting and fishing lodge.’ It was a big chance for you to find what you think defines sports.”
Dr. Rick Roth had Kuhnel in his Sports Event Planning and Introduction to Sports Management classes and said, “Payton was an outstanding student — very detail oriented. I found him to be creative, enthusiastic about sports business and highly motivated to be involved in professional sports.”
The baseball landscape has changed dramatically. Not that long ago, virtually every executive in the sport was a former player who at least reached the minor leagues. Now the main requirement is to understand how to use all the information that analytics provide, and those numbers are tracked from the major leagues down to the lowest level of the minors.
“It’s finally turning the page – information is good, and just passing the eye test isn’t good enough anymore,” Kuhnel said. “It needs to be able to show that you can provide value.”
A casual conversation with Kuhnel shows how much he already has learned. He can discuss the hitting approach of Joey Votto, the Reds’ star first baseman, as readily as launch angle, defensive shifts and the game’s other trends.
His ultimate goal?
“I’m more of a player-development guy. I would like to be a head of player development or a pitching coordinator.”
This is another winter commencement graduate who’s ready to play ball.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.