Long before teammates Nikola Prpa and Manuel Josue Valenzuela played on the NCAA Division II soccer team at University of Wisconsin-Parkside, they shared a devotion to “the beautiful game,” as many fans refer to the sport, along with childhood memories of time spent together on the pitch.

UW-Parkside soccer player and MS sport management graduate Nikola Prpa
Nikola Prpa

Prpa grew up in Muskego, Wisconsin, just south of Milwaukee. Valenzuela is originally from Mexico but grew up about 90 minutes north of Prpa in New Holstein, near Fond du Lac. They met when they were in middle school, initially as competitors during tournaments.

“I remember playing against Josue ever since we were about 13 years old.” Prpa said. “Our teams developed a rivalry for each other because it was always such a good game.”

“We would frequently run into each other on the field and off,” Valenzuela added. “We did this for a couple of years, up until I decided to join the club where he was playing.”

Once their rivalry became a partnership, the duo became unstoppable. Their club made the state finals, and Valenzuela also played for the Wisconsin state soccer team in tournaments around the nation. After high school, Prpa enrolled at UW-Parkside and Valenzuela attended the University of Dubuque in Iowa. However, their bond remained strong.

Each was playing soccer at the collegiate level when Valenzuela decided to change schools after his freshman year. He wanted to come back to his home state. Prpa helped pave the way, mentioning the situation to his coach at Parkside. Valenzuela transferred in, joined the team and began studying with Prpa in the sport management bachelor’s program. They graduated in 2021.

The drive and discipline that gave them early success as athletes also inspired their next challenge: graduate school in the online Master of Science in Sport Management program at UW-Parkside. “We thought ‘Hey, let’s push each other and grind this through, and see where we come out,'” Valenzuela noted, recalling their excitement about the pursuing the degree.

Prpa says the advanced administrative and leadership coursework the program offered was more dynamic than he expected. “There were so many categories and fields that we studied,” he marveled. “It does a really good job of hitting all the targets that you need.” Both graduated in 2022, ready to build a career.

Learning Directly From the Pros

Valenzuela is now a ticket office associate for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, handling a range of sales and promotional duties. Prpa is pursuing his teaching certification in physical education, while serving as a permanent building substitute teacher at Muskego Lakes Middle School and mentoring young athletes.

Each credit the program’s emphasis on professional communication and networking as key to their development, along with opportunities to put those skills into practice. In addition to working with accomplished professors, they interviewed industry leaders as part of assignments and interacted with them at UW-Parkside’s annual sport management conference.

“It was such a cool experience because those professionals started off in the same place as us and were able to make a name for themselves,” Prpa said. “The biggest piece of advice that I heard from them was to always believe in yourself, as well as never be afraid to get your foot in the door.”

Valenzuela says his conversation with Bucks President Peter Feigin had a lasting impact. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Use the mistakes you make as a learning lesson,” he recalled Feigin advising him as a graduate student, noting “These are words that stick with me.”

Part-time internships gave them direct exposure to sports organizations. Valenzuela worked with the Bucks and Prpa worked with the MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers while studying in the program. Both were in ticketing operations and gained valuable insight from the experience.

“You never know what goes on behind closed doors as a fan,” Prpa observed. “You always think, ‘Oh, it’s just a team and they play,’ and you don’t know what goes into event planning and theme nights.” He and Valenzuela developed a new appreciation for how promotions, customer service and community outreach can enhance the game as well. “I liked seeing how it all clicked in,” Valenzuela said.

Interning also gave each of them a sense of satisfaction, knowing the positive impact their work had on others. “Seeing the fans happy at the end of the day was always just so rewarding to me,” Prpa noted. “There’s no better experience,” Valenzuela added, “seeing the fulfillment, and the enjoyment of the fans after they leave.”

Valenzuela was hired full time even before he graduated, and he says the tenacity and commitment he demonstrated by earning his master’s degree impressed decision-makers in the organization. “They saw that I was willing to learn,” he said, “and willing to keep on learning and growing.”

New Skills, Connections and Confidence

Prpa and Valenzuela liked studying finance and facilities management during the program, and coursework in analytics, law, ethics and leadership gave them additional insight into the business of sports.

UW-Parkside soccer player and MS sport management graduate Manuel Josue Valenzuela
Manuel Josue Valenzuela

During his time with the Brewers, Prpa saw firsthand how their baseball operations and marketing strategy tied back to his UW-Parkside courses. “It was almost identical to what I was learning,” he recalled. Valenzuela incorporated his internship into his assignments and projects. “I was able to put some real-world perspectives and scenarios into class,” he said.

They appreciated discussion board conversations that gave them an insider’s view of the broader industry, too, as students from diverse areas of sports management talked about their roles, responsibilities and ambitions. “I really enjoyed the discussion posts, being able to interact with others,” Valenzuela said. “It was cool to see other perspectives.”

As Prpa and Valenzuela progressed in the program, they also found personal enrichment.

Prpa says the experience challenged his previous perception of what he could accomplish, as he became more adaptable and began to recognize his strengths. “What I learned is that it’s when you step out of your comfort zone you open a door for opportunity that you didn’t think was there,” he explained, adding that he now has a different mindset and approach to his career.

Valenzuela is grateful for the confidence he gained by learning to network effectively. “I got a lot out of the program just with the people that I met,” he said, “the connections that I made.” He became more proactive in resolving conflicts and issues as well, and comfortable taking charge of that process. “I would often shy away from problem-solving,” he admitted. “Now I would say I am very confident in handling different situations as they arise, even if I don’t know what the problem is.”

Both believe learning online was just as essential to their success. “You can pretty much do it wherever you are,” Valenzuela confirmed, highlighting the convenience of being able to study while working full time.

Prpa agrees, recommending the option for anyone considering a master’s degree who needs some flexibility to get it done. “If you’ve got a busy schedule and you can’t really make it to in-person [classes],” he advised, “online is definitely the way to go.”

Paying the Knowledge Forward

Even though they have moved on from their college soccer days, Prpa and Valenzuela still love the game. Prpa maintains his longtime fandom for Manchester United of the U.K.’s English Premier League and superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who played for the club both early and late in his storied career.

Nikola Prpa and Manuel Josue Valenzuela wearing UW-Parkside soccer uniforms
Prpa and Valenzeula, with their game faces on

Valenzuela, long a diehard fan of Spain’s LaLiga league FC Barcelona club, has been known to cheer on the red devils of Man United as well, acknowledging their legacy. “I wouldn’t say they’re my team team,” he laughed, “but I’d say they have a supporter in me.”

Working for a world-class soccer organization one day would be a dream come true, Prpa says. However, he and Valenzuela are focused on making an impact at home, which includes helping local children and youth achieve their dreams.

Prpa continues coaching and mentoring amateur athletes. Valenzuela would like to open an indoor recreation facility where kids’ soccer clubs and other teams could play year-round during Fond du Lac’s snowy winters, instead of families having to drive to Milwaukee. “I just want to give back to the community, and back to the younger folks that are coming up,” he said.

Prpa and Valenzuela also remain big supporters of UW-Parkside. Whenever Prpa’s students ask about his university hoodies and soccer gear, he’s happy to share his experience playing for the school and studying there. He hopes to inspire the next generation of Rangers.

Valenzuela regularly speaks about his experience at the university, too, often with prospective students who contact him via LinkedIn or through Parkside connections. He advises those thinking about the online master’s in sport management to get all they can out of their time in the program, as he did.

“Go into it with an open mind,” he suggested. “I like using the reference of being a sponge and soaking in everything that you can.” Prpa agrees. “Even though the program’s focus is sports, you can use this in your everyday life,” he emphasized. “There are so many takeaways.”

Prpa says his enthusiasm for the degree also reflects the gratitude he feels for everything his graduate education has given him.

“It helped me gain opportunities that I never thought I’d have. It allowed me to get my foot in the door in places that I never thought I would be. It just helped me to learn and grow as a person,” he said. “I had an absolutely phenomenal experience.”

Learn more about the online Master of Science in Sport Management program at University of Wisconsin-Parkside.