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Sports Management Degrees: What’s Really Important?

24 May, 2018

By: Patrick Tutka, Ph.D.
Even at the Master’s Level, Curriculum Should Include a Combination of Core Coursework and Real-World Experience

Although not every sports fan can go on to have a great sports management career, it does not mean they are doomed to sit on the sidelines forever. Initially, a baccalaureate degree in sports management can offer young professionals a pathway to a career that marries both business and athletics within a competitive, independent and rewarding environment. An advanced degree can take that same professional even further.

Although sports management education has only peaked over the last few decades, it remains one of the fastest-growing programs in colleges and universities spanning from undergraduate degrees to MBAs in more than 400 higher education institutions.

With the advent of digital media, the sports industry has seen remarkable growth in recent years; it has an estimated total revenue between $440 and $470 billion each year in the United States. (For comparison, the closest rival is the restaurant industry at $400 billion.) Graduates with a sports management degree, therefore, can expect salaries commensurate to the industry’s multi-billion-dollar profit. Though the sports management industry, like any other, has its entry-level salaried positions, upper-level positions can earn more than $100,000 a year and professional level sports managers can make upwards of $200,000 a year.

As with any industry, the trajectory of one’s career can mostly be measured by the amount of experience and education one has. However, for an industry as highly competitive as sports management, meeting the baseline is not enough to win highly sought-after positions. As a result, some universities are offering graduate-level degrees and experiences.

Having a more advanced degree, such as a master’s, is a decided advantage. After all, while the number of opportunities to work in the sports industry has skyrocketed, so has the competition. Therefore, a higher degree can help a candidate stand out. Course work at the master’s level indicates additional dedication to, and knowledge of, the issues in the field. The right degree can also prepare a candidate for management and administrative roles within the sports management and sports business fields.

Niagara, for example, offers a Master of Science in Sports Management, which focuses on the theoretical aspects of sports management and provides students a flexible, holistic approach to their graduate program. Being home to an NCAA Division I athletic program provides valuable on-campus opportunities for students in college athletics administration. Although most of the work with on-campus teams is volunteer-based, the several hundred hours students gain in experience are priceless.

As a case study, let’s look at what a program should offer – and what a prospective student should expect. In the interest of full disclosure, I teach at Niagara University, which offers the following advantages, but after spending time in this evolving educational field, it’s easy to see what is necessary – and what prospective students should be seeking when they investigate educational programs.

A Hands-On, Experienced-Based Education: Any sports management program should provide this, since it prepares students for real-world sports settings. Ideally, the program chosen should focus on providing students the preparation and experience necessary to succeed in management careers and leadership positions. Along with core courses that focus both on theoretical and practical skills and experiences, the curriculum should supply a broad business management education with specialized emphasis on the unique technological, managerial and leadership skills required of managers and executives in the industry. Integrated throughout the curriculum should be an emphasis on practical applications, globalization, leadership and technological advances in sport management.

An advanced degree can help a student refine these skills further and broaden his or her knowledge base. Since it is likely the person will have advanced into the workplace, it becomes imperative to find a program that is appropriate, given his or her workload, schedule and level of responsibility.

Seek out a flexible but focused program: Choose the program that can offer the most value and the best content. Key items to look for include small class sizes, a flexible format for content delivery and interaction with industry professionals and full-time faculty. There may be a choice between an internship or a thesis track, with students being able to select the format that best fits their abilities and accommodates their future interests in sport.

For those who want real-world experience, internships can be invaluable. We have seen that at Niagara, where students benefit from connections and Division I sports programming with 18 teams; this allows them to leverage the best opportunities and internships for its students – many of whom have gone on to work with some of Buffalo’s professional and semi-professional sports teams. In fact, we have seen graduates in positions located throughout North America and abroad in the United Kingdom, South America and Thailand. Past internship and work opportunities have included working behind the scenes at the Super Bowl and Major League Baseball spring training camps, the NFL Experience, various NCAA championship events, and professional and college sport organizations in Western New York and throughout the country.

Look for what makes a program unique: Universities are seeking to differentiate themselves from the competition. Niagara University became the first sport management program in the country to own and operate a wooden-bat summer collegiate team, which serves as an in-house internship opportunity for over 20 students to experience all aspects of running a low-level minor league sports team, something that is viewed by the industry as an important stepping stone to top-tier sports.

Ask What Students are Doing: This can be an incredibly telling experience. Almost every student in the sports management program at our university completes at least one internship and all the programs have a corresponding study abroad experience that exposes students to international aspects of the sport industry. Other educational supplements provided include two on-campus events per year dedicated to sport management, a career-based panel in the fall and an annual Sport, Recreation and Tourism Summit.

Any university should strive to prime its students to stand out to employers looking for the hardest working, most experienced, and most driven. To succeed in the sports management industry, prospective graduates must have the right mix of hard and soft skills along with a strong internship and work history expected of any other competitive field: interpersonal skills, speaking and writing skills, creativity, business knowledge, passion and entrepreneurism.

A career in sports is fast-paced and requires outgoing, driven individuals who can turn out excellent work amid long working hours. The faces one normally associates with the sports industry – the professional athletes and sports moderators – are but cogs in the same machine. There are many working parts needed to keep the industry, not just one game or event, in working order. There are many attainable positions behind the scenes of the sports industry that offer an experience just as rewarding and fulfilling as being on the main court, as an increasing number of individuals are learning all the time.

In conclusion, though, it’s not enough to have a couple of internships under one’s belt. No matter what the goal, it has become imperative that students and young professionals wanting to break into the industry have a history of practical sports management beyond a single experience. An advanced degree can assist, particularly one from a program that is well-matched to the individual’s needs. Ultimately, students wanting to work and succeed in the sports management field must be able to apply their education and know-how to real-world settings and prove their knowledge not only in the form of academics, but hard work experience, which is exactly what a good program should offer. SDM

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