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The Sports Management Graduate Education Advantage

23 May, 2014

By: Dr. Bonnie Tiell,Kelley Walton, JD, SPHR

Earning an advanced degree after a four-year baccalaureate program is commonly viewed as a sure-fire investment into future career opportunities and potential earnings. Pursuing an advanced degree in the field of sports management is no exception. Typically, the outcomes from extending an education to the graduate level is considered worth overcoming financial constraints, work-life challenges and the pseudo-burnout factor from years of stress associated with a rigor of studying and meeting assignment deadlines.

Michael Eisner once said, “Graduate school is a place to hide for a couple of years.” It is fitting that the man best known as the former CEO of the Walt Disney Corporation perpetuates the illusion that extending an education beyond the traditional four years of an undergraduate degree buys time before someone has to grow up and start living in the real world. Indeed, continuing an education may prolong the fantasy life of a proverbial college student who has few responsibilities beyond test dates and bar dates. Statistically, however, the demographics of students enrolled in sports management graduate classes is widely skewed among those who pursued an advanced degree immediately after receiving an undergraduate diploma and those who took significant time away from college before re-entering the academic arena.

The market for entry level positions in many sports organizations is oversaturated because of the abundance of candidates qualified for a relatively small pool of jobs which includes undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of majors applying for the same entry-level position. This oversaturation of the sports market is a result of many factors. The first of several reasons why the sports industry is an oversaturated market is because of the sheer growth in the number of institutions who offer sports management as a degree.

According to the North American Society of Sports Management (NASSM) which has an extraordinary role in academic curriculum, scholarly research, and professional development, 456 institutions currently offer an undergraduate program in sports management. That number is almost half the number of colleges in America (1,040 total) that are sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to compete in varsity sports. In addition, Sports Management degrees are now offered by two-year institutions such as Finger Lakes Community College, gender-segregated institutions such Texas Woman’s University and relatively new niche institutions such as Pro Edge Sports Academy.

Five years ago, there were just over 200 universities offering sports management as an undergraduate degree program. Three decades ago, there were only around 20 institutions that listed sports management as a major. There has been a fairly significant increase in the number of new jobs created in the sports industry over the past few decades as a result of expansion teams in the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLH, MLS (etc.), more collegiate football bowl games, more sanctioned tournaments in golf and tennis, global expansion of tournaments and league offices, new recreation facilities and health clubs being built, and new sports added in college athletic departments.

However, the increase in the number of new jobs created in the industry isn’t even close to the rise in the number of students with sports management degrees graduating each year. The bottom line is that the number of universities offering a sports management undergraduate major has skyrocketed while the job pool in the sports world has expanded only minimally.

A second reason why there is an oversaturation in the sports market is because many entry-level positions in organizations are available to applicants regardless of their major. It has been suggested that an undergraduate degree in sports management rather than a broad-based business degree does a disservice to students who are led to believe that their particular major will give them an advantage when entering the promised land of satisfying jobs in a sports organization.

Employers hiring for entry-level jobs in a wide spectrum of industries (sports included) seek individuals who demonstrate basic competencies in effective communication and responsibility, with little regard to an individual’s actual major. A ticket-taker at a major league ball field or a front desk greeter at a health club doesn’t’ necessarily need to be filled with someone who has a degree in sports management.

An interesting perspective regarding the reputation of sports management institutions is to market the academic program on the premise of the alumni who are employed in the sports industry. The most attractive institutions are those with a significant alumni base working in the sports industry combined with terminally degreed faculty with real-world sports experience and professional credentials, a robust curriculum, strong relationships with sports organizations offering experiential learning opportunities and a business or sports focused accreditation.

The perspective focusing on alumni employed in some facet of sports allows faculty and advisors to sell the industry as a viable market for a number of majors beyond sports management. The sports industry is filled with entry-level workers as well as executives, supervisors, directors, and head coaches who didn’t major in sports management. A number of positions in the industry may be better suited to students who majored in marketing, accounting, finance, public relations, national security, or retail management.

Adding pressure on the typical job seeker who just earned his or her baccalaureate diploma in sports management is a sea of graduate students with master diplomas in a sports field who are seeking the same entry level positions. A recent applicant to Tiffin University’s (Ohio) Sports Management MBA hopes to make the switch to athletics administration from a career as a financial analyst for a healthcare information management solutions corporation.

The candidate with a business degree and experience as a financial analyst and a short sales banking specialist, recognizes the demand for college athletic directors who can raise funds and manage large budgets and large staffs. This is the type of individual who will be in competition with seniors applying for their first job in an intercollegiate athletic administration support staff role such as a marketing coordinator, sports information assistant, compliance assistant, student-athlete services specialist, or a business manager.

Individuals who are focused on landing a satisfying first job in the sports industry and making sports their life career are seeing high value in earning a graduate diploma to get a leg up on the competition. The extra year or two invested into advanced studies serves to delay student-loan pay-backs and buys extra time to perform formidable job prospecting knowing the tendency for employers to consider the maturity level of their applicants in addition to their resume experience and qualifications. Appreciating the fact that sports is an oversaturated market is a significant reason students take the plunge and enter graduate school.

NASSM lists 205 intuitions currently offering an advanced degree in sports management which is only 44% of the universities offering undergraduate degrees. Ted Dalton, senior vice president of the Boston Celtics, might have had a different view than Eisner when pursuing his Master’s degree in sports management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Similarly, Rosie Stallman, former director for education outreach at the National Collegiate Athletic Association, had a firm vision for her career path when pursuing a Master’s of athletic administration at St. Cloud University. These individuals and many others see a master’s degree not as a means to spend another year or two in a perpetuated state of campus fun, but as a necessary tool for attaining their career goal.

A master’s degree in sports management is a highly sought after degree for positions in the $400+ billion dollar industry in the U.S. and the even larger pool of sports jobs around the world. The best undergraduate sports management programs have an experiential (e.g. internship) requirement in addition to a curriculum mixed with foundational courses (accounting, marketing, human resource management and information system) and applied classes (sport governance, sport leadership, sport law and sports economics). A graduate program typically has a completely applied focus for a shorter period of time that provides a distinct advantage to anyone pursuing a job in the competitive sports industry.

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