The Play by Play of Sports Management MBAs

How specialized MBA programs are a good route into this multifaceted and evergreen industry

Danielle Byrd admittedly never did sports in college.

“I’m a huge klutz,” says Byrd, who is in her first year at the dual MBA/MS in Sport Management at the University of Massachusetts’ Isenberg School of Management. “But I’m a big fan. I went to 112 games a year at Pepperdine.”

Byrd, who majored in integrated marketing communication and minored in Italian for her undergraduate degree, thought she wanted to go into wine marketing after college. But when a position opened up at Pepperdine’s athletic department, she quit her job in construction and went to work as a marketing and events manager.

Her boss, who also graduated from UMass’ sports management program, was instrumental in encouraging Byrd to apply to graduate school.

Byrd wants to transition into the lucrative field of sports sponsorships. “I was doing more of a marketing event role, and I wanted to get more into sponsorships—which is where the MBA comes in.”

Like many others, Byrd is tapping into an evergreen industry that has withstood the global economic downturn better than most. The North American sports market is projected to grow from $56.9 billion in 2013 to $70.7 billion in 2018, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report. The global sports market is estimated to pull in around $1.5 trillion each year, according to Plunkett Research.

In turn, management programs specifically focused on sports have also proliferated. Last year, for instance, the University of Miami announced an Executive MBA program designed specifically for current and former NFL players. Likewise, the Netherlands’ Maastricht School of Management recently announced its launch of an Executive MBA program focused on the sports industry, beginning in January 2016.

Some schools are also eyeing the options of an online management degree; UMass launched this year a partially-online MBA with a focus in sport management, aimed at those who may not want to take two full years away from their jobs for continuing education. The degree joins UMass’ additional roster of MS and PhD programs in sport management.

“There are a lot more programs offering an MBA now certainly than there were five, ten years ago,” says Steve McKelvey, director of UMass’ MS in Sport Management.

“It’s a reflection of sport increasingly becoming a business, and of people looking at sports industry with more of a business lens than had been the case before.”

But not all have been successful; French management school Audencia Nantes announced the launch of a Professional MBA program in International Sports Management, slated to launch this September, but has since cancelled it. Arizona State University’s Sports MBA program from its W. P. Carey School of Business is also now defunct. Loughborough University’s International Sports Management MBA, in the U.K., has also been suspended since 2014.

Many schools “try to have a sports management program because it’s a sexy topic,” says Claude Stricker, executive director of the Académie Internationale des Sciences et Techniques du Sport (AISTS) in Lausanne, Switzerland. “But it’s difficult for them to be successful. You have to be recognized.”

Different goals

Curriculums vary with different focuses. SDSU’s is modeled on a more traditional business school program, but wholly focused on sports; its courses include business analytics, advanced marketing techniques, market research, and a a heavy roster of finance classes, among others. Classes are mostly taught by academics.

“I want our students to be able to compete with those who went to [New York University] and [University of Southern California]’s MBA programs when they hit the job market,” says Scott Minto, the program’s director.

See all Sports MBA Programs

However, at AISTS’ Master of Sports Administration program, many classes comprise lectures and presentations given by directors and secretary generals of international sport leagues, as well as industry experts. Roughly half of its classes are delivered by academics, according to Claude Stricker, the institute’s executive director.

Some MBA programs in sports management prepare grads for jobs in specific parts of the industry. The University of Oregon, for instance, this year announced the launch of an MBA in Sports Product Management. Across the pond, the University of Liverpool has a Football Industries MBA and is planning on launching an MBA in the Horseracing Industry.

While programs in Europe and the US still manage to attract international students, most programs cater to those in their home markets, as it can be difficult for overseas students to obtain job placement due to visa issues.

Most of AISTS’ graduates go on to work for sports or international federations, Stricker notes, or stick around Lausanne to work for the many international organizations—the International Olympic Committee, for one—that are based in the area.

The big leagues

Ultimately, the sports industry can be as clubby as any other. Each program touts its extensive alumni network that has paved the way for post-graduate careers. For US programs, graduates are usually dispersed across myriad sectors of the industry, including analytics, leagues, sponsorship, events, startups, marketing and licensing. Some also go on to work in apparel, e-commerce and media groups.

McKelvey says that the networks really matter, especially for those enrolled in the program for a career change.

“In the job market, there’s definitely a bias toward people who have worked with some street cred, so to speak,” he says. “It’s a little bit of ‘have you paid your dues.’ Even if you have a top-notch MBA, you’ll apply for a long time before you’re going to get hired if you don’t have that sports connection on your resume.”

For Danielle Byrd, the UMass degree will provide an added fluency for future job prospects. She hopes to eventually work in sponsorships for the Olympics; she’s currently interning for the US Olympic Committee.

“If I didn’t understand business, and what these potential buyers want, I would never be able to speak the language these people are speaking,” she says.

“It’s sports—yes, you’re selling something of value, but you’re also selling passion. If you can speak to both aspects of it, then that really helps.”

Image Credits:

"Wembley Stadium" by Ed Webster / Flickr

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