Rise Of Sports MBA Programs Kicks Students Into Management Careers

The business of sport is vastly different from the mainstream corporate world. But sports and football-focused MBA programs can help you break into the first-team.

For Sean Hamil, the business of sport management is booming. But demand for his set of sports-specialist Master’s programs has not been driven by the Football World Cup in Brazil. “It’s a big tournament but it’s not made any difference,” he asserts.

Still, demand has been high and the crop of sports management MScs are selective. The courses at the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre, part of the University of London, have about 80 students enrolled each year.

“Football is the biggest one,” says Sean, a director at the centre. “We have alumni working at FIFA, the FA (Football Association) and competition organizers. The sports sector is bigger than people realize.”

Sport has become such big business that it needs its own set of specialist management programs. Sport and particularly football (soccer) management is vastly different to the mainstream corporate world. People need a specific set of skills and knowledge to make it into the industry’s first team, agrees Geoff Pearson, director of studies at the Football Industries MBA offered by Liverpool University.

“For team sports there are two other major differences – first where on-field performance is tied to commercial success, medium-term financial planning is much more difficult,” says Geoff.

“However, this is balanced out by another difference: team sports in particular benefit from a loyal consumer base – there will be a core of consumers that would simply never switch to a rival, however poor the product is.”

The marketing aspect is tied to an emotional investment, agrees Sean. “Nearly every club in the premier league is loss making. The real expertise has been among the broadcasters and apparel manufactures,” he says.

The uniqueness of sports management means there is a demand for managers with a sound set of business principles. “Sport is not completely different, but it has distinctive characteristics. Those that want to work in the sector as part of their broader skills mix can benefit from an education in this area,” says Sean.

“You don't have to have a background in sport... we get a lot of people coming onto our Masters’ who want to get into sports and use it as a transfer mechanism. But a lot of them are already working in the sector,” he adds.

Most of Liverpool’s 30 students have not worked in sport before and are looking for a career change, says Geoff. “Our students come from all over the world and typically have between three and 10 years’ experience working in business – be it sales, marketing, law or accountancy.”

Some 64% of them land MBA jobs in the sports business sector within three months of graduation, and since the program’s launch in 1997 56% of all graduates are working specifically in football.

The knowledge that specific MBA and Master’s programs provide will help make the transition, but the networking opportunities are vital too, says Paul Swangard from the sports business MBA track at the Lundquist College of Business, based in the United States. “At the end of the day it is still a who you know business. Networking is critical.”

The college has 40 students enrolled each year, and most of them go into sports marketing, sponsoring brands and agencies, and the sports product sector.

But there are also huge career opportunities in sports supply industries such as fashion and representation agencies, says Professor Chris Brady from the MBA: Sports Business program at the UK’s Salford Business School.

Yet it is not easy to secure a sports management career. “The course narrows from the generic to the specific but keeps in mind that, initially, students may not be able to get a job in the sector, and so need a solid MBA experience to take to any [other] sector,” adds Prof Chris.

To combat this, building connections with industry is essential. Liverpool’s program, for example, is an official learning partner of the Football Association and runs a management module with UEFA (football’s European governing body), says Geoff, and the school placed five interns with Celtic FC this year.

While the elite business schools have been slow to warm to the idea of football-focused MBA programs, big sporting events are ramping up the popularity of sports management. There has been a long history of financial failure at big sporting events, says Sean from Birkbeck – but now the UK is basking in the “reflective glory” of the 2012 London Olympics.  

Yet this year’s World Cup became the most steamed live sporting event in the US, as American’s tuned in to the tournament on their smartphones, tablets and laptops in record numbers. The 50% surge in live streaming compared with the previous record, set during the last Olympics, shows the sport’s appeal has grown significantly among younger fans.

It is unsurprising, then, that Harvard Business School is developing a new set of executive education programs on sports management, and has signed up Sir Alex Ferguson, the former high-profile manager of English football club Manchester United, to teach them.

Football MBA programs have scored more points in Europe, but there are signs that America is placing a greater focus on soccer. Nearly one-third of Americans consider themselves football fans, a survey by ABC News found. And in absolute terms, television audiences have been larger than in the UK throughout the World Cup in Brazil.

“Participatory sports are big right now,” says Paul from US-based Lundquist College. “Not just working for the events themselves, but the ecosystem of sponsors, products and services that surround them.”

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