Sports Stars Seek Business Education To Change Track

Professional sportspeople are studying MBA programs to change careers, but there are many similarities between playing fields and boardrooms.

The lighting swing of the racket as it thumps the shuttlecock is captured in images of British badminton player Arak Bhokanandh competing in destinations from Malaysia to the US.

A highest English singles ranking of sixth is a high point, but there have been plenty of travails along the way.

“I got this big break when I finished university and joined Accenture, but balancing badminton wasn’t very easy,” said Arak. “The work-load in consulting is pretty tough.”

It’s also tough to transition from junior into senior badminton. Arak was struggling to break into Britain’s top-20 and quit the game for a time. But after a sabbatical as a business analyst in Canada, he returned to the UK for something of a plan B: an MBA program.

“I wanted to go back to basics, to refine my skills but also pick up new ones,” Arak said.

His sporting success, coupled with an undergraduate degree in computer science, made for an attractive package for Elastic Path, the computer software firm he joined in Vancouver in 2010.

But Arak could not balance the workload with full-time training – in times past he was on the court five times a week. 

“The tech firm I worked for valued a good work-life balance,” he said. “But I had to make an honest assessment: how much farther could I go on in my playing career? I was about to hit my 30's.”

Professional athletes are always controlled by the tick of the clock – it is not a career for life. So about three years ago he enrolled on the University of Bath School of Management's MBA program.

“The MBA itself was a tool and an aspiration to get me onto that next career path,” Arak said. “Because I came from a technical background, all the business skills I had learnt at that point were not through formal education,” he added.

That year in business school helped him transition from professional sport into working life. He had previously worked for Accenture, but the MBA helped him secure a senior consulting role at Deloitte, another leading management consulting firm.

“The MBA definitely helped me prepare for what was a different role,” he said. “Most of my roles [at Accenture] were strategy projects, working with C-level stakeholders. It was different.”

Many sportspeople are also attracted to specialist MBA or master programs. They are driven by a passion, according to Paul Swangard from the sports business MBA track at the Lundquist College of Business.

“They all tend to have a connection to sport through participation or fandom,” he said. “Our average student is in their mid to late 20s, motivated by their love of sport.”

Last year Arak found new opportunity at New Look, the British fashion retailer, where he has spent the past ten months managing the company’s digital strategy, and innovation.

He has not hung up his racket completely – he still plays on a non-professional basis. But the MBA has given him the skills to score points in business. Arak’s ultimate ambition is to run a company.

“It has given me the tools to see how a business should or could be run,” he said. “What Bath did was allow me to grow as a person. It gives you the framework to think and build upon.”

Arak joins a long list of sports stars who have found their way into management, and onto MBA programs.

In Europe, Welsh cricketer Gareth Rees is on the EMBA at Bath, while Canadian Olympic skier Emily Brydon completed an MBA at Imperial College Business School and Storm Uru, a bronze medallist rower in London's 2012 Olympic Games, began an MBA at Oxford last year.

In the US, professional sports stars such as Brendon Ayanbadejo have been drawn to the Star EMBA program at the George Washington University School of Business.

The course is aimed at people with strong personal brands –artists, music stars and athletes – such as Brendon, a former linebacker and Super Bowl champion with the Baltimore Ravens. The two-year MBA teaches them how to turn their career success into business achievement.

Harvard Business School is following that lead – it is developing a new set of executive education programs on sports management with Sir Alex Ferguson, the former manager of English football club Manchester United.

Many of these athletes can find work in the business of sport. Successful sporting events such as this year’s World Cup in Brazil and the London Olympics have made sports management a more attractive career, agrees Sean Hamil, a Lecturer in Management at Birkbeck College who teaches sports-specialist Master's programs.

He added that many people are already working in the sector, but some see sports MBA programs as a transfer window. “We get a lot of people coming onto our Masters’ who want to get into sports, and use it as a transfer mechanism,” Sean said.

Geoff Pearson, director of studies of the Football Industries MBA offered by Liverpool University, said that there are distinct differences between general and sports management, including different legal and regulatory regimes, and a loyal consumer group.

“Where on-field performance is tied to commercial success, medium-term financial planning is much more difficult,” he added.

There are also huge career opportunities in sports supply industries such as fashion and representation agencies, said Professor Chris Brady from the MBA: Sports Business program at Salford Business School. 

“The course narrows from the generic to the specific,” Chris added, but pointed out that graduates are not guaranteed careers in those sectors.

Arak may have planned for a post-playing career but many athletes cannot leave their sports completely. “I do miss it… And I do coaching in my spare time,” he said.

He still plays for the Avon first-team. “It is still a big part of my life.” 



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