Sport-management Graduates Are Covering Their BasesSport management is a broad term, Lisa Masteralexis said, but one way to narrow it down is to focus on the games people watch, not just play.
“Our students can go work anywhere in the industry, combining business and sports, but what they don’t do is recreation, health, fitness, those types of sports,” said Masteralexis, head of the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management at UMass Amherst.
“We focus on spectator sports — imagine anything someone goes to see, then all of the support industries around that,” she added. “Think of the teams, the leagues, facilities, media, college athletics, Olympic sports, even high-school sports … really, anything a fan might go see, then all the sports businesses that go along with that.”
Sport-management students at Springfield College are taught the ins and outs of the industry through four lenses, said Matthew Pantera, professor and chair of the school’s Sport Management & Recreation Department. “There are four major areas: administration and management; event management and planning; maintenance, upkeep, and design of facilities; and problem solving. Those are highly transferable to quite a few degrees.”
In other words, he said, these are typically students with an interest in sports, but especially in what goes on behind the scenes; they are the individuals the fans aren’t watching when they click on the TV or file into the bleachers.
“We have kids working for ESPN, the Red Sox, the Miami Dolphins, doing sports marketing for the Basketball Hall of Fame, these types of organizations,” said Mei-Lin Yeh-Lane, professor of Sport Management at American International College. “Some are kids who like to work in the college or university arena.”
With a sport-management degree, “they can work as a sports agent; they can do event management, organizing a basketball, golf, or tennis tournament; they can join a marketing team to promote services or products; those types of things.”
In fact, the list is much longer, and while dreams of becoming the next Theo Epstein or Scott Boras might fall short, the spectator-sport industry in the U.S. — and internationally — has proven to be diverse, fast-growing, and relatively hardy even during recessions.
At the same time, however, college programs that teach students the business and behind-the-scenes aspects of sports have proliferated as well.
“There has been a lot of growth in the field, an incredible number of programs that have been developed over the past 20 years, and to be frank, I don’t think there are enough jobs out there for the number of students coming out of these programs,” Masteralexis told BusinessWest. “I feel like we’re in a position of luxury, having 40 years of alumni going out and making their way in the field; it’s more challenging for newer programs.”
The reason, she said, is all about connections.
In those four decades the UMass program, part of the Isenberg School of Management, has been in existence, the school has cultivated an extensive alumni network, which is a great benefit to students seeking internships and eventual employment.
“As you can imagine, these positions are very competitive, and you have to connect with someone inside to get in; these teams and other organizations get thousands of unsolicited résumés,” said Masteralexis, meaning that it helps to tap into the influence of an alumnus or professor.
“We have alumni who really support our program by supporting internships, special projects, experiential learning … they really support our students in a mentoring capacity,” she explained. “We have an internship director and an internship database, hundreds of organizations where we place students, and some find internships on their own. In a nutshell, there are more internships than we have students to fill them.”
The same isn’t necessarily true for paying jobs upon graduation, which is why those internships are so crucial. In fact, many students are persuaded to take on multiple internships, both during the school year and over the summer, to set themselves apart from their competition and also broaden those networking opportunities that have become so valuable.
“With the growth in the industry, there are so many more internship opportunities, and I think the industry is recognizing the value of interns,” Masteralexis said. “However, one of the challenges is that many of these organizations do not pay students. It can be a difficult venture for a student who doesn’t come from means to live in New York City for the summer unpaid. How many of us could do that? So that’s very challenging.”
Pantera also recognizes the value of networking while in school, adding that Springfield College, which has operated its sport-management program for 30 years, has long cultivated invaluable relationships.
“We’re one of the few schools that visit every single one of these sites,” he told BusinessWest. “The fact that we go visit the Celtics and the Red Sox and the Indianapolis Colts with a professor helps us stay differentiated because not many schools are nurturing those contacts by visiting.”
Those efforts pay off when job openings arise, he added. “We just had a woman, in the middle of her master’s degree, get recruited by the Celtics in corporate luxury-box sales.”
In all, Springfield College is affiliated with approximately 900 organizations, large and small, throughout the U.S. and abroad, and around their junior year, students take on an internship, putting in 480 hours over a 12- to 15-week period. “Faculty members actually do visit them and see how they’re doing,” Pantera said. “It also gives us an opportunity to keep current with what’s going on, to stay on the cutting edge.”
As at UMass, the AIC program is part of the School of Business Administration, peppered with courses in sports marketing, finances and economics, communications, and the international aspects of the industry, in addition to those ubiquitous internships and experiential-learning opportunities
“As we know, sports are an important part of our lives,” Yeh-Lane said, noting that AIC’s program is relatively new compared to other disciplines, but growing, taking in about 25 freshmen per year.
“Sport management is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and it’s definitely more than professional sports teams. There’s event organizing, handling players’ contracts, budgeting and resource allocating. From a management perspective, there’s a really wide range of options, depending on what a student wants to do.”
Although it’s been around since 1982, Pantera said, the Springfield College program has remained small, recruiting about 40 sport-management students and another 20 recreation-management students per year, as opposed to, say, UMass, which boasts between 400 and 450 undergraduates and 30 to 35 graduate students at any given time. One reason is to maximize opportunities, both on campus and in the field, for each student.
“Sixty is not that big a number, and we’re looking for leaders,” he told BusinessWest. “They’re getting face-to-face work with our professors. We don’t have graduate students teaching courses; we’re the ones in the classroom, and on the front lines with the students, and that’s an advantage of a Springfield degree.”
The sport-management industry, in all its diversity and vibrancy, “is a lot of fun, and a lot of work,” he added. “And it’s fun for us to work with the students and see them set goals for themselves. And it’s neat when they say, ‘I just graduated, and I got hired.’”
Getting there isn’t easy, Masteralexis reiterated, but “if you make a commitment to this industry, you can move up. We have alumni at the highest level — presidents, CEOs, and general managers, Division I conference directors, heads of Olympic programs, and some of the heads of ESPN and other organizations have come through the program. It’s a challenging road, often with long hours and low pay at the beginning, but once you get on track, you can advance.”
The types of students attracted to sport management tend to be personable and team-oriented, as much of the industry is very collaborative. “They’re people who want to be part of a team. And it’s constantly exciting.
“Our students have a passion for the business side of sports,” Masteralexis added. “I had a former student tell me, ‘the alarm goes off in the morning, and I want to go to work because it’s so much fun.’ I think that plays a role in the attraction. It’s like working in music or entertainment — it’s not the same thing every single day. Every day, there’s a new plan or new product to sell. One day, you might have a hidden gem like Jeremy Lin or Tim Tebow, and another day, you may have some disaster to deal with, but every day is a unique opportunity and a unique challenge.”
One thing it’s not (unless you’re Epstein or Boras, anyway) is a chance to be in the spotlight — that’s reserved for the players on the field — or to relax and cheer, like the spectators in the stands. “We tell students, ‘when everyone else is having fun, you’re working, creating fun for them.’”
For those who succeed in this competitive, fast-moving field, that’s reward enough.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]