How to Pick a Sport Management Program

Getting into the sport management business allows mere mortals to share the glory and the rewards. Here's how to choose an undergrad program

The sports industry in the U.S. is a $200-billion-plus powerhouse, with superstar athletes, lucrative endorsement deals, and all the free press an ego can handle. But if you're not the rare athlete who can hit a 93-mph fastball or sink a 15-foot jumper, how are you supposed to cash in on such a lucrative business?

There are jobs in the sports business that don't require sweating—marketing, philanthropy, graphic design, and sales are just a few. But there's increasing competition for these positions, with lawyers, communications majors, and business graduates all vying for the chance to share in some of the sports glamour. Which explains the popularity of the numerous undergraduate sport management at schools across the country.

Like any other field of study, there are variations in each school's program. Here's how to prepare yourself and what to look for when choosing an undergraduate sport management program.

The Right Frame of Mind

If you believe sport management is a day-long discussion about Team USA's chances at the Olympics or FIFA (the international governing body of association football) President Joseph S. ("Sepp") Blatter's recent remarks that world soccer contracts are akin to "modern slavery," you are dangerously mistaken.

Lee Igel, assistant professor at New York University's Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism & Sports Management, said a sport management career is much more than a continual chat about the previous night's game. "This is not SportsCenter; this is much more Outside the Lines," Igel said, referring to two popular TV shows. "It's very much about a series of conversations about management first and how it applies to the business of sports and how it fits into society."

Another misconception is the idea that a bachelor's or even a master's degree in sport management will quickly land you the position of general manager with the Boston Red Sox. "One does not become a GM of a major league team simply by going to school and learning stuff in a classroom," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. "The nature of our industry requires not only book smarts, but street smarts."

In other words, don't bank on running your own franchise right out of college or even in your lifetime. Stick to your fantasy league instead.

Location, Location

Certain regions of the country (Boston, Los Angeles, and New York, to name a few) have proximity to the sports industry that can aid students in landing that great internship or job. Schools with Division I squads are ideal for sport management majors. There are plenty of opportunities to intern with various teams and organizations to gain much needed experience.

Laura Burton, assistant professor of sport management at the University of Connecticut, doesn't deny the school's location gives students there a great advantage. ESPN, arguably the most recognized sports media brand in the U.S., is located in Bristol, approximately one hour from campus.

The University of Indiana is another school with good access to opportunities in sports. Susan Simmons, coordinator of career placement at the Department of Kinesiology, says: "We have the advantage of being close to Indianapolis. There are the Pacers, Colts, U.S.A. swimming, and gymnastics."

Program Building Blocks

Which school or department the sport management program is housed in is vital, since it affects what type of basic education you'll be receiving. The typical program is either housed in a school's kinesiology department or in the business school, such as University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, part of the Lundquist College of Business.

Programs in kinesiology departments focus on the physical aspects of sports. Exercise science, athletic training, and physical education are typical majors. Most of these programs won't require students to sign up for marketing or accounting classes, but doing so is highly recommended.

To fully comprehend the business of sports, general business courses are a necessity.

"It's important to understand what the program is designed to do and how much flexibility the degree offers," Oregon's Swangard said. "A caution I throw out for undergraduates is that they spend four years with a degree with the word 'sports' in it and 10 years later they don't want to do sports anymore— that degree won't be as flexible."

Internships and Networking

Because of the high competition for many sport management jobs, the ability of a program to provide networking and internship experience is crucial. "Five years ago, many thought if they got a degree in sport management that was their ticket to work in professional sports, in the four major sports leagues (football, baseball, basketball, hockey)," said Michael Mondello, associate professor of sport management at Florida State University. "But now they realize that those jobs are few and far between, and the turnover is small."

"Networking, networking, networking," stressed Heather Blackburn, program manager for the undergraduate degree in sport management at Drexel University. It really is important to be able to position yourself for a job after you graduate. Most schools, such as Drexel, will bring in guest speakers working in the field. This provides a lot of practical insight for students curious about the industry.

Comparing Cost and Size

As with any undergraduate major, the cost of sport management programs will vary between schools. What's the payback? Starting salaries are as varied as the opportunities. Working for a professional team vs. a college-level job can make a big difference, Drexel's Blackburn said. "It could be $25,000 or $40,000."

Most sport management programs are small and competitive. For instance, the University of Connecticut's program enrolls only 10 to 15 students a year. To see where some sport management undergrads are working, see our slide show.

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