The front office of sports teams are still made up of former athletes and members of long-standing family owners but increasingly MBAs are finding their way into the industry.
Leaders in the multibillion dollar industry once focused more on entertainment value are looking more for a good business head to go along with the knowledge and passion for the sport. As a result, sports management from undergraduate and master's-level courses to MBAs with a sports management concentration are continuing to gain ground in colleges and universities.
Coming off the bench
Keith Lambrecht, director of the sports management program at Loyola University's Watertower campus, says in 1980 there were 20 sports management programs across the country but none with a business focus. Most degrees focused in areas of leisure studies, education and kinesiology. Now there are about 300 of these type programs in the U.S. alone but only about 25 to 35 are available at a master's level and only a few schools focus on the business end of sports.
Loyola added its undergraduate program in sports management in 2005 and its MBA in the Graduate School of Business in 2006.
"I'm proud of Loyola because ours is part of the MBA program," Lambrecht says adding he wishes these programs existed when he was a student. "I feel very fortunate in a school of business to have this opportunity."
Eddie Shin, who expects to graduate Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management this month, says he has found that MBAs with a sports focus are "still a very low penetration and immature market," but he believes it isn't the degree that is so important but the skills that come from the experiences. Shin, along with a classmate, created and ran Kellogg's first sports business conference in February.
Scott Young, chairman of the Department of Management at DePaul University's Kellstadt Graduate School of Business, says its sports management program was inspired by a boostore visit he made a year ago. Young was in the business section and saw all kinds of books written by coaches, such as retired men's college basketball coaches John Wooden and Dean Smith and professional baseball manager Joe Torre. These are among the type of books Young enjoys reading.
"There were so many I thought 'I bet we can put a course together,'" he says.
Along with other faculty Young developed a course called Leadership in Sports assembling information from the likes of Torre, Smith and Chicago Bears' George Halas and put the course out there to await the response.
"It filled up," Young says. "We knew we were on to something here. There was a tremendous interest in sports management."
So this fall Kellstadt will add an Introduction to Sports Management course."A lot of students thus far are taking courses because they are sports fans and enjoy watching the industry through the business," Young says.
Not all fun and games
Instead of a course on traditional leadership, Young says, students are finding fun in the sports aspect saying 'I like sports, I can relate to this.'
While student may choose sports-related courses because it is an enjoyable topic, they are still working on major degrees including a master's or MBA.
At Loyola, MBA students include sports management as a concentration and take three courses focused on sports choosing from sports management, marketing sports and sponsorship, sports law, global or internationals sports classes and current trends and issues in the sports industry.
Seeing the future need for MBAs in sports, Lambrecht came up with the tagline: "Learn the business behind the game."
While Lambrecht says they may still be working for respect in academics since some have the mindset that sports is all about games, MBA students take the same core courses as other MBA students including accounting, finance and marketing.
Students not only need to know sports and business but also have good communication and writing skills, Lambrecht says.
Young says they are finding most students tend to pick two concentrations such as sports management and finance or sports management and accounting.
Being picked for the team
Opposite of many professions, Lambrecht says it is tough to break into the sports industry with an MBA and no sports job experience because it is not the typical road at this point. It is easier to break in at the bachelor degree level.
Lambrecht says one reason is sports teams and franchises are often owned by families and most of the jobs go to those with family connections.
"It has been tough to break into, but we are seeing less and less of that," Lambrecht says.
The same was seen with ex-athletes being hired. While they know the sport and are a fan draw, that doesn't make them good employees in the office.
"Just because you can dribble a basketball or hit a baseball doesn't mean you are good at business," Lambrecht says.
Despite that the industry is responding and happy to see sports enthusiasts who have knowledge of the business side.
Many organizations are saying they need specialized people to help them grow in areas of sales and marketing, promotions and sponsorships.
In the sports world, which is still made up of old school politics and red tape, Shin says it may be difficult to break through or get others to appreciate the value of an MBA. He says in the sports industry there seems to be a stigma that hasn't lifted yet that goes with an MBA.
"But there is a lot of money in the industry," Shin says adding eventually more people in the business will recognize the value of having someone with the right qualifications within the business.
While Shin says he realizes students with a sports focused MBA tend to wait longer to be recruited and may make less money initially, he hopes the industry doesn't make it easy for people to break into. He says there are so many people with a sports interest that if the bar is lowered the industry will suffer.
"I hope there continues to be a system in place that weeds those people out," he says.
While the dream may be to work for a major professional sports club, Lambrecht says there are many other jobs available including minor league teams, sports agents, marketing firms, and corporations with a sporting division including places like Disney.
Because Chicago is such a major sports town with 44 sporting teams, the National Sporting Goods Association, Wilson Sporting Goods and more, the "opportunities here in Chicago are endless," Lambrecht says.
Employers, he says, are happy to see students more prepared to deal with the day-to-day management, understanding the business side and not being star-struck.
"They're doing it because they love it not doing it to get near the athletes,' Lambrecht says.
Lambrecht says they are seeing graduates get entry-level jobs in areas such as intercollegiate athletics but also places like PepsiCo's sports marketing division.
"We're only scratching the surface with this degree," Lambrecht says.
Young says as DePaul builds courses they are taking a more global view including managing fitness or recreation centers, managing high school and collegiate sports programs or working for a sports-division in a major corporation.
"We're looking at the big picture," he says.
Passionate about sports, Shin says he understands the difference between cheering with your heart and making business decisions with your head.
He isn't finding any attitudes of difference in his MBA aspirations because they are sports related.
"People admire or respect the passion I have on a personal level and trying to make that my career," Shin says. "It's almost more admirable to people because you are charting new territory.
A playbook for success
Young says he doesn't expect recruiters will see any negativity or lack of seriousness from a student with a sports background.
"Sports comes up in business all the time," Young says.
He hopes they will see more students with national success and points to Brooks Boyer, vice president and chief marketing officer for the Chicago White Sox, as one of their most famous graduates. Boyer worked his way up, Young says. Before the White Sox, Boyer worked for the Chicago Bulls for 10 years including working with sponsorship and advertising sales. Young says Boyer continues to be helpful to other DePaul students.
Young says starting salaries even with an MBA are low because everyone wants to get into sports-related careers. He says most interns with the Chicago White Sox, as with many in the industry, start with sales positions.
But, if you pay your dues and are diligent - even if you start out getting someone's coffee it should pay off, Young says.
"Those who work hard succeed," he says. ■Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times