SBJ/Dec. 16-22, 2013/Opinion

The growing, changing nature of sports management instruction

One of us was in Surfers Paradise, Australia, recently and met with a professor of surfing from a very reputable university. His academic purview was not built around teaching college students how to surf but rather how to manage the business nuances of the surfing industry and delivering it to the next sustainable level.

Naturally, we both zoomed back in time in our minds — to the age of 18 or 19 — and imagined how cool it would be to tell friends and parents that we were majoring in surfing and actually getting a degree for it.

But it also made us wonder about the number of sports marketing/management programs around the world and whether they are all selling similar variations on the same myth. That is: offering young, fanatical (about sports) and idealistic folks (many who lack focus and a true understanding of how competitive the sports industry is) the chance to imagine they could work amid the flash and glamor of the “big show.”

We would start by warning them that an entry-level job in sports may offer only a $25,000 salary, that hundreds will apply for entry-level jobs and that without a connection to the hiring party, they will probably lose out. It’s a competitive ocean out there and a sports management or sports marketing degree is no guarantee of career success, especially if the individual’s skill set is drawn from a vague set of courses providing little specificity.

In fact, one of us recently spoke to a friend who applied for the executive director of a state-level sports organization and he came in second … out of 250 head-hunted candidates. But, the reason why people “chase the dream” and start at $25,000 is because they hear of people hitting six-figure salaries quickly, and thus believe they can achieve the same outcome.
Can college sports management programs offer that to all of their enrolled students. Optimistic answer? Maybe. Simple answer? No.

But we do believe that well-constructed sports management programs and top-line employee training programs will continue to allow young, well-educated, highly motivated former students to get in the game. Indeed, one of our former students was just named the lead on a major international world championship event that drives multimillion-person TV audiences and eight-figure profit margins. All that in less than 10 years out of university.

How did he do it? He was diligent — ever since his first year — and focused. He followed his passion, built his network through legitimate relationships, paid his dues, sought out unique experiences and did this all while honing specialized skills and knowledge. It was a no-brainer hiring him for the job.

So, what are we really saying?

The sport business is complex like other industries. The cream rises to the top. Long-term planning and career development actually matter. Many want in but few make the cut. Many are ultimately seduced by more money in less glamorous jobs. Many go back to the traditional trades. And, others, bless their hearts, only want to work 35 hours a week instead of 70.

But what’s next? Majoring in the NFL? Professional sports ticketing as a minor? Sport marketing with a specialization in NBA sponsors?

Yes, yes and yes. That specificity is coming.

But on top of that, there’s a big game-changer approaching. It’s one where top professors or industry professionals are provided incentives to teach classes online. This emerging process is called MOOCs (massive open online courses), and it’s a slow-bubbling rage in the higher education business. We know a lot about them because one of us recently filmed seven video segments to be shown once per week for seven weeks. The course launched Oct. 14 and is available to anyone anywhere to view any time. For now, this course is free but futurists suggest students will soon pay for great classes because they don’t want teaching assistants who have never been in the real world teaching a class at 8 a.m. on Mondays.

This new generation of students, raised in part on video games and fantasy sports leagues, will program their own pleasure and take world-class professors at 2 in the morning. Digital technology allows that, and as great professors are identified, they’ll be encouraged to record their lectures and allow university systems to sell their content in perpetuity much the way iTunes sells historic “classical” music made by the Stones or Rush.

One challenge to this model is that students will lose the ability to personally interact with their professor and discuss random topics before or after class. In the digital university, the student might never get out of bed and, at best, periodically Skype with the professor or join chat room discussions that make students feel like they’re in private viewing rooms with their professor but unable to interrupt to ask an immediate question.

We won’t debate the evolution of pedagogy here, but suffice to say, MOOCs will become increasingly popular because they’ll provide a greater sense of control for the student. The capitalism of efficient, well-designed courses taught by interesting, entertaining professors will eclipse (in some settings) the requirement of taking a “bad” class from a weak professor. That universities have always enjoyed a monopoly with their enrolled students will, logically, come under attack. And trust us, the inefficient, overpriced product or service will struggle to survive.

But we also predict sport management (as a field of study) will continue growing because these days the “circus” never leaves town and the content is still dynamic.

Rick Burton (rhburton@syr.edu) is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and his MOOC can be found at www.coursesites.com. Norm O’Reilly (norman.oreilly@ottawa.com.ca) is a professor of sport business at the University of Ottawa.

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