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Volume 22 No. 28
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‘Math up’ and other tips for the Class of 2020

Photo: getty images

You want to work in sports.

You’ve started down that path, pursuing a master’s degree in sports administration, or a concentration in sports as part of your MBA, or joined the sports business club at your B-school. Or perhaps you figured it out early enough to make it your undergraduate major. 

You’ve logged an internship or two — or maybe even five. You hope that will be enough to get you on your way.  

But it’s competitive. There are 245 U.S. universities offering master’s degrees in sports administration. There are 450 offering it as an undergraduate major. And there are many people hoping to enter the business with degrees that aren’t specific to sports.

With the class of 2020 entering its final year of school, we thought it would be a fitting time to solicit guidance for those preparing to enter an ever-competitive, evolving sports job market. We asked advice from six leading sports management educators: Jim Kahler of Ohio University; Steve McKelvey of the University of Massachusetts Amherst; Whitney Wagoner of the University of Oregon; Vince Gennaro of New York University; Rick Burton of Syracuse University and Bill Sutton, recently retired after spending most of the last 37 years as a sports marketing professor and program director, most recently at the University of South Florida. We also spoke with a sports industry recruiter, Diana Busino of Turnkey Search, and with Chad Estis, who got his master’s in sports administration from Ohio University 25 years ago and now is executive vice president of business operations for the Dallas Cowboys and executive vice president of Legends.

Rick Burton 
David B. Falk Endowed Professor of Sport Management, Syracuse University

Diana Busino

Managing Director, Turnkey Search

 

 

Chad Estis

Executive Vice President, Legends; Executive Vice President, Business Operations, Dallas Cowboys

 

Vince Gennaro 

Associate Dean and Clinical Associate Professor, Tisch Institute for Sports Management, Media, and Business, New York University

 

Jim Kahler

Executive Director, Center of Sports Administration, Ohio University

 

 

Steve McKelvey 

Professor, Associate Department Chair for External Relations and Graduate Program Director, Sport Management, UMass Amherst

 

Bill Sutton

Retired Sports Business Professor and Director, Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program, University of South Florida

 

Whitney Wagoner 

Director, Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, University of Oregon

 

 

From those interviews, we culled these pearls of wisdom. Though largely geared toward grad school students at sports management programs, many also apply to others hoping to enter the industry.

MANAGE YOUR NETWORK

Not surprisingly, all the program heads pointed to the importance of developing a network of people to help you along your path, sharing their experience and perhaps even opportunities.

But Busino also listed it as a critical shortcoming for many of the entry-level or near entry-level candidates she reviews.

Building a network from those you have access to while in school — alumni, faculty, adjunct professors, guest speakers, consulting project contacts and classmates — is a start. But it won’t help much if you don’t manage and cultivate and lean on that first network as you enter the job market.

Photo: getty images

McKelvey: “They really need to be thoughtful and mindful of building their network. My pet peeve is the people you never hear from year in and year out and then they need a job and you hear from them. Nope. You gotta maintain and cultivate your network all the time. I tell these students when they get out, somebody helped them get that first job. That person should not read about your new job on LinkedIn. And you’d be surprised how often it happens. I helped you get a job. Might have even gotten you the job. And then I read about it on LinkedIn? Don’t let that happen.”

Kahler: “The importance of the network is huge. We’re known for it and we preach it all the time. I’ve got a networking scorecard that I’ll run the kids through to get them thinking about it. Our kids are like everybody else. They’re a little shy to start. But once they see that our network is willing to let them do consulting projects with big brands, they get it. If I retire and someone asks, ‘How did you do what you did at Ohio University?’ I’ll say it’s all about alumni involvement and people who care. Tap into that as a student now, and then one day you’ll be the one who cares enough to help out.”

Busino: “The biggest thing I notice is that a lot of young people coming into the industry are not well networked. It’s a time and effort thing. It’s a job to get out and get your name out there. Be curious when you speak with other executives. How did they get in? How did they come up? In a graduate program, the alumni base is incredible. So they should use that early and often. To learn in the classroom and learn from people are two very different things.”

Estis: “It’s so much about the relationship piece. Finding a mentor. Finding someone who has been out long enough that they have a job that you’d desire. Five years from now, I could find myself in a job that that person has. What made them successful? What was their path? Being curious is really important. Be proactive and ask people to spend some time with you. The people who ask for time and then prepare and ask good questions are the people who leave the best impression on me, and so I’m more apt to help them and be engaged and think about them for [opportunities].” 

Photo: getty images

YES, YOU SPENT A LOT OF MONEY ON GRAD SCHOOL, BUT …

Starting salaries in the sports business are well below those for similarly qualified applicants in other sectors. That holds true whether you enter with a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree or even an MBA. While program heads, instructors and guest speakers convey that message to students over and over, it doesn’t hit home for some until friends and classmates entering other fields start landing better-paying jobs.

Now is the time to gut check your salary expectation. Owing more in student loans doesn’t mean you’ll get paid more at your first job.

Busino: “On the graduate school side, people have an expectation that they should start in a manager job making $60,000 a year — and that’s not our industry. There needs to be humility in what that first job should be. Go make yourself known. That first seven years of your career is all learning. And that has to start from day one. So, from a recruiter’s perspective, the [master’s] degree certainly is not a waste, but it doesn’t carry the weight they think it does when we’re comparing them to the other thousands of kids that are trying to come in.”

Sutton: “You’re going to come out of a sport business program and probably are going to make between $40,000 and $50,000 [with a master’s, or even an MBA]. If you want to go work at the bank or the canned goods company, they’ll probably pay you 70 or 80. So, do you want to work in the sports industry? Or take the other job and use the extra money to buy season tickets?”

CALL YOUR MOM

You know that device that you text on and use to post photos on Instagram? It also makes calls. Give it a try.

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Busino: “Nobody knows how to talk on the phone anymore. And that’s all we do every day. That is a very important skill. People need to flex that muscle way more to get ready for their professional lives because they’re not doing it in their personal lives. It’s a major gap we’re seeing in people coming out. The presence isn’t there. It’s something that takes time. You get more polished over time. The ability to carry on and further a back-and-forth on the phone that will get someone engaged with you is helpful in any area you get into.”

MIND YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA

You’re a digital native. You’ve grown up with social media. You know your way around Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

The way you use social media can help you land a job.

It also can cost you one.

McKelvey: “We spend some time with students critiquing their social media. Making sure it’s macro level. It’s saying the right things. And it’s you as your brand. This is your commercial. The brand has to be consistent across all your different social platforms. Obviously, err on the side of caution. That’s not to say you can’t have intelligent opinions. But if you’re flippant or using foul language, that’s going to hurt you.

“Think about all the touch points that an HR person has. Your résumé has to be consistent and on brand with your Instagram and your LinkedIn. With Twitter, either build a brand on it or don’t be on it. If you’re just using it to text out stuff at 11 at night — be careful and mindful. All that stuff is being checked.

“It even goes to your phone message. That’s another touch point. What happens when they call you to set up an interview? When they get your voice mail message, what does that say? What’s the tone of it? What’s in the background? If it sounds like you’re cool and at a party, what message is that sending and is it consistent with the brand you’re trying to present?”

Sutton: “I’ve seen more people lose a job because of a social media account [than I ever would have expected]. I’ve seen somebody do really well in an interview and be the candidate and then have them check out their social media account and lose the job because of it. It’s a really good lesson. Once you put it out there it’s out there and people are going to find it. I know you’re in college. But running around naked with a beer bong is probably not what you want to be doing.”

 

GET TO KNOW YOURSELF

You want to work in sports. We get that. But you don’t get hired to work in sports. You get hired to sell tickets. Or to coordinate media relations. To help dream up creative promotions. Or to analyze ticket pricing or sponsor ROI or player payroll or performance. To work in marketing or accounting or legal.

Working in sports may be your dream. But it’s not your dream job. And it’s certainly not a marketable skill.

By this point, you should be beyond the first one and have a feel for the latter two.

But either way, these should help you along.

Wagoner: “The goal has to be function led. To say ‘I want to work in sports’ is a vague statement. I would much rather have the student say: ‘I want to work in sales. I want to work in fan engagement. I want to work in corporate partnerships.’ The sport context is less important than the skill and the discipline and the area of the business.”

McKelvey: “Know what you’re passionate about and what you’re good at. It might be marketing. It might be sales. It might be PR. Be passionate about a discipline, and then go about getting experience in that discipline, and don’t worry so much about where you are. Don’t worry about the cachet of the company so much as the opportunities that you’ll get there and who is going to be your mentor. So do your research about who is in the department. Who am I going to be reporting to? It’s cool to say ‘I work for the Red Sox,’ but you may have a better situation somewhere else.”

Busino: “They need to look forward but also backward. Think about your time in school. All the projects you did. All the people you worked with. What did you do first instead of procrastinating? Whether you were better at it or not, what did you find the most interesting? In this industry, if you are not innately curious about all the different aspects, you are going to miss the totality of the point of it all.”

Sutton: “You need to know yourself. Know what your own skill set is. And hone that skill set. And if you don’t know what your skill set is, then that internship should be something like a minor league baseball team or a G League team where they have a limited number of people and you’re going to do a little bit of everything. And you might find that you like doing four or five different things and that clarifies your career path for you. You need to be in a small organization where you do a lot of different things. Or you may find that one of those things really clicks for you and you’re really good at it. And that might help you on that career path.”

ANALYZE THE ANALYTICS EQUATION

For the last few years, any conversation about the hot entry-level jobs in sports has started with analytics. The increasing shift toward data-driven decision-making created jobs, and then entire departments, first on the “sports side” of teams and now across business units.

As a result, a handful of sports business programs — including those at USF, Syracuse, NYU, Columbia and Temple — have created concentrations at both the graduate and undergraduate level. Many more offer at least one class.

The program heads we spoke with all still point to analytics as a “hot market” for sports jobs. But several — including NYU’s Gennaro, who was at the forefront of the baseball analytics movement as a consultant before he entered academia — say they’ve noticed changes of late.

Gennaro: “The analysts getting hired by teams today often come from a data science background — something less general than a sports business or sports management degree.

Photo: getty images

“And the supply [of aspiring data analysts] has probably increased at a faster pace than the opportunities. I still think it’s a real opportunity area. But it’s going to be highly competitive. What has changed the dynamics in the last five years is that it used to be that a smart sports management major with a good understanding of statistics and some very basic programming skills could enter into those jobs and work for clubs on the analytics side. Today, more and more times they’re hiring Ph.D. data scientists. I’m not saying it forecloses the sports management graduates. But it’s becoming a lot more competitive and the tools are getting more sophisticated, with random forest technique as part of artificial intelligence and all sorts of things that, honestly, none of the programs are teaching at a depth that prepare you to be a daily practitioner of it. Our students are finding employment [as analysts in the sports business]. But the bar has definitely been raised.”

Sutton: “You have to have some curriculum behind you. Analysis software skills. It’s now more than just Excel. You can be self-taught. But what have you done with those skills? Have you looked at real data? Have you helped make decisions? The internship is a critical component here.”

Burton: “Our first sports analytics major group just finished. All five of them were scooped up by pro teams. They’re coming out with a math-based skill set that sport management or sport marketing graduates traditionally did not have. They can work on salary cap pieces. They can look at economics. They can model pricing or sponsor valuation. They can look at numeric trends. That person has produced a reason that you want to hire them.”

Busino: “The analytics opportunities are shifting more into the sponsorship realm. There’s two sides on the analytics piece: The operational component and the math component. Both are equally important. The likely path is more to hire the mathematicians to do the math piece of it. The teams are not all hiring MIT guys. Some are. Some aren’t. If you have that hands-on experience of what does the data look like and what are we looking to do with it, that’s a marketable skill.”

YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT

Suffice it to say, there are far more candidates than there are jobs in sports.

It’s competitive. You already know that. But have you prepared yourself for it?

Have you? Really?

Burton: “If someone has their heart set on sports — there are jobs out there to get. But are you going to be able to get the job you want? Maybe. Or maybe not. In an age of helicopter parents, where no child should ever be unhappy and every child should get what they want, there are suddenly a ton of people who want to work in sports, who believe that just by saying ‘I want to work in sports,’ their parents and universities and friends are going to make it possible. And I think that’s kind of like saying ‘I want to be a lawyer or a plumber.’ There’s a whole lot of hard work that goes into developing a skill to be able to do the thing that you want to do. I don’t despair for this next generation. It’s just a matter of whether the parents and the faculty members are going to be clear with these young people and say — if this is what you want, so do a whole lot of other people. And you’re going to really need to be invested in it, otherwise it just may not happen. You may end up doing something else. And that may be fine. But if it isn’t, you’ve got to own some of your own outcome.”

IT’S NOT TOO LATE TO ‘MATH UP’

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Burton: “At this point, you’re not going to be able to suddenly come upon an analytics program. But if you have a year left to get some more education, you darn sure should be looking at taking an analytics or at least a statistics class and be able to say that during my time in college, I mathed up. I heavied up on math or analytically based coursework that will allow me to develop a skill that I can bring to your organization.

“It’d be great if everybody worked on an analytics project while in school. But can we do that with the 20,000 or 50,000 students who are going to graduate this year and want to work in sport? The reality is no.”

ONE OF YOUR SCHOOL’S COLORS IS GREEN

You played a sport in college and now you’re getting your master’s because you want to work in an athletic department. Your dream is to be an AD.

Again, there will be far more applicants jockeying to get on that path than there will be job openings in college athletic departments. And ascendency to the top spot is a long shot.

Photo: getty images

So you’d better get started separating yourself now. Long known as the cradle of college athletic directors, Ohio gets more than its share of grad students with that aspiration. The plum of all opportunities there these days is not a slot in traditional sports administration, but one of three that give students experience in fundraising.

Just as a sales job is the surest way into pro sports, fundraising — aka development — may be the best way to get in, and move up, in the college ranks.

Kahler: “Those three students get small portfolios to work with where they get fundraising experience. Every once in a while someone will get a taste of that cup of tea and find it’s not their cup of tea. But those who do are leaving here with jobs that 10 or 15 years ago they weren’t able to get. A kid out of this year’s class is going to UCLA right out of grad school with a major gifts position. Typically, he’d have to pay his dues pounding calls on the annual fund. But that grad assistantship combined with a couple of projects got him in the queue. That’s a great job out of school.

“The road map to being an AD is going to be driven through development. And I don’t see that changing soon. There’s not going to be a ton of money coming in from the president’s office when enrollment in the Midwest is declining. So that AD of tomorrow — and even today — better be fundraisers first and foremost. Now, they’ve got to have the other skill sets of leadership and picking the right coaches, but you can go hire somebody that understands compliance. You need to know how to get face to face and raise funds.”

Photo: nbae / getty images

DON’T ASSUME SOCIAL MEANS SOCIAL MEDIA

The growth of social media has spawned jobs across sports in recent years. The next growth area may be around social responsibility — a retooling of traditional community relations roles in ways that might make them a good fit for a strategic thinker.

Wagoner: “There is growth around social [responsibility] and environmental and cultural. This idea that sports organizations doing good in the community is no longer a box-check, better do this. There is a strategic imperative — an imperative that consumers feel. There is an opportunity for real strategic thinking and management planning around what our sport organization stands for in the world. How are we making an impact that is real? How are we talking about that in an authentic way? That’s what young consumers expect out of organizations. So folks who can have one foot in community and impact and still have a foot squarely in strategy and business planning, those who can speak both those languages will have a lot of opportunities.”

BROADEN YOUR VIEW OF THE SPORTS BUSINESS

You may have gone to UMass hoping to work for the Celtics or Red Sox, or to NYU or Columbia thinking it was a path to the Yankees or even a job at a league.

That’s the core of the sports business, but it’s not the entirety of the sports business. A job at a sports marketing agency can easily lead to one with a team that’s a client or to a brand that does lots of sports marketing, which is another opportunity to cross over to that team job you want. 

Which … you may later realize you don’t want.

McKelvey: “One of the mindsets students get into is that they want to work in a particular sport, or even for a particular team. They need to be open to a variety of different paths to start your career. It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.

“They say they want to work for a pro sports team or at a league or in college athletics. So I encourage them to think about all the services and ancillary businesses that touch all of those that, frankly, a lot of times will better build your skill sets than some of the traditional paths. You’ll broaden your network much more quickly working at a sports marketing agency than going to work for a team. So get out of the pro team or college athletics mindset and be open to considering a variety of different doors to start your career.”

Photo: getty images

 

BE PREPARED TO SHOW YOUR WORK

Kahler: “It’s like art school. In art school, you build your portfolio by doing paintings. By the time you leave our graduate program you should have at least two solid paintings in your collection. And then when you’re out looking for jobs, you pull one out. ‘Here’s work I did in grad school for the Cleveland Browns or Cincinnati Bengals or UCLA or whoever.’

“I think that will trump experience sometimes. I’ll get a call sometimes from somebody looking for someone with three to five years experience. Well, would you take someone with less experience who I know would fit your need?  And those projects help me get kids in doors they normally wouldn’t get into.”

Gennaro: “I think it’s expected and it’s fairly common to have worked on an analytics project today, whether it’s an independent research project that you worked on with a faculty member or it’s directly with industry on a consulting project. A lot of the programs like ours have experiential classes like that. Those are ways to show an employer what you mean when you say you could add value. I remember talking to a team president who said, ‘We see a lot of people who are eager to learn and we want to help them learn, but you have to understand that the pool of talent applying for jobs is so deep that we want someone who can walk in on day one and begin to add value.’ A portfolio of projects will demonstrate that you ought to be able to do that right from the very beginning, because you’ve done it before.”

Ohio University students present their sponsorship sales project to New York Jets executives Andrew Agro (left) and Brooks Neal (center), both Ohio alums.
Photo: ohio university

YOUR FIRST JOB IS REALLY TWO JOBS

Estis: “Early jobs are narrowly focused. Become good at your task — what your company and leader is asking you to do. But there’s this whole other side job you have of trying to learn and make a great impression. Understand where you want to go by spending time with people to see if you can develop a bit of a career plan. I think people get jobs and hope it leads to the next job. Don’t hope it happens to you. Create a plan and set some goals and objectives and make it happen for you.”

HONE YOUR SOFT SKILLS

You look great on paper. So do a lot of others in your class, and hundreds of other classes. People skills will help separate you from them.

Estis: “I think everybody is overqualified now. So many people want to be in this industry that people who haven’t graduated yet have done five internships. It makes my head spin how much people have done before they’re even out of school. That shows a commitment, and that’s nice. I’m not overlooking that. But a lot of people now have done that. What most of us in sports do every day is based on communication skills and relationship skills and also hard work. I’m looking at the impression someone leaves with their energy level, their communication style, and the first impression they make when they walk into the room. Particularly in sales and marketing, I’m speaking to someone who is going to go exterior of our organization and represent us. Can they carry on a nice conversation? Those personal skills show up first to me.”