How to Succeed in Sports Business Without Really Graduating
It’s a far cry from many of my peers in sports management, whose LinkedIn profiles seem to open with “Media Manager of the Future Sports Executives Club, Rosewood Pre-Kindergarten,” and maintain a direct trajectory from there.
So what do you do if, like me, a combination of choice, necessity and circumstance has you knocking at the door of the sports management industry with none of the education or experience you think you need, and that the other applicants for each job have in spades?
In a competitive industry that is solidly a buyer’s market for employment, is there any hope for the self-taught, self-made individual?
Options in Sports Business Education
An increasing number of colleges - including some business schools - are offering degrees in sports management. A degree undoubtedly provides very useful credentials and a ready-made network of professors and alumni, resources that are especially powerful when searching for your first job.
But is it worth the opportunity cost of what else you could be doing with your time and money?
To paraphrase “Good Will Hunting,” will you drop 150 grand on an education you could get for a few bucks in late charges and on Amazon Prime?
If you are willing to go your own way, and zig when everyone else is zagging, here's a plan you can start executing on today:
Step 1: Build Your Sports Business Syllabus
First day of school: professor gives students the syllabus. Now you’re the school, professor and student, so where do you begin?
Start with two of the most prominent names in business and sports business: Harvard University and Mark Cuban.
Harvard won’t put its name on something unless it is the gold standard, so let them do the vetting for you. Harvard Business Review has made it even easier by compiling 6 books of 10 “must-read” articles from the different disciplines of business.
This would be your first semester of business school, available for well under $100.
Complement their theory and case study approach with Mark Cuban’s book "How to Win at the Sport of Business".
With these two purchases - even before you’ve read them! - syllabus-building just got a lot easier. Your purchase and search history now knows what you’re interested in, and you’ll start receiving targeted recommendations. As you read these and other books, you’ll begin to recognize the names of the influencers in each field, which will tip you off to what to read next.
Step 2: Move Beyond Print and Into Current Sports Business Events
Books are a great start, but obviously they are not responsive to recent events and developments. Clearly, I don’t need to tell you the importance and value of blogs. There are plenty of other tools out there that will be much easier to find now that you know the people and terminology that shape the industry.
- Search YouTube to see if the author you just read gave a TED talk or posted a keynote address he delivered at a conference
- Maybe an enterprising student decided to upload his video notes from a sports business class
- Look for companies that offer webinars, Google Hangouts or other live stream events. For example, sponsorship powerhouse IEG presents (for a fee - subscription very quickly becomes worthwhile) a weekly webinar on different topics from the sponsorship industry.
Remember that products not specifically about sports business or management can almost always be transferred to this industry, especially as you become more versed in general business and management.
Step 3: Get Out of the House. No Seriously, Get Out of the House
Google Hangouts and Twitter chats can provide interaction from the comforts of home, but there still is no substitute for in-person learning.
- If you live near a university, see if their sports management department or business schools have any guest speakers, master classes or endowed lectures that are open to the public.
- Check with your local chamber of commerce to find out if they do a monthly “lunch and learn” talk with local business people.
- Once you have identified the specific aspects of sports business and management you intend to pursue, attend that segment’s upcoming conference or trade show.
These conferences are very practice-oriented, have a mixture of lectures, panel discussions and small group breakouts, and offer significant networking. While registration, flight and hotel to Boston for the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference may seem a bit pricey, remember that we’re comparing this to a traditional education.
Step 4: Getting a Foot in the Door
As you develop your goals and the path you will take to achieve them, consider the aspect of scale as it relates to where and how you enter the industry.
Let’s say you want to work in football, with your ultimate goal being to work for an NFL team. Your self-education, professional network and self-promotion efforts have paid off with two offers on the table: an entry-level position with the New England Patriots, or the Director of Marketing for the New England Football League.
Option A: Will give you a prestigious resume bullet, a great network and exposure to sports business at the highest level. However, your daily tasks will be very similar to that of the intern staff: you will interact neither with Tom Brady nor Gillette’s Global Sponsorship Director.
With Option B: You will probably have only 1 person above you in the chain of command, will exercise a large amount of autonomy, will be able to demonstrate many of the “soft skills” you developed in your earlier jobs and will leave your mark on every project you touch.
Both offer unique on-the-job learning opportunities, but on a very different learning curve and scale.
Realistically, you are much more likely to be offered a job that is a combination of the two: an entry-level position with a minor league or niche property. The key point is that the sports industry is much deeper and more diverse than many people realize, and there are many entry points and career paths that are not as flooded with applicants.
A driven, innovative person at a start-up or niche property could increase revenue by 50%, or social media followers by 400%, in their first year. It’s nearly impossible that any person could effect such a dramatic change at a team from one of the Big 4 leagues.
Which would offer you the greatest personal satisfaction, and which do you think would bolster your chances of eventually getting that dream job with the Pats?
Finally, there is always Option C: start your own sports property. As you have been doing everything we talked about above, perhaps you noticed a glaring gap in the sports marketplace: a product, an app - maybe even a team - that people would want if only it was there for them.
This would be the ultimate chance to put your non-traditional skills and knowledge to use, considering that you would likely be a one-man show for the foreseeable future as you bring this new property to life. Running your own business is the ultimate trial-by-fire, so there is no better way to simultaneously use, test and expand your knowledge and skill base.
(Assuming this blog goes over well with the suits upstairs at WorkInSports.com, we’ll talk more about sports start-up life in an upcoming post.)
Editors note: It did go over well, very well in fact - expect to see more from George in the future. And we don't wear suits - just jerseys.
Did you come into the sports industry from a non-traditional educational or professional background? What path did you take on your journey, and what advice would you add on top of what we talked about here? Let us know in the comments below, or share with us on social media!
George M. Perry is the director of the Austin Track Club, a professional track & field team in Austin, TX, that develops aspiring Olympic athletes. If you're ever bored and just want to provoke a reaction, ask George "Aren't all track athletes amateurs?" and then tell him how money is the problem with sports.
Connect with George on LinkedIn or Twitter, and follow the club via www.AustinTrackClub.com.
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