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For MBA Programs, Sports Marketing is Good Business

MBA concentration in sports marketing at the University of Oregon

This article is sponsored by the University of Oregon, Lundquist College of Business.

Students often dream of becoming novelists, movie directors or athletic managers. Their desires have fueled a growth in master of fine arts programs in writing and film. It’s also why so many schools now offer MBAs or specialized master’s degrees in sports marketing or sports management. Unfortunately, despite incurring thousands of dollars in debt, graduates of these programs often don’t find careers to match their glamorous ambitions.

60 years ago, the then Brooklyn Dodger’s owner Walter O’Malley tried (and failed) to get New York’s Columbia University to add a sports administration program to the curriculum. He believed college-educated managers would add a layer of professionalism to professional sports. Today, over 300 universities offer degrees in sports marketing or sports management.

“I’ve been on record for years saying that we now have way too many of these programs turning out way too many of these graduates, who will quite frankly never get in the industry in the way that they wanted to when they started,” explains Paul Swangard, the managing director of the University of Oregon's MBA sports marketing program, “I think there’s a percentage [of schools] out there that are tuition mills that put the word sports in front of a program and believe they can fill seats.”

So, when the University of Oregon added a sports marketing specialization to their MBA program, they took an unusual approach. “One of the strokes of genius,” explains Swangard, “… was to not allow the student to get a degree with the word ‘sports’ in it. What we are, is a concentration inside of an MBA program –– which is what you walk out the door with.”

Beginning with its inaugural MBA class in 1996, the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center formed the first of what would be four different focused programs inside the Lundquist College of Business – with concentrations in sustainability, entrepreneurship and finance following on from the launch of its sports marketing specialization.

Across the country, record numbers of students were already earning degrees hoping for careers in sports marketing. For universities hoping to offer an education with real value, the challenge was attracting serious students and qualified faculty.

Sports marketing and sports management   

“People think they’re going to sit around all day and watch Derek Jeter take batting practice or Rex Grossman throw touchdown passes…,” Jim Riordan complained in a 2011 US News and World Report article. As director of Florida Atlantic University’s sports management program, Riordan said his “biggest challenge in accepting students today is separating the sports fan from the sports business student.”

When the Warsaw program began, “there really wasn’t a pathway for students who were particularly interested in sports to enter a business school at the master’s level and get that training,” Swangard notes. In 2006, a Wall Street Journal article highlighted the numerous academic programs in sports management or marketing which were housed separately from their university’s business schools. They were run out of departments in physical education, hospitality management and other disparate majors.

Despite locating the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center within the University of Oregon’s business school, it initially struggled to gain acceptance. “Traditional business schools looked at the area of sports as an area of research and study and turned their noses up at it,” Swangard explains. “They didn’t feel like it was a good fit for a business school.”

Florida State University’s undergraduate sports management program head, Michael Mondello, complained in the Wall Street Journal piece about professors coming from other disciplines with little background in sports. “You wouldn't see that in the hard sciences,” he pointed out. “Why would we do that in this field?”

The Warsaw program is more than “just repurposing a marketing professor who is now going to teach sports marketing,” offers Swangard. His school is a research university, which means the faculty at Warsaw must have a body of work in sports. At a national level, the limited number of suitably qualified educators also serves to limit the number of top-ranked programs available.

Swangard believes Oregon’s program is successful because it combines faculty members who have a background in sports with an MBA degree that gives students the necessary broad-based business fundamentals. This means they are well positioned after graduation –– even if they don’t pursue careers in sports marketing.

Sports marketing jobs

People change careers. Being limited by a boutique degree can be fatal. “If you don’t want to be in the industry and all you have to show for your graduate education is something with the word sports in it –– well it’s going to be tough,” Swangard points out.

Whether or not they land sports marketing jobs after graduation, MBA students at Oregon’s Warsaw Center are exposed to some of most dynamic and innovative approaches to sports marketing available. That experience translates to other industries. Swangard learned this firsthand when he earned an MBA through the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business in 1998. Despite being one of the earliest Warsaw program participants, he did not pursue a sports marketing job. Instead, he began working at Intel.  Eighty percent of Warsaw students pursue careers in sports marketing. Warsaw alumnus Brent Braden is one of them.

Working at Nike

Braden earned his MBA in 2005 from the University of Oregon.  A finance and accounting major at the University of Arizona, he was working at IBM when he realized what he wanted to do. “One day I turned to my wife and said, ‘I need to change careers,’” he remembers. When she asked to what, I told her, ‘I want to work in sport.’ She literally turned to me and said, ‘Tell me what we're going to do.’  To this day it’s the coolest thing she's ever said to me other than, ‘Yes, I'll marry you.’"

It was a leap of faith. “I went in naively thinking the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS etc. were going to give me a call and want to hire me for ridiculous amounts of pay,” Braden admits. “I'm glad I quickly realized that you really had to work hard to build genuine (that word is key!) relationships through networking...  It's not a race to see who can collect the most business cards.”

During his time at Warsaw, Braden began working at Nike. He feels the degree he earned was one factor but reserves special praise for the experiential component of the program.

“My experiences with Nike while in grad school,” Braden remembers, “may have provided the interviewers a bit of comfort knowing that I had at least a slight clue as to what Nike did day-to-day.”

After graduation, Braden began working at Nike in the finance department. Today he is a global sports marketing director at the company.

Warsaw’s sports marketing keeps it small

Swangard believes the school’s industry partners appreciate the program’s size. By admitting only 20 students each year, the school has a “placement rate that is defensible.” Plus, since so much of the program is experiential, anything more than 25 or so would make the lessons and the travel difficult.

It is the travel and the experts who come to the school that mitigate the school’s bucolic location. Many top MBA programs are in New York, Los Angeles and London, and Swangard concedes, “We’re not really the epicenter of anything are we?”

Yet the city of Eugene and the University of Oregon itself helped produce Nike –– the company was co-founded by the school’s track coach and one of his runners. It is a place with world-famous athletic programs and active students who appreciate its proximity to both the ocean and to snow-covered mountains. Just 100 miles north, are the Portland-based Fortune 500 apparel companies, Nike, Adidas and a cluster of over 200 other sport and outdoor products companies.

This article is sponsored by the University of Oregon, Lundquist College of Business

Written by John Bankston

Content writer John began his career as an investigative reporter and is a prolific educational writer alongside his work for us, authoring over 100 nonfiction books for children and young adults since 2000.

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