Schools Embrace the Business of Sport

Discover the similarities between elite sport and executive performance

Over the next couple of weeks several million viewers are expected to tune into the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Business school students will also likely be watching the games — the Olympics are among the biggest sports business events, with broadcasters shelling out around $960 million for the rights to air this year’s games. 

Schools say there are many similarities between elite sports and executive performance in many sectors, which students can learn from.

Playing any sport at an elite level takes competitiveness, commitment, perseverance, humility and a host of other traits found in effective leaders. They also thrive in chaos, are natural-born leaders and understand the importance of teamwork — the correct mixture of training and coaching is necessary for success. And many are using sophisticated tools to improve training and performance, such as people analytics, which is increasingly being adopted in major corporations across the globe.

Confirming the link between elite executives and athletes, Erica Duignan, founder and managing partner of venture investment company 1000 Angels, says: “The venture capital industry is always on the lookout for hard-working and disciplined people in both investor and entrepreneur roles, so there is a natural fit for athletes.

“Professional athletes bring a unique set of resources and energy to the startup community, which can have a transformative effect on the future of society.”

It will come as little surprise then, that business schools are crafting a new set of courses focused on the business of sports management. The most recent is a program from Columbia Business School in New York, which provides current and former athletes with the tools to transfer their competitiveness into business, and ensure success after their notoriously short careers are over.

“Our goal is to ensure that professional athletes are armed with the business acumen and investment skills to be successful as they pursue a new type of competition on a different playing field,” says Dil Sidhu, Columbia associate dean for executive education.

Columbia has teamed up with Dynasty Sports Group, a sports consulting agency founded and led by the New Orleans Saints Super Bowl champion, Marques Colston, to deliver the course. “Being a professional athlete can provide unbelievable access to entrepreneurial and investment opportunities, both good and bad,” says Colston.

He’s building a program to help athletes “navigate the venture space successfully, while complementing the intangible skills and assets that have separated them as elite level performers”. Modules focus on the basics of private equity investing, entrepreneurial finance and more.

Big sporting events are ramping up the popularity of sports management, from the Soccer World Cup in Brazil to the current Olympic Games in Pyeongchang.

“Mega events tend to peak potential students’ interest. We cap our enrolment at 20 graduate students in each intake,” says Paul Swangard at Lundquist College of Business in the US, which offers a sports business MBA track.


“We tend to see a blend of those who have already been in sports and seek an acceleration in their career, or those who want to shift to a sport-related field.

“They all tend to have a connection to sport through participation or fandom. Our average student is in their mid to late 20s, motivated by their love of sport.”

Several other schools have launched similar schemes in recent years — Harvard Business School developed executive education programs on sports management and signed up Sir Alex Ferguson, the former manager of English soccer club Manchester United, as faculty.

Some focus on individual sports, offering general managers a deep dive into specialist areas. The intricacies of sports are so unique that schools say students cannot cover them adequately in a general MBA.

“Sport sits under a different legal and regulatory regime to other industries, and governing bodies are given significant flexibility to structure sport and deal with disputes that does not exist in other industries,” says Geoff Pearson, director of the Football Industries MBA at the UK’s Liverpool University.

Students on the Football (soccer) MBA undertake modules such as sports law, sports marketing and sports operations management, in addition to core business modules found on any MBA, such as finance. They also have the opportunity to undertake an industry placement.

Students are often attracted to sports programs for the networking aspect — essential in a market with fewer job opportunities than those found at the end of traditional MBA programs.

“The networking among students is pretty important, even though social media has made it easier to scale a network virtually,” says Sean Hamil, director of the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre at University of London. “We have an extensive list of alumni now — virtually all of them are working in sport, and we leverage that network for current students.”


At Liverpool, students enjoy a range of career opportunities at the end of the course. “Students typically go on to work for clubs, governing bodies and other businesses working in football (soccer), such as sponsors and suppliers,” says Pearson. “Many go on to work in commercial, marketing or finance departments, or in project planning. The opportunities in sports management are vast.”

Seb Murray
Written by Seb Murray

Seb is a journalist and consulting editor who has developed a successful track record writing about business, education and technology for the international press.

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