Despite the natural talent that has taken Chris Hoy, Andy Murray and Lewis Hamilton to the top of their respective sports, it's generally acknowledged that they wouldn't be there without a team of professionals working behind them.

And it's exactly the same with the other events our sportsmen and women compete in, and the organisations that stage them. Here, too, there's an awful lot more going on behind the scenes. At most big events, there's a substantial management team on-site, with separate responsibilities for IT, ticketing, marketing, transport, media and broadcasting, and many more areas besides. Each one of these requires a mix of technical knowledge, experience linked to the specific sport, and general management competence. Sports associations, federations and leagues also have management structures covering the same functions.

Landing one of these jobs has never been easy. Personal contacts, and being in the right place at the right time, will always count for much. But having a good background knowledge of the business and administrative side of sport is becoming equally important. And this is where a postgraduate Masters course can give aspiring sports administrators and executives a leg up the ladder.

There are now about a dozen universities offering Masters programmes in this area, many of which have an eye on London 2012 and have plans to expand in the coming years.

One of the most well-established is the MSc in sports management at Northumbria University in Newcastle, which started over a decade ago and has around 25 students. Fees are currently £4,000. The core courses cover the management of sports events, facilities and sports organisations, plus marketing, resource management and sports development.

But students certainly don't confine themselves to theory, according to Ruth Crabtree, who teaches two of the modules. "Students take the skills they learn and use them in the real world, for example working on a real problem for a sports organisation or event, such as the Great North Run," she says.

Graduates tend to end up working either in sports marketing, event management or sports development. One student who finished the Masters in 2005 landed himself a job working for the Beijing Olympic Games organising committee, this summer, something that will stand out on his CV for ever.

The MA sport management at London Metropolitan University, now in its sixth year, with 28 students paying fees of £5,220, attracts participants of two main types: recent graduates looking for a first job in sport, and mature students already holding middle management positions who want to beef up their CV and go for higher positions.

Whatever the aim, though, co-course leader Paul Kitchin says the ideal student mindset is one that recognises the business side of sport, as well as sport's intrinsic values. "A passion for business as well as a passion for sport is the way to approach these courses," he explains.

Alumni of this course are now to be found working, among other places, at the International Tennis Federation, the Asian Football Federation, Arsenal FC, Sport England and several local authority sport development teams.

Among the newer courses is the sport management MSc at Kingston University and the MA/MSc in sport business management at Coventry University, both launched last year with cohorts in single figures.

"The course is about developing sport as a business, how sport becomes commercialised and how to commercialise sport," explains Terri Byers, the Coventry course leader. Core topics include sponsorship, media and broadcasting, sports law and stadium management. Graduates can choose to end up with an MA, if they specialise in sports marketing or human resources, or an MSc, if they go into more depth on the financial side.

A common theme is the internationalisation of these programmes, with courses recruiting foreign students, and reflecting the growing international dimension of most sports.

London Metropolitan University this year launches an international version of its MA and Northumbria is currently validating a course with a similar global outlook.

An established example of just such a course is based partly at De Montfort University (DMU) in Leicester. This is the international Masters in management, law and humanities of sport, run by DMU together with SDA Bocconi School of Management in Italy and Neuchâtel University in Switzerland, with the collaboration of the world football body FIFA.

"The aim is to prepare students to work in the world of sport, either for big organisations, such as FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, or for the business side of sport, such as marketing and media organisations," says Professor Dick Holt, director of the centre at De Montfort that delivers the humanities element of the programme.

The course, with fees of 25,000 Swiss francs (about £12,500) is far more expensive than the domestically based equivalents. But what it can offer in return is an impressive success rate in graduate employment. Eighty per cent of graduates land a job in sport within three months of finishing the course.

'I got an appreciation of how the strands of sport fit together'

Ross Wenzel, 28, is an in-house lawyer for Infront Sports and Media, a sports marketing and media firm based in Switzerland. He joined in August this year, after finishing the International MA in management, law and humanities of sport (FIFA), taught at three European universities, including DeMontfort University in Leicester.

“I’d always wanted to work in sports, but my dad thought it would be good to get a professional qualification in something first, which is why I did law after Oxford. I was attracted to the FIFA course because it is really broad in focus, covering the legal, management, humanities and historical side of sport. Beforehand I didn’t really know what I wanted to do in sport, but the course made me realise I should pursue the law stream rather than the commercial side of things.

The course gave me a good appreciation of how all the strands of sport fall together; how the regulatory sphere is made up, and how professional leagues fit into it. I had a brilliant tutor on sports law who gave me an insight into how it all works and what goes on behind the scenes. And the social side enabled me to meet people from so many different backgrounds. Going with a group of 15 other nationalities to watch Arsenal play Milan at the San Siro: where else would you get that experience?

In my job now, about 50 per cent of my time is spent on legal work for FIFA. For example, I might have to draw up a legal contract for a television company that wants to use some footage of David Beckham playing in the World Cup. What I would ultimately like to do within sports law is to be exposed to as many different aspects as possible and keep doing more and more different things. That way I’ll have more chances of sitting at the top of something later.”