Sports from ice hockey to rugby and football are no longer happy to recruit managers from the locker room

Rugby may be a gentleman's game, but, in the new world of multimillion-pound sponsorship and media deals, clubs are turning to commercial executives to lead them.

The huge increase in exposure through television and the internet has brought new followers and a burgeoning market for entrepreneurs, not just for rugby but across a range of sports.

Football, ice hockey and even golf clubs are no longer content to recruit managers from the locker room and are looking further afield. There has never been a better time for outsiders to get in on the action, but how easy is it for managers to make the transition from business to sport?

Opinion is divided. According to Rogan Taylor, who launched the ground-breaking football MBA at the University of Liverpool more than a decade ago, the usual rules of commerce are turned upside down when it comes to managing a sports club. "The football business lives on planet Zog, where the normal gravitational forces don't operate. Employees get paid more than employers. It's an inverted pyramid with only one product, the football match, and everything else follows from that.

"Managers are coming in from outside, and the industry is benefiting from people who can read a set of accounts and have experience of working and living in the ordinary world," he says.

But Chris Brady, the former Leyton Orient player who is now the dean of BPP business school in the City of London, says the most important skill of a manager - getting the best out of individuals - is the same in commerce and sport. "The challenge is the same and the practical differences can be addressed alongside the main body of the MBA course," says Professor Brady, the co-author of The 90-minute Manager, which explores what business can learn from the best - and worst - football managers. He is planning to introduce modules linked to culture, media and sport. "I'd like to see people who want to run a sport club and people who want to run a theatre sitting down together," he says.

One senior executive who has made the transition is Andy Martin, the chief executive of London Irish, the Guinness Premiership rugby union club. He quit his high-flying job as the managing director for global sales at Barclays Commercial Bank and joined the club last September.

While at Barclays, he qualified with an MBA from Henley Business School, and says it has served him well in his new, very different, post. "There is more money coming into sport now, and the demands on leadership are changing. Therefore, sports clubs are having to adjust," he says.

"What was really important to me was to be able to grab hold of a strong brand with a great potential for development and growth. The challenge is to convert the team's success on the field into commercial success off the field. A lot of that comes from being able to easily apply the generic skills you learn from the MBA."

Sport does have its own unique character, however, and people's weekends can be made or broken by what happens on the field. "You also have to factor in the emotion in sport which runs higher than in traditional businesses. We need to continue to deliver for our supporters to ensure our commercial success," he says.

Established sports manager Nicky Ponsford, the head of performance at the Rugby Football Union for Women, says the increased commercial activity around sport has changed the landscape. Raising the profile of women's rugby needs more than enthusiasm and commitment; it requires commercial and business awareness, she says. Ponsford launched her sports management career after graduating from the University of Loughborough with a degree in sports science. "Many people who did sports science used to go into teaching, but there are more and more opportunities for graduates within sport itself nowadays," she says.

Nearing the finishing line of a part-time MBA from Brunel Business School, she says the course has helped her think more strategically and gain crucial knowledge about marketing in the commercial world. "It has given me a broader outlook, and I'm looking at ways we could use our players more effectively for marketing and promotion so we can get more people to the games," she says.

"Sport has its own unique selling point, but if we don't manage it in a businesslike fashion and cost-effectively, we will not be able to deliver. We are not in the world of making money for shareholders. Our target is to grow the sport and provide more opportunities for people to get involved."

Players who gain an MBA have a wider choice of career when they retire from the game, says Jaimie Longmuir, the general manager of Mobilx Newcastle Vipers, the professional ice hockey team. In 2008, he started a part-time MBA at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, and seven Vipers players have been sponsored on the course over the past two years.

Teams need people with top-level management skills to deal with a wide range of activities including sponsorship, merchandising, ticket sales, human resources and marketing, he says. "We strongly believe in investing in our players to support them with their careers beyond ice hockey. One of the first players to do the MBA is now managing our merchandising." The MBA has also been a useful recruiting tool. "The relationship with the business school has helped us recruit quality players from around the world by giving them something different from their standard playing contracts."

There is a worldwide market for specialist MBAs, such as international sports management at Coventry University and Manchester Business School's global MBA for sport and major event executives, both of which have a broad international mix of students.

Sport is a growth industry, both in developed nations and in emerging economies such as China and India, says Terri Byers, Coventry's principal lecturer in sport management. "The industry is unique and quirky. There are lots of instances where business principles apply, but sport has its own intricacies and issues, such as drug-taking and corruption and governance, where you can't just apply business principles. Sometimes you find yourself caught up in the political world where people try to use sport to serve their own interests."

In the close-knit sports industry, however, it's not just what you know but who you know, says Byers. Students spend the last three months of the MBA course working as interns. "Networks and contacts are very important, which is why we spend a lot of time building links and relationships with the industry."