Sports management: How to prepare yourself for a podium finish

Get your career in the sports industry up and running by signing up for an international management course

It's often said that victory in sport comes down to the level of preparation. The international sports management MBA now being offered by Loughborough University takes that idea away from the blood, sweat and tears of the competitive arena and applies it to an equally tough one: the commercial world.

The programme seeks to equip those in the sports industry with professional management skills to complement their existing technical ability, explains Stuart West, director of the MBA. The university developed the programme after consultation with national and international bodies, including UK Athletics and the International Association of Athletics Federations. It showed that many sporting executives come from a background of being a participant or volunteer, says West. "Relatively few joined in a professional management capacity so there's a real need for management development that teaches them commercial skills."

That need has been recognised globally, adds Jane Delbene, director of marketing at the Graduate Management Admissions Council (Gmac). "With the global sports industry being worth an estimated €350bn to €450bn, it's not surprising leaders within the sector are placing greater significance on enhancing their commercial and managerial expertise to better prepare themselves for operating in what is quite a multifaceted business environment."

The executive MBA is geared towards those working for professional sporting clubs and associations, or even the sports sponsorship arms of large organisations. "Typically we're looking at the people who are likely to be leading an organisation in five to 10 years, but who currently lack real breadth of experience and would benefit from a programme giving them a more rounded managerial and commercial perspective," says West.

It's a slightly different starting point from that of the more traditional MBA, where candidates have already demonstrated some decent form on the management track. Instead, prospective students may have moved into management from specialist sporting roles – and as a result the course will need to take a different approach for breaking them in, explains West. "The thing for us will be building commercial and management capabilities, enabling people to shift their focus away from the sport itself and more towards the admin and the running of that sport."

To achieve this the course is structured as a series of core modules that give a basic understanding of management, business and commerce: the same approach as a standard MBA. However, on top of this will be a series of capstone modules that bring everything together, circumventing what West sees as one of the potential problems with the modular approach. "People see modules as an end in themselves," he says. "We want them to understand that if we're talking about HR management and operations management, these are not two separate things: there are dependencies between them. It's about taking foundations and fundamental modules and building them into something more complex."

The course will be delivered through a series of three- or four-day blocks spread over a two-year period, initially delivered at the Loughborough campus. Some elements of distance learning will be involved, but the emphasis is on face-to-face interaction and creating a network that will become useful by "bringing groups of students from disparate parts of the industry together", says West.

Students will also be able to take full advantage of the university's business geography, working with some of the many sports technology companies on the site as part of the "managing sports technology and innovation" module. They'll evaluate new ideas and look at how they can be made commercially viable, says West. It's a win-win situation: businesses get free consultancy, while students get real-world experience, working with a flesh and blood sparring partner rather than a theoretical punching bag.

A further benefit of the university's set-up is the proximity of the Sport Park, the location of many national sports federations' home bases and the home of both the British and Japanese teams during the Olympics this summer. "A lot of the people we see as being – at a national level – potential contributors to the programme and providers of students to the programme are also close to us," says West. "That's helpful, as we can have dialogue with them on an almost daily basis."

Naturally the programme isn't aimed solely at home-grown talent, and West encourages people from many sporting backgrounds and beyond Loughborough to investigate the MBA. "We're looking for people with the potential to grow and become a head of coaching, rather than a head coach," he says.

The benefits to students and their organisations are clear, he thinks, as they'll leave thinking about issues on a strategic level rather than a tactical level.

"The thing they'll gain most is interacting with other students from similar backgrounds, understanding applications in different sports and different aspects of sport," he adds. "On a good programme the students learn as much from each other as they do from teachers and lecturers."

Assessment is by the standard blend of projects, tests and assignments, and while the plan is to keep the cohort small, there are several funding options to keep the course accessible to the widest range of applicants.

The School of Business and Economics offers three scholarships that pay up to 40 per cent of course fees, and the university as a whole has a range of scholarships and bursaries available. For more details, see the school's website at www.lboro.ac.uk.

In an Olympic year, it's natural that more focus is being placed on all aspects of sport, but regardless of this extra attention, West believes the time is right for developing high-level management skills throughout the industry. "For a long time the industry has been dependent on factors that were outside its control, such as funding," explains West. "If you can create a really dynamic group of managers who have a wider perspective, they can take far more control of their own environment and be less dependent on external factors."

The international sports management MBA is one way of training up management contenders for success. Ultimately, it's about securing the future of the industry, concludes West.

"We want to get to a point where people can determine where they are going to be taking their organisation in three to five years' time, and in a way that's not limited by what happens to the funding," he says.

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