Should the emphasis be on “Sport” or “Management” in Sport Management?


The education of sport managers has a rich and fascinating history. The origins of this discipline may originate as early as the 1890s, when the administration of physical education was delivered at some universities in the United States. However, a clearer first recording of teaching Sport Management was noted in 1957, when Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley reached out to the academic community for advice on where to find qualified individuals specifically educated to manage in sport. In response to this call, Dr James Mason started a Master’s degree programme in Sport Administration at Ohio University in 1966. Since this time, the discipline has made significant progress and seen substantial growth, with the North American Society for Sport Management (NASSM) currently listing well over 500 Undergraduate and Post-graduate programmes worldwide. These curriculums are now also affiliated with academic societies on six different continents (NASSM, EASM, SMAANZ, AASM, ALGEDE, and ASMA), and the World Association for Sport Management (WASM) recently being established.

As the field continues to grow and prosper, Sport Management has acquired an element of tension over its domain within an academic environment. Because the foundational principles and perspectives of Sport Management stem from academic fields such as Physical Education, Kinesiology and Leisure Studies, many top universities still consider Sport Management as part of these academic departments. However more recently, universities with leading Sport Management programmes have been seeking influence and building a foundation from the curriculum and principles of University Business Schools. In other words, the focus has shifted from ‘Sport Management’ to ‘Sport Management’.

And so we face a dilemma. Where should the emphasis be: on ‘Sport’ or on ‘Management’? Whilst it seems the most obvious answer is Sport, the real answer is actually Management. Sport provides the interesting and unique context in which we must manage, but the true core of the discipline is made up of key business and management principles. As a result of this shift in perception, some Business scholars have proposed that there is perhaps no need for sport management programmes whatsoever; individuals should simply obtain the skills and principles from a mainstream business programme, then later apply these to the context of sport. The emphasis of business principles is also reflected in the industry of sport, with major sporting enterprises moving away from the habitual hiring of former coaches and players to fill their Senior Management positions. This break from tradition is generally a good thing, as businesses and organisations within the Sport industry, like all major financial enterprises, requires strong business acumen in order to survive in the current market. What’s more, the sport industry’s current trend and emerging field of Sport Analytics (think Moneyball) entails evidence-based decision-making approaches, influencing the composition of management teams across the industry.

Whilst management principles do provide the foundation, attention to the context in which you manage deserves equal consideration. For example, transition to the highly business-oriented approach has presumed that sport is being defined in a way which is consistent with this perspective. This is an area which is ripe for elaborate discussion elsewhere, but sport can be defined in several ways across various dimensions (e.g., participation vs. spectatorship, team vs. individual, etc). Although sport means different things to different people (especially across the world), scholars have generally defined it with the inclusion of core components like competition, rules of play, and the use of physical activity and skill. There is even a new perspective which considers how ‘sporty’ a sport actually is! These notions teach us that the definition of sport and the specific goals of sporting organisations (ie: profit vs. not-for-profit) have an impact on how management principles are taught. Whilst sport is not a wholly unique context in which to manage, a sporting environment can often prompt a change of judgement or difference in approach for the manager.

For example, one of the core elements of a competitive sport environment is the uncertainty of outcome, which in turn has implications in relation to wider areas of the organisation, such as marketing, finance, and facility management. The elevated emotional experience and personal investment that sport invokes is also one of the defining aspects of the field, which can have an impact on how we communicate with stakeholders such as participants, spectators, employees and sponsors. The teaching of Sport Business should accentuate these distinctive features, with the support of informed context-specific research. Such an approach across the discipline should in turn facilitate highly relevant educational experiences for those who wish to pursue a career in this field.

The increased emphasis on business skills has in many ways taken us away from the root principles of participation and the teaching of physical activity in sporting academia. Has the pendulum perhaps swung a bit too far? The vast majority of undergraduate Sport Management programmes in the UK and US have no formal requirement to take classes relating to sport participation or coaching. We are therefore producing an entire generation of Sport Management graduates who are equipped with managerial skills, but may have a very limited understanding of key sport components such as physical fitness, coaching and teamwork. There are a few programmes, in Europe and Asia for example, where these principles are indeed compulsory for Sport Management students, providing a curriculum that is more in line with the early theory and practise of Sport (e.g. the Olympic ideal of ‘healthy mind and healthy body’).

As the concept of sport generally has physical activity at the heart of its meaning, it seems that an opportunity exists to ensure that core sporting elements are incorporated into future Sport Management curricula. As leaders in the field contemplate the role of Sport Management education in the future, such an approach seems important for preparing students to effectively manage in the sport environment.

This insight piece was written by Dr Steve Swanson, the Director of Sport Leadership at the Institute for Sport Business at Loughborough University London, located on the iconic Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

You are invited to click here  for information on Loughborough University London’s upcoming Graduate Forum 2015, key application dates and scholarship information.


Back to listing