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Essential Skills Needed for Sports Management Career Success

March 13
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Under the leadership of coach Pia Sundhage, the U.S. Women’s Soccer team won two Olympic gold medals and a second-place finish in the 2012 FIFA World Cup.1 She brought a combination of laid-back leadership, contagious positivity, and high ethical standards to coaching. Those qualities proved to be a winning combination that fostered trust and unity among star players on the U.S. team, such as Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, and Hope Solo.1

Whether you want to follow in the footsteps of Sundhage or carve out a different path in sport management, there are plenty of opportunities as the industry rebounds back from the pandemic.

The sport industry is estimated at between $500 to $600 billion worldwide, with job growth projected at 7% between 2024 and 2034.2 Within this high-growth industry, roles range from representing athletes in contract negotiations to overseeing sporting facilities to managing advertising campaigns.

To develop a lucrative and rewarding sport management career, you will need a solid understanding of organizational culture and behavior, a sense of ethics, and a robust professional network.

This post explores some of the top skills—from leadership to communication—that you need to advance your career.

The role of leadership in sport management

In the world of sport management, leadership is more than giving orders; it's about inspiring others to perform at their best.

Whether coaching on the field or working behind the scenes, highly effective leaders know how to adapt to change, motivate through positivity, and build strong connections within teams. 3

Leading by example

What ultimately differentiates new leadership alchemists from the rest is the way in which they develop others.4

Gareth Southgate and Stuart Lancaster, both leaders in the world of rugby, say it’s essential to keep up with the latest leadership research. 3

If you want to build an inclusive sport culture and community, demonstrate honesty, dignity, and respect in your interactions.

Living by these principles creates a foundation for authentic leadership, a foundation which is also characterized by:

  • Curiosity: Continuously seek new ideas and learn from failures, understanding that there's always room for development4
  • Connection: Connect a team with their heritage and values as well as the pride of representing their city, school, and fans4
  • Confidence: Focus on the team’s strengths to keep morale high and instill a winning mindset. Maintain a calm, motivational style even in high-pressure situations4
  • Collaboration: Empower team members and foster an open environment for decision-making and feedback, which are crucial to success4

Communication skills

Effective communication lies at the core of successful sport management.

Whether it's interacting with players, coaches, or stakeholders, managers must excel in both verbal and written communication. Listening skills are equally crucial, ensuring that everyone's perspectives and needs are heard and understood.5 Additionally, crisis communication is vital for handling controversies and challenges with grace and professionalism.

Negotiation and relationship management

Whether you join a firm or launch your own agency, in the field of sport management you need to be a skilled negotiator who can secure player contracts and sponsorship deals.

One of the great success stories in sport is author, philanthropist, and Leigh Steinberg, who consulted on the ‘90s film “Jerry Maguire” about a sport agent who starts his own firm after getting fired.

In contrast to the blockbuster film, Steinberg’s career started with a “touchdown.” Fresh out of law school in 1975, Steinberg represented his first client, college friend and quarterback Steve Bartkowski, the first of many number-one NFL draft picks.6

Bartkowski was in negotiations with the Atlanta Falcons but dissatisfied with the progress his agent was making.6 Steinberg stepped in and represented Bartkowski, clinching a four-year deal worth $600,000—considered the most lucrative rookie contract in NFL history at the time.6

In his 49-year career, Steinberg has secured over $4 billion for the hundreds of pro athletes he represents.

Steinberg attributes his success—including overcoming personal setbacks—to one piece of advice from his father: Treasure relationships and make a difference.7

Throughout your career, you must build and nurture strong relationships with players, coaches, and sponsors like Steinberg did to achieve long-term success.

Financial acumen for sport managers

In addition to negotiating contracts, managers are responsible for budgeting, revenue generation, and financial planning.8

You can develop a solid understanding of finance and economic principles through advanced coursework. It’s also helpful to seek out professional mentors who can share lessons that will help when you’re faced with tough decisions so you will have the tools to ensure the financial sustainability of whatever sports organizations you join.

Ethical and legal considerations in the sport industry

Upholding ethical standards and navigating legal obligations are non-negotiables in sport management.

Managers must operate with integrity, adhering to ethical principles outlined by organizations such as the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Gaining an understanding of legal frameworks through courses and certifications is also crucial.

Ethical and legal knowledge will provide a road map for mitigating risks and ensuring compliance.

Top ethical issues in sport include:

  • Athlete social activism and fan engagement 9
  • Fair play and sportsmanship 9
  • Gender equality and inclusion 9
  • Use of performing-enhancing drugs 9
  • Protecting athlete health and welfare 9

Networking and professional development for sport management professionals

Even with preparation, determination, and advanced education, it can be tough to break into the tight-knit world of sport management.

The best way to open doors to full-time opportunities is through an internship or inside connection, notes Carolyne Savini, SVP of recruiting at Turnkey Sports and Entertainment.10

Follow these tips to start building your professional network:

  • Attend industry conferences: Meet hiring managers at conferences, such as Sports Industry Networking and Career Conference and the Sports, Events, Marketing and Entertainment Conference. While not free, these events offer the chance to develop relationships that could result in future job opportunities.11
  • Go to workshops: Stay updated on industry trends through education events and meet like-minded professionals.11
  • Secure internships: Gain invaluable experience while in school that matches your professional interests. Apply yourself, ask questions, and build relationships with potential future employers.11
  • Join professional organizations: Demonstrate your commitment to the industry by joining organizations, such as North American Society of Sports Managers, Sports Marketing Association, and National Association of Collegiate Women Administrators.11

Fast-track your sport management career

The University of Kansas’ online master's degree sport management primes you for a vast array of sport management degree jobs, harnessing your passion for sport and equipping you with the business, marketing, and leadership skills needed in today's dynamic sporting arena—in as few as two years.

As a proud Jayhawk, you can build the expertise you need to lead sports organizations without interrupting your career momentum.

Aspiring sport professionals can take full advantage of KU’s robust sport management curriculum, which includes coursework in leadership theories, finance and economics, and legal aspects of intercollegiate and professional sport.

Don’t miss your chance to excel in the field of sport. Explore KU’s curriculum, including the program’s internship opportunity, and schedule a call with an admissions outreach advisor today.