That moment when you realize you won’t play in college. Or beyond.
Now what? Can you still plan a career in sports?
Yes, consider studying sports management, says an assistant dean and three former high school athletes. All agree that sports business is a highly competitive field. Yet even if you don’t play at the NCAA level, you can still follow your passion by studying and working in fields such as sales, marketing, event planning, law, or facility management, they say. And that’s not even including sports medicine, athletic training, or coaching fields.
“Maybe [high school students] have played, maybe they have a passion for sports, a love of sports, and they’re wondering, ‘how can I stay involved with this?’ They might not be playing Division I, but can still be connected,” says Dr. Brian Smith, assistant dean of Colangelo College of Business at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix and director of the sports business major.
“This is way more than the game on the floor. There’s this huge industry.”
At Grand Canyon University, there are over 750 students in the Sports Business program and over 10,000 students total in the Colangelo College of Business.
Nationally, there are approximately 300 undergrad programs, 150 master’s degree programs and 25-30 doctoral sport management programs, according to Dr. Robin Ammon of the North American Society for Sport Management. This number includes sports business programs that incorporate areas such as sport facility management, sport marketing, sport law, intercollegiate athletics, professional and minor league sport, but does not include physical education, kinesiology or athletic training programs.
Smith says high school students arrive on campus with a narrow knowledge of the vast sports business.
“The (students’) size and scope of the industry is limited,” he said. “They may come in growing up on Xbox, in owner mode. So a lot of the conversations we have are with students and parents, to take the blinders off. There are opportunities to be involved. There’s this huge business.”
Smith says he had that moment of realization when he played Division I basketball for the University of New Mexico. “I looked around at the electric atmosphere,” he said. “I’m playing The Pit in UNM, 20,000 people are there– 20,000 red shirts. I looked at the audience, TV cameras, signage, sponsorships, employees, headsets…It just kind of clicked. It’s not just a game, this is a whole event. This is a huge product.”
Taylor Winston was playing basketball for West Aurora (Ill.) High School when she realized sports could still be her career. She had passed out on the court, initially believed to be because of dehydration. Doctors later diagnosed her with a heart valve too small to pump the blood. “They suggested surgery if I wanted to continue playing,” she said. “It was a risk I didn’t want to take. I loved the sport. So it affected my decision to study sports business.” Winston is now a 21-year-old junior at GCU.
Brittany Holen, a college senior from Omaha, and member of GCU’s women’s golf team who played three sports in high school, volunteered at the Hoophall West high school basketball tournament during her freshman year and soon decided to study sports business. “It was just folding t-shirts and making Gatorade, but I was making relationships, like with Position Sports,” the marketing firm where she later interned.
Recent sports business graduate Austin Walker was a centerfielder for Valley Christian High School in Chandler, Ariz., when he realized he should study sports business.
“I knew I wasn’t going to play D-I, D-II, D-III college ball. I knew I didn’t have a career in playing, that I wouldn’t get drafted or make it into the majors,” he said. “So I decided not to try out for the collegiate sports.
“But you can make your passion your career. Pro baseball was not in my gifting, but it can still totally line up. You don’t have to play to follow your passion.”
Smith suggests to “not be a generalist, focus on your niche, start figuring it out. There’s pro sports, amateur sports, youth sports, player/personnel, video work, scouting, sales, marketing, social media—so which is the path that is a good fit for you?”
And all say the key to starting sports management careers is getting experience— job shadowing, volunteering or interning — and building relationships in the field.
Winston says she worked the Nike Chi-League tournament in Chicago, assisting the head event coordinator. “I got to sit in meetings with the Nike Chicago brand manager, products marketing manager, and basketball event coordinator,” she said. “I was only 19, but I was sitting with these huge people, and they would ask my opinion. I realized I wanted to do sports event planning. It was a cool moment.”
She said when her summer internship was over, she was back in Arizona when she got a call from the tournament marketing manager. “They said, ‘Where are you? We need you.’ I said I was back in school, and she said they needed me there. So Nike paid for my hotel and flight to come back for a week to work for them.” She managed the kids’ court, scheduling, planning and marketing. And, she got to meet Joaquim Noah, Scottie Pippen and Anthony Davis.
Holen, a lifelong Nebraska Huskers football fan, was thrilled when she job-shadowed at the Nebraska-Iowa game the Saturday after Thanksgiving. She says although it was 11 degrees and freezing rain, it was a “great” experience. They salted sidewalks, set up gates and tables, checked radios, assisted security, helped spectators avoid TV cords, and helped find a balloon for a boy who hoped to release it for the touchdown tradition. “Sports is entertainment. You want to think of the fans first, how can we keep them engaged and happy with their experience?”
And then there’s the matter of finding employment after graduation. Graduates are faced with an oversaturated field: the programs are numerous, the opportunities highly coveted.
Smith says there are many jobs in business, but wants students to understand that breaking in takes time. He advises interested students learn the field, build the relationships, know the business, work internships and stay current. “Put in the time, there’s no short cuts. It’s not easy. But it can be rewarding.”
Walker knows there are jobs. As a lifelong Diamondbacks fan, he was thrilled to work an 11-month internship in their corporate partnerships office. His enthusiasm spilled over into his approach to tasks, and he was hired upon graduation. Now a ticket sales administrator for the team, he loves it. “It feels right. It’s an entry level job, yes, but it’s incredibly rewarding. It’s a fantastic culture.”
The organization had just signed All-Star pitcher Zach Greinke when USA Today HSS spoke with Walker. “It’s been so exciting. There’s an excitement and buzz with Greinke. It’s rewarding and fun, and we’re all just ready for April.”
And he feels a bit of awe every time he steps onto the same elevator he remembers riding as a kid at a Diamondbacks game. “Often times I think, man, this is awesome,” he said. “I feel very blessed to have a job I like right out of college.”