There are many measures of a university course’s success. One of the most surefire ways to know if a programme is working, however, is to ask those who have come through it. By this criterion, San Diego State University’s Sports MBA has had a wildly successful showing in the 2018 SportBusiness Postgraduate Rankings.
As well as coming out top of our student satisfaction ranking, the course was also voted the most useful, and topped the graduate choice measurement. Scott Minto, the director of the programme, believes the reason for this success is quite simple: “We’ve always had a focus on the student experience, and I think that that translates and resonates well.”
Minto believes the background of many of the students has helped the university’s cause in this regard, as “most of them come from a non-sports-business background” and are there in the first place because “they’re using the course to springboard into a new career”. With a strong showing for graduates in employment after six months, the programme seems to be working.
“We acknowledge that transition, and build a foundation the entire time they’re there with guest speakers, software training opportunities, site visits, field trips, really trying to enable that transition into a sport industry career”, says Minto. “Everything we do has the student experience in mind and I think it just resonates into their careers. They tend to look back at our focus on their time during the programme with quite a bit of respect and appreciation for where it helped lead them.”
Two key pillars for SDSU are the exclusivity of the course, and the diversity of the classes, says Minto. “We’re not just pumping students through the turnstiles and trying to get as many per year as we can,” he says. “We carefully select people, we look for all types of diversity. That’s something that I think our students respect quite a lot. We place heavy emphasis on having a diverse student body, I think that lends a lot of value to the experience overall. You’re not surrounded by a bunch of people who are exactly like you and have the same values and background and you get to experience the programme with everyone together through all classes. You get a lot of time with the same people and those relationships are valued.”
When asked to surmise the course, Minto says his first response is always “rigorous”.
“I tell people it’s challenging,” he says. “When I travel to the Real Madrid Graduate School to teach the students about the US sports business, those students can’t believe it when I tell them my guys start at 8am, and that they’re expected to be dressed business casual every day, and business professional for presentations. We treat it like a board room in a sport business organisation or club. We look at every single day as an opportunity to learn more and challenge ourselves and I feel like that’s a little bit unique.”
“From the day that they get here it’s all about getting a job, it’s not just about getting through the courses and getting good grades.”
Another distinguishing factor is the annual trip. “A lot of programmes will go to NYC or London, maybe Beijing,” Minto explains. “But we go to a developing country, a unique feature that I think really helps with student perspective of what they’re getting into in the industry as well as a tremendous bonding experience for the students.”
Minto describes the course at SDSU as “academic-first”, in contrast with many other postgraduate sport management degrees which rely on high-profile guest speakers or other industry figures teaching alongside their full-time positions. “We have that as well, but we have that in addition to a really solid academic base, so I think people view it as they’re getting what they paid for in an MBA.”
When guest speakers are brought in, they tend to be alumni of the course, who can speak about their experiences in the industry but also about how the MBA programme has informed and helped their career. Minto gives the examples of Mike Kitts, director of partnership marketing at the Golden State Warriors, and Jack Tipton, director of partnership sales at the Pittsburgh Penguins, as former students who have returned to pass on their wisdom.
“These guys are defending champs of their respective leagues, but when they come in, it’s not just ‘show us your ring’ and ‘tell us some stories about Steph Curry or Sydney Crosby’,” says Minto. “When we have them coming, I’ll tell my students, ‘this person’s coming in in a few weeks, here’s something they’re currently thinking about, so you guys put together a presentation for them’. So when they come in it’s not just career day, it’s: if you want to work in my part of the business, you need to learn Nielsen Scarborough software, you need to be good at this, you need to be good at that, so it’s constantly with the end goal in mind, it’s never a career day or all about the alumni.”
This reflects the way the entire course is structured around eventual employment within the industry, rather than just ticking the MBA boxes. “I think from the day that they get here it’s all about getting a job, it’s not just about getting through the courses and getting good grades,” says Minto. “That’s all obviously necessary, but when we think about it, everything we do is aimed towards getting those students ready for that next phase.”
Part of that readying process, he explains, is ensuring students are keeping their ambitions realistic, and are in the right field for their skillset. “I don’t find a lot of value in humouring students who have these sometimes unattainable goals, so it’s all about, ‘let me tell you what might be a better path for you and let’s work together on how you could be really satisfied doing that’. We’re all about boots on the ground and figuring out what you can do for now, and I think some programmes miss that piece, where they’re just so concerned with getting students in the door and out the door.”
Thanks to this process of identifying the best roles for each student, the work placements that alumni find themselves in are spread out across the industry.
“We probably put as many people into data analytics roles as we put into partnerships sales roles… and event management roles, and community affairs and relations roles,” says Minto. “I would love to say that we specialise in one area, but we have found over the years that alumni go into so many diverse fields that we really don’t have any single path. There are some programmes that are really heavy on amateur athletics or collegiate athletics; that’s definitely not us.
“We’re all over the map, and I’m happy to be that way. It’s a lot more interesting, right?”