The University of Massachusetts, Amherst’s MBA/MS in Sport Management has become just the third course to take the top spot in these rankings since we began them back in 2012. Steve McKelvey, graduate programme director, and Janet Fink, department chair, tell Adam Nelson how a focus on attracting a diverse student body and offering a diverse range of learning and workplace experiences has helped propel the course to first place, and how they intend to build on their success to build an even stronger course in future years.
What are the USPs of the course at UMass?
SM: The McCormack Department has several unique program elements that we highlight to potential entrants into our program, especially when contrasted with the set of programs that our applicants are typically applying to. First and perhaps most importantly is our program being housed in a nationally-ranked and on-the-rise business school. As a result of being within the Isenberg School of Management, our curriculum is grounded in core business and management best practices, while our students can access courses and resources that will help them become well-rounded managers and leaders. Many of our students access on-ground courses in topics beyond just sport management. Hence our trademarked slogan: ‘The Business School for Sport Business.’
It goes without saying that one of the most obvious selling points is our vast and unparalleled alumni network. Being the second-oldest program in the world, we have over 40 years of alumni who have reached the pinnacles of almost every industry segment. McCormack alumni currently include four MLB general managers, one NBA general manager, over 30 College athletic directors and conference commissioners, the Commissioner of the PGA Jay Monahan… it goes on.
How do you help your graduates get work?
SM: Our digital alumni database, which all of our students have access to, lists over 3,000 alumni working in the sport industry. We have purposefully built out a successful ‘Graduate Mentor Program’, whereby every grad student is paired with an alumnus in an industry sector that aligns with that student’s particular career interests. This program always serves as a fertile source of job and internship placements, as well as career and personal development. In any year, we can typically attribute almost half of the job placements to student networking with our alumni.
These relationships and proof points of success support another one of the hallmarks of our curriculum, and that is our deep and long standing belief in experiential learning. Many of our courses entail working directly with sport organizations on real-world issues and challenges. One of the pillars of this commitment to experiential learning is the 10 year relationship we have between our Sport Marketing class and Octagon. Early each fall, Octagon provides the class with a marketing brief on behalf of one of their clients that challenges the students, working in teams, to develop an integrated sponsorship marketing plan to present to Octagon’s clients. Our so-called “Octagon Bowl” culminates with a visit to Octagon’s headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut where the student teams present in front of a panel of Octagon executives who provide their critical feedback and insights to each of the presentations before selecting a winning team. Octagon is just one of the many sport organizations that our graduate students get to interact with, and learn from. These consulting projects often, but not always, intersect with our industry-leading alumni network. The rich relationships we build with our students lasts long into their working careers, and help fuel classroom integration and thought leadership. This past year students have, as part of specific course curriculum, worked directly with executives of The Harlem Globetrotters, UMass Athletics, Minnesota Timberwolves, Twitter, Major League Rugby, The Oak View Group, Farmers Insurance, Fenway Sports Management, and Fuse Marketing. Each year brings a new and diverse collection of experiential learning-based projects. Many of these projects serve as extended interviews and create lead-generation opportunities for our job seeking students.
Another point of pride and distinction for our program is our diversity, not only in terms of the personal backgrounds and nationalities of our cohort, but also their career interests. Having a student from India pursuing a marketing position within Major League Soccer; sitting next to a student from California seeking to get into Major League Baseball’s General Manager’s track; counseling a student from Texas aspiring to become a Division I Athletic Director; helping to develop a student from the UK who seeks to work in sport analytics…this diversity provides a vibrant environment for learning, growth and exploring the full breadth of the sports and entertainment industry. Each year, just over a quarter of our students come from other countries, providing their own unique perspectives on sport to the cohort and helping foster a culture of well-rounded thinkers. Our MS class is typically quite small – approximately 22 students each year – so our classrooms benefit not only from an intimate, discussion-based pedagogy, but also from the variety of backgrounds, perspectives, and career aspirations our students offer in support of a robust learning environment.
The final elements potential students should consider is that we hold arguably the most attractive funding package of any graduate sport management program, support a ratio of almost one PhD faculty member to every 2 grad students, which results in many independent study projects whereby students and faculty work very closely together, and are within close proximity to both Boston and New York City.
You performed strongly in graduate employment rates. How have you worked to improve this?
JF:We have always had a strong focus on working hard to get students jobs upon graduation. From the time they begin, Steve discovers each student’s area of interest and matches them with an alumni mentor in that area in order to begin networking. Steve also coordinates several professional development trips for each cohort that introduces students to a variety of industry professionals. Throughout their time at UMass, Steve, and other faculty, work closely and consistently toward connecting students with industry professionals – obtaining employment for our students is something we think about and work toward from the moment they arrive on campus.
Where do the majority of your students come from? Are they straight from undergraduate programmes or have they come back to school later in their careers?
SM: The majority come from the United States with a good mix of educational and sport backgrounds. In any year, about half of the incoming class has some kind of business degree, and the rest have a liberal arts degree. The common denominator between them all is strong critical thinking and communication skills, which we are able to get a good handle on through the application and on-campus interview process. Although it’s a misconception that real world experience is required for our program, the truth is that we do prefer it. My personal opinion is that graduate studies are most beneficial and appreciated if the student has some real world perspective to apply and reflect on. That said, in any year we will accept a handful of very mature students coming straight out of undergraduate studies. As a result, our average age for each incoming class is around 25.
What are some of the areas you’re looking to improve and the challenges you expect to face?
JF: We regularly discuss ways we can increase diversity in our programme – both in terms of female students and students of color. Steve, along with our development folks, recently secured a significant donation that we can use enhance our diversity. Also, soon we will be announcing a partnership that Steve developed which will also help us reach our goals.
We also recognize the importance of analytics in the industry and recently hired a new faculty member with expertise in sport analytics. This addition, along with numerous recently hired faculty throughout Isenberg with an analytics focus, will substantially enhance our programme offerings in this area.