While the SportBusiness Postgraduate Course Rankings tend to be dominated by schools from North America and continental Europe, those in the UK are growing in both number and quality. Bradley Rial talks to Benoit Senaux, principal lecturer in Sport Management at Coventry University’s School of Marketing and Management, and Kieran Maguire, lecturer in football finance at the University of Liverpool, about how online courses have helped to drive the sector and the potential challenges posed by the UK’s looming departure from the European Union.
In comparison with other subjects, business and administration comfortably has the largest number of university students in the UK.
Perhaps more importantly, unlike many other areas, its popularity is growing. In the 10 years through to the 2016-17 academic year, the number of undergraduate and postgraduate students in business and administration studies rose by 7.3% – an increase of about 23,000, according to Universities UK.
In order to exploit this expanding market, the number of related degrees has spiked, so it is perhaps no surprise that sports management courses have multiplied.
However, emerging from the clutter are established postgraduate sports management course providers such as Coventry University and the University of Liverpool, which have nurtured stellar reputations on the back of unquestionably positive track records.
Coventry University’s Sport Management MSc course is one of the longest-running of its kind in the UK. Launched in the late 1990s, the course seeks to introduce students to concepts and theories that allow them to analyse sports organisations and how they function.
The course has been a regular in the SportBusiness Postgraduate Course Ranking and was No.1 in the European table as recently as 2016.
“When we first launched just over 20 years ago, there were very few if any such courses around,” Benoit Senaux, principal lecturer in Sport Management at Coventry University’s School of Marketing and Management, tells SportBusiness Professional. “Now there is a growing number of courses – growth has followed the growth of the sport industry over the last two decades.”
Kieran Maguire, lecturer in football finance at the University of Liverpool, echoes the point that whilst there is an increasing appetite from students to learn about what is often perceived as a glamourous industry, there is also a greater demand from the industry itself for recruits with specific abilities.
“The market for postgraduate sports business education is growing as there is demand for talent from governing bodies, sports clubs and sports media outlets for people with a skillset that can enhance the sport or club,” Maguire says.
The University of Liverpool Management School’s MBA Football Industries course was 28th in the worldwide SportBusiness Postgraduate Course Ranking in 2018, and eighth in the European table. The course focuses on leadership, strategy, organisations, innovation, international business and the global environment, as well as entrepreneurship and managing financial resources. It lists Celtic, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, the FA and Uefa as work-based project providers.
The topics covered by sport business postgraduate degrees in the UK have evolved with the industry over the years, with Maguire noting the increasing legal, financial and compliance pressures in the sector that have to be taken into account.
As a result, areas such as governance, sustainability, event legacy and business analytics, as well as esports, have become increasingly important, Senaux adds.
“Authentic assessments are also growing,” he says. “It is important that we are providing students with the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in situations that are as close as possible to those they will encounter in real life.
“At Coventry University, students engage in an intense two-day crisis management simulation, take part in a sport centre simulation, write a grant bid, prepare a hosting bid video and produce a sponsorship pitch.”
Online accessibility has changed the academic landscape, with the tutor-student relationship at some universities often forged via a computer screen rather than in class.
“Students want the benefit of a Netflix-style delivery model on demand to complement face-to-face learning, which still has a lot to offer in terms of groupwork, presentation skills, Q&A sessions and problem solving,” Maguire says.
However, Senaux cautions that “very few courses or institutions know how to run proper online courses with real engagement” and stresses that one of the unique selling points of a successful postgraduate sports management degree is the opportunity to establish fruitful relationships with peers.
He adds: “In many cases, online resources alone are not replacing the physical experience, whether in class or through visits or field trips. One of the added values of postgraduate courses, especially in a ‘small world’ like the sport industry, is often for students to build their network and this is done primarily through interactions – potentially online.
“More important maybe is how new technologies can be used to enhance the students’ experience, whether it is through Skype sessions with international experts or online collaborations with students from other universities.”
Part of the networking opportunity is via work placements with prospective future colleagues or employers. With this in mind, Liverpool’s MBA Football Industries course offers work-based projects at a number of clubs and organisations within the game.
Coventry offers volunteering opportunities throughout the year, for example on a match day with local Premiership rugby union club Wasps, or at the Coventry half-marathon or the Tour de Yorkshire cycling race.
Senaux adds: “We also offer summer internship opportunities or the possibility to do a year-long placement as part of the Master.”
In order to accommodate placements and vital on-the-job work experience, the timetable has to be structured accordingly.
For example, at Coventry, there are approximately 14 hours of formal teaching per week in the first year, leaving students free to pursue experience elsewhere.
Moreover, whilst students are expected to show initiative in exploring work opportunities, expert speakers are also brought in to offer valuable insights.
“We run a guest lecture week with 35 to 40 industry experts coming in and sharing their experience,” Senaux says. “We also provide industry visits and field trips allowing students to see how theory is put in practice.
“Our students visited Old Trafford and had a talk on the business side of Manchester United, but we also arrange a highly subsidised international field trip to Lausanne every year, with talks from and visits to the World Anti-Doping Agency, the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), the International Basketball Federation (Fiba) and the Olympic Studies Centre.”
At Liverpool, recent speakers have included Deloitte Sports Business Group director Alan Switzer, Liverpool FC chief executive Peter Moore, UK Sport head of governance Jane Purdon, former FA executive Adrian Bevington and Jon Watts, sports TV director at UK commercial broadcaster ITV.
“Those delivering the course must also have both a practical knowledge of their chosen field, be it law, marketing or finance, and a passion for sport so they can use appropriate examples and illustrations of good and bad practice,” says Maguire. “Just trying to convert a management course into a sport management course by sticking a photo of Anfield or Lord’s on a standard brochure is not sufficient.”
Although students of such courses are of course targeting careers in the sports industry, Senaux is keen to stress the importance of encouraging the development of transferable skills across the business world.
“Our sport management courses, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level, sit in the Business School, are business and management courses in their own right and have a very strong sport contextualisation,” he says.
“Every single one of our modules is sport-specific, but also develops strong business and management skills, whether that is through sport marketing and sponsorship, sport finance and business analytics, sport governance and strategic management or sport facilities operations management.
With a sizeable proportion of the UK’s postgraduate students coming from abroad, the elephant in the room for universities across the country is Brexit.
Senaux acknowledges that the febrile political environment in the UK, sprouting from the UK’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016, has created a “very uncertain environment”.
“Strangely, post-referendum, we saw an increase in the number of EU applicants,” he says. “It could be an issue, but we do not know what the impact could be on the industry. Its contribution to the climate might not be positive.”
For Maguire, he believes that Brexit will make it “more difficult” for UK institutions to attract foreign students and – as importantly – recruit staff.
A more challenging environment, though, might not be a bad thing for a crowded postgraduate market.
Both Maguire and Senaux expect the proliferation of sport business and management courses in the UK to wane in the coming years.
Senaux says that a number of universities have launched courses “without necessarily having the resources (academic staff), industry contracts and critical mass (students)” to be sustainable.
“It is likely that a few of these courses will just come and go after a few years,” he says.
“Regarding sport management courses, some of the less established and weaker ones could indeed be affected. This is probably a positive evolution in the long term as the offering has grown more quickly than the job opportunities in the industry, and some courses may have been launched without sufficient consideration and expertise.”
Maguire adds: “I expect the sector to plateau in terms of popularity. We are already seeing some courses disappear from weaker institutions and there will be a Darwinian process as students gravitate to those courses with better reputations.”
However, with so many options, how can students identify courses that are not about to disappear?
“Don’t be impressed by the venue of the course or a star name associated with it,” Maguire says. “Ask at an open day or impact session about the ‘afters’ in terms of proportion of students who go on to work in the industry, details of guest speakers from the sport who can give a hands-on guide to working in the industry and opportunities for placements or work-based projects within the sport.”
With university postgraduate tuition fees rising to nearly five figures per year in the UK, the process of selecting the right course is in itself a business skill; a test of a prospective student’s ability to carry out essential due diligence. In a crowded space, some institutions simply offer a more promising return on investment than others.