The Master of Sports Administration degree at Ohio University has been running since 1966, the oldest and most prestigious postgraduate sport management programme in the world. In the nine years that SportBusiness has been operating these rankings, the course has claimed the number one spot on seven occasions, demonstrating its consistency and ability to change with the times. After the most difficult academic year in living memory, we spoke to Jim Kahler, who stepped down as the AECOM Center for Sports Administration’s executive director in July this year, and his replacement Matthew Cacciato, who is also the director of the Master of Sports Administration course.
SB: Steering Ohio back to the top of the rankings is quite a way to end what must have been a tricky year.
JK: Seven out of nine – it’s not bad! It was sad that we had to go online in March [after the Covid-19 lockdown] and that the kids of this year didn’t get their traditional send off. It’s great to be back on top, but it’s really a tribute to the class of three years ago [who submit the alumni surveys for the 2020 rankings]. I stay in touch with a lot of those kids and they’re just a great group. And those are the kids that are coming back and giving us consulting projects and serving as alumni mentors – part of the strength of this course is that the relationship doesn’t end at graduation; it just gets started.
Your consistently high scores for the alumni network are a key part of your consistency in these rankings. What makes it so strong?
JK: I think they buy into our culture, and our culture is not for everyone. It’s one of giving back and taking care of one another. It’s a certain sense of pride when you get admitted to the programme, and a certain sense of responsibility. The old saying, ‘there’s no I in team’, – this is really how closely connected this network is, and it’s based on pride and responsibility.
MC: The class of 2017 in particular is really strong in a number of different areas. One of the things they’re leading right now is a group of them, along with a few of our 2018 graduates, all black, African-American alumni who have got together to come to us and say, ‘let’s work on increasing our diversity and inclusion and understanding these issues in these times together. Let us help you be part of the solution you put in place’, and that is the best example of how our alumni can give back to us.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your plans for the coming year?
MC: It’s a brave new world out there. Especially in sports, having as many students as we do, especially on the grad level at such a critical time in their career development, they’ve made the investment of time and money, to come to you and be a part of this, but we’re hanging in there. They’re really well spirited and our alumni network is stepping up and providing a lot of meaningful content and networking for them.
We’re in a fortunate position that we’ve got great researchers, and we’re going to supplement the experiential events that we’re known for – the live sporting events where our students are in the middle of operations or marketing or other functions – those are gone, and we’re going to replace that with research.
We’re going to be much more research-focused and I think that a lot of new practices are going to come out of the data that our students can collect. So we’re going to lead with research and collaborative teamwork around better understanding these complex issues: obviously Covid; but also the scheduling and the budgeting; the facilities and mechanisms that are in place that need to be adjusted; and clearly diversity and inclusion and how that is part of everything going forward. We see an opportunity for us to publish more thought leadership, write more case studies and uncover data that can be part of the solution going forward.
What other changes can we expect?
JK: The big change is Matthew now taking over both as the programme director and as executive director of the AECOM Center. We’re very fortunate to have him in those roles and I couldn’t be more confident that I’m leaving it in the right hands.
What’s new in the future is our jump into more executive education. The sports gambling education certificate is our first foray into online executive education. When I decided it was time to step out away from the Center, I really wanted to hang on to this new baby called sports gambling and really look to become a leader on that, because as it opens up and becomes legalised here, it’s going to have such a huge impact on the industry. It’s going to mean jobs for our students, it’s going to mean impact on sponsorships, impact on fan engagement.
It will be really interesting to see how professional teams use it to create a bigger connection with fans, and at the same time, we have to look at and have empathy for those people who get addicted to gambling, so there will be some work on that. I think college administrators are ill-prepared to deal with sports gambling because there just has not been enough training or education on it so far, and we now are up to 20 states where it’s legal and it’s forecast to be $500bn industry. So I’m going to be overseeing our development in that area.
We’re also talking about doing other topics in executive education, including a facility design course as part of our partnership with AECOM. There will be other topics – analytics keeps becoming a bigger part of what we do and the recruitment of Dr Liz Wanless is a huge step in that direction. Not only is she our analytics guru, but she is also the director of analytics at the College of Business, and that’s something we’re going to keep digging deeper into.