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Kevin Tallec Marston, CIES | The sports management higher education sector facing the aftermath of Covid-19

Dr Kevin Tallec Marston, academic coordinator, research fellow and academic project manager for the Fifa Master at the International Centre for Sport Studies (CIES), discusses the challenges and potential opportunities that are facing the sport management education sector, and academia more widely, as the world recovers from the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020.

Few sectors or industries have gone untouched by the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet higher education, and more specifically the sports management sector, is fundamentally dependent on the proximity, interaction, and exchange that the global lockdown has mostly rendered impossible. From in-class collaboration to on-site learning experiences, the model of regular face-to-face interaction between teachers and students, industry experts, and general campus life has been turned on its head. What have we learned so far during these tumultuous times?

Kevin Tallec Marston, academic projects manager & research fellow in history (Photo by CIES)

I see a number of challenges and opportunities which may force the sector to refocus and, maybe for some, redefine their raison d’être. Some in wider higher education announce a reckoning with the university sector to finally face the consequences of recent trends in astronomical price inflation, matched with largely inflexible cost structures[1]. If sports management remains a niche in the education world, it still involves hundreds of universities worldwide and a safe estimate of at least three-to-seven thousand students annually enrolled worldwide[2]. So what does it mean for the sector? I see three inter-related issues: impacts on the course life cycle; the curriculum; and cost structure.

Every course has its own life cycle from promotion and recruitment to placement and career services. Beginning with recruitment, how will courses fare with the effects of travel bans and quarantines – particularly with regard to international students? Even if courses with strong reputations and longer waiting lists may not suffer as much, every programme will face a larger (than normal) percentage of applicants unwilling to risk leaving jobs or to take on debt. Some applicants will also prefer to apply later or need more time to commit and accept offers, all of which has a knock-on effect in the admissions process for every programme in the sector.

At the other end, student placement, and more generally career services, have already been, and will undoubtedly continue to be, affected by the hiring freezes across the industry. The Covid world will test the relationships that sports management courses have with the labour market. In terms of supporting positive short-term career outcomes for graduates, schools may begin to rethink some career skills training, like how to prepare students for videoconference interviews.

In any crisis, some sectors of industry may thrive and if schools can correctly anticipate some of these trends in sport, then their graduates will be better placed to transition into the workplace. Recently, the head of recruitment for Bain & Co. noted how the consulting sector surprisingly did 20-30 per cent more business than usual in the wake of the financial crisis and that this was a boon for hiring MBA and business school graduates ten years ago[3]. Is an area like esports one that will have a similar unexpected growing demand for labour in the next two years?

This, of course, raises questions about the types of links that courses have with the market. While the independence and critical thinking space of academia are paramount to a university’s identity, no modern institution, even less a sports management programme, can truly exist for long without some relationship to the wider world. The freedom of academia comes with responsibility and a commitment to the values of education and research. In the case of sports management, it is a responsibility to prepare the citizens of the global sporting republic if you will allow the analogy. It is the trust that the wider world, in this case sport, holds in the academy that serves, in part, as a guarantee for the university’s legitimacy. Where and when that relationship breaks or is affected, due in this case to a crisis that halts the industry as a whole, no university will have an easy time continuing as normal. Sports management is no different.

This is linked to the second issue I see facing courses: the curriculum. In terms of course content, how will courses adapt to a new landscape where online delivery will certainly gain importance? The use of videoconferencing – which most have used by now – will become essential in providing teachers with the possibility to add more supplemental digital content, but also deal with unexpected changes to the academic year. Similarly, as we have all witnessed, the technology is there to include more guest lecturers or outside speakers who never would normally come to campus. For example, we were able to organize some ad-hoc Zoom sessions for our Fifa Master students this June with alumni who work in, or with, five of the six football confederations around the world providing added learning and exchanges that normally would not happen – it is hardly feasible to bring 25 alumni working from Malaysia to Miami to the classroom! The on-site learning through field visits, so important to sports management courses, is something that will be more of a challenge to conduct virtually – but we should begin to think about it.

The situation also poses challenges to teaching methods and assessment. Some courses which may have to deliver lectures, at least partly online in the coming months, need to be adapted to the constraints and opportunities of this new format. Whether it is time zone differences for students studying internationally or lecturers connecting from abroad, online methods have limits. Even the best annotation tools on a learning platform or virtual breakout rooms have to be thought through in a way that fits each learning objective. Innovation and flexibility are essential here.

Palais DuPeyrou, the CIES headquarters in Neuchâtel (Photo by CIES)

The third issue of relevance I see for the coming year is cost structure. What kind of margins do sports management courses operate with? With tuition inflation across much of higher education and the resulting impact on recruitment, this will undoubtedly affect the demand for sports management courses, which, let’s face it, is a leisure industry. With the industry largely on hold, will students flock to courses with the same enthusiasm in the next 12 months? For programmes that are largely tuition-dependent and have rigid cost structures, this may be a difficult situation to manage. Courses which can rely on university endowments to weather the storm or scholarships allow them to retain top applicants may have an easier time. Perhaps this is where the role of alumni will be essential against this institutional financial vulnerability. Business school INSEAD recently boasted one of the largest one-time donations (€66m) gifted by an anonymous alum. Will sports management courses be able to appeal to alumni who have succeeded and willing to give back in these difficult times?

Ultimately, the Covid crisis is pushing schools to return to their core values, which is not such a bad thing. Why do we do what we do? What are our core values as an education sector? How do we continue to marry research and teaching for a valuable learning experience for our students in this constantly changing environment? If we can confidently answer those questions, and successfully address recruitment, career services, curriculum, and our funding models, then sports management higher education will hopefully navigate through stormy waters to future calmer seas.

[1] Prof. Scott Galloway talks to Anderson Cooper | How the pandemic could disrupt higher education – NYU Stern School of Business Professor – both in an article https://marker.medium.com/this-chart-predicts-which-colleges-will-survive-the-coronavirus-8aa3a4f4c9e6 and interview with CNN https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3i4uMc2X0k&feature=share

[2] I estimated here based on the figures in the ranking and NASSM. The courses surveyed on the SportBusiness Postgraduate Rankings have a median 27 students (38 on average but that is with outliers) in the Top 40 since 2017 and NASSM lists more than 300 schools with Masters programmes in sports management. Some programmes I know in Europe are not even listed, so I would guess the figure is higher.

[3] https://poetsandquants.com/2020/06/15/bain-on-mba-recruitment-during-covid-19/

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