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Partnerships help universities bridge the gap between academia and industry

As the ties between universities and sports organisations grow closer and educational institutes continue to look for new ways to strengthen their connections to industry, SportBusiness takes a look at how the growth in partnerships is offering benefits to all parties.

As the ties between universities and sports organisations grow closer and educational institutes continue to look for new ways to strengthen their connections to industry, SportBusiness takes a look at how the growth in partnerships is offering benefits to all parties.

It is a practice that has been gathering pace in the sport management education sector, demonstrated by this year’s Postgraduate Rankings survey which showed that NYU, Columbia and George Washington University have all taken advantage of their locations to strike formal partnerships with major leagues, clubs and agencies in the US.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Fifa Master at the International Centre for Sport Studies (CIES) and the International Academy of Sport Science and Technology (AISTS) also put up strong showings for their industry partnerships. Both are based in the heart of the European sport industry in Switzerland, surrounded by the headquarters of the world’s governing bodies and international federations, and have leveraged those positions.

Though the partnerships data was not used to decide the final rankings, it nevertheless helps to paint a picture of the increasingly symbiotic links between universities and industry.

“Real world” connections

Within the university ecosystem, there is a tendency to see what happens in the industry as ‘the real world’, says Kevin Tallec Marston, academic project manager at CIES, though as he points out, “the university is my real world!”

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

He sympathises, however, with the sense that drawing connections and building bridges between the two can only be a positive thing. “It’s about listening to the industry,” he says. “You can’t have a successful course if you don’t listen to the industry and know what’s going on in the industry. We strike partnerships, some of them formalised, some of them more informal thanks to relationships that we build through our alumni and through events, so that we can build that stronger insight into the ‘real world’ of the industry.”

An illustration of this is that NYU School of Professional Studies employs an assistant dean of real-world courses. “Essentially, a person who spends much of his time cultivating partnerships”, Vince Gennaro, associate dean at the school’s Preston Robert Tisch Institute for Global Sport, tells SportBusiness. “Because we are New York-based, it is critical that we are able to incorporate industry partners into our curriculum. Philosophically, it is just a very important part of our identity. The fact that we’re a part of the School of Professional Studies is all about building that bridge to a career path; it’s a trademark of ours at the School of Professional Studies to have deep connections with the industries.”

The key aspects to the partnerships tend to be knowledge sharing – bringing in industry expert speakers to talk to students about their field, and taking students on visits to high-profile organisations – and practical, creating opportunities for students to take up internships and work placements in the industry. NYU’s partnership with the New York Jets has even seen it source two members of faculty from the NFL team who teach full, annual courses at the Tisch Institute.

Fifa Master students on a visit to the All England Lawn Tennis Club (Photo by CIES)

Partnerships allow the Tisch Institute to do “real, meaningful work with our students”, says Gennaro. He points to the example of a project carried out in collaboration with the US Conference of Mayors’ Sports Alliance, which saw students conduct real-world research into the economic impact of esports facilities. Jeff Williams, the mayor of Arlington, Texas, later directly credited this research with leading to the construction of one of the US’s largest esports stadiums in his city. “So the students are getting very hands-on experience – at a young age – of directly impacting the business of sport,” says Gennaro.

Utilising the network

The difference between a fully-fledged partnership and simply inviting a high-profile industry figure to give a guest lecture is crucial, says Tallec Marston. “I insist on the word ‘relationship’. I don’t think inviting one speaker for a one-off lecture truly has much value in it. We need to be building long-term, sustainable relationships with organisations to ensure the biggest benefits to both sides.”

Vince Gennaro, associate dean and clinical associate professor of the Preston Robert Tisch Institute for Global Sport (Photo by NYU)

The “Fifa Master spirit”, as Tallec Marston calls it, has helped to build partnerships across the industry, with alumni of the course frequently offering their services, including internships, to current students. “Our alumni go all over the world and all over the industry, and that creates an incredible opportunity when they reach back and say ‘I’m gonna start an internship programme within our organisation and I’d like to have you guys involved’.” The course’s long-standing arrangement with the City Football Group arose like this, and Manchester City is now a frequent destination for visits from the course as well as for an annual work placement.

He adds to this the importance of building relationships outside of the alumni network, however: “The sports industry is much bigger than that, so we have to be actively seeking new knowledge partners all the time, through our attendance at events like SportAccord and Soccerex. We really value having relationships that are completely independent to our existing connections; I think it’s important to not be too incestuous.”

Partnerships are also important in generating job opportunities, says Gennaro. “We’re fortunate to be where we are in New York City, but we still need to foster those links so that NYU graduates are foremost in the minds of recruiters. Certainly the relationships that we have with FC Barcelona and FC Bayern Munich through their New York offices have been particularly fruitful. We have three people at the Bayern office now, one of whom is a full-time employee who started out as an intern then kept the role after he graduated.”

Educating the industry

Dino Ruta, professor of practice at the SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan, Italy, says his institution has taken a different approach to these kinds of relationships. Its partnership with the organising body for the 2022 Fifa World Cup, Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, is a case in point. Because Bocconi is a business school rather than a traditional university, it allows much deeper integration between the two parties, he explains.

“We partner together to deliver educational projects, with courses that are co-designed between us and the Supreme Committee. We go to Doha and deliver lectures, and people there, working in the Qatar Football Association or elsewhere in their sports ecosystem, enrol on our courses. In Qatar they are doing a lot very quickly, they’re working on the World Cup and delivering 60 more international sporting events, so they come to us because they feel the need to increase the quality of knowledge and talent available in the country.”

Meanwhile, a partnership with the NBA Players’ Association has been developed to offer current NBA stars the chance to put the foundations in place for a future career in business, with a course called Branding in the Global Economy.

Dino Ruta (Photo by SDA Bocconi)

“We teach them about the relevance of international brands,” says Ruta. “How brands are created, built and developed. Since they are becoming more and more international brands, as players, it is important that they know about how brand building in the overall international business environment works.”

Ruta says that these kinds of partnerships are “the future”, and something that only offers advantages to both sides. “From my own observations, Bocconi is the main business school that is partnering with sporting institutions on this level – the universities are there, but business schools are still a little behind.”

There is, he says, “too much separation” between sports organisations and business schools. While in other sectors there tends to be closer relations, the sports industry remains “naïve” to the benefits available from working more closely with schools like Bocconi. “Business schools need sports organisations, and vice-versa, to maximise the benefit to everyone.”

Ruta is also working on securing partnerships with both individuals and sporting organisations to improve the level of education available for the practitioners on whose efforts the whole industry is built.

“I think that business schools should offer something more in line with athletes’ and coaches’ expectations,” he says. “The way in which they learn is different, especially managerial concepts, it is different from traditional executives and managers that attend our classes. But without athletes and coaches, we wouldn’t have an industry, so I have designed a specific learning methodology for current and former players to help them transition from sport to business in a way that works for them.”

Ruta has begun to put together one-to-one teaching initiatives as part of his work with the NBAPA for players who are thinking of a business career after retirement, something he intends to widen and offer to athletes across different sports. “We make it so that they don’t feel like a fish out of the bowl. Often they prefer to go to their technical centres, to their associations, so I make a step forward, in line with our vision of creating partnerships, to create partnerships with individuals so that they can find at Bocconi a place where they can learn.”

Critical balance

Using partnerships to bridge the gap between the academic world and the business world also plays an important role in allowing universities to maintain a crucial independence from the wider industry, says Tallec Marston.

“These partnerships help us to keep that connection between the university and the quote-unquote ‘real world’, and I think it is important to maintain that balance and not go too far in either direction. As an academic institute, we cannot become so embedded in the industry that we are not working with the the critical distance, the independence, and the autonomy that the academy requires. The industry doesn’t have time to stop and think, to critically analyse what is coming and what has happened, whereas we can take a step back and provide insight, research and findings on the social, ethical, historical and legal sides that we wouldn’t be able to do if we were 100-per-cent industry-focused.

“Likewise, if we were completely in our three respective ivory towers of the universities, with no links to the industry through these myriad partnerships that we have, both formal and informal, then we wouldn’t be preparing students who would be really ready to go on to roles and applying those learnings that we create.”

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