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#1 Online – Ohio University’s Professional Master of Sports Administration

As well as taking the top spot overall in our rankings with its campus-based Master of Sports Administration, Ohio University also offers the top-scoring distance-learning course in our survey, via its online Professional Master of Sports Administration.

The PMSA launched in 2011 and is largely aimed at professionals with some experience in the workplace who wish to expand their sport business knowledge base or get a start in the industry, offering a comprehensive 21-month education in the sector, which includes multiple residencies to complement the digital component.

SportBusiness spoke to Kelley Kaufman Walton, director of the PMSA, about the evolution of the course and the importance to Ohio of offering an online programme.

Can you tell me about the development of the PMSA and your involvement in it?

I’ve been involved with the PMSA from the beginning, from the first cohort. I’ve been teaching in the programme since 2011, and our first cohort graduated in 2012. I’ve taught a variety of courses over the years, everything from sport law, human resources, leadership, capstone. Over time, my role evolved – I was an assistant director for a while, I was interim director for a while, and then I took over as the director last year. And really what I’ve seen as the evolution of the PMSA from that first cohort is that we really have a foundation of four pieces that are important for PMSA success.

One is having awesome students. I know that’s a very generic term, but it’s true. We have experienced students who are dedicated to each other and to their education and professional development.

The second piece is having faculty who are knowledgeable in their specific areas and are able to connect in an online environment. I was the head of human resources for an NHL team for seven years, and I teach our HR course. We have people who are experts in their area. We have an expert in analytics teaching analytics, we have an expert in marketing teaching marketing, we have somebody who was a lead executive at the Cleveland Cavaliers who teaches sponsorship.

The third thing is that we continually update our curriculum. From the beginning, we’ve had really good curriculum, but we continue to update it and make sure that it’s relevant. We’ve added eSports as a one-credit class, that’s a huge area that’s developing right now. We’ve added analytics as a full four-credit hour class; we’ve updated our marketing and sponsorship to a revenue-generation class. We continue to update our curriculum on a regular basis to make sure that it meets the needs and exceeds the needs of our students.

And the next big piece is our networking. The fact that we have have six residencies over the 21-month programme is crucial. That was harder during Covid, when we had restrictions and we weren’t allowed to meet in person, but we’re back in person now again, and having those residency weekends where students can all come together either on campus or in connection with a national sports forum is crucial, so they get a chance to not only get to know each other, but they get to know the other cohort members, they get to know our faculty, they get to know our alumni. We have a huge alumni event in May every year, the Sports Ad Symposium. Our students come to campus during that time period, and they get to connect with hundreds of alumni as well.

So it’s the whole lot: it’s the students, it’s the faculty, it’s the curriculum, and it’s the networking piece. We had that in the beginning, but we’ve perfected it over the last 10 years. We make sure that it’s purposeful, we make sure that the students have opportunities, we make sure to change when we need to change. A few years ago, our students wanted something different other than just Athens all the time, so now they have their first residency in Athens, second one at the National Sports Forum, third one in Athens, and then we’ve started doing residencies at different places. We did one in Chicago, that’s that surrounded the Big Ten Conference, and we had a variety of different guest speakers there. We did one at the NCAA headquarters. So we also adapt to what students need and what their requests are as well.

How does the course break down, how do the students spend their time?

It takes 21 months to graduate, so it’s a nearly two-year programme. Each class that they take is seven weeks long, so they take one class at a time for seven weeks, and then they have a week off, and then another class, and then they have a break over the holidays and then seven-week course, week off, and so on.

We have a first residency before they even start, in August. They all come to campus, we have an orientation residency, they start with their first class a little bit with leadership and some content there, but we’re really make sure that they understand how to use the technology, because it’s an online programme, and many of the people have either never taken online classes before, or they think they know what online learning is and we do it very differently. Our classes are very engaging, and we do a variety of things in there. You can break everything down on a weekly basis, so one week they’ll have reading assignments, they might have a textbook, they might have articles to read, they might have some videos to watch, or a lecture to watch, or both. And then they’ll also usually have a live session where we’ll have guest speakers.

For example, in my HR class, the last module is about how to manage your employees. It’s a two-week module, so they have two weeks’ worth of material, and they’ll have two chapters in a textbook to read and then I give them a bunch of articles to read about managing employees, how to get the best out of your employees, different situations, maybe a case study. Then they’ll have a recorded lecture, so they can watch it whenever, and then we’ll have a guest speaker, who will be industry professionals who are working now.

What does an average cohort look like? We spoke to programme alum Dan Butterly recently, and he was praising the PMSA for taking on someone like him at a later stage in his career and allowing him to develop. Is that indicative of the course generally?

It is a mix, which is amazing. This is one of the things that I feel really proud that we’re able to do. Our content and our structure works for people who are three years out of undergrad and 20 years out of undergrad, and everyone in between. And we have people in who work in professional sports, we have people who work in college athletics, we have people who work in the sport marketing agency world, we have people who work in sport media, we have people who work in technology. We have people who are not working in sports right now, but looking to take their knowledge, skills, abilities and transfer that over into the sport industry. We have people who used to work in the sport industry and now want to get back into it.

It’s amazing because our cohort size is on average about 25. So I say all of the above, but that’s between 25 people. In every cohort, we usually have somebody like a Dan Butterly who has 20 plus years of experience. We recently graduated a president of a Nascar speedway. We have the president of the Canadian Hockey League as an alum, we have the COO of College Football Playoff. It hits people who are extremely successful already but looking for more or looking for that next step, or looking for advanced professional development that you can’t get within the sport industry. There’s not a lot of professional development opportunities out there, and a lot of people come for the network.

But then we also have a lot of students who are, three, four, five years out of undergrad with a lot less experience in the work place, and they still all work really well with each other. Our cohort style, where they start together, take every class together, all the way through, I think that’s crucial to the programme. We’ve looked at whether that’s the right thing to do, because most courses are not like that and some students want to come in,  take a class get the degree, but we’ve decided one of the best things about PMSA is this cohort style where you take everything together, because that’s how you build the network. You have this huge Ohio University network, but you also have this cohort that is like your inner circle within the inner circle.

What are you looking for in applicants?

We want to see students who are committed to their professional development. They’ve got to have at least three years of full-time experience. We do want to see that there’s some ability to be successful in a grad programme, but things like GPA during undergrad obviously matter more the closer they are to that. If they’re three, four, five years out, GPA is usually a pretty good indication. If somebody is 15 years out, what they did 15 years ago in undergrad is probably less relevant and I would look more at their work, taking a pretty holistic approach.

Everyone goes through an interview process and we’ve had a few people get to that interview process who we’ve then declined, and usually that just means that they don’t have the requisite experience or they don’t seem committed to their own professional development. This is not an easy programme – you really need to commit 12 to 15 hours a week to it, and when you’re working in the sport industry that’s really difficult to do. So we really want to make sure that people are committed to it.

I give the same speech every year, saying that they have to be the captain of their own ship. We’ll give them the ship, we’ll give them the map, we’ll give them help to navigate, and we’ll make sure they have wind in their sails. But they have to be the one to sail it. So that’s what we’re looking for, not somebody who just wants to read this and take a test, because that’s not what we are. We’re very interactive and you’ve got to be willing to do your part.

I know the alumni network is a huge point of pride for Ohio University – I presume that same level of support is offered to the PMSA graduates as well?

It is. Our PMSA alumni are super engaged with each other, but they’re a part of this bigger alumni network and when somebody graduates, there’s no delineation that they came through the PMSA programme or MSA programme. You’re a Bobcat regardless. I think it’s special that they went through it while most of them were working full time on top of studying, and it is a different experience than our on-campus experience, but we’re all Bobcats.

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