The global business of sport has transformed beyond recognition since the International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES) launched its FIFA Master back in 2000.
However, for more than two decades, the reputation of the CIES’s flagship course has remained outstanding, with the course delivering an evolving offering in changing times.
“To remain successful for more than 20 years has simultaneously required a clear focus on our course identity and the openness to change,” CIES director Denis Oswald says.
“Since we operate as a bridge between higher education and the sport industry, we must have an up-to-date understanding of both worlds. This means observing how each sector operates and evolves, taking note of both good and bad practice, and trying to apply that in how and what we teach.”
The course is spearheaded by the CIES in partnership with De Montfort University in Leicester, SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan and the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland.
Such a comprehensive collaboration featuring highly regarded institutions in Switzerland, the UK and Italy respectively ensures a holistic outlook covering the most timely and relevant sports industry trends and issues, as well as first-in-class teaching methods.
“Having three universities is an advantage, because it regularly forces us internally to rethink how we teach from the constant mixing of three distinct international and academic perspectives,” Oswald adds.
“Our staff across all three universities review the programme after each edition, introducing new topics and approaches in line with the evolution of the world of sport. Thanks to our many guest speakers, we also maintain a dialogue with the industry to understand the key problems and new directions in which sport is moving.”
Furthermore, the course undergoes an “intensive audit” by the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education that examines all aspects of the programme, from curriculum and methods to student services and career support.
FIFA Master leaders also recognise the importance of tapping into a powerful alumni network, which spans top positions in administration and business across the global industry.
“Student feedback is central, and we listen – not just to current students, but also to our alumni who look back on their experience in the context of their developing careers,” Oswald adds.
“While the FIFA Master Alumni (FMA) association is an independent body, we have always sought to have them at the table since it formed in 2003. The continuity of this partnership for nearly 20 years has allowed the course staff and alumni to walk hand in hand with a shared goal of innovating the programme.”
The aim, according to Oswald, is to build a “true community” – not just within each intake of students, but through a “multiplier effect” spanning the 22 groups of sports industry leaders so far. As an example of the FIFA Master fraternity, a number of former students have continued to return for each annual graduation ceremony for nearly 15 years.
FIFA Master alumni also hold annual general assemblies and regional reunions and conferences on the sidelines of sports events, with WhatsApp groups helping to facilitate connections across the years. The joint CIES-FMA webinar series has also encouraged fruitful conversations between alumni worldwide.
“Because so many alumni consider the FIFA Master as a life-changing experience, this creates a dedication and feeling of belonging which generates a willingness to give back,” he adds. “This takes many forms whether returning as a guest speaker, circulating job openings or engaging with new students as mentors.”
Whilst it is difficult to describe a so-called typical FIFA Master student, given the diversity in terms of cultural, academic and professional backgrounds, most are between the ages of 25 and 35, with more than two-thirds already working in sport and having lived abroad before joining the CIES.
With usually between 20 and 25 different nationalities in a class of 30, and a plethora of experiences in areas as diverse as sponsorship, litigation, politics, and engineering, variety lies at the heart of the FIFA Master experience.
This contributes towards the development of an outward-looking network of individuals with expertise that spans a range of areas, bringing fresh ideas into the industry.
“It is a common complaint that the sports world is too insular,” Oswald says. “However, one of the specificities of our programme is the diversity of our students’ backgrounds. Of course, they all have an interest in sport, but some have not really worked professionally in this field and, by following our course, they wish to change their professional orientation, which means that they will arrive in the market without preconceived ideas and with a new approach.”
The strength of the renowned FMA network was particularly important in maintaining relationships at the height of Covid-19, with the pandemic also having an understandably significant impact on the structure of the course.
“The forced experience of 100% e-learning for a few months was ultimately a beneficial one,” Oswald says. “It allowed us to strengthen our virtual learning environment, rethink our tendency to rely on lecturers, speakers and organisations who could be in-person.”
Oswald adds that some lecturers actually found they were able to spend more time engaging with students via digital channels.
Informal online sessions with alumni who work for the Asian Football Confederation and Confederation of African Football were arranged. Such initiatives are still possible as part of a “blended learning” approach for students who are now able to gather again on the rotating campus in the UK, Italy and Switzerland.
“The ability to have lecturers or guest speakers who would not have the possibility to travel to our classroom is something that we have definitely kept and, as a result, has expanded the diversity of speakers we could normally have,” he says.
However, Oswald adds: “Fundamentally, Covid has reinforced the importance of in-person learning. We have realised that this is really our core strength and that the virtual cannot replace the face-to-face experience of learning together in a classroom as diverse as ours.
“There is definitely a risk that courses operating principally through virtual environments will be unable to foster the same kind of relationships and community that are a consequence of our learning model. So, while we remain committed to in-person learning, we try to retain the positive achievements of the virtual and apply a proper balance when it can really enhance our course.”