Can the World’s Sport Management Faculty Keep Up?

Rick Burton, David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and the former Commissioner of Australia’s National Basketball League, discusses whether modern teaching can keep up with the demands of the sports industry, drawing on his own experience of teaching eSports.

For the last 10 years, sport management and sport marketing courses have been the rage. It’s been somewhat like the attractiveness of collegiate journalism programs back in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.

That seems logical enough given the inherent appeal of ego-centric careers like broadcasting (“Become an on-air announcer”) and sports (“You can be the next GM of a professional team”) but the smoke and mirrors (or bait-and-switch) of these programs is acknowledging the likelihood that not everyone will get a job in those fields and not every faculty member teaching professional courses will have been ‘fully’ exposed to the modern journalism or sport/entertainment complex.

What’s more concerning for North American sport management programs today (and for the next decade) is the rate of change. Topics like virtual reality, widespread sport wagering, eSports, NFTs or name, image, and likeness (NILs) essentially didn’t exist 10 years ago.

That means some of the professors and adjuncts at the hundreds of institutions offering sport management classes are having to ‘learn’ the very concepts they are trying to teach. To say this is challenging represents a very modest understatement.

It is beyond demanding for them because as the once embryonic sports industry enters its second century as a recognized business sector, the toddler is discovering an ability to stand up. It means reaching for items on shelves and pulling at everything (particularly shiny revenue-generating concepts).

Where sport industry practitioners once disdained research or data analytics (and some might even say concepts like profitability or return on investment), there is a burgeoning demand by the new wave of professional sport owners/investors to train these ‘children’ to run businesses properly while generating acceptable ROI/profits.

That’s the business side of our enterprise. But on top of those baby steps, the ‘youngster’ must quickly learn new technologies, various streaming platforms, emerging threats, a variety of alternative options (no more sitting idly and watching a three-hour sporting event on television) and all within a global/digital/24-7-365 economy.

This brings us to those of us teaching eSports.

Let’s say a university wants to offer an eSports class because the NBA 2K League is popular. Or because FIFA 23 (arriving in late September) or Madden NFL 23 (August release) are games modern students play (along with Fortnite, League of Legends, Rocket League, and Super Smash Bros.).

Now, let’s suppose the assigned faculty member teaching sport management was raised on (and followed) the physical NBA, EPL, FIFA or NFL and has never actually played a video game. What if that same professor never competed against other global gamers? What if that professor has never worn an Oculus Quest 2 headset?

The short answer to those questions suggests the faculty member will either learn about these contemporary developments or ‘fake it’ by suggesting “sport is sport” and it doesn’t matter whether an entertainment product is played on a pitch, rink, court or, wait for it, is contested in a virtual world.

But the modern student … ahh, they think there is a difference.

In all likelihood, the enrolled individual registering for that new eSports class (the one the university hastily added to its course offerings) is possibly an individual who has already played video games for Gladwell’s legendary 10,000 hours (20 hours/week x 10 years = 10,400). That college sophomore is very possibly intuitive, experienced, and accomplished at not only the language of gaming, but the strategies for winning or levelling up.

The above diatribe is not intended to suggest universities shouldn’t offer eSport courses or that professors cannot make their teaching time in the classroom relevant or beneficial. I teach an eSports class that invites our students to work on contemporary problems/challenges presented to them by executives from NBA2K, League of Legends, ESL, mainstream retailers (using eSports merchandising) and multi-national automotive brands.

For my class to succeed, I must ‘own’ that I am not a gamer, did not grow up playing video games and therefore am obligated to utilize a Socratic approach where we teach each other. I can guide certain discussions (by using wonderful texts like Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 masterpiece being digital and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One) but I need the students to participate in the teaching. Of each other and me.

It is working … for the moment.

But let me also suggest academic administrators (chancellors, deans, department chairs) recognize the FAANG Gang (Facebook/Meta, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google/Alphabet plus Microsoft/Activision Blizzard) is re-writing the cultural (and sporting) landscape and faculty members of the future will need to look much younger and more diverse than me.

When we look at Apple’s 2022 deal to partner with Major League Soccer (MLS), we should see the techno handwriting on the iPad. The sport landscape is more fluid than ever, and the rapid rate of change isn’t making life easier for traditional tenure-track faculty who might’ve spent years focused on traditional leagues and teams.

Equally important, the faculty best suited to teach certain modern sport management courses may come from non-traditional educational backgrounds. In a “gig economy” the knowledge needed for the fast-changing sports industry may only have been learned within the last six weeks.

In other words, those individuals tasked with preparing the next tranche of sport industry leaders must keep up with real-world market dynamics to ensure we prepare our students for tomorrow. Or, to paraphrase NHL great Wayne Gretzky, for our students to skate where the puck is going, not where it was or is.

Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and the former Commissioner of Australia’s National Basketball League. Burton’s latest co-authored book, Business the NHL Way, will be published by the University of Toronto Press in October.