This is the first in an occasional series exploring high-growth majors and programs in the College of Education.
Todd Gilson remembers well the reaction to his plans to study Sport Management at Ohio Northern University, where he earned that very bachelor’s degree in 2001.
“When I told my parents that I wanted to go into sport management, my dad was like, ‘What is that?’ They didn’t understand that that was a degree,” says Gilson, chair of the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education. “ ‘What would you study? What would be the benefits?’ ”
A visit to campus in Ada, Ohio, provided that information and reassurance.
Gilson and his parents “listened to the advisors and the faculty at that time say, ‘Yeah, you could do anything from sport agent to high school athletic director to marketing at a minor league baseball team,’ and the list just kept going.”
“Seeing the tremendous growth in sport that’s happened, and probably will continue to happen, we’re going to need more people to try to figure out what it is about sport that makes in run well and how it can run better,” he says. “It’s just really cool to be able to be behind the scenes, and I think a lot of our students see that: ‘I’m part of something bigger than myself, and I get to see that product under the lights.’ ”
Quickly climbing numbers of NIU students, both current and prospective, are envisioning themselves in just those careers – and helping to nearly double enrollment in the B.S. in Sport Management program in just one year.
Enrollment rose an amazing 95 percent in one year, jumping from 69 students for the Fall 2019 launch to 129 majors this semester.
Last fall’s initial headcount easily topped former chair Chad McEvoy’s preliminary estimate of 50 students, but the growth shows that his projection of 200 majors by 2024 is right on track.
“From a co-curricular standpoint, Sport Management has grown very large in a very small amount of time, in 12 months basically,” says David Walker, associate dean for Academic Affairs. “The faculty team in Sport Management, and the leadership and advising around Sport Management, has been very sophisticated in a sense that they’re keeping most of the students who come into this program. The retention rate is very high. They’re also marketing well.”
McEvoy and Steve Howell, an associate professor of Sport Management, designed the program to capitalize on the department’s two-decade heritage of preparing graduate students for careers in the thriving sport industry.
“We’ve been really intentional about the way we structured our curriculum which affords students a nice balance of sport management-specific classes but also general business classes that complement the Sport Management core courses well,” Howell says.
“I think we’ve also done a nice job of positioning those classes to where students could get a minor in some area within the College of Business,” he adds, “those stackable credentials position them well for employment after graduation.”
Howell also points to the related minors available, including the existing Sport Sales and the just-begun Esports Industry Professions, as well as to still-in-development minor in Sport Analytics and Sport Journalism and Communication – the former in collaboration with the NIU Departments of Economics and Statistics and Actuarial Science and the latter with the NIU Department of Communication.
Meanwhile, he says, those minors and the department’s General Education classes in sport management offered to students across campus have turned Sport Management into “a discovery major.”
Undergraduates also enjoy unparalleled access to internships, thanks not only to NIU Huskie Athletics but also to DeKalb’s proximity to Chicagoland, as well as opportunities to conduct sport management research alongside their professors.
Research “might not sound sexy to begin with,” Gilson says, but students soon recognize the benefits of acquiring those skills.
They see “that people study how to promote sports to others, and what the most effective ways are to promote,” he says, and “it’s not necessarily the pure research they might think of, that, ‘I’m in a lab, and I’ve got beakers.’ ”
“It’s, ‘I’m out there talking to people. I’m out there trying to figure out, is it best to run this sport event on a Saturday – or a Sunday? Is it best to start the event in the spring or the fall? Is it best to hold in this location – or this location? How will we promote this to local media outlets?’ It’s the research of trying to solve these real-world problems and doing it with others of a like mind who want to work together.”
Tony Calderala, an academic advisor in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, has a front-row seat in understanding the popularity.
“Students are realizing that there’s more to sport management now than maybe they understood in the past,” Calderala says. “Some of the stuff that has happened in Chicago sports over the last decade or so has really brought that to light.”
Championship seasons for the Cubs and Blackhawks play into that, he says, as does chatter on sports radio about the type of analytics portrayed in the Academy Award-nominated 2011 film, “Moneyball.”
“That really interested a lot of students: ‘What can I do with a sports organization that’s not necessarily having to the be the GM, or being an agent?’ Those things either seemed impossible for students to get to, or that’s it’s such a small number,” Calderala says.
“It’s like looking at being an athlete. If you’re an athlete in high school, there’s a 1 percent chance you’re ever going to make it the professionals, so they’ve kind of viewed it that way – there’s not a lot of opportunity,” he adds. “Now that it has been highlighted, people realize how much opportunity there is, from professional sports to a community center.”
David Serowka, an instructor in Sport Management, brings the excitement to the classroom with guest speakers from the industry – and brings the students to the excitement with field trips to Chicagoland facilities and front offices.
One of those road trips took Serowka and “maybe 10” students from his Business of Basketball course to visit the Windy City Bulls.
“When I came to class the next day, and we have 35 kids in class, and I show those pictures, everybody else’s eyes kind of bug out,” Serowka says, “and they’re like, ‘Why didn’t I do this?’ The experiential learning is fun.”
He also hears their interests in joining the profession, and knows that the high numbers of student-athletes who are enrolled in the major view it as “a way to continue to be involved after they hang up the gloves or the cleats.”
“The reality is that you’re not going to be standing on the sidelines with your favorite athletes. It’s just the basic management and business principles that really can be applied to anything, and this idea that you’re attached to something that’s a household name,” Serowka says.
“Even with everything on lockdown, it’s a booming industry, and it continues to grow year after year,” he adds. “There’s more and more coming in, and because of digital platforms, there are more ways to get that information out to people.”