It’s like practicing the right things for years, then hitting a triple at your first at-bat, claiming a bronze medal at the Olympics on your first attempt or winning a league championship the first time your team competes.
That’s what happened when a Carolina graduate-degree program made savvy decisions, partnered with an industry leader and recruited faculty with real-world experience.
The master’s degree program in sport administration soared up the most recent rankings. Housed in the exercise and sport science department in the College of Arts & Sciences, the program was ranked 11th in the world and eigth in North America through its rookie entry in the 2020 SportBusiness Postgraduate Rankings survey. The program ranked sixth in “Graduate’s Choice,” based on reviews by alumni, who go on to work in jobs as administrators of corporate sponsorships at Stanford University, events and donor engagement at Boston College and event management at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The program also offers a dual degree in sport administration and law.
Professor Barbara Osborne, whose expertise is in college athletics and law, answered a few questions about the program’s winning formula.
How and when did the program begin?
Originally, it was sort of a generic sport administration program for people who were interested in the management side of sports but not focused on any one thing. It was more what the student wanted to get out of it versus what the program provided.
Then, around 1990, department chair John Billing met with Athletics Director John Swofford to see what could make our program unique. They knew that UNC-Chapel Hill does college athletics really well. So, they put together a graduate program that focuses on preparing people for careers in college athletics.
When Billing retired, Dick Baddour, who was senior associate athletic director then, was tasked with helping the new department chair Fred Mueller in creating a curriculum and internship partnership in athletics. The core faculty then were John Billing, Fred Mueller, Ron Hyatt and Ed Shields with some adjunct faculty.
You joined the faculty in 1998; how did the program change after that?
They were looking for a person who had worked in college athletics and could teach sport marketing and sport law classes. I was the senior woman administrator at Brandeis University with 16 years of experience working in college athletics, and I had just finished getting my law degree.
I came here to interview. I loved everyone here. I loved this place. The students were so bright and so interesting. And I thought, “Working in college athletics is gratifying, but I can make a much bigger difference in college athletics as a whole by teaching in this program and helping prepare the future leaders of college athletics than I could ever make as one person.”
They gave me a lot of freedom and leeway as a junior faculty member to propose curriculum changes based on what future collegiate administrators would need. Over the next five years, we crafted a specific, college-focused athletics curriculum.
Were those changes important to building a program that adapts to the times and issues affecting college athletics?
Yes. With things like NCAA governance and compliance, I would put money on us being the first program to teach those subjects as a stand-alone class. We had the marketing class when I arrived, but that became more focused. We added classes on sport law and the NCAA and economics and financial management of college athletics, getting to the business aspects. But, the classes didn’t happen in a bubble. We sat down together and looked at where the industry is and where the industry is going so we could adjust current classes or add new classes. Then, our full professors began retiring, and we went through a period where we struggled a bit to handle all of the students interested in our programs.
We made a monumental shift in the program’s quality by hiring our faculty. Ed Shields was already on faculty and we added Erianne Weight, Nels Popp, Bob Malekoff and Jonathan Jensen, who all have experience working in college athletics or with college athletics. That’s the difference that sets our program apart and uniquely places us compared to other programs that want to be like us. We not only teach the theory, but we can also explain endlessly with examples on how the theories are put into practice.
In addition to training in theory, how do students get practical experience?
In the first year, the students work with athletics operations. In their second year, they do a nine-month, full-time internship in UNC’s athletics department in an administrative area. The process is like medical school matching, where internship supervisors rank candidates and then the students rank the things they’re most interested in as well as interview for the position. It’s great experience, like interviewing for a job before you have to go out and interview for jobs.
They work with some of the best people in college sports. And it’s not only the people here, but we compete against some of the best schools in the country as well. Our students build out their network by being hosts for visiting teams and talking to administrators from other places. When we host conference championships, they meet people from the conference office. When we host rounds for NCAA tournaments, they meet people from the NCAA national office.
Your adjunct faculty include two former athletic directors; what do they bring to the students’ education?
Dick Baddour, who retired from his long term as the athletic director, teaches our second-year capstone seminar, which focuses on real-world situations and problems. Students work in teams to solve those problems, which prepares them in a way for college athletics leadership that students from other programs aren’t. Brad Bates, who was athletic director at Boston College and at Miami of Ohio, teaches the economics and finance class.
But it’s not only faculty who had long careers. Our newer faculty members bring new perspectives, new energy. We are an incredibly good blend of the academic and the practical.
Where do students come from and what are they looking for?
We are a niche program focusing on just one segment of the industry. Students who are interested specifically in careers in college athletics are the ones that are most likely to apply to our program.
Some of them have worked and realize that they need to get a graduate degree to move up the ranks. Some are undergrads who know that this is their passion and their career path. They’ve done internships and volunteered to gain experience. We are spoiled with an incredible applicant pool of highly motivated, highly talented candidates. We narrow that applicant pool down to 18 people to interview, then offer admission to nine of them.
Why enter the rankings now?
Because we have a small number of students and don’t always have international students, which is one of the ranking criteria, we were hesitant to put our materials together. But Dr. Jensen, one of our faculty members, said, “No, we’ve got so much going on. We need to get it out there and let’s see what happens.” And he was right. It was nice to see that a small, unique program like ours could be recognized and ranked so well compared to larger and internationally based programs.
Are you talking about current events and issues in classes?
Absolutely. Many issues. Race, sex discrimination because of differences with women in sport, sexual orientation, free speech, student-athlete protests, COVID safety, all of those things and more. All those social issues come up in the context of how they would affect working in college athletics, whether that’s in hiring or employment or in management of resources or legal or finances. Our curriculum stays up to date.
That’s why our students are so prepared for careers in the industry and are doing so well.