How sports management programs are changing … and taking advantage of opportunities like World Cup final

If someone’s keeping a running list of positives about New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium being selected to host the 2026 World Cup final, Lauren Johnson feels a duty to add another. …

From the perspective of a sports management professor at New Jersey City University, she looks at the local market’s foray onto the global sports stage, and here’s what she sees: Once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for the growing cadre of students preparing for careers in this exact space.

Lauren Johnson. (New Jersey City University)

“It’s an exciting time in New Jersey for sports fans; it’s also an exciting time for the area of sports management,” she said. “A mega-sport event like this, as we’ve seen before, needs a lot of volunteers.”

Johnson said that, while the local sports management job market is buzzing already for professionals to act as consultants for the coming eight-game spectacle, students planning to enter into those roles are thrilled about potentially having “World Cup” appear on their résumés.

“With the U.S. Open (Tennis Championships, held annually in Queens, New York), we’ve even seen paid internship positions,” she said. “We’re not sure yet what types of opportunities there are going to be for students. But, like I just told them last night, I’m going to be emailing everyone I can to see how we can play a role in the World Cup in any capacity.”

Regardless of what the exact opportunities end up looking like, professors and the colleges growing these degree programs believe there’s a wellspring of opportunities — in terms of internships today and career prospects tomorrow — for local sports management students.

Charles Grantham. (Seton Hall University)

Charles Grantham, director of the Center for Sport Management at Seton Hall University, said having those workplace training opportunities is priceless in the sports industry. The theory side of educating students has its value, but these students need experience. …

And those sometimes subsidizing tuition payments need it just the same.

“At open houses we do, the concept of practice is something I emphasize,” Grantham said. “Parents paying tuition bills hear their son or daughter is going into sports management and the response is, ‘Well, can you actually get a job in that area?’ That’s part of why we have such a need for this concept of practice and working in the field as an intern.”

To that end, higher education institutions have found a winning formula in housing sports management programs inside business schools.

“One of the most important features of our program, quite frankly, is that we’re housed in the Stillman School of Business, so students take core courses their first two years on business fundamentals,” he said. “That helps in building the solid foundation that allows interns to be better prepared to walk in and do something for an organization when these opportunities arise.”

Local sports management professors agree that it has been the right game plan to shift over the years away from their field being on an island as a niche area of professional studies. Its new business focus made an already desirable major among students even more of a popular choice.

At the same time, Grantham said sports franchises have started looking at themselves more as business organizations. Grantham’s career stretches back to when professional basketball teams were losing money hand over fist. Teams were basically a tax write-off for owners, who had friends and relatives running the show.

“But, when you look at how sports franchise values have taken off, and the number of employees on the payroll at league offices across the (tri-state) region — with 500 or 600 people working at these teams’ headquarters — it’s a much different business today,” he said. “Basically, all the leagues are in a growth pattern.”

For growing sports franchises, the traditional jobs are still there: Teams need people selling tickets and keeping events running smoothly.

Johnson of NJCU’s program added that these organizations have also broadened their talent needs in areas such as analytics, mental health, digital media and streaming.

Dan Ladik, an associate professor of marketing in the Stillman School of Business, would be remiss not to include the professionals tasked with molding the narrative behind sports franchises.

“While teams might have had media departments that worked with reporters to get press passes and set up meetings with players, teams today are creating their own stories in a new way,” Ladik said. “I’m from Philadelphia, and my Eagles have a reputation — some of it earned, some of it culture built into media planning. They leverage an underdog, no-one-likes-us mentality. They do that with Twitter, YouTube, hype reels before games and everywhere else.”

Johnson added that sports management programs are also keeping students apprised of the latest technologies, and how they’re being deployed in this industry.

“We’re at the point of AI and fan engagement merging in a way where teams are learning who you are when you buy a ticket, know who you’re coming with when you enter the stadium and measuring how you respond to promotions and marketing,” she said.

The dynamism of this field of study today hasn’t been lost on college students. The country’s universities awarded around 17,000 degrees in 2023, which represents an annual growth of 4.4%, according to higher education data firm College Factual.

“(Interest in sports management) has exploded in a way a lot of people wouldn’t have anticipated,” Johnson said. “But I’m not surprised. And I expect it’ll continue to grow.”