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Master’s Degree Comparison: Sports Leadership vs. Sports Management

Faculty Insights Industry Advice Leadership Management

What’s the difference between sports leadership and sports management? Northeastern associate teaching professor Dr. Robert Prior breaks it down.


The sports management field has grown tremendously in recent years. Since 2010, jobs across sports-related industries are up 12.6 percent, according to Forbes. As a result, qualified professionals with sports-specific business and leadership experience are in high demand. As someone who worked in the sports industry for more than 15 years, I’ve seen the kind of management skills and leadership traits organizations are looking for in their employees.

In the early 1970s, there were just a few programs; now, over 350 schools offer undergraduate degrees and more than 175 schools offer master’s-level programs in sports-related disciplines. Sports leadership is a much newer and more specialized field. We launched our Master of Sports Leadership in 2005 and are only one of a handful of universities that offer this degree.

I encourage anyone who wants to succeed in sports management or sports leadership to earn a master’s degree. Jobs are incredibly competitive: By 2022, 18 percent of jobs will require a master’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But should you study sports management or sports leadership? When considering which degree is right for you, I suggest asking yourself five questions.

Where Are You in Your Career?

Sports leadership master’s degree programs are tailored to mid-career professionals who are in decision-making positions. Candidates include collegiate athletic administrators and coaches; those who have experience working with a sports team in marketing, communications, or event operations; or individuals employed at fitness, wellness, or nonprofit sports organizations.

A sports management master’s degree provides a great pathway to enter or move up in the field. Prospective students might be interested in working for a professional or minor league sports team as a sales representative, marketing coordinator, or assistant coach.

What Skills Do You Want to Build?

Sports management programs teach the art of managing and supervising, and emphasize learning through case studies—analyzing problems in different areas of an organization. You learn how decisions support the strategy of an organization, which provides you with specialized training in the operations of a sports business.

In a sports leadership program, you learn the highly contextual and nuanced side of leading a sports organization or team. It’s also quite self-reflective, as you assess your leadership style, including your strengths and weaknesses, and analyze the process by which you influence groups of people to achieve common goals.

Are You a Businessperson at Heart?

There’s no getting around the fact that sports is a multi-billion dollar industry and a business beyond the game. The global sports market became a $145 billion industry in 2015, according to Statista, and consider how much professional athletes are paid. There is a greater need than ever for business-savvy people to focus on this aspect of the sports industry.

A sports leadership degree provides you with an understanding of the core concepts necessary to run functional areas like marketing, finance, and corporate sponsorships. It also helps you develop the analytical abilities required to make sound business decisions.

Do You Want to Learn How to Inspire and Motivate People?

Courses within sports leadership examine the business and social issues that are critical to effective sports leadership. It gives you the chance to assess and refine your leadership abilities so you can inspire, develop, and motivate people. Perhaps, more importantly, you can understand how to develop and lead teams by fostering the appropriate culture and positively affecting change.

What Kind of Role Do You Want to Play in Your Future Career?

Do you see yourself in upper management, responsible for leading a staff of 25 to 100 people, strategically planning, creating a vision, and clarifying an organization’s big-picture thinking? If so, a sports leadership degree would be a solid choice to prepare you to be a leader in the sports world.

If you see yourself being part of a sports business in a more day-to-day operational and task-related manner, then a traditional sports management degree would be an optimal way to steer your career in that direction.