"A sports management degree is not a ticket to a sports job": GISB Program Director Neel Shah's candid advice for aspirants

Neel Shah - Program Director, Global Institute of Sports Business (Image by Sportskeeda)
Neel Shah - Program Director, Global Institute of Sports Business (Image by Sportskeeda)

The pandemic has completely changed the way we look at work and life. Most people stopped whatever they were doing to take a step back and take a long hard look in the mirror.

People began questioning their life choices, whether the work or career path they were on was the right one for them, and whether it was something they loved to do. All over the world, for a multitude of reasons, people, especially millennials, were quitting their jobs in droves. The old adage “do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life” was foremost in their minds.

So what did this social phenomenon mean for the highly passion-driven sports industry, and those aspiring to work in it?

Sportskeeda caught up with Neel Shah, Program Director at the Global Institute of Sports Business (GISB), in an exclusive interview to understand just that. Born and brought up in the United States, Neel started his career at Major League Soccer (MLS), has over 18 years of professional industry experience across continents, and now heads the premier GISB institute based in Mumbai.

On the response seen by GISB during the pandemic and amid this social phenomenon, Neel reflected:

“Many people saw the pandemic as a sign that one should "play it safe" when choosing a career pathway. However, most others saw the pandemic as a sign that it is impossible to over-plan the future, and that one must follow their heart when it comes to their career. This sentiment felt by the latter group ensured that the number of applications at GISB increased exponentially during the pandemic.”

However, Neel was quick to address some of the concerns that were being raised by potential graduate students, especially considering the often fickle nature of the sports industry and the uncertainty of the pandemic:

“The increased applications was a great sign; however, we also saw that the number of questions about guaranteed placements, types of positions available in the industry, and starting salary packages increased exponentially as well. People are ready to follow their hearts, but they also need some confidence that they are not following it off of a cliff.”

Navigating such questions is no easy task. Confident about GISB’s product and its ability to make its graduates industry-ready, Neel said:

“Fortunately, GISB makes career placement its number one priority, so we were able to comfortably explain to each applicant why choosing sports management as a career pathway is not a risky choice. To be honest, I feel that it is riskier to choose a path in a field that you know will not lead to genuine fulfilment and satisfaction.”

Delving deeper into the placements process, Neel commented:

“We incorporate the (placements) process into every aspect of the student learning experience. We provide ample opportunities for graduate students to build their individual brands through social media, so they get noticed by the industry. We do this by guaranteeing quality internships for each student aligned with their interests."
"Also, our rigorous career counselling and mentorship program ensure they get individual and customised coaching. This helps them discover what types of companies they want to work with and how they can secure opportunities with them.”

Staying on the subject of placements, Neel was quick to dismiss any notions of a “placement day” throughout the industry and had a few words of caution for potential employees in the industry:

“There are a couple crucial points that all aspiring sports management professionals must know. First, getting your foot into the sports industry door is challenging. Second, a sports management degree is not your ticket to get a job in sports. Third, the sports industry does not work like other sectors where companies show up on a designated "placements day" to campuses.”

While such words of caution reflect the often hailed (and often criticised) relationship-oriented nature of the sports industry, it raises a larger issue.

While breaking into the industry is challenging, job-seekers often tend to narrow their options by only looking at “sports” jobs, without realising that several allied sectors and job functions can help them transition to the industry at a later time as well. This thinking is hammered into their heads by the “do what you love” movement.

A recent article by Galen Watts, a postdoctoral researcher at KU Leuven, touches upon how the ‘do what you love’ motto could be contributing to the “Great Resignation” that the world has been witnessing since the pandemic. In the article, proponents argue that passion-driven jobs can lead workers to accept harmful working conditions and set unrealistic expectations for themselves.

With the sports industry being the poster child for a passion-driven industry, Neel weighed up the article and phenomenon and asserted:

“I believe that overly passionate and poorly mentored aspiring sports management professionals can easily find themselves in working environments that do not have the employees' physical and psychological needs in mind."
"I also believe that students who ultimately secure their ‘dream jobs’ can quickly forget about boundaries and self-care practises as they put everything into succeeding at their job. I’ve seen this happen many times throughout the two decades that I have worked in the sports industry.”

Touching on GISB’s approach to make sure this trend, as described by Galen Watts, does not grow in the sports industry, Neel added:

“We mentor our graduate students throughout the program and continue offering mentorship services once they graduate and are working in the industry. This system provides the students with the insights, tools and support required to ensure they make the right decisions when exploring job options and do not get too deep into unhealthy environments.”

Navigating the pandemic and its challenges

With the ebbs and flows of the pandemic for over two years now, few sectors in the economy have been affected as much as the education sector. While the entire education industry continues to be affected in some aspects, the sports education sub-sector had to face some unique challenges, given that the raging pandemic meant that the sports industry they primarily served was probably hit even harder than the education sector.

Acknowledging the difficulties faced by the entire sector over the past two years, Neel said:

“The pandemic forced the sports education sector to become nimbler and more dynamic. Institutes had to think beyond the conventional modes of classroom education and quickly come up with innovative ways to educate, engage and hold students accountable through remote learning.”

On the ability to manoeuvre the pandemic and adapt to student and industry needs, Neel added:

“Thankfully, GISB is a private institute which means that we have the authority and agency to design, deliver and evolve our program as we see fit to meet the needs of the students and the industry we are serving. We were able to tap into and even create our own global best practises in remote learning to ensure our graduate students continued to receive a world-class education throughout the pandemic."
"Some of these best practises included creating additional live project opportunities with top international sports organisations, inviting global industry leaders to speak with graduate students each week, and scheduling weekly huddles so that the cohort could connect with management.”

Given that the pandemic also induced an extraordinary amount of personal and professional stress for people, on GISB’s response to this need, Neel commented:

“We set up a professional life coach and a therapist to be available for our students. We also put extra time into career counselling and placements support to ensure that our graduates secured full-time positions in the industry on graduation.”

While the Indian sports industry has certainly grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, it can still be said to be finding its feet in some aspects. Since the pandemic largely shrunk what was a fledgling or sunrise industry, one might wonder whether the supply side (the number of people opting for and being admitted into one of the various sports management programs now present in India) is overtaking industry demand for permanent, non-contract basis jobs.

Weighing up on this matter and how GISB’s pivot has seen success, Neel mentioned:

“While the pandemic has seen major leagues like ISL, PKL, and IPL clearly affected, it also saw gaming, fantasy sports, digital marketing, content creation and technology take off over the past two years. These fields within the larger sports industry are leading to hundreds of new positions opening up every few months at healthy packages."
"I know this first-hand as many of our top students from the 2019-20 and 2020-21 programs are now firmly placed in companies working within these fields. Also, many of these organisations are regularly in touch with us, requesting that we send more quality candidates for them to hire.”

Partnerships and evolving curriculum

No organisation, least of all educational institutions, can afford to not evolve in today’s rapidly-changing world. With GISB launching as a dedicated industry-driven sports business institute in India in 2018-19, it has seen its fair share of changes in its curriculum and the way it goes about its business.

Commenting on the evolving curriculum and what a graduate student can expect to learn at GISB, Neel said:

“At GISB, we ensure that our students possess the critical soft and hard skills to be effective in the industry. This includes communications, presentation skills, Microsoft Office, strategic planning, budgeting, market research, data visualisation, decision-making and self-leadership at a minimum."
"This pandemic has expedited the importance of digital platforms and technology in general. In response, we ensure that our students are offered additional training in digital marketing and sports technology.”

Any noteworthy business school depends on successful partnerships and good relationships with academic and industry bodies and organisations to be able to deliver on its promises well. Amongst a range of domestic and international partnerships in GISB’s repertoire, notable ones include tie-ups with the Premier League, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Marwah Sports. Reviewing their role in shaping the GISB curriculum and experience, Neel said:

“GISB’s domestic and international partnerships allow our students to work on real-world projects for industry organisations. These projects allow the students to beef up their CVs with relevant experience of high-profile sports brands to catch the eyes of potential employers and give them something to talk about during the interview."
"We have also seen the sports start-up space significantly expand over the past few years, which is why we have partnered with Marwah Sports to build a sports entrepreneurship stream for our students.”

Outlook for 2022 for GISB and the Indian sports industry

Coming to GISB’s plans for 2022 and the current on-campus batch at GISB, which started in January 2022, Neel mentioned:

“The first few weeks of the program have been exhilarating for all involved, and we have loved having the opportunity to return to in-classroom program delivery. With safety measures in place, we are confident that we will continue to run the program similar to how we ran it pre-pandemic. Also, we are in regular touch with the Premier League to explore dates for when we can schedule the international study trip to the United Kingdom.”

On how he sees the larger Indian sports industry shaping up in 2022, Neel said in conclusion:

“Specific to the larger sports industry in India, my feeling is that gaming, fantasy, technology and digital marketing will continue to thrive while top leagues will still have to navigate some operational challenges related to the pandemic."
"That said, thanks to the fact that India is a burgeoning TV market, our bigger properties and leagues will continue to see increased revenue through lucrative broadcast and content rights deals.”

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Edited by Sandeep Banerjee