For debate: Is communication the key to student preparation?
The NASSM Blog would like to introduce the ‘debate blog.’ The following is a call for unity among sport industry and sport educators. We welcome your thoughts and comments! And, please, if you have an idea for a ‘debate post’, please contact us!
A Call for Unity: Sport Educators & the Sport Industry
The most abundant positions with professional sports teams are in usually in sales. Sadly, the majority of sport management graduates hired into sales positions FAIL to make it through their first year.* They fail as the direct result of their own actions, however, several are almost predisposed to fail because their sport management programs didn’t adequately prepare them for a sales career.
This is evident in the resumes that hiring managers like me receive, the interviews we conduct, and the actions of some of the sport management students we hire…and ultimately fire.
Recruiting sport management students can be challenging because many are not educated in the art of selling, nor are they provided many opportunities to experience selling or learn from people that sell sports for a living. This lack of a foundation leads students to apply for positions they aren’t suited or prepared for and teams to hire on perceived abilities instead of proven experience. In the end, these students fail to achieve their dream of a career in this incredible industry, the teams lose the time, money, and effort spent on recruiting and training, and the reputations of academic institutions are tarnished.
So how do we, educators and industry practitioners, come together to address this?
There are a multitude of ways but one of the best places to start is with better communication.
The more knowledgeable professors are on the ever-evolving roles and responsibilities in this industry, the better equipped they will be to prepare students for successful careers. First-hand knowledge is the best. To this point, there has been a pretty sizable effort in recent years of sales managers proactively seeking working-relationships with local educators…but we still have a long way to go. Our outreach will continue but we also encourage professors to contact us. It really can be as simple as picking up the phone or connecting on LinkedIn. Even sitting down for a cup of coffee can open up a new world of understanding and possibilities!
A fantastic development has been teams and sport management professors/programs collaborating to host one-day sales events (the Mount Union Sport Sales Workshop is widely regarded as one of the best). Over the past few seasons, my team (the Bucks) has implemented a one-day Sales Academy, a Night Sales program, a more robust internship program, and a couple of the sales managers now serve on advisory councils with local universities. Programs like these expose students to the sales cultures of professional sports teams and the chance to network with industry executives. They also allow professors to observe the inner-workings of a professional front office. Finally, they provide teams with the opportunity to find the next generation of sales superstars and leadership development experience for aspiring sales managers.
Better communication doesn’t have to result in large projects or events. At the very least, honest discussions will greatly reduce some of the common misconceptions that continue to be shared with students (one of the most prevalent being, “Sales is a good way to get your foot in the door”).
Other simple collaborations can include sales projects being integrated into curriculums and inviting sales reps and managers to be guest speakers. It was a guest speaker in one of my classes that ultimately paved the way for my career. I’ve also been very humbled to have a few people say that one of my guest lectures had the same effect on them. These experiences would not have been possible without educators and practitioners having solid relationships.
My fellow sales managers and I have the utmost respect for educators and the awesome responsibility you have in shaping the futures of your students and the entire industry. Thank you for what you do and we look forward to working with you soon!
The opinions expressed in this article are my own and may not reflect those of any organizations mentioned.
*I don’t have any industry data to support this statistic. The figure is taken directly from my 15+ years of experience in sales with two NBA teams, one NHL team, one WNBA team, one AHL team, one AFL team, and one NBA D-League (now the G-League) team. It’s also supported by some of my colleagues managing sales teams in the NFL, NHL, and NBA.
Let me start with 3 propositions.
Proposition 1: Sport Management (SM) programs – as with MBA programs – are not job-specific skills training mechanisms.
Proposition 2: SM programs have a responsibility to provide value to tuition-paying students, often related to expected future earnings potential.
Proposition 3: Industry has a responsibility to provide its workers with appropriate job-specific skills training to both support their employees’ career trajectory and increase their productivity in their current job.
None of these statements is specific to SM – indeed, higher education is dealing with this existential question as a whole – but applied fields are under particular scrutiny to meet these career-specific expectations. As academics, that can sometimes be a difficult proposition. We seek to ensure that our students are equipped with skills in critical and independent thinking, problem-solving acumen, the ability to find, synthesize, and communicate information, and to be intellectually flexible and work well with others. These skills allow them to learn other more specific training quickly and apply it in ways that contribute positively to the firm and society.
To exemplify where these skills are valuable, in consulting roles I have heard comments such as, “We know you have to be ethical in your profession, but we need your estimates to be higher,” and, “We’ll move forward with [that result we like], even though it’s probably spurious.” This is precisely what we want our students to avoid. In spite of the need for immediate action in a fast-paced business environment, a central part of our jobs as instructors is ensuring students know that making decisions with bad information can hurt your business. They should leave here as critical consumers of information.
By its nature, this foundational training is going to spend less time ensuring students know all the acronyms and jargon, proprietary sales operations processes, or be instant experts working specific sales software. Higher education will certainly not ingrain a “sell at all costs” culture in our students’ minds.
And so follows the indictment of our programs.
But is that the goal of higher education? If students leave our programs with the necessary skills to get an entry-level job, and no more, we have failed them miserably. Further, our student body ranges widely, and catering to this specific subset of our students would be an enormous disservice to the majority of them.
Academia certainly needs to think about the educational role it will play in society over the next 20 years. But criticism from industry often lacks an understanding of what faculty do on a daily basis, what universities expect them to do, or what challenges they face in getting students up to speed with many basic skills when they arrive on campus. There is also a need for accountability from industry with respect to training their own workforce, particularly as college graduates continue to be hired into short-term unpaid or extremely low paid positions that often skirt labor and minimum wage laws.
Further, industry sales professionals need to communicate to faculty not only that sales skills are needed, but what they are and why they will allow our students to meet future career development and advancement goals. Most faculty view education as a public good with a duty to prepare students to leave here with the skills to make positive societal contributions. Tie the profession to values it creates not just for your firm, but for others, too.
Without a quality sales pitch of the what and the why, faculty will likely continue to view sales as the art of convincing people to buy what they did not want in the first place: an activity rife with welfare loss and societal waste. We as faculty are of course quite familiar with the importance of revenue generation in the survival of a business. Many of us study how business structures and product characteristics drive revenue, and others study the psychology or economics of business in ways closely related to strategy and CRM through analysis of complex consumer data.
Most faculty in our programs are also social scientists, and therefore will be skeptical of the societal value of sales as traditionally viewed. I suspect this is not the version of sales you do, nor is it what you want our graduates to do. Rather, salespeople can indeed be a valuable resource in finding useful solutions to problems, and leading clients to these solutions using the tools available to them. Faculty have some work to do in communicating the value that some of our courses and programs provide to these goals. In particular, we need to be clear how these skills are more valuable in the face of technological innovation that changes what the most valuable specific skillsets are.
On the other hand, many departments are increasingly resource deprived. Industry professionals should understand the demands upon faculty that include research and other service, and be proactive in offering resources to create workshops and other opportunities on college campuses without treating them just as an easy way to find cheap labor. Industry would also be well served to increase investment in their own workforce, have some patience with very specific skill development, and find ways to take advantage of skills our students do gain while they are here. I suspect their ability to solve problems facing the sales team will surprise you as they grow comfortable with the basic tools of the trade.