This article appeared in the April issue of Athletic Business. Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.

For those working in athletics administration or thinking of a career in athletics administration, things aren't what they used to be. Going back to school for a master's degree or sports-management-specific certification can give administrators an edge and better prepare them for their roles. To help get the most out of their education, here are four questions athletic professionals should ask as they evaluate education programs.
 

1. Why are you pursuing more education?
This simple question can provide the most direction when considering the different educational opportunities available. Are you an athletic director looking to improve your skills? A teacher or coach interested in a career change? A student interested in breaking into sports administration?

Knowing the answer to this question helps prospective students know what type of program they should be looking for. "There are options in terms of more general sports management or administration programs that may appeal to those interested in professional or collegiate sports," says Aaron Wright, former director and current lecturer with Ohio University's Department of Sports Administration, which offers both online and on-campus master in sports administration programs. "Then there are ones that offer a general degree with a concentration."

Within a sports management program, concentrations can include anything from facility management to sports analytics. For students or others looking to get into sports administration and considering a concentration or specialty, University of New Haven Sports Management chair Gil Fried recommends looking where the jobs are. "Sports marketing and event operations people are a dime a dozen," he says. "Finance, analytics — those people are going to be more in demand."

For those who know they want to focus on interscholastic athletics, either at the high school or middle school level, a handful of universities go beyond a concentration and offer specific interscholastic programs. "The courses are similar, but we focus on applying them to the high school setting," Wright says of OU's master in athletic administration program. "We have courses in administration of interscholastic programs and governance, but our other courses are ones that you'd find in any program."

One thing to look for in an interscholastic-focused program is whether it partners with the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) and incorporates courses from the association's certification program, as OU's MAA does. "The NIAAA's main focus is providing education to active and aspiring administrators," says Jay Richardson at American Public University, one of the institutions that partner with the NIAAA. "They have leadership training courses that we've built into our program, so individuals who go through our program are preparing for that certification at the same time they're earning their degree."

The NIAAA offers its own certification programs: three focusing on high school administration and a fourth for middle school athletic administrators. Since its mid-'90s inception, the program has evolved from a basic five or six classes to 44 and counting, says Bruce Whitehead, NIAAA's certification program executive director. "The profession is changing so fast that we're developing new courses all the time to meet the needs of athletics administrators."

Whitehead also notes that returning students need to look into the requirements for the job they want, particularly at the high school level. "There are several states that have made it a requirement to have some sort of certification, and the NIAAA certification fits most of those requirements," he says. "Other states require something like an education administration degree."
 


More from AB: Find More Continuing Education Resources in the Buyers Guide


2. What does the curriculum look like?
The next step is to evaluate each program on its structure — the class format and content, for example. Even among master programs partnering with the NIAAA, the program structure can look very different from one school to the next.

"There are certain components that every university will use, but beyond that, we have some that use as few as four courses to as many as 30," Whitehead says. Most interscholastic programs incorporate NIAAA foundation courses, but then pick from more advanced classes that fit with their own curriculum. One institution, for example, offers a master in sports administration but doesn't actually have its own curriculum. "They have students take all the NIAAA programs, then do a little extra work for their program, and they award the 36 graduate credits based on taking 36 of our courses."

NIAAA is just one example of an organization that partners with continuing education institutions. APU's curriculum also works with the American Sport Education Program and the National Academy of Sports Medicine, among others, to help prepare students for certifications offered by each.

Beyond what is taught, potential students should consider who is teaching. A good program is closely tied to those working in the industry. OU draws its faculty from a pool of current and former athletic directors across the country, which allows for a broader perspective.

The sports administration program offered at Wayne State University also relies heavily on those working in the industry — professionals from the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings, as well as university athletic department personnel. "They take that theoretical learning and apply it practically," says program coordinator Laurel Whalen. "It gives students practical experience they can use the next day."

It also provides an advantage when students finish the program and are looking for new career opportunities, she says. "Your network is your most critical asset in getting a job. By having instructors who work in the industry that you want to work in, not only do you get a chance to make connections, but they can see evidence of your work."

Whitehead says that the NIAAA asks its partners to employ either NIAAA-certified instructors or instructors who have experience teaching at the collegiate level. "We don't want them using grad students to teach the courses," he says.

Almost as important as the expertise of the instructors is their level of interaction with students and availability. "Sometimes in an online program, if students are left to navigate it on their own there are higher dropout rates," says Whalen. Technology has made the human interaction component easier, she says, noting that one of students' first assignments is to set up a Skype meeting with her. "Students should really consider the connectedness with faculty. If they're not interacting, it just turns into self-study."
 


More from AB: Sports and Fitness Professionals Go Beyond Certification


3. Can you make the commitment?
Most master programs take two years to complete. For professionals planning to juggle a full-time career while going back to school, this question is especially important. "It's certainly a challenge in terms of time management, but that's also an important skill for an athletic director," Wright says. "Students need to look at factors like ease of completing a program, whether it fits into their schedule and whether they can commit the time."

Some programs are more flexible in their scheduling than others. Classes at APU start monthly, as opposed to by semester, allowing students more freedom with their course load. "Some people want to jump in and go full throttle right from the start, and it's really not a good idea," Richardson says. "Start slow, take one class, increase your course load once you get comfortable."

The University of New Haven does not offer a full online program but does offer some online classes, and these differ from the in-person experience, says Fried. "It's an eight-week online class," as opposed to 13 weeks, he says. "They're doing four or five projects a week, posting online, writing a paper, doing an exam. It's a lot of work and a lot of reading — for them and for me."

Some online programs have an on-campus requirement, and some don't. OU's requires three visits for the PMSA program and one for its MAA program. The value to students, says Wright, is having the opportunity to meet and network with their peers. "I think the social aspect is important, allowing them to connect in a way that's tough to do online. They meet other students in their cohort, and we bring in guest speakers, our own faculty."

In comparison, all coursework at APU is done online. "A lot of our students are transitioning from one career to another and aren't able to commit to an on-campus program due to work, family or other obligations," says Richardson. One type of program isn't necessarily better; it's a matter of finding the right fit for each individual.

Other programs might require an internship as well. At Wayne State, students have the option of an internship or writing a thesis — and most students opt for the internship, says Whalen. "Experience and networking are more important, and internships allow students to expand their networks."
 


More from AB: Invest In Your Staff


4. Finally, is the program a good value?
Online master program tuition can range from inexpensive to very expensive. Price alone should not be a deciding factor, but if you've considered the previous questions and taken a hard look at the program, you'll know whether the price of tuition is worth it. "Make sure you know what you're getting from the institution," Fried says, adding, "Look at job placement and internship opportunities. Talk to current and former students. If they don't want to share that information, be suspicious."

Both Fried and Richardson made a point to mention that a continuing education program doesn't pay off for everyone. "If someone is trying to break into the field, that's one thing, but if they have real experience, these programs might not be for them," says Fried. "If you're currently an athletic director, you might know as much as the person teaching the class. If you can't afford it or it doesn't increase your salary, do you really need additional training?"

Richardson agrees that education alone does not make the sports administration professional. Still, its value can't be underestimated. "There are so many things that matter and make a person employable," he says. "Education is one piece of that, but it's a very important piece."
 

Staying in the know:

What issues are most pressing for athletics administrators?

From the interscholastic to professional levels, the landscape of the sports administration industry has rapidly evolved and continues to evolve. The issues facing today's athletics professionals are more complex and involved than they were even 10 years ago. We asked our experts, what's changed?

Event safety and security is a major issue right now, and liability continues to be a growing issue, according to the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association's Bruce Whitehead. "Thirty years ago, there was no lawsuit if a student was injured playing in a sport," he says. "Now, there's so much of a liability factor in providing a safe environment, quality coaching, safe equipment."

The NIAAA now offers a course on athletic field safety, as well as courses on facility safety and inspections. "We've got another course in the pipeline, called Maintaining Appropriate Social Boundaries," Whitehead adds. "It provides athletic directors direction in how to mentor coaches on maintaining appropriate boundaries."

At the college level, the NCAA bureaucracy is providing no shortage of issues, says American Public University's Jay Richardson. "NCAA bylaws, compliance, academic advisors — it's very different. There are so many intricacies as the sports industry has evolved."

And of course, money is a major driver for all levels of athletics. "Revenue generation has become a huge part of high school athletics," says Ohio University sports administration lecturer Aaron Wright. "It's not a new trend, but the importance of athletic departments being more self-sufficient has led to the need for ADs to be more knowledgeable in all sorts of areas — marketing, ticket sales, sponsorships, booster clubs."

At the professional level, this has translated into increased demand for more business-focused skillsets, says University of New Haven Sports Management chair Gil Fried. "The value because of broadcast contracts and all of that is so business-based that we have to change the perspective of the educational process," Fried says. "What used to be easy, things like sports marketing, is changing dramatically. Now it's all analytics and how you can use customer relationship management to monitor and track your customers to know what they're thinking and doing."


This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Athletic Business with the title "4 Questions to ask when pursuing more education in sports administration"