Pyramid of Success for a Career in Sport Business

The numbers are almost unbelievable. 10 championships in a 12-year period. Seven championships in a row. Four perfect seasons. 88 consecutive wins. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden is famous for not only winning but also for his Pyramid of Success. Although his books are must reads for everyone, especially those engaged in sport business careers, it was his Pyramid of Success that defined the man behind all that accomplishment. It was developed over his career of coaching and teaching and has inspired countless people to organize and outline the most important aspects of a successful life. Many have adapted it and used it for business principles, coaching and everyday living. When applied properly, the Pyramid of Success not only provides a framework for character and integrity, it also provides a constant reminder and reference for those who need to refocus their lives to head down the road to success.

Inspired by Wooden and my years working in the sport industry and sport management academia, I decided to examine what a pyramid of success would look like for a career in sport business. Although Wooden’s original pyramid still applies in all situations, my goal in engaging with this exercise is to give prospective and current sport managers a blueprint of specific criteria of what it takes to be successful in sport business. Hopefully it will prompt some discussion and even garner some changes or additions.

I was also compelled to consider this due to the recent commentaries regarding the so-called uncertain future of sport management degree programs and working in the sport industry. One article even called them “doomed to fail.” I have always taken a more optimistic approach to criticism and adversity, considering them opportunities to fix existing problems and benefit from the reflective analysis. So, after reading these observations, I began to ponder the genesis of these statements and look at the positive outcomes that exist.

Although I do not completely agree with these assessments, there is definitely a disconnect between the sport industry and collegiate academic sport management programs. In most cases, there never was a connection in the first place. Much of the responsibility for the perceived downward spiral of the sport management profession lies with these programs, whose job it is to educate and prepare students for successful careers in the sport industry. Most colleges, eager to realize the cash cow that comes with starting the admissions-popular sport management major, do not strategically plan for the resources they will need to create a successful program. Among the most important are 1) recruiting and hiring faculty with significant industry experience and connections, 2) creating a comprehensive experiential curriculum focusing on sales, technology and positive core values, 3) establishing an extensive internship program, 4) actively engaging in corporate/educational partnerships and 5) committing to the funding and facilities necessary for meaningful teaching, research and hands-on training. The few colleges that do most of these things are well-established sport management departments with a network of highly successful alumni.

The attributes of success in sport business as presented in this pyramid, should, in my opinion, be the focal points of any sport management curriculum. Success, of course, is open to interpretation and individual definition. Contrary to popular opinion, it does not always concern how much money you earn for yourself or your organization. Although the financial bottom line is very important, my view of success keeps the spirit of Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, which places the highest values on personal character and leadership. If you can master all the attributes in the Pyramid of Success for a Career in Sport Business, then you and your organization will undoubtedly be in a premier position for financial success anyway.

There are 15 blocks in the pyramid (five at the base), each with a different attribute corresponding with success in sport business. I will be writing about each attribute individually soon. The graphic above shows the full pyramid. Here is what I came up with:

  1. Positive Core Values

This is the one attribute that, if you do not have it, the other ones do not matter. The way you treat others based on your ethical and moral principles is the framework of not only your business career, but your life. The positive values that should be stressed, among others, are love, kindness, integrity, respect, honesty and responsibility. If you have strong core values and solid character, you can succeed no matter what adversity you face. My core values are driven by my faith. Whatever the origin in your life, they should be a guiding force. Due to its importance, this is the left cornerstone at the bottom of the pyramid.

  1. Hard Work/Passion

Some people think it goes without saying that you need to work hard and love what you do. It is easy to say, but the reality is that few people go above and beyond and spend the long hours and sweat equity needed to dedicate themselves to their careers and a successful work/family balance. To find examples of them, look no further than the presidents, vice presidents and senior managers of sport organizations. They have earned those positions through years of dedication. Due to its importance, this is the right cornerstone at the bottom of the pyramid.

  1. Sales Acumen

If you have proven that you can directly make money for an organization, you will always have a job. Learning and developing sales skills is essential for success and promotion in any sport-related business. Many of the top executives in sport started out in sales, some of them at entry-level positions in areas such as ticket and sponsorship sales. This is one of the five blocks on the base of the pyramid, making it a foundational attribute.

  1. Technology Expertise

Whether it is today’s sports world driven by web development, social media and mobile technologies or the emerging technologies that will be driving us in the future such as virtual reality, eSports and the Internet of Things, it is important to gain as much knowledge and skill as you can. Start with basic coding and design and then proactively seek to master the sport-specific technologies that are impacting your field. It is never too late in your career to learn. This is one of the five blocks on the base of the pyramid, making it a foundational attribute.

  1. Social Responsibility

If you actively engage with the positive core values mentioned earlier, then you should realize the need to help others be successful and give back to the community you live and work in. If you measure success on how much you help others (you should), then your career and your organization will be successful and celebrated. This is one of the five blocks on the base of the pyramid, making it a foundational attribute.

  1. Communication Skills

Thanks to technology, there are many ways to communicate both internally and externally. However, the foundation is still learning how to write well and to engage in face-to-face conversation and presentation with your co-workers, consumers, corporate partners and the media. Like any skills, they take practice. Becoming an expert on the communication nuances of social media platforms and internet marketing campaigns is not just for the public relations staff anymore since content creation takes place across the entire spectrum of sport business job functions.

  1. Leadership

Leadership is often confused with management. Management involves tasks such as planning, budgeting, organizing and problem-solving. Although management skills are very important, leadership abilities deal with such concepts as vision, mentoring and motivation. Successful leaders inspire and help others to be successful, which is invaluable for sport organizations.

  1. Customer Relationship Management

The unique challenges of marketing to the sport consumer require advanced insight into consumer behavior. It is vital that sport marketers understand who their customers are, what they expect and the importance of building perpetual personal relationships with them. Companies like Salesforce give you all the tools you need to be successful. Use them.

  1. Languages

Many people looking to work in the sports industry in the United States only speak one language. That should be enough to tell you how valuable people who speak and write multiple languages are to sport organizations with an ever-increasing number of consumers speaking languages other than English. As an analogy, computer programmers who know one language well are valuable, but those who know multiple languages are indispensable. Native English speakers should make a sincere effort to become fluent (or at least conversational) in languages such as Spanish, French, Chinese and Japanese.

  1. International

Looking beyond the borders of your home country involves more than just setting up a website to take international currency. It takes considerable effort and understanding to build a successful global presence, whether you are a startup sport agency or an established team brand. Those that do reap the benefits, both monetarily and culturally. The NBA is an excellent example of a successful international sport enterprise.

  1. Analytics

Whether it is statistics, economics, video or even sabermetrics, having a complete understanding of the multitude of data points in the world of sport is paramount to success. It is one thing to understand how to gather data. It is quite another to know how to interpret and properly utilize it for financial gain. Companies such as Dartfish (digital video analysis) and IBM (cognitive computing) provide platforms for organizations to increase performance by transforming training and user experiences using real-time data.

  1. Experiential Learning

A theory-to-practice model with significant internships and practicums should be the foundation of any collegiate sport management program. Sadly, it often is not. While it is important to have a solid background in basic business principles and research, it is even more essential to be able to apply that knowledge to real time sport business situations. Even those already working in managerial positions in sport should highly value opportunities to glean additional expertise via hands-on experience, training or entrepreneurial ventures.

  1. Teamwork

This might be the most cliché attribute, but teamwork is how business is done in sports, whether it is in your organization’s sales office or in collaborative corporate marketing strategies and project management teams. Remember that your organization comes first in your business life. Act with humility and celebrate the success of others because, if they are successful, so are you.

  1. Event/Facilities Mastery

Sports are a series of events held in specialized venues. Most importantly, people pay to attend these events, to have their companies sponsor them and for the right to broadcast them. They expect to receive value for their investment, and it is up to you as a sport manager to provide it by executing activation plans that keep them coming back through strategically managed events in efficiently managed venues. Even if you are not an event or facilities manager, you should be well-versed about the impact events and facilities have on your business role.

  1. Competitive Greatness

This is the top of Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, and it applies to all situations in business and in life. For sport business, performing at your best each day should sit at the top of your list. In such a highly-competitive and fluid environment, only those who give all that they are capable of, utilizing the attributes discussed in this pyramid, can propel their organization to achieve all it is capable of. Among the characteristics woven into this attribute are perseverance, excellence, innovation and patience.

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