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Q&A with Sports Marketer, James J. Zhang, PED, MS

BusinessDegreeOnline.com recently spoke with Dr. James J. Zhang, a professor of sport management at the University of Florida and President of the North American Society for Sport Management (NASSM). He is a leader in research on sports marketing and a former basketball player in the Chinese sport training system.

Below he shares his views on a career in sport management.

Q: What does a career in sport management entail?

There are a wide range of career options within the sport industry. You can do anything from purely recreational youth programs to professional competitions, leagues, and even international events. A lot of people working in the sport industry don’t have direct contact with either the participants or the spectators of a sport as they may be involved in the design, marketing and sales of electronic products. The industry covers a very broad spectrum. There are positions in administration, marketing, entrepreneurship, media, operations, and public relations-you name it. It’s almost a mirror of society, and very multidisciplinary.

Newly graduated students are likely to work long hours at the entry level as marketing assistants or public relations assistants, etc. They might even start as coaches, event organizers, or within a corporation. Many corporations, like Coca Cola, pay particular attention to the sport marketing area and have a sport marketing department. Young people have to spend a lot of time learning, gaining experience, and working really hard.

Q: How did you become interested in sport management?

I was always fascinated by the importance, advancement, needs, complexity, and specific aspects of the management side of sports. I was an athlete for a while in the sport industry in China. Most of China was booming and people were starting to realize the importance of management in that process. During my graduate studies in Springfield, Massachusetts and post doctoral work in Houston, Texas, I had the opportunities to work with professional teams and many other types of sport organizations. It confirmed my belief in the significance of management and having good leaders in the sports industry.

Q: What kind of training/background is helpful in the field?

Certainly, having some athletic background, whether as a youth or in recreational sports, would be helpful. But, there are a lot of people who build successful careers without ever having participated in organized sports. They will have to make a special effort to learn and gain insight into the sport industry. Also, the sport industry has a lot of people who do office work. They don’t necessarily need field experience. Those people are also important. They have conceptual, financial, computer IT skills, etc. It takes people of different backgrounds to make an organization work. If someone does not have a sport industry background, but really knows IT, marketing, or finance, and also knows how to work with the community, I think that person could do the job.

Q: Are there any particular personality traits that are helpful in this field?

Generally speaking, a young professional needs to be humble, be able to persevere, work hard, want to learn, and be able to summarize and conceptualize. He or she also has to be honest. It’s very important to be professional when you’re dealing with customers and financial resources. These are characteristics needed for all professions, and the sport industry is no exception.

The challenge and uniqueness of the sport industry is that many people want to be in it. It can attract people from different disciplines. Because of this demand and supply issue, usually, the entry-level compensation is not that high. This requires people to be patient, work excessively hard, and be willing, to some extent, to sacrifice in order to advance their careers. If you work hard, over time, opportunities will knock on your door. Often, young people don’t have that patience, and after a few years, they change their profession. Patience, persistence, and perseverance are the key. Intelligence and leadership are important as well.

Q: You are known for research in sport marketing-can you describe this?

In the past, the sport program or product was designed first, and then, people found a way to promote it. It’s a hit-or-miss strategy. Today, most sport products and services are market-driven. You need to understand the needs, wants and trends of the consumers before you design a program or product. Marketing is about providing direction for an organization and formulating a strategy.

What I do, and what many of my colleagues do, is examine the needs and wants of consumers from a variety of perspectives. How many people want the product? Why do they want it? Why might they not want certain services or programs? Why do fans come to games or why don’t they? What intrigues them?

Q: Was there anything that surprised you about the career?

As a young guy, I left China. I was interested in management, but I didn’t really have a clue what marketing was. I never realized its relevance. I’m pleasantly surprised to be doing what I’m doing. Marketing is intriguing and continues to amaze and motivate me. If you work hard in the sport industry, the difficulties will help you grow better and stronger and achieve more.

Q: How has the sport industry changed recently?

The sport industry is changing rapidly. When society changes, the sport industry changes too. For instance, IT advancement is now in every part of human life and every part of the sport industry. It advances the sport industry. Also, globalization is inevitable, and that creates opportunities as well as challenges.

In addition, the world of women’s sports is phenomenal. Not just in the U.S., but in many other countries as well, women’s sports are growing. If you go to China, women’s sports are promoted. Female athletes still do not receive pay checks as large as those of male athletes, but their salaries are growing. There are so many other things changing too.

Q: What do you see as the future of the career?

Environmental concerns are a major element of today’s mega sports events. At the University of Florida our football stadium has “gone green” in terms of its energy use and disposal of trash. In addition, sports are being used more to address social issues and spur community development. For example, I use after school sports to encourage schools to deal with some of the social problems present in American youth. Greater participation in sports can be used as a social agent.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about NASSM, and how it can help students interested in the field?

We have a very well developed website. The website provides basic information about the discipline. We also have an industrial relations committee, standing committees, and student committees with which students can get involved. They can come to conferences and meet with other students. It’s also an opportunity to mingle with faculty members from other schools and interact with people in the industry. The NASSM can help them make connections. We also have a listserv, which students should join. A lot of information and employment opportunities are posted there. Students should take every step to get involved in the industry, gradually increasing involvement and connections. They can put their knowledge in perspective and open doors.

Q: Any other particular recommendations for aspiring sport managers?

Just keep learning. We have to be students of the industry for the rest of our lives.