It’s no exaggeration to say that Las Vegas’ rise to become a premier destination for professional sports has been meteoric. Within the past half-decade, the city, already known as the home to boxing and MMA has added NHL, WNBA, and NFL franchises, debuted a $1 billion jewel of a stadium, and Vegas repeatedly comes up as a hot name in talks of NBA and Major League Baseball expansion.
As Las Vegas continues its ascent into a sports and entertainment powerhouse, UNLV – through academic programs like an emerging Sports Research and Innovation Initiative – is positioning itself as a go-to industry source to advance sports science, business, and performance.
With new industry also comes the demand for a skilled workforce, a challenge UNLV is anticipating with the Fall 2021 launch of the master’s degree in intercollegiate and professional sport management. Offered through the College of Education and open to students with a bachelor’s degree in any field, the program will take full advantage of Vegas’ booming sports scene by immersing students in activities and internships with the agencies and organizations fueling the surge.
We caught up with sports marketing expert Nancy Lough, professor and director of UNLV’s sport management program and co-director of the Sports Research and Innovation Initiative, to learn more about what accelerated Vegas’ sports landscape, and how the new degree will give students an “only in Vegas” experience that will set them apart in an industry that’s growing by the day.
Tourists have been coming to Vegas for decades to watch (and bet on) sports played elsewhere. Now they can watch a host of professional teams play here in person. What changed and why now?
Las Vegas has always been a major sporting event host city. For years, the National Finals Rodeo has been one of the single largest events creating economic impact for the city, and the UFC, a global leader in sport, is headquartered in Las Vegas. Many unique and different sporting events have found tremendous success in Las Vegas with big audiences.
Everyone loves a winner and this success progressively grew to create unique opportunities in Las Vegas. Then, when the NHL’s Golden Knights were born, Las Vegas went from a city where tourists were the focus to a community with identity outside the resort corridor. We’re in a city where winning happens fast, fans are avid supporters of their home team, and the spectacle of sport is taken to a whole new level.
Before programs like UNLV’s new master’s in intercollegiate and professional sport management, what was the traditional career path for someone who wanted to work in the industry?
The most traditional path was from athlete to coach to administrator. That’s old school, and very few in professional and collegiate sport follow this path today. Before programs like ours, jobs in sport leadership would literally state experience coaching football as a preferred or required qualification. This was discriminatory, but it was accepted practice.
Today, working in sport could include multiple areas of expertise like marketing, ticketing, finance, event management, operations, governance, and compliance. Moreover, the use of social media and the changing digital landscape is creating a need for data analysts, content creators, and digital marketing professionals. Innovation is the name of the game, and sport technology is emerging quickly as another key area where students can create a compelling career path.
How will the new degree program take advantage of Las Vegas’ growing sports scene?
The program will be experiential in the sense that students will be expected to assist at multiple events as part of their class requirements throughout their time in the program. By partnering with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, our students can volunteer at premier events, including VGK games, the PAC12 Conference basketball tournament, NBA Summer League, and even the NFL Draft in April 2022. Plus, completion of the program requires a 150-hour sport management internship, and there’s no place better than Las Vegas to build a sport management resume.
Being in Vegas, you can't talk about sports without talking about sports betting. How will the new sport management degree program address this?
There’s no question that the legalization of sports betting in multiple states led to a completely different perception of Las Vegas and of sport. Through UNLV’s International Gaming Institute, professionals from across the globe come to Las Vegas to learn about regulation, sport integrity, and prevention and treatment of gambling addiction — areas in which UNLV leads the way as the most renowned source for academic expertise.
In the new program, students will explore how betting is changing the sport experience from marketing and promotion to fan engagement and sponsorship valuation. This is just one area where so much is happening so fast that classes focused in this space will set our students apart from both traditional sport management programs and business-based programs.
Beyond sports wagering, institutional racism and collegiate athlete compensation are just two more of the many big issues in the sport industry. How will this program help students address these topics?
With pervasive problems like racism and pay-for-play, we will use research to inform industry practices and policy. For example, NIL (name, image, and likeness) is such a new issue for the industry that far more questions are emerging than answers. One goal of the master’s degree program is to foster the connection between industry and academia through research. We will focus research on the challenges our industry partners are facing and work to add value by contributing with innovative ideas and potential solutions they can realistically put in place.
What are the advantages of the sport management program over a traditional MBA or other business-focused program?
The sport industry is unique. While a fundamental understanding of business aspects can be beneficial, the distinction between understanding fan behavior, driving fan loyalty, and managing a sporting event is well established in scholarly literature.
Sport is said to be a microcosm of society, where we see an amplification effect when things go well or when they go wrong. In sport, competition is the name of the game, but the governance structure varies and changes dramatically from national to international. Folks who study in our master’s program will acquire a deep understanding of these nuances and learn how to lead and innovate in one of the world’s most dynamic industries.
For prospective students who are already working in the sport industry, what does the program offer them to help them in their career advancement?
Advancing in any career requires new knowledge, skills, and innovation. To stay on the cutting edge of this dynamic industry and to truly lead sport organizations into the future, students need to acquire the skills to ask compelling questions, analyze data, think critically, and use these insights to drive new paths. Through our new master’s degree in intercollegiate and professional sport management, we’re doing just that.