So You Want to Work in Professional Basketball?

Posted on April 9, 2007 by


There are currently two undergraduate sport management programs located in an accredited school of business West of the Mississippi. One of these happens to be at California State University Bakersfield.

Our program is very much in its infancy although we are optimistic that it will grow dramatically in the next few years. The study of sport management is proving to be a popular and growing major at universities around the nation, and we have high hopes for our program in Bakersfield.

One step we are taking to build our program is securing internships for our students with local sports teams. Here in Bakersfield we have several minor league franchises, including the Blaze (California League – Class A baseball), the Condors (ECHL – Class AA hockey), the Blitz (Arena Football League 2), and the Jam (National Basketball Development League).

A few weeks ago Steve Chase, the owner of the Jam, visited our campus. Prior to assuming ownership of the Jam, Mr. Chase was a vice-president for many years with the Los Angeles Lakers. So he has extensive experience working in professional basketball.

During his visit he explained what it was like to work in professional basketball. His discussion with us was very interesting, but one particular statement stood out. According to Mr. Chase: “we have two positions with our team. Either you are a player or a sales person. If you can’t play, then if you work for us, you are going to sell.”

Obviously we are interested in our students securing positions in professional sports. And this statement tells us that our students can look forward to helping the Jam market their franchise to the people of Bakersfield and the southern Central Valley of California.

Now many people want a job in sports helping franchises evaluate talent. According to Mr. Chase, those jobs seem pretty scarce. When he worked with the Lakers, Jerry West evaluated talent. Perhaps a few scouts assisted in this effort, but most employees of the Lakers – outsider the players – worked at selling the Lakers to the people in Los Angeles.

Of course many people still want to get paid to look at sports data. If jobs with professional sports teams are scarce, what can you do?

One option is to study either economics or sport management at Cal-State Bakersfield. Upon graduating, we will help you enroll in a graduate program, in economics or sport management. Once you have completed a Ph.D. (in either subject) you can begin an academic career at a college or university where people will pay you money to look at sports data. From what I can tell, this job often pays a good deal better than the job of scout or statistical consultant to a team. And it comes with tenure.

Of course to get the money and the tenure, you will typically have to publish your work in peer reviewed journals. And that step can be difficult. Rejection rates for many journals are quite high. And it takes perseverance, some hard work, and a bit of luck to be successful. I have nearly 20 publications in the field of sports economics and serve on the editorial board of the two major journals in the field (Journal of Sports Economics and the International Journal of Sport Finance). Despite my standing in the field, I still get rejected from time to time. Nevertheless, my co-authors and I keep working on improving the papers we hope to publish.

Of course it’s possible to get around the publishing requirement. Not all schools demand that faculty publish or fire you if you fail to live up to expectations. But generally your career will go better, and people will pay more attention to your work, if you publish your findings in peer reviewed journals. If you manage to do this, of course, you do get lifetime employment with really, really good hours. So all in all, it’s a pretty good deal.

The Purpose of the NBDL

Beyond telling us what it was like to work in professional basketball, Mr. Chase let us in on the true purpose behind the NBDL. The coverage of this league focuses on the development of players. Certainly, that is something this league can do. But according to Mr. Chase, the primary purpose of the NBDL is to develop trainers, referees, and people to help market the NBA. In other words, he hopes someone comes to him and learns how to market a franchise. Upon working with him for a few years he wants to see them land a job with an NBA team. Not in player evaluation, but in marketing.

One message he emphasized is that the NBA is a business. Yes, it’s entertaining to us fans. But people who work in the league have to work at marketing and expanding the fan base that supports the league. He noted that when he attends league meetings with David Stern, the talk is not about the product on the court but the efforts being made to market the product on the court. In other words, they don’t sit around and discuss the players, but how they can better expand the business that is the NBA.

All in all, it was a very insightful visit. I am very much looking forward to seeing our students work with the Jam – and the other minor league franchises in Bakersfield – in the future. This certainly looks like a very positive aspect of a sport management program that I do think will grow significantly in the next few years.

– DJ