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5/10/2020 What’s the payoff in sports? 1/11

What’s the payoff in sports?
Salary survey sheds light on challenges college grads face

By Bill King

August 13, 2012

The path to the front office in sports isn’t for the faint
hearted. Lower starting pay and longer working hours
can make some grads think twice.
Getty images / Ohio University / Photo Illustration

As he tracks back through a decade as head of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the

University of Oregon, which annually produces about 20 MBA graduates who specialize in sports,

Paul Swangard has little trouble identifying the alumni who went to work for pro franchises.

“I can literally count them on my fingers,” Swangard said, “and it wouldn’t take both hands.

“It’s partly and directly attributable to salary expectations. … If we’re teaching you what a business

school can teach you, an entrepreneurial piece of your brain kicks in and says, ‘Where can I get

my biggest ROI?’ For someone with an MBA, that’s probably not going to be with a team.”

Relatively low pay, particularly when compared

with the starting salaries of most MBAs. Long hours.

Lots of nights and weekends. Heavy on sales,

especially at the start. Welcome to the lower rungs

of a career ladder at a pro team.

Sound like a dream job?

For many, it is, despite the rigors and the rarity of

financial reward. But buyer beware.

When he was associate department head at the University of Central Florida’s sports business

management program, Bill Sutton asked all the applicants he interviewed why they wanted to go

to grad school.

“If it’s just that you want to break into sports, that’s fine, so long as you know what you’re buying,”

said Sutton, who this year left UCF to start a sports business program at the University of South

Florida in Tampa. “What you’re buying is the network. And some experience that’s going to get you

in the door. What you’re not buying is a better salary.

“If the job pays 36, you get 36.”

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Industry Salary Survey: Total

compensation highlights

Department   Median   Mean
Finance/Administration/HR   $125,000   $167,286

Marketing/Broadcast/Communications   $65,000   $79,510

Sponsorship sales/Service   $125,000   $148,130

Technology   $125,000   $116,000

Ticket/Suite/Club sales   $95,000   $110,524

Venue operations   $100,000   $122,000

Manage several departments   $350,000   $309,318

Other   $65,000   $119,621


Title   Median   Mean
President/CEO/COO level   $425,000   $409,000

Other C-Level (CFO, CMO, etc.)   $355,000   $335,526

Executive or senior VP level   $340,000   $325,000

VP level   $165,000   $194,697

Director level (senior director,
associate director, etc.)

  $105,000   $115,125

Manager level (senior manager,
associate manager, etc.)

  $65,000   $69,821


Organizational level   Median   Mean
Top person in the overall organization   $425,000   $346,579

Report to top person   $175,000   $209,917

Two levels below   $105,000   $124,497

Three levels below   $65,000   $73,241

Four or more levels below   $65,000   $68,556


Departmental level   Median   Mean
Run department   $185,000   $220,732

Report to person who runs

  $85,000   $96,378

Two levels below   $55,000   $60,238

Three levels below   $55,000   $63,182


Direct reports   Median   Mean
None   $65,000   $81,130

1-2   $75,000   $89,677

3-4   $105,000   $133,353

5-6   $155,000   $212,500

7-8   $195,000   $223,511

9 or more   $145,000   $177,188


Tenure   Median   Mean
0-2   $95,000   $149,459

3-5   $85,000   $120,613

6-8   $85,000   $103,211

9-11   $115,000   $159,516

12-14   $125,000   $147,000

15 or more   $135,000   $174,153


Years in current role   Median   Mean
0-2   $85,000   $126,093

3-5   $95,000   $139,852

6-8   $105,000   $127,394

Those who run the better-connected sports management programs know what sort of offers their

students field each year as graduation approaches, and what sort of workstyle those jobs entail.

Recruiters know salary ranges based on the positions they have filled.

But most impressions formed about executive compensation at major pro franchises have been

anecdotal, or abridged.

Earlier this year Turnkey Search, in

conjunction with SportsBusiness

Journal/Daily, fielded a survey that

collected compensation data and other

employment-related information from

business-side personnel at franchises in

Major League Baseball, Major League

Soccer, the NFL, NBA and NHL.

Responses came from more than 500 employees at

126 teams, ranging from manager to C-level

executive (CFO, CMO, etc.). Participation was spread

across the leagues, with 137 coming from NFL teams,

128 from MLB, 123 from the NHL, 97 from the NBA

and 55 from MLS. Sixty-five percent came from

managers and directors. Thirty-five percent were vice

president level and higher.

The data tells a story that resonated with the heads

of the more prominent sports management programs,

as well as some of their students and recent


While educators and senior team executives said

starting salaries typically are $20,000 to $35,000 a

year, the survey showed those who crack manager

level earn a median of $65,000 in total

compensation, including commissions and bonuses.

Median compensation increases to $105,000 at

director level and $165,000 for vice presidents, and

then soars to $340,000 for senior vice president and

executive vice presidents.

The maximum choice of “$400,000 or more” was

reported by 14 of 29 C-level executives, including

nine of 10 presidents and CEOs.

The survey also examined factors such as

organizational level, department, tenure and

education, and asked about job satisfaction and

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9 or more   $150,000   $175,769


Gender   Median   Mean
Male   $105,000   $150,231

Female   $75,000   $87,264


Age   Median   Mean
18-29   $55,000   $58,476

30-39   $85,000   $111,959

40-49   $135,000   $184,407

50 or older   $190,000   $230,800

Notes: For survey methodology, see page


The maximum choice of “$400,000 or

more” was selected by 14 of 29 Clevel

survey respondents, including nine of 10

presidents/CEOs. All maximum choices

were calculated as $425,000.

perceptions of which teams offered the most

rewarding careers and paid best.

“One of the benefits of going through a program like

ours is that we have so much contact with the

industry, we’re making educated decisions about our

careers,” said John Bollinger, a second-year MBA

student at Ohio University. “Ohio has trained me to

not care about working hard for that low wage now.

I’ve done it for a couple of years and I can do it for

couple more if I know the end goal is a good one.

“The key is, I know what I’m getting into.”

So did Wade Martin, who graduated from Ohio

University with an M.S. and MBA in 2007. Martin initially had aspirations of becoming a college

athletic director. While in school, he found he had a knack for sponsorship sales and shifted gears.

After working as an account executive on Marshall University for ISP Sports for a year, he landed a

job in corporate sales for the Cincinnati Bengals. Four years in, he has risen to assistant director of

corporate sales, marketing and broadcasting, which at that franchise is the No. 2 slot in sales and


“Everyone who works in sports kind of starts in the same spot, managing expectations and

communicating that to family,” Martin said. “My wife knew going in that the paycheck dropping into

the account each week was not going to knock our socks off initially. But if I did well, it would


Martin said that, like most who chase a career in sports, he arrived on campus with a head filled

with career questions. A survey can’t answer them all definitively. But it can help address some of

the common ones.

Q: How tough will it be, and how long will it take?

For those in sales, not so bad, so long as you don’t mind grinding it out on a tight household

budget while you build a book of business, which might take a couple of years. Those who don’t

ring the bell on commissions rarely stay longer than that.

For those who pursue the management track, financial reward comes with advancement more than

tenure. The survey figures laid out earlier in the story show a total compensation jump of 62

percent from manager to director and again from director to vice president. Those at senior vice

president and executive vice president make slightly more than double the compensation of other

vice presidents.

Not surprisingly, the curve is considerably flatter when charted strictly by tenure. Those with three

to five and six to eight years each had median salaries of $65,000 and total compensation of

$85,000. After that, total compensation went from $115,000 (nine-11 years) to $125,000 (12-14 years)

and then $135,000 (15 or more years).

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Glass ceiling? Gender and


By league

  Male   Female
NFL $125,000   $75,000

NBA $125,000   $85,000

MLB $85,000   $65,000

MLS $105,000   $55,000

NHL $125,000   $85,000

By department

  Male   Female
Finance/Administration/HR $165,000   $85,000

Marketing/Broadcast/Communications $65,000   $65,000

Sponsorship sales/Service $145,000   $85,000

Ticket/Suite/Club sales $95,000   $80,000

Venue operations $95,000   N/A

Manage several departments $355,000   N/A

Other $75,000   $65,000

N/A=Insufficient sample size

By title

  Male   Female
Other C-Level (CFO, CMO, etc.) $350,000   N/A

Executive or senior VP level $355,000   N/A

VP level $185,000   N/A

Director level (senior director,
associate director, etc.)

$105,000   $85,000

Manager level (senior manager,
associate manager, etc.)

$65,000   $55,000

N/A=Insufficient sample size

By organizational level

  Male   Female
Top person in the overall

$425,000   N/A

Report to top person $205,000   $95,000

Two levels below $115,000   $85,000

Three levels below $65,000   $65,000

Four or more levels below $65,000   $60,000

NA=Insufficient sample size

By years in current role

  Male   Female
0-2 $95,000   $75,000

3-5 $115,000   $85,000

6-8 $125,000   $85,000

9 or more $155,000   N/A

N/A=Insufficient sample size

By age

  Male   Female
18-29 $55,000   $45,000

30-39 $95,000   $85,000

40-49 $145,000   $105,000

50 or older $205,000   NA

N/A=Insufficient sample size

By education

  Male   Female

So while the potential is there to knock down upward of

$150,000, it typically doesn’t happen until you either

make vice president, run a department, or report to the

top person on the business side of the organization.

And that’s the case no matter how long you hang


From the time he started as undergraduate at the

University of British Columbia, Marcus Cheng knew

he’d follow up his management information sciences

degree with grad school. So when he heard about the

MBA program at Oregon, bells went off. “It had a sports

marketing program that I didn’t tell my parents about

when I applied,” Cheng said. “They kind of found out

after all the checks were signed.”

Entering the job market with an MBA in 2001, Cheng

found a tepid response, even when he applied for

lower-level staff positions. He returned to Canada when

his student visa ran out, resigned to the idea that his

sports dream was dead.

But soon after he moved, a friend from the Warsaw

program called with an offer from a market research

firm in Portland that was doing sports work. He was

there for a year when a Warsaw friend with the New

Orleans Hornets emailed with news that the Miami Heat

was looking for a market research coordinator.

It meant a pay cut.

“Whatever they were paying me to get a shot at my

dream job, I was OK with it,” said Cheng, who since then

has been promoted twice and now is manager of

research and database marketing. “But I think the

notion that it’s not for everybody is probably accurate.”

Cheng said it’s less a matter of starting salary than the

fact that opportunities for advancement up through

management are far fewer than they would be at a

large corporation.

“I think people see our brand and the other teams’

brands out there so often that they think it’s a big

business,” Cheng said. “Really, we kind of are a small

business. It’s not a lot of people. So, when you’re

talking about advancing, how are you going to advance

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Bachelor’s $105,000   $75,000

Post-grad — all $115,000   $85,000

Post-grad — business $100,000   $85,000

Post-grad — sports management $85,000   $55,000

in a relatively flat organization? You see good people

start to drop out because they can’t wait forever.”

That same dynamic drives some who feel stalled early in their career to pursue an MBA, or at least

a sports business-oriented master’s degree. Built primarily around night classes and located in

Manhattan, Columbia’s sports management program gets mostly students who already are in the

field and hope to accelerate their advancement.

“The trick is that it’s such a pyramid,” said Lucas Rubin, director of the sport management program

at Columbia. “As you move up in rank it gets smaller and smaller. That happens everywhere, but at

a team, it happens right away. Many of our students look at the degree specifically to help them

get a leg up on the competition.”

When current Oregon MBA candidate Bill Zachry opted to

pursue grad school after five years in the Teach for America

program, he did it because he found his passion for his work

had waned, and he was looking for a career that would rekindle


“I didn’t go back to school with the idea that I would get in

[sports] and be making six figures in a couple of years,” Zachry

said. “And that was reinforced in my two years. People would

say, ‘You get in, you make nothing, and you work a million

times harder than what you make.’

“It can get discouraging to hear that over and over. But if you’re

doing something you love, you feel like it’s worth it.” The survey showed an intriguing jump in

compensation of late, with those hired in the last two years making a median of $85,000,

compared with $65,000 for those with three to eight years’ tenure. But that appears to have more

to do with the positions teams have filled than a general loosening of the purse strings. Almost all

the shift has occurred among those who report directly to the top executive. At that level, those

with six to 14 years with a team earned a median of $150,000. Those with three to five years made

$175,000. Those hired in the last two years were at $205,000.

“People are creating positions and they’ll spend a little more money to get a higher caliber person

instead of opening the file cabinet and saying, ‘We’ve got a 1,000 résumés,’” said Len Perna,

president of Turnkey Sports & Entertainment, a market research firm that includes the Turnkey

Search executive search division. We’ve been asked to go outside the industry and bring in people

more times in the last two years than in any time in the prior 15. You’re not going to get those

people from other industries by throwing money at them. But they’re not going to take a huge cut,


Q: What do I want to be when I grow up?

Financial prospects, alone, should not dictate that. But there’s little question that, in sports, those

who make and monitor the money make more of it than those in other roles.

5/10/2020 What’s the payoff in sports? 6/11

Again, you have to get beyond the baseline numbers to get an accurate picture, comparing those

at similar levels.

Those who report to the ranking executive made $205,000 if they worked in sponsorship sales or

finance/administration. Those at that level in ticket sales made $165,000. Those in marketing,

broadcasting and communications made $110,000. One level beneath that, sponsorship paid

$135,000, finance and administration paid $125,000, ticket sales paid $105,000 and marketing and

communications paid $85,000.

Looking at title, managers made $75,000 in sponsorship, $65,000 in ticketing and $55,000 in

marketing and communications. At director level, those departments paid $135,000, $105,000 and

$85,000, respectively.

“I like to recruit rainmakers,” said Jim Kahler, executive director of the sports administration center

at Ohio University and a former Cleveland Cavaliers CMO. “If you can make it rain, you’re going to

be competitive with some of your fellow MBA students.

“If you’ve got what it takes to sell sponsorships, how long will it take to climb the ladder? You’re

going to be making six figures before too long.”

Q: Red Sox, Redskins, Red Wings, Red Bulls or Red Auerbach?

Comparisons between teams in one league and another are complicated by a wide range of front

office sizes and organizational structures. Still, by focusing on level, regardless of title, you can

make some comparisons.

Based on the survey, NBA team executives are paid better than

their counterparts, with the 19 who said they report to the top

person at the franchise receiving median compensation of

$245,000. The 25 MLB executives at that level reported median

compensation of $205,000. The 28 at that level in the NHL made a

median of $175,000. The 36 NFL executives at that level were at

$160,000. The 14 in MLS were at $120,000.

NBA franchise employees also were paid better than those in other

leagues when compared at two and three levels down from the


“Most people will tell you that the NBA invests more money in its

people than any other league,” Perna said. “You have to give credit

to TMBO [the NBA’s team marketing unit]. They’ve persuaded

owners across the NBA that it’s worth it to get the best people and

pay a little more to get performance.”

Interestingly, not many who answered the survey were particularly

clued in to where they were likely to make the most money.

5/10/2020 What’s the payoff in sports? 7/11

Three out of four people said they thought the NFL paid the best. Only 13 percent said the NBA did.

Sixty percent said they thought the NFL was the “most rewarding” league to work in.

Asked to identify which teams were the best to work for, those who responded — all of them

already working for a team at manager level and above — generally named iconic franchises and

those who have been successful of late.

The Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Red

Sox, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders all were named on at least one-

third of the surveys.

Perception vs. reality?

Perceptions of working for teams in each league

  Most rewarding   Highest salaries
NFL 60%   73%

NBA 7%   13%

MLB 17%   12%

MLS 5%   1%

NHL 11%   1%

Total compensation at teams, by league

  NFL teams   NBA teams   MLB teams   MLS teams   NHL teams
Report to top person $160,000   $245,000   $205,000   $120,000   $175,000

Two levels below $105,000   $135,000   $115,000   $85,000   $125,000

Three levels below $55,000   $80,000   $55,000   N/A   $75,000

Four or more levels below N/A   $85,000   $55,000   N/A   $80,000

N/A=Insufficient sample size

Total compensation, for teams in the top leagues

By title

VP level $230,000   $155,000   $165,000   N/A   $160,000

Director level (senior director, associate director, etc.) $105,000   $105,000   $110,000   $95,000   $95,000

Manager level (senior manager, associate manager, etc.) $65,000   $75,000   $55,000   $55,000   $75,000

N/A=Insufficient sample size

By organizational level

Report to top person $160,000   $245,000   $205,000   $120,000   $175,000

Two levels below $105,000   $135,000   $115,000   $85,000   $125,000

Three levels below $55,000   $80,000   $55,000   N/A   $75,000

Four or more levels below N/A   $85,000   $55,000   N/A   $80,000

N/A=Insufficient sample size

Department by organizational level




/Club Sales

Manage several

Report to top person $205,000   $110,000   $205,000   $165,000   $355,000

Two levels below $125,000   $85,000   $135,000   $105,000   N/A

Three levels below N/A   $55,000   $75,000   $70,000   N/A

Four or more levels

N/A   $55,000   $85,000   $75,000   N/A

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N/A=Insufficient sample size

Some of the teams that ranked high surprised the program heads and recruiters who hear a lot

about which are the better places to work, though none wanted to identify the shockers publicly.

“I think that’s the response I’d get if I asked the sports management kids, not people who already

are in the industry,” Sutton said after hearing the top five finishers in each league. “Those [answers]

are based on your results in the standings. That’s fine if your prerequisite is that you get a ring. But

that’s not necessarily what makes a team a great place to work.”

Q: What one thing has the greatest, broadest impact on pay?

You can’t buy it, earn it or learn it.

It’s gender.

Among those who responded to the survey, men made about 30 percent more than women in base

salary and 40 percent more in total compensation. Men also earned markedly more than women

when you compare people with similar titles and at similar levels. And they made more regardless

of tenure or education, across all five sports.

At the director and manager levels, where the sample sizes are largest (149 and 162) and roles are

most similar, men out-earn women on median total compensation $105,000 to $85,000 and

$65,000 to $55,000, respectively. That’s about the same rate at which men out-earn women in the

broader workplace. The difference is, the general workplace includes people who work in varied


When equalized to take career choice and other factors out of the equation, the pay gap in the

general workforce is about 5 percent one year after college graduation and 12 percent 10 years

after graduation, according to the American Association of University Women.

“It could be that women are not negotiating as much for salaries as men are,” said Lisa

Masteralexis, department head in sport management at the University of Massachusetts at

Amherst. “And there’s probably not the mentoring and networking, although I think that’s

improving. It’s a very complex issue, and not only in sports.”

Kahler suggested that one factor driving the gap could be the fact that women typically are less

willing to relocate in order to advance, particularly once they’re five to 10 years in their career.

“My experience is that women are more likely to be promoted internally as opposed to being

recruited from a different organization,” Kahler said. “If I’m going to promote you, I don’t have to

pay as much as if I’m recruiting you from another organization.”

Q: What’s this nice piece of parchment worth?

If you come away with an advanced degree in sport management, be it an M.S. or sports-accented

MBA, think of it as a key. But to a door. Not a treasure chest.

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Considered broadly, it actually looks like those with sports management degrees not only earn

less than those with other graduate degrees, but less than those with bachelor’s degrees.

A closer look that compares those working at similar levels debunks that. But there’s still less

value placed on sports management than on other grad degrees, at least among those who

answered the survey.

For those at the top end, reporting directly to the ranking

executive, an MBA delivers a slight edge over other post-grad

degrees — $205,000 to $200,000. Those with sports management

degrees made $175,000. Those with a bachelor’s made $165,000.

At the next level down, those with a master’s in sports

management lagged behind the others, coming in at $85,000

versus $100,000 for those with MBAs and $105,000 for those with

a bachelor’s.

That odd dynamic — bachelor’s degree holders earning more than

MBAs — leads you to wonder whether there’s any connection

between education and earning power at all in sports.

The program heads suggested the figures might reflect the fact

that, at the manager and director level, those with bachelor’s

degrees are the ones who survived the sales gauntlet and now are

making larger commissions and bonuses.

While few Oregon MBAs have gone to work for teams, Swangard

can run down “about 50” alums from Oregon’s undergraduate

sports business concentration who are building careers at teams, including vice presidents of ticket

sales at three MLB franchises.

Masteralexis said: “I tell our [master’s] students to stick it out. If this is your passion, stick it out.

When we look at our alumni and where they are over a longitudinal level of 10 years, the master’s-

level students are still in the industry, whereas more of the students from the bachelor’s program

may melt off into general business. The sports thing is fun, but the hours get crazy once you have

a family.

“This industry really requires a commitment. And it’s not an easy road.”

Martin remembers watching the graduating class ahead of him at Ohio University head off to their

first jobs, and hearing stories of the salaries that the other business school grads had landed.

“The MBAs were going to make 75 grand and the sports kids were making 25 grand, and you

thought for a minute — maybe I can jump ship,” Martin said. “Then you realize, yeah, they’re going

to make money, but they’re going to work at an accounting firm.

“I work for an NFL team.”

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Education by organizational level

  Bachelor’s   Post-grad — all   Business   Sports management
Report to top person $165,000   $200,000   $205,000   $175,000

Two levels below $105,000   $105,000   $100,000   $85,000

Three levels below $65,000   $65,000   $75,000   $60,000

Four or more levels below $65,000   N/A   N/A   N/A

NA=Insufficient sample size

Education by department level

  Bachelor’s   Post-grad — all   Business   Sports management
Top person in department $180,000   $185,000   $205,000   $155,000

Report to top person $85,000   $85,000   $85,000   $75,000

Two or more levels below $55,000   $55,000   N/A   N/A

N/A=Insufficient sample size

Age by department

  18-29   30-39   40-49   50 or older
Finance/Administration/HR N/A   $125,000   $135,000   N/A

Marketing/Broadcast/Communications $45,000   $65,000   $105,000   N/A

Sponsorship sales/Service $55,000   $120,000   $165,000   $145,000

Ticket/Suite/Club sales $70,000   $95,000   $135,000   N/A

Manage several departments N/A   $260,000   $425,000   $385,000

Other $45,000   $65,000   $85,000   N/A

NA=Insufficient sample size

Age by departmental level

  18-29   30-39   40-49   50 or older
Top person in department N/A   $155,000   $205,000   $285,000

Report to top person $55,000   $85,000   $100,000   $145,000

Two or more levels below $45,000   $55,000   N/A   N/A

N/A=Insufficient sample size

Hours each week

by department (during season)

  Median   Mean
Finance/Administration/HR 52.5   52.4

Marketing/Broadcast/Communications 62.5   61.6

Sponsorship sales/Service 57.5   59.8

Technology 52.5   55.7

Ticket/Suite/Club sales 62.5   60.1

Venue operations 62.5   63.6

Manage several departments 62.5   62.2

Other 57.5   59.5

Hours each week

by department (offseason)

  Median   Mean
Finance/Administration/HR 47.5   49.3

Marketing/Broadcast/Communications 47.5   49.1

Sponsorship sales/Service 52.5   50.8

Technology 47.5   48.6

Ticket/Suite/Club sales 47.5   49.3

Venue operations 47.5   46.7

Manage several departments 52.5   53.7

Other 47.5   49.2

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