Imagine overseeing an entire sports program, where your decisions shape the future of athletes and the spirit of a community. This dream is realistic for many coaches ready for a role that marries passion for sports with strategic leadership. With the sports world evolving rapidly, the athletic director position has expanded far beyond its origins, evolving to require a unique blend of skills that include effective communication, comprehensive risk management and visionary planning.

According to Zippia, athletic director positions will grow 7% by 2028, opening doors to over 11,759 new opportunities annually in the U.S. To qualify for these opportunities, you need a playbook for success. The online Master of Science (M.S.) in Sport Management program from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside (UW-Parkside) can help take your career from the sidelines to the forefront of athletic program leadership.

What Is Sport Management?

As the operational and business backbone of the sports industry, sport management encompasses a wide range of functions, such as planning, organizing, directing and budgeting within sports and recreational organizations.

This field offers diverse career opportunities, not just with professional athletic leagues but also within college sports teams, stadiums and sports media firms. Professionals in sport management may handle everything from financial and legal aspects to public relations and safety regulations for organizations, ensuring that athletes can concentrate on the game.

What Does an Athletic Director Do?

Athletic directors play a crucial sports management role in shaping the programs at schools and universities, serving as the administrative support system of the department. This role focuses on the broader strokes of managing an athletic department, including hiring and supervising athletic staff and ensuring compliance with athletic rules and regulations.

They are tasked with the financial oversight of the department, preparing budgets for team travel, equipment purchases, staff salaries and facility maintenance. Athletic directors also play a key role in conflict resolution, mediating disputes within the athletic community and collaborating with school administrators to monitor student athletes’ academic performance, ensuring eligibility for participation.

Athletic directors maintain a demanding schedule that blends office-based administrative work with field duties, such as overseeing sports venues and attending sporting events. Their work is year-round, with longer hours during the sports seasons to support their teams and manage events.

Athletic directors working at the collegiate level liaise with national associations like the NCAA to maintain program compliance, particularly in larger institutions with competitive programs. Accordingly, this role requires a versatile skill set, blending leadership, organizational and communication skills, to effectively manage the various facets of an athletic program’s success.

Athletic Directors and Coaches

Athletic directors and coaches play distinct yet complementary roles within educational sports programs. Athletic directors, who often begin their careers as coaches, have grown from managing physical education to overseeing comprehensive sports programs. Their responsibilities extend beyond logistics to setting school-wide expectations, ensuring safety and facilitating connections.

Coaches, in contrast, focus on the direct training, development and performance of athletes, working closely with them to improve skills, foster team dynamics and achieve personal growth within the framework established by the athletic director. This partnership between athletic directors’ strategic oversight and coaches’ on-the-ground implementation is fundamental to creating a nurturing and successful environment for student-athletes.

How to Become an Athletic Director

The athletic director role transitions coaches and other sports management personnel from directly training and developing athletes to seeing the big picture — organizing, guiding and shaping the sports culture within educational institutions. This career demands mastery of communication, risk management and the nuanced art of building a team that can carry your vision forward. Athletic directors play a crucial role in setting standards and ensuring the safety and success of both athletes and the programs they represent.

Becoming an athletic director involves obtaining a solid educational foundation, typically starting with a bachelor’s degree and advancing to a master’s degree in sports management. The UW-Parkside online M.S. in Sport Management program covers essential topics such as sports law, negotiation and sports organization management, preparing students for the role’s challenges. Certifications like those offered by the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) can further set a candidate apart, showcasing a dedication to professional excellence and ethical standards.

Practical experience is vital, with most roles requiring a blend of coaching and administrative expertise. This experience, combined with professional development and strategic networking, opens doors to opportunities in the field. UW-Parkside’s program equips students with the expertise and skills for this dynamic role, offering a bridge between coaching and athletic administration.

Learn more about UW-Parkside’s online Master of Science in Sport Management program.