How to Become an Athletic Administrator

Athletic administrators run the business side of a sports program. While they can work at the grade school, high school, local, and state level, an increasing number of athletic administrators work in colleges and universities; the massive popularity of college sports—along with the increased budgets and strict regulations that go with it—require keen administration skills.

In every case, athletic administrators oversee an athletic department: managing its budgets, developing its talent, organizing its training schedules, and maintaining rules compliance. Furthermore, a school’s athletic administrator needs to ensure that the sports program is integrating with the school’s wider curriculum and contributing to the positive development of the students the school serves.

As college sports continue to grow in popularity, and more people are projected to attend college in the coming years, there’s a correlated need for more athletic administrators. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for postsecondary education administrators (a category which includes athletic administrators) are expected to grow 10 percent between 2016 and 2026, faster than the national average. The average annual wage for postsecondary education administrators is $92,360, with those working for four-year colleges and universities earning slightly more per year ($94,320) than their junior college counterparts ($87,520). And these are only a few of the opportunities available for athletic administrators, not to mention the minor and professional leagues across U.S. cities.

If you’re interested in athletic administration, there’s a good chance you thrive on a sense of competition and being average just isn’t good enough. Check out our step-by-step guide to not only find out how to become an athletic administrator, but how to become one of the best.

Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming an Athletic Administrator

Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

After graduating from high school, aspiring athletic administrators typically need to earn a bachelor’s degree. There are several majors to choose from, but sports administration provides the most linear path. (Please note the difference between “sports administration” and “sports management:” while both are perfectly acceptable major choices for aspiring athletic administrators, sports management includes more topics around brand management and athletic representation.)

Extracurricular athletic involvement at the college level should be strongly considered; participating in collegiate sports as an athlete gives a student critical insight into the way athletics programs are administered. Admissions requirements for bachelor’s programs will vary from school to school but generally include the following: a competitive GPA (3.0 or greater), SAT or ACT scores, and a personal statement.

The University of Louisville offers a bachelor of science in sports administration that can be completed entirely online and is accredited by the Commission on Sport Management Accreditation (COSMA). Core courses include sport leadership; sport marketing; sport governance; financial principles in sport; career development in sport administration; and legal aspects of sport. Electives explore areas such as athletics in higher education, women and sport, and sport facility management. The program consists of 123 credits and costs $497 per credit-hour.

Southern New Hampshire University has an online bachelor of science in sport management program that’s been preparing students for work in the business of sports for over 25 years. The curriculum is divided into general education, a business core, and degree-specific classes.

The sport management classes include an introduction to sport management; governance and management of sports organizations, sport facilities management; and sport, society, and ethics. The program consists of 120 credits and costs $320 per credit-hour. Upon the completion of 90 credits, students may apply to SNHU’s accelerated BS-to-MS in sport management program.

Step Two: Earn a Master’s Degree (Optional, One to Two Years)

While it’s not a requirement for athletic administrators, earning a master’s degree—especially an MBA—puts one on the path to becoming one of the best qualified. Larger schools have larger budgets, more staff, and bigger responsibilities. Athletics administrators who want to work for such institutions need to have expert-level administration skills to match. Graduate studies for athletic administrators generally fall into two categories: an MBA with an emphasis in sport management, or an MS in sport administration. Admissions requirements for master’s programs vary from school to school, but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive undergraduate GPA (3.0 or greater), GMAT or GRE scores, proof of work experience, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement.

Southern New Hampshire University offers an online MBA with an emphasis in sport management. The curriculum has a strong business core that covers subjects like organizational leadership, financial analysis, government impact on business, and ethics and social responsibility. A suite of sport management courses explores sport and society, the internationalization of sport business, and management of sport organizations. The program consists of 36 credits and costs $627 per credit-hour.

Arkansas State University has an online master of science in sport administration program that is accredited by the Commission on Sport Management Accreditation (COSMA)—one of only 30 such programs to earn that distinction. The curriculum includes the following topics: ethical issues in sport; sport law; sport finance and budgeting; sport governance and operations; and sport in society. The program consists of 36 credits and costs a total of $11,025.

Step Three: Gain Work Experience (One to Four Years)

Nothing teaches you a sport better than getting out on the field and the same is true for working as an athletic administrator. Early work experience can teach an athletic administrator where their natural talent lies and which areas need further development. Furthermore, it can help an athletic administrator decide at which level they want to work: elementary, secondary, postsecondary, or for a city’s team.

Step Four: Pursue Professional Development (Optional, Timeline Varies)

An athletic administrator is likely to spend the majority of their life on a school campus or in a stadium, so the idea of continual learning shouldn’t be much of a foreign concept. To get the type of professional development needed later in one’s career, however, an athletic administrator may need to look outside the traditional school campus and toward professional organizations. The benefit of this is that many professional development programs are administered a-la-carte and can be taken while working full-time and gaining professional experience.

Although it’s primarily geared towards the high school level, the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) is a one-stop-shop for athletic administrators to boost their resume and develop their career. Its Leadership Training Institute (LTI) offers a number of courses in various elements of athletic administration that can be applied at several different levels: elementary, high school, and even college. Each course requires four hours of seat time.

In conjunction with a bachelor’s degree and the signature of a sponsor (i.e., a fellow athletic administrator or high ranking member of school leadership), an athletic administrator may apply for certification as a registered athletic administrator (RAA) after completing the following LTI courses in athletic administration: guiding foundations and philosophies; strategies for organization management; and enhancing organization management.

Step Five: Attain Professional Certification (Optional, Timeline Varies)

Professional certification is what sets an athletic administrator apart and identifies them as a leader in their sport. The strict guidelines set by a professional body (e.g., NIAAA) ensure that certified professionals are working to the highest level of industry standards. Those who earn professional certification not only validate their expertise, but also they join a small but elite cadre of similarly motivated colleagues and can drastically increase their appeal to employers.

The main certification available to athletic administrators from the NIAAA is as a Certified Athletic Administrator (CAA). Requirements include a bachelor’s degree or higher, two years or more of work experience as an athletic administrator, a signature of a sponsor (athletic administrator or school leadership), and completion of five courses at the Leadership Training Institute (specifically LTC 501, LTC 502, LTC 503, LTC 504, and LTC 506). Some flexibility in those requirements does exist, however, as the NIAAA application weights one’s experience and education levels to make a final determination.

Once initial requirements are met, an applicant must pass a qualifying exam. The 100-question multiple-choice CAA exam covers a lot of ground: budget; crowd management; fundraising; legal/legislative aspects; leadership styles; philosophy; communications; NIAAA/FHS principles; office management; citizenship; ethics; health and safety knowledge; general athletic administration; general school administration; and booster clubs. The NIAAA provides a free study guide.

Those with the CAA designation who have maintained its educational and professional requirements may apply to become a Certified Master Athletic Administrator (CMAA). Requirements include the completion of several more LTI courses: LTC 508, LTC 510, and five LTC electives (one from 600 level, one from 700 level, and three from any level). Once course requirements are met, applicants complete a practical written or oral exercise—the successful passing of which will lead to official certification as a CMAA.

Helpful Resources for Athletic Administrators

No one does it alone, and athletics administrators understand the power of teamwork better than most. Career help, educational resources, professional awards, and conferencing events for athletic administrators are all out there for those who are both ambitious and curious. If that’s you, check out some of the resources below.

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