Six Differences Between Working in College versus Pro Sports (and why they may change)

About Rocky Harris

Harris joined Sun Devil Athletics in February 2012 as the Sr. Associate AD for Communications. He was recently named the Sr. Associate AD for External Relations. Harris oversees marketing, communication, sponsorships, ticket sales, customer service, and fundraising.

The first 12 years of my career were spent working in professional sports and corporate America. I made the move to collegiate athletics two years ago because I was given an opportunity to work for my alma mater, Arizona State University.

Before shifting over to collegiate athletics, I assumed working in sports, regardless of whether it is pro or college, would be the same. However, that has proven not to be the case. There are distinct benefits and drawbacks of either career path. I have spoken with other industry experts who have experience working in both collegiate and pro sports to develop what I see as six primary differences.

Difference #1 – Opportunity

Because of the low supply of opportunities working directly for professional sports franchises, it can be difficult to land a full-time job. The NFL only has 32 teams, NBA has 30, MLB has 30, NHL has 30 and MLS now has 20, so that if someone wants to be a PR director for a pro sports team, you only have 142 job opportunities. Whereas there are 1,066 NCAA member institutions, including 340 Division 1 schools. If you want to be the sports information director at a collegiate institution, you have 1,066 job opportunities.

Difference # 2 – The Athletes

The biggest difference between collegiate and pro sports is the role of the athlete. Professional athletes are employees. In college, they are students first and athletes second. Because of this, we are able to impact collegiate student-athletes’ lives in a more meaningful way.

Many times, student-athletes never dreamed of graduating from college or completing internships, but we provide that opportunity and are able to shape their futures and impact the trajectory of their families for generations. A select few are able to continue their careers at the professional level. We are able to impact a much larger population and build the leaders of the future.

Difference # 3 – Sexy Factor

The majority of people entering the sports industry want jobs in professional sports. Unless you are working for a top-10 collegiate sports brand, working in pro sports is more attractive. But, this will change significantly over the next 10 years because college athletics departments are beginning to be run like businesses where they build strong local, regional and national brands.

Difference #4 – Clutter

At ASU, we have 400,000 alumni, 70,000 students, 40,000 season ticket holders, more than 15,000 faculty and staff, 550 student-athletes and 22 sports with overlapping schedules that we have to promote and monetize. When I worked in pro sports, we had one team to focus on year-round, while occasionally hosting other events like soccer matches or concerts.

The biggest challenge working within the university system is making sure your messaging is coordinated and in-sync with the university’s priorities and goals. In pro sports, you have one message that is consistent because you are only marketing one product and one team.

“Although our priority is revenue-generating sports, we still have to service the other sports with the same intensity, with fewer resources than pro teams,” said Kate Brandt who worked for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals and now oversees digital media for Arizona State University

Difference #5 – Layers

In pro sports, the approval process is simple. If your team owner approves, you can move forward. The hardest part about working in collegiate sports is the multiple layers of constituents and approvals that need to be accounted for before a decision can be made. This includes the board of directors, administration, and compliance, among others.

“In college, we have more constituency groups (i.e. faculty, faculty senate, parents, student-athletes, state legislators/government, alumni, boosters, etc.) In the pro leagues, you deal with fans and your owner and everybody else really doesn’t matter in the same way,” said West Virginia Athletics Director Oliver Luck, who spent the majority of his career working in pro sports.

Difference #6 – Business Structure

Twenty years ago pro sports owners decided to change the business structure to focus on generating revenue and improving the fan experience.

Before they made the change, former coaches became general managers and they were responsible for running the team and the business. It was a flawed model.Once the forward thinking owners started hiring experienced business executives to run the organization, the revenue grew exponentially.

Collegiate athletics is about 15 years behind the curve. School presidents and leaders are beginning to understand the value of hiring business executives rather than former coaches to run their multimillion-dollar businesses. Because of this change in the college space, look for significant growth in both revenue and job opportunities.

What’s your conclusion?

Take your pick.

The biggest benefits of working in collegiate athletics are the enormous business potential, the professional opportunities that will be available over the next 20 years and the ability to impact student-athletes in a profound way. In pro sports, the biggest benefits are the speedy approval process that allows you to accomplish your goals faster, the esteem that comes with working in pro sports, and the proven business model.


Cover photo courtesy of ASU Enrollment Management.