Careers in Sports
Most of us are aware of sport, in one way or another. We might participate in it, or have done so in the past. We may be enabling others to participate, by coaching or providing team support. We might actively support and follow a professional sports team. One way or another, sport tends to play a large part in life—but perhaps most often as a leisure activity.
However, sport can also offer a wide variety of jobs and careers. The sports professionals that we see in action are a very small part of the overall professional structure of sport. Indeed, behind every successful sports professional or team is a whole army of people enabling their success. There are also plenty of jobs and careers supporting sport as a leisure activity. This page provides information about some of these careers, and the skills needed for them.
Spotlight on the sport sector
Sport is generally considered to be part of the sport, leisure and tourism sector.
It is hard to get an estimate of the size of the sport sector alone, but market research company Mintel estimates that the leisure sector in the UK was worth over £100,000 million in 2022. It also notes that 63% of adults in the UK used a private health club at least once a week—so sport for health is clearly important to us.
What about watching sport? In the US, over 150 million people watched live sport at least once a month in 2019. In Australia, the Australian Football League’s first post-COVID game was watched by 1.2 million people.
Sport is therefore big business—and the range of jobs and careers within the sector reflect that.
Having said that, the sector is not necessarily well paid. The salaries of top professional footballers may make headlines, but many people within the sector earn little more than minimum wage. They may also be expected to work unsociable hours, because they are providing services during other people’s leisure time.
Many jobs are also seasonal. This has both benefits and drawbacks. For example, you may be able to take a chunk of time off each year, but you may also be on a part-year contract. There are plenty of part-time and flexible jobs—but that also means it may be hard to find a job with regular hours.
The main benefit of working in the sector is often job satisfaction, rather than monetary reward. Careers in sport mean that you can work on something that really interests you, or that you are passionate about. There is also an enormous range of possible jobs and careers available.
Careers in professional sport and sports teams
The most obvious roles in sport are probably in professional sport and sports teams. Many sports are now professional in many countries, from football (soccer) and American football, to golf, horse-racing and cycling, it is possible to earn a living doing the sport you love—provided that you are very good at it—or supporting those who do it.
The jobs available within professional sports teams include:
Sports professionals are the best of the best. They are paid to participate in their chosen sport—either on a salaried basis because they are part of a team, or because they can earn enough in prize money or sponsorship that they do not need any other work. Some countries, including the UK, now provide funding to top athletes in many Olympic sports, so that they can train full time. These athletes can also be considered professionals.
Only a very few reach the highest ranks of their sport and are able to become professional. Sports professionals need three main attributes:
Exceptional talent in their chosen sport. There is no way round this: you have to be really good at your sport.
Serious self-motivation. Many sports professionals have to work for years to develop and hone their skills. There is an ever-present risk of injury in most sports (more in some such as motorsports or horse-racing), and there is no guarantee of success, even with hard work.
A willingness to work extremely hard. This is linked to self-motivation: you have to be prepared to put in the effort. As the saying goes, “hard works trumps talent if talent doesn’t work”.
Every professional sports team has a manager: someone who is responsible for making decisions about how the team is run. Managers have to select and allocate coaches, choose players or athletes for events, and manage the team on a day-to-day basis. Like any other managers, they therefore need strong skills in:
Managing people and providing leadership. Team managers are the leaders of their team. They are responsible for providing an inspiring vision that will motivate others. They are also responsible for managing the people on the team on a day-to-day basis.
Motivating others to achieve. This applies both to the sports professionals on the team, and those who provide support.
They have to have a good understanding of the sport. They need good analytical skills to be able to understand what is important in selecting a team, and improving its performance.
They also need to understand and be able to operate with the individuals on the team. They therefore need good emotional intelligence.
They also need very good business skills. Sports teams are effectively businesses and need to make a profit. Team managers are the CEOs of those businesses. They need to understand finance, marketing, and other business skills such as the ability to run a sustainable business.
As well as a manager, most sports teams also have separate coaches. They are responsible for working on the performance of the team or individuals within it under the overall direction of the team manager.
Across the world, there are huge numbers of voluntary coaches working in sports clubs. This is often where many of the professional sports coaches started their coaching careers. Sports coaches need a good understanding of their sport, including the technical aspects. They also need good coaching skills.
You may be interested in reading our page What is Coaching? to understand more about what is meant by the term.
Athlete support roles
Teams also employ a wide range of professionals to work with and support athletes within the team. These roles include:
Sports scientists, who use their knowledge of how the body works to help athletes to improve their performance;
Sports psychologists, who work with athletes and teams to improve their motivation, and help them to overcome any psychological blocks that are hindering their performance;
Sports massage therapists, who help athletes to manage their physical health needs by using massage to relieve pain or aid recovery after events;
Physiotherapists, who assist with recovery after injury (and there is more about the skills needed in our page on careers in healthcare); and
Nutritionists, who help athletes to optimise their performance through diet.
These professionals all need good skills in their own area of expertise. Some of these may require a degree, and others may require professional qualifications. They will also need a good knowledge of the relevant sport. On top of that, they will need good emotional intelligence, to help them to work well with athletes.
Team technical support roles
The other area of employment is what might be described as ‘team technical support’. These roles include, for example, analysts, talent scouts, and equipment development specialists.
Analysts are required because sport is increasingly technical. Using analytics can help teams to understand what factors are important in individuals, or what tactics are most likely to be successful. Many sports teams therefore now employ analysts or statisticians. The main qualifications required are expertise in statistical analysis, and perhaps an understanding of the sport.
Equipment development requirements vary considerably across sports. For example, in motorsports, teams will need mechanics, materials scientists and engineers. These roles may also be useful to cycling teams, but with a slightly different focus.
You can find out more about some of the skills needed in our pages on Careers in Engineering and Careers in Physical Sciences.
Talent scouts are the people who find suitable talent for the team. They may attend amateur games at various levels, including college or university, or lower level matches. They need a very good understanding of the sport, and what really matters. They therefore often work closely with analysts.
A special case: jobs in equestrian sport
Equestrian sport is a highly professional business. There is huge money in horse-racing and competition of all kinds, especially flat and jump racing, but also in eventing, showjumping and dressage.
A massive industry has therefore grown up around horses, with some very specific roles that are not really found in any other sporting sector. Roles include:
Trainers, who train (especially) racehorses and manage stables. They often own their own stables, and work for multiple clients. They house and train horses, and are responsible for entering them in races, getting them to races, and organising jockeys.
Jockeys, who ride racehorses. They may be employed by particular stables, or ride for multiple stables.
Stable hands, who look after the horses on a day-to-day basis.
You can find out more about some of the skills needed by these roles in our page on Careers Working with Animals.
Staff at racecourses, who are responsible for managing the site and ensuring that it is ready for racing. They may include a course manager, grounds staff and hospitality staff.
Bookmakers or bookies, who organise and run betting on horse racing (and other events). The best-known bookmakers are present on the high street, but there are many one-man operations who attend race meetings in person, and only accept bets on events that they attend.
Teaching and instructing roles
The second area where you could make a living in sport is teaching or instructing. Many people’s first introduction to any sport is through games or PE lessons at school, so it is fair to say that PE teachers play an important role in our attitudes to sport as well as willingness to participate.
It is reasonable to split teaching and instructing roles into two: people who work in schools, and people who work elsewhere.
PE teachers in schools may be employed by the school, or by a company that is contracted to provide sports lessons or clubs in schools. They need very similar skills to any other teachers (and you can find out more in our page on Teaching Skills), coupled with physical fitness and expertise in one or more sports to a reasonably high level.
Instructors may also be employed to teach particular sports at schools, outdoor centres or leisure centres. They too need good teaching skills, coupled with expertise in their chosen sport. Instructors often teach groups, but may also teach on a one-to-one basis.
One particular example of this is fitness instructors or personal trainers.
Sports events and venue management
The final group of roles in sport lies in sports events and venue management. There is a wide range of roles here.
Leisure centre or gym managers are responsible for the day-to-day management of leisure facilities, including gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools.
They therefore have to recruit and schedule staff such as personal trainers or instructors, reception staff, and safety staff, deal with customers, and decide on promotions, classes and additional activities to offer.
Venue managers are responsible for running sports venues, such as football stadiums or racecourses. They need similar skills to leisure facilities managers, with the added pressure of having to organise events that may last one or several days. They therefore have to have the right staff, but also maintain the facility at other times to ensure that it is ready for big events. They may also manage other events at the venue, such as conferences or weddings.
Sports venues may also employ media managers to be responsible for managing media and publicity for sports events. These people will have traditional media management skills (for example, writing a press release and organising a press conference), but are also likely to have good social media skills. These may include social media marketing and customer service via social media.
Other staff will also be employed within the venue.
These include hospitality staff (for example, bar staff and waiting staff), and receptionists for events. In between events, facilities management staff will be present to keep the venue functioning. Cleaners will attend to make sure the facilities are clean, and grounds staff may also be needed to maintain outside spaces. Specialist staff such as lifeguards or instructors may also be required.
The qualifications needed for all these roles vary widely. Some need specialist qualifications, though mostly not degree-level qualifications. Many are roles that you can start as a school leaver, and learn on the job. The main skill requirement is therefore interest and willingness to learn.
Sports commentators and pundits
There is one final group that may be worth mentioning in association with sports: commentators and pundits.
These are journalists or experts who are paid to write, broadcast or speak about sports events or teams. Some may be employed by broadcasters or print media. Others may be freelance and work for several different outlets. This group needs a detailed and expert knowledge of the sport. Many of the best-known are former professionals, who therefore have a lifetime of expertise to fall back on, as well as personal knowledge of many of the teams, players or participants.
On top of that, they also need good writing skills, if they are writing for print media, or effective speaking skills for broadcast media. A good starting point is likely to be good presentation skills, because sports punditry is very much about being able to get your point across effectively.
A Final Point
Sport is a broad sector, with many major and minor roles within it.
However, it is also competitive, and there are likely to be a lot of people targeting each job, especially those with well-known sports team. It is reasonable to suggest that if you are not passionate about sport, you are likely to find it harder to get work in this sector.
You also need to be prepared to work hard, and for relatively little reward, especially early on in your career. Working in sport is not an easy option—but it can provide considerable job satisfaction.