As a youngster, many of us dream of becoming high-paid, globally famous, superstar athletes. We envision the adulation of winning Superbowls, Champions' Leagues or Stanley Cups, projecting our names onto imagined lights. In the playground, we wear the replica jerseys of Jordan, Ronaldo and Gretzky, and every goal, touchdown or three-pointer we score is an enactment of future glories to come.
Except, for the 99.5% of us, it never works out that way. Whether it’s down to a lack of opportunity, a particularly cruel injury or simply the absence of any athletic ability, very few progress to that exclusive, elite level.
Luckily, there’s another way to rub shoulders with the world’s best, though. Just because you didn’t quite make it on the field/court/rink, it doesn’t mean that your hopes of a career in professional sport are gone. In fact, there are numerous careers that allow you to forge a livelihood within the industry.
Indeed, to give you an idea, we’ve compiled a list of some of the highest paying, from marketing to medicine and everything in between. So, if you’re not prepared to give up on your dream just yet, read on: these are the top careers in sport for non-athletes…
1. Referee / Umpire
If you haven’t got the requisite talent to play but you still want to be right in the thick of the action, then why not become a referee or an umpire? You’ll need to be physically fit, an expert in the rules and intricacies of your chosen sport, and capable of making high-pressure decisions in the blink of an eye, but you’ll be well compensated. Premier League soccer referees, for instance, earn on average around £70,000 per year, while NFL umpires can pocket a cool $173,000 (£130,000) for a season’s work.
You’ll have to start at the grassroots level and work your way up, though, developing both a thick skin and an intricate knowledge of the rules along the way. Eventually, with experience, you could then be selected for retention by your sport’s major leagues on a full-time basis, although many – such as lawyer and top-level soccer referee Felix Brych – opt to balance officiating with their existing professional careers.
If your dreams of sporting glory have always been financially motivated, then there are few gigs as potentially lucrative as this. Ever since Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire set the standard for convertible-driving, shades-wearing, morally dubious agents back in the mid-90s, professional sport has been awash with sharp negotiators looking to make a quick buck.
Many of them have succeeded, too, such as ‘super-agent’ Mino Raiola. He took a whopping £41 million cut when his client, French soccer player Paul Pogba, moved from Juventus to Manchester United in 2016, while Portuguese agent, Jorge Mendes, received an entire Greek island as a birthday gift from his client, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Technically, anyone can be an agent, too. While shrewd negotiation skills and a knowledge of contract law are an obvious starting point, the ability to build and maintain networks is just as important. You will also need to obtain a licence, usually regulated and administered by your chosen sport’s governing body.
3. Sports Broadcaster / Journalist
The only thing that sports fans enjoy more than watching a game is talking about it. This means there is a huge media market for broadcasters, journalists and, increasingly, bloggers, who are keen to offer their thoughts, observations and predictions. There is no shortage of mediums on which to do so, either; in fact, there are countless print publications, websites and even entire TV channels dedicated to nothing else.
Most professionals start out with a degree in journalism (although many colleges and universities now offer courses specific to sports journalism). You would then need to gain work experience, either through an internship with a media company or by simply touting your services to whoever will hire you.
With experience, more opportunities then may open up, although much depends on the subsequent style and quality of your output, as well as your ability to get it seen by the bigger media players.
4. Data Analyst / Statistician
The demand for data gurus is already high in the modern workplace, and professional sport is slowly starting to catch up. Indeed, in an environment where the smallest detail can be the difference between winning and losing, organisations are keen to embrace any method that might give them an advantage.
Their findings could assess the physiological performance levels of players, discover or expose the strengths and weaknesses of opponents, or even dictate the entire recruiting process of the organisation. Indeed, this latter approach has becoming increasingly popular in recent years, following the success of the stats-heavy ‘moneyball’ strategy that was advocated by Harvard economics graduate Paul DePodesta (and later adapted into a feature-length Hollywood film).
5. Doctor / Physiotherapist
Every professional sports team employs the services of a medical department, either on a part-time consulting basis or in a full-time role. Indeed, larger organisations have whole teams of doctors, physiotherapists and other medical professionals working exclusively around the clock to treat and manage the schedules of injured players.
As an existing health professional, you would need to obtain a diploma or a postgraduate certificate in sports medicine in order to be hired by a team. Alternatively, you could specialise in – and become an authority on – a particular area of medicine, such as legendary knee surgeon Dr Richard Steadman, the man responsible for prolonging the careers of Dan Marino, Mario Lemieux and Martina Navratilova, among others.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t necessarily need a professional playing background in your chosen sport in order to be a talent scout. In fact, with the aforementioned rise to prominence of data analytics, a degree in statistics could be just as relevant as a 20-year playing career.
One such example is Portuguese soccer coach Andre Villas-Boas, who got his start in the game posting in-depth scouting reports through the letterbox of his neighbour, the then Porto manager Sir Bobby Robson. Robson was so impressed that he offered the 16-year-old a position with Porto’s youth team; he then made his progression to the senior team and eventually management, garnering attention for the intricately comprehensive nature of his reports.
Of course, this is the exception rather than the rule; scouting is a competitive field, and many work for small amounts of money or even for free in order to gain experience. But if you can bring something unique to the table, and spot attributes, qualities and weaknesses that others may have overlooked, then there could be a number of organisations keen to secure your services.
Like scouts, coaches don’t necessarily need to have a professional playing background, either. Many start at the grassroots level, gaining increasingly prestigious qualifications and cultivating cutting-edge coaching methods that can enhance the development of players.
Of course, the best of these are then snapped up by professional organisations – usually within their respective youth system – before progressing up the ranks, a path taken by the likes of Arsene Wenger (soccer), Gregg Popovich (basketball) and Anatoly Tarasov (ice hockey), who all achieved great success despite never having professionally played. As the legendary Italian soccer coach Arrigo Sacchi (who also never played) once said: ‘A jockey doesn’t have to have been born a horse in order to win’.
8. Ground Staff
Ever noticed that the fields at professional sports stadia all over the world are all absolutely immaculate? Well, this isn’t an accident; teams employ dedicated ground staff on a full-time basis to ensure that their playing surfaces are top of the range.
Although there is no definitive route to becoming a grounds person, a degree in turf/grass management or something closely related will definitely help. Alternatively, you might be able to find an apprenticeship with a local government administration where you can learn the key skills required.
There’s money to be made, too. Head grounds people can earn between £30,000 and £50,000 per year in the UK, while an experienced head greenkeeper at a top golf course in the US could take home upwards of $90,000 (£67,630).
9. PR / Social Media Manager
As businesses across every industry start to harness the power of social media, professional sports organisations are also getting in on the act. Most teams now have their own social media presence, run by a dedicated team of content specialists.
If you have a background in content management, social media marketing or digital marketing in general, then this could be an ideal role for you. You’ll be expected to produce and distribute content daily, meaning you’ll get to interview players all the time – perfect, if you also happen to be a fan.
10. Sports Psychologist
If you happen to have a background in clinical psychology, then working with professional athletes is a fascinating – and potentially lucrative – field to specialise in, particularly given the level of credibility it has received in recent years.
For instance, sporting legends Michael Jordan, Nick Faldo and Tom Brady have all utilised the services of a ‘mental health coach’ to great success (Jordan even once remarked that mental fortitude represented ‘80% of the game’), while the New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys and the San Antonio Spurs all employ full-time practitioners.
Indeed, given the increasingly high-pressure environment that athletes operate in, this is a field that is only set to grow. As renowned sports psychologist Graham Betchart claimed recently: ‘Mindset is what separates players from one another. More and more people are realising this now’.
11. Performance Director
Staying on a similar theme, sports science is now an increasingly common facet of any self-respecting professional setup. Often, these are headed up by performance directors, gurus of body and mind whose job it is to coax maximum physical and mental performance out of the athletes in their charge.
Typically, performance directors have a degree in sports science or similar, and have a professional background in fitness coaching or training. One such example is the Dutch soccer coach Raymond Verheijen, who has worked as an advisory consultant to several clubs on the fitness of their key players, as well as implemented cutting-edge conditioning techniques at the numerous teams he has worked for. Indeed, if you have a combined interest in sports medicine, fitness and psychology, then this could be the perfect role.
Ultimately, you’ll never score that winning goal in the cup final that you always dreamt about. But as you can see, helping someone else do the same thing is not beyond the realms of possibility at all.
If you are driven to succeed and you are smart enough to spot an opportunity, then there’s no reason why you can’t make a living amongst the sporting icons of this world; you might even get to meet your own heroes in the process.
Do you work in professional sport? How did you get involved? Let us know in the comments below…
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