The Distinctiveness of Sport Management Theory and Research

in Kinesiology Review

Four decades have passed since the publication of Perspectives on the Academic Discipline of Physical Education: A Tribute to G. Lawrence Rarick—an edited text that offered a comprehensive overview of the field at the time. Missing, however, was any discussion of sport management. Therefore, the purpose of this paper was to overview sport management and the development of the field since the publication of Brooks’s edited text. The authors summarize events in the field, including those related to educational advances and professional societies. Next, they highlight theoretical advances and then review the research in the field over time. In doing so, they categorize the scholarship into three groups: Young Field, Enduring Questions, and Emerging Trends. The authors conclude by identifying advances in the field and how sport management has emerged as a distinctive, robust discipline.

Four decades have passed since the publication of Perspectives on the Academic Discipline of Physical Education: A Tribute to G. Lawrence Rarick (Brooks, 1981). The edited volume offered a thorough treatment of physical education at the time. In addition to overviewing the academic discipline as a whole, authors wrote about emerging subdisciplines of the 1970s and early 1980s, including physiology of exercise, biomechanics, motor development, motor behavior, and the psychology and sociology of sport.

All disciplines change over time, and physical education is no different. Theoretical advances emerge, industry needs develop, and societal expectations shift. As a result, a critical development 40 years ago might not warrant inclusion today. Likewise, topics, theories, and even subdisciplines that at one time did not garner attention might now hold important spaces in academic discourse, on university campuses, and in everyday discussions among serious sport consumers and casual observers, alike. Sport management is one such example—a topic that was missing from Brooks’s (1981) text.

In this paper, we offer an overview of sport management and the development of the field since the publication of Brooks’s (1981) edited text. In doing so, we (a) summarize historical events in the field, including those related to educational advances and professional societies; (b) highlight theoretical advances; (c) review the research in the field over time, categorizing the scholarship into three groups: Young Field, Enduring Questions, and Emerging Trends; and (d) conclude by identifying advances in the field and how sport management has emerged as a distinctive, robust discipline.

The State of Sport Management

In the late 1970s and early 1980s—when Brooks’s (1981) edited volume was published—courses related to athletic administration were widely offered in North American colleges and universities. They were part of the general physical education curriculum or a major application component in the studies of sociology of sport. These courses were focused on the administrative topics and issues associated with intercollegiate and interscholastic athletics, responsibilities many physical education teachers took on. By then, some pioneer colleges and universities, such as Springfield College and Indiana University, had even developed academic majors in athletic administration.

A few major occurrences in the mid-1980s within and beyond the sport context spurred the escalation of sport commercialization and professionalization. Among these were the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games and the revenue generating, sponsorship-centered model emanating from it; Michael Jordan entering into the National Basketball Association; David Stern repositioning the National Basketball Association operation model; and the adoption of the March Madness trademark. These historical developments, and the promising trends of continued advancement, had a profound influence on society in general, shaped and reshaped the mindsets of sport executives and administrators in particular, and consequentially transformed many sport organizations, both amateur and professional, to gradually adopt business-focused models of sport delivery.

Today, sport is a large business, ranking it among the top 15 enterprises in North America (Pitts & Stotlar, 2021). The growth of the sport industry has also been stronger than that of the general U.S. economy, developing at a rate twice as fast (Zhang et al., 2021). The significance of the sport industry in the United States is evidenced best by its: (a) entrance into mainstream business, as recognized by the Business Week, Wall Street Journal, and Fortune; (b) fundamental relationships with other social institutions, such as politics, education, economics, religion, and foreign relations; (c) key functions for helping solve major social problems facing the American society today; and (d) prevalence as a cultural icon in Hollywood sport films, media coverage, and daily life (Pitts & Stotlar, 2021; Zhang et al., 2015). These trends are evident globally, too, where the total sport business transactions exceeded $1.0 trillion in 2015 (Sports & Recreation Business Statistics Analysis, Business and Industry Statistics, 2021).

With the growth and professionalization of the sport industry came demand for trained professionals who were equipped with knowledge and skills in both sports and business administration. Academic institutions were cognizant of the societal changes, and some were responsive to the industrial demand for trained personnel by establishing a sport management program (Zhang et al., 2011; Zhang et al., 2015). Today, there are over 600 sport management programs in North America, many of which are housed in research-intensive institutions, where synthesizing and analyzing existing knowledge and developing new knowledge are central to the institutional missions and functions (Pitts & Zhang, 2016). And whereas sport management programs were traditionally part of physical education and/or exercise science departments, today, close to 30% are organized into business schools, liberal arts colleges, or other professional study areas. The remaining programs are administratively housed in sport and recreation focused units.

Alongside the development of sport management as an academic pursuit came the need for professional societies. The North American Society for Sport Management formed in 1986—the first such sport management association in the world. Others soon followed, including the European Association for Sport Management (1993), the Sport Management Association of Australia and New Zealand (1995), the Asian Association for Sport Management (2002), Sport Marketing Association (2002), Asociación Latinoamericana de Gerencia Deportiva (2009), and African Sport Management Association (2010; Zhang, Kim, & Pifer, 2016).

In an effort to facilitate academic exchanges worldwide and enhance collaborations among the six regional associations, the World Association for Sport Management was formed by sport management scholars from around the world in 2012. The World Association for Sport Management mission is to facilitate sport management research, teaching and learning excellence, and professional practice worldwide, and represent the collective goals of regional associations and their members. As of 2021, World Association for Sport Management has organized four global conferences for the international exchange of ideas, best practices, and research focused on global sport management.

Theoretical Advances

Given this background, we next move to an analysis of sport management theory. Theory holds a special place across academic disciplines. Depending on the source, it is considered “the bedrock upon which good scholarship rests” (Cunningham, 2013), “the basic aim of science” (Kerlinger & Lee, 2000), and the “currency of our scholarly realm” (Corley & Gioia, 2011).

Theory offers insights into why, how, when, where, and under what conditions phenomena occur, and researchers use theory to develop their hypotheses or research questions, guide their methods and analyses, and frame their interpretation of the results (Cunningham et al., 2016). Finally, though theory ideally informs teaching and practice (Doherty, 2013), it provides the backbone of the research enterprise. To wit, a field’s maturity and advancement as an academic discipline can be assessed by the theory it produces (Colquitt & Zapata-Phelan, 2007; Porter & Schneider, 2014).

Recognizing the primacy of theory, Cunningham et al. (2016) edited a 33-chapter handbook devoted to theory in sport management. As a testament to the interdisciplinary and broad nature of the field, the editors classified the theories into four categories: managerial, marketing, sociocultural, and economic. Managerial theories primarily focus on the sport organization and the ways in which it functions effectively. Examples include strategic corporate social responsibility, legacies of major sport events, sport policy, board governance, sport for development and peace, leadership, and sense of community, among others. Marketing theories, on the other hand, largely emphasize revenues, the consumer experience, and connections people have to sport. Examples include sponsorship, team identity, branding, psychological connection with sport, and fan socialization, among others. Sociocultural theories highlight the manner in which the patterns of dominance, subjugation, and inequalities observed in broader society also influence people’s access to and experiences in sport. Examples include theories focused on sex segregation, racial inequalities, and gatekeeping, among others. Finally, economic theories generally emphasize the ways in which sport can contribute to economic development in a community, as well as competitive balance in leagues.

To be sure, many of the scholars in Cunningham et al.’s (2016) edited text drew their inspiration from theories developed in broader disciplines. They then refined the theory, expanded it, identified boundary conditions, and demonstrated how the relationships among constructs were unique within the sport environment. Doherty et al. (2016) described the process as “a ripple effect, as the introduction of a given theory or framework stimulates and shapes further research and knowledge building, as well as theory refinement” (pp. 397–398). Other theorists viewed sport as a unique space to develop theory and then, where applicable, drew from outside theories to help bolster their arguments—a pattern also described by other authors (Chelladurai, 2013; Fink, 2013). Collectively, the evidence points to considerable theoretical advances, and with them, the advancement of sport management as an academic discipline.

Sport Management Scholarship Over Time

We next focus on the specific areas of sport management inquiry over time. To do so, we focus our analysis on journals that have high-impact factors in the field, are rated favorably by the Australian Business Deans Council Journal Quality rankings (A or B ratings), represent different geographic regions, and that capture the theoretical breadth of the field. Using these criteria, we selected five journals: European Sport Management Quarterly (Europe), International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship (International), Journal of Sport Management (United States), Sport Management Review (Australia), and Sport Marketing Quarterly (United States). Though the five journals are among the most preeminent in the field, we also recognize that this review represents a sampling of the sport management scholarship. We encourage readers interested in pursuing the full breadth of sport management-related journals to consult the list offered by the North American Society for Sport Management (2019).

As seen in Figure 1, the number of articles published in the five journals has increased substantially over time. In 1987, when the Journal of Sport Management was introduced, 13 articles were published. Over time, more academic associations formed, and because they also sponsored journals, so too did the number of academic outlets. Not only did the number of journals increase, but so too did the number of articles per volume, from 13 in 1987 to over 42 in 2020 in the Journal of Sport Management. In 2020, the five journals in our analysis published 211 articles—a figure 2.7 times greater than their collective output in 2001 and 16.2 times more than 1987.

Figure 1
Figure 1

—Sport management research productivity over time. Note. Journal of Sport Management (1987–2020): 880 research articles. Sport Marketing Quarterly (1992–2020): 655 research articles. Sport Management Review (1998–2020): 620 research articles. International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship (1999–2020): 439 research articles. European Sport Management Quarterly (2001–2020): 492 research articles.

Citation: Kinesiology Review 10, 3; 10.1123/kr.2021-0022

In reviewing the published articles, we were able to categorize the scholarship into one of three areas. The first is Young Field scholarship, which represents work germane to emerging fields. We do not suggest that the book is closed, so to speak, regarding these topic areas—only that scholars have generally not continued to follow them over time. We termed the second area as Enduring Questions, where researchers pursued topics in the early stages of sport management and continue to develop new theory and understandings in the area. Finally, the Emerging Trends category represents research that is new to the field and to society in general. We offer examples of each in the following space.

Young Field

Scholars in a developing field frequently seek answers to questions of field uniqueness, domains of interest, and field boundaries. Sport management was no exception, as authors explored the history of sport management (Zeigler, 1987), the quality of the scholarship (Parks, 1992; Paton, 1987; Slack, 1991), and curricular issues (Hardy, 1987; Parkhouse, 1987). Researchers focusing on the management of sport and sport organizations concentrated on the competencies and duties of sport managers (Lambrecht, 1987), leadership (Wallace & Weese, 1995), classifying sport organizations and services (Chelladurai et al., 1987; Kikulis et al., 1989), capturing the multidimensional nature of effectiveness (Chelladurai, 1987), and the ways in which national sport organizations adopted more professional modes of operation (Slack & Hinings, 1992; Thibault et al., 1991).

In addition, many of the journals initially made efforts to link scholarship with practice. Both Sport Marketing Quarterly and International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship had sections reserved for interviews with sport marketing professionals. The Journal of Sport Management had a “From the Field” section to which authors could submit. In 2020, these sections no longer exist, and none of the journals in our analysis devoted space to exploring the link between research and practice. We do note, however, that many of the journals require a “Practical Implications” section in the manuscripts. Some scholars, though, consider the lack of a purposeful link between research and practice as a critical flaw in the field—a view held 25 years ago and still today (Irwin & Ryan, 2013; Weese, 1995).

Enduring Questions

The Enduring Questions theme includes those topics that spurred interest among early researchers and has continued to do so. Importantly, researchers have not simply offered empirical replications in a different context, but instead, have developed new theories and methods to explore these persistent issues.

As one example, following others (Cuneen & Parks, 1997), Chalip (2006) encouraged researchers to explore theory grounded in the sport phenomenon rather than only applying perspectives from parent disciplines to the sport context. They suggested that such theoretical advances might stem from five legitimations of sport—health, socialization, economic development, community development, and national pride—and further argued that sport’s value in each area will depend on the manner in which sport is delivered. As demonstrated in the previous section, sport management scholars continue to draw from various ways of knowing to develop new sport management theory.

Issues of equity and inclusion have also garnered continuous scholarly attention over time. Some of the earliest research focused on sexism (Kane, 1988), the lack of women in leadership positions (Pastore, 1991), and the need for sport organizations to embrace multiculturalism (DeSensi, 1994), among other related topics. As time progressed, sport management researchers continued to explore these topics but also expanded into issues of diversity strategies (Doherty & Chelladurai, 1999; Fink et al., 2003) and an expanded diversity focus beyond gender alone (Armstrong & Peretto Stratta, 2004; Frisby & Millar, 2002; Singer, 2005; Thomas & Dyall, 1999). The emphasis on ensuring sport is a diverse, equitable, and inclusive space continues today, including critiques of the sexist and homophobic culture that pervades much of sport (Fink, 2015; Shaw, 2019; Shaw & Cunningham, 2021); examinations that embrace principles of intersectionality (Walker & Melton, 2015); analyses of organizational efforts to make sport a more diverse and inclusive space (Jeanes et al., 2018; Turconi & Shaw, 2021); and investigations of the associations among diversity, inclusion, and performance (Cunningham & Nite, 2020; Lee & Cunningham, 2019). Despite the interest, substantial disparities remain in the access to and experiences in sport and physical activity (Cunningham, 2019), and consequently, we anticipate research in this area will continue.

Volunteers also play an important role in delivering sport, whether as coaches, referees, administrators, or events personnel (Wicker, 2017). Their importance is particularly salient in Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, where the sport models largely revolve around club sports. Early researchers focused on factors that enticed volunteers to engage with sport and their satisfaction with the experience (Cuskelly, 2004; Cuskelly & Boag, 2001). More recently, researchers have developed fuller theoretical treatments of the subject, recognizing the multilevel factors that influence volunteers, their behaviors, and their experiences in sport (Wicker, 2017).

Events are also a topic that have garnered continuous attention among sport management scholars. Researchers explored the delivery and impact of major events, including the World Cup, Olympics, and the Super Bowl, as just some examples (Chalip, 1992). More recent researchers have focused on the legacy (i.e., the structures and systems created by a sport event that remain in place; Thomson et al., 2019), leveraging events for broader impacts (O’Brien, 2007), the impacts and outcomes of the events on local communities (Taks et al., 2015), climate impacts (Orr & Inoue, 2019), and the ability of charity events to spur fund raising around social causes (Filo et al., 2020).

Among sport marketers, attracting fans and fostering their connections to the teams were initial topics of interest and continue to be so. Melnick (1993) noted how sport can serve as a space where people satisfy their needs for sociability, whereas other scholars emphasized fans’ psychological connections to sport (Funk & James, 2001). Fans’ socialization into sport; the ways in which they identify with sports, teams, and players; and the way in which they build communities through sport continue to be important topics for sport marketers and researchers (Asada & Ko, 2019; Funk & James, 2006; Lock & Funk, 2016; Lock & Heere, 2017). Other sport marketing scholars recognized the importance of the physical environment, services, and the quality of the sport product (Chelladurai & Chang, 2000; Ko & Pastore, 2005; Wakefield et al., 1996). The research provided levers teams could use to increase attendance, fans’ satisfaction with the events, and consumers’ patronage of sport clubs. This emphasis has continued, with researchers identifying (for example) core and peripheral services that influence sport consumers’ attitudes and behaviors (Byon et al., 2013).

Two final research topics—sponsorship and branding—were evident in early sport marketing scholarship and continue today. Sport is a site of considerable sponsorship activities, with some estimates putting the 2018 spending at $65.8 billion (Gough, 2021). Early research identified the key components of sponsorship and the benefits for all parties (Copeland et al., 1996; Musante et al., 1999). More recently, sponsorship-focused scholars have examined ways to leverage and activate sponsorships, the ways in which relationships form and end, and the impact of sponsorship agreements on external stakeholders (Hino & Takeda, 2020; Jensen & Cornwell, 2017). Turning to branding, researchers initially focused their efforts on brand equity among sport organizations and the brand associations people made for sport teams (Gladden & Funk, 2002; Gladden et al., 1998). Researchers have built on this understanding to consider how brand relationships can influence consumer behavior (Kunkel & Biscaia, 2020), the ways in which sport organizations use social media (Geurin & Burch, 2017) and music (Ballouli & Heere, 2015) to build their brand, and strategies athletes use to build their personal brands (Lobpries et al., 2018).

Emerging Trends

Finally, we examine emerging trends in sport management research. To do so, we drew from three sources. First, drawing from the Web of Science, we identified the 10 most-cited articles in each of the aforementioned journals published from 2016 to 2020 (see Table 1). Second, we again drew from Web of Science to identity the top 50 most-cited articles published in the five journals from 2016 to 2020 (see Table 2). Put another way, Table 1 offers the most cited articles in each journal, whereas Table 2 provides the most cited articles overall, with the five journals serving as the sources. We then identified themes by identifying the general focus of each article. Finally, we drew from our experiences as current or immediate past editors in chief of three of the journals: International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship, Journal of Sport Management, and Sport Management Review.

Table 1

Top 10 Most Cited Sport Management Articles in Five Sport Management Journals, 2016–2020

AuthorsTopic
European Sport Management Quarterly (Europe)
 Lock and Heere (2017)Team identity
 Lee and Chelladurai (2018)Emotional intelligence
 Wemmer et al. (2016)Innovation in sport clubs
 Harris and Houlihan (2016)Sport event legacy
 Hill and Sotiriadou (2016)Coaching decision making
 Rohde and Breuer (2017)Economics and club ownership
 Dimitropoulos et al. (2016)Accountability
 Anagnostopoulos et al. (2018)Branding
 MacIntosh et al. (2016)Sport for development and peace
 Parnell et al. (2017)Sport governance and policy
International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship (International)
 Foroughi et al. (2016)Sport consumer behavior
 Popp et al. (2016)Social media
 Kim and Chiu (2019)Wearable technology
 Zhang et al. (2018)International sport marketing
 Liu et al. (2017)International sport marketing
 Baena (2016)Branding
 Foroughi et al. (2019)Fitness club consumers
 Liu (2016)Major sport events
 Alonso Dos Santos and Calabuig Moreno (2018)Sport sponsorship
 Biscaia et al. (2017)Branding
Journal of Sport Management (United States)
 Schulenkorf et al. (2016)Sport for development and peace
 Fink (2016)Sexism in sport
 Zaharia et al. (2016)Sport sponsorship
 Wakefield (2016)Sport consumer behavior
 Kunkel et al. (2016)Branding
 Svensson et al. (2018)Sport for development and peace
 Bjarsholm (2017)Social entrepreneurship
 Svensson and Seifried (2017)Sport for development and peace
 Yan et al. (2018)Athlete activism
 Jensen and Cornwell (2017)Sport sponsorship
Sport Management Review (Australia)
 Geurin-Eagleman and Burch (2016)Sexism in sport media
 Hallmann and Giel (2018)eSport
 Schulenkorf (2017)Sport for development and peace
 Funk et al. (2018)eSport
 Garcia-Fernandez et al. (2018)Service quality
 Svensson and Hambrick (2016)Sport for development and peace
 Doyle et al. (2016)Team identity
 Harris and Adams (2016)Sport for development and peace
 Millar and Doherty (2016)Organizational capacity
 Lamont et al. (2016)Sports gambling
Sport Marketing Quarterly (United States)
 Pizzo et al. (2018)eSport
 Weiner and Dwyer (2017)Fantasy sports
 Buning and Walker (2016)Mass participation sport events
 Yim and Byon (2018)Customer service
 Chang et al. (2017)Event quality
 Ballouli et al. (2016)Team identity
 Lacey and Kennett-Hensel (2016)Corporate social responsibility
 Jones et al. (2019)Service quality
 Cobbs et al. (2017)Rivalries
 Shapiro et al. (2016)Sport consumer behavior
Table 2

50 Most Cited Articles Across Five Sport Management Journals, 2016–2020

AuthorsTopic
Schulenkorf et al. (2016)Sport for development and peace
Geurin-Eagleman and Burch (2016)Sexism in sport media
Hallmann and Giel (2018)eSport
Schulenkorf (2017)Sport for development and peace
Funk et al. (2018)eSport
Garcia-Fernandez et al. (2018)Service quality
Svensson and Hambrick (2016)Sport for development and peace
Lock and Heere (2017)Team identity
Harris and Adams (2016)Sport for development and peace
Lee and Chelladurai (2018)Emotional intelligence
Doyle et al. (2016)Team identity
Fink (2016)Sexism in sport
Millar and Doherty (2016)Organizational capacity
Lamont et al. (2016)Sports gambling
Funk (2017)Sport service design
Thomson et al. (2019)Sport event legacies
Peachey et al. (2018)Sport for development and peace
Cunningham et al. (2018)eSport
Shilbury et al. (2016)Sport governance
Lock and Funk (2016)Team identity
Spaaij et al. (2018)Sport for development and peace
Wicker (2017)Volunteers
Zaharia et al. (2016)Sport sponsorship
Shaw and Hoeber (2016)Qualitative methods
Wakefield (2016)Sport consumer behavior
Kunkel et al. (2016)Branding
Svensson et al. (2018)Sport for development and peace
Jeanes et al. (2018)Disability sport
Hill and Sotiriadou (2016)Coach decision making
Wemmer et al. (2016)Innovation of sport clubs
Yan et al. (2018)Athlete activism
Yoshida (2017)Consumer experience quality
Bjarsholm (2017)Social entrepreneurship
Svensson and Seifried (2017)Sport for development and peace
Harris and Houlihan (2016)Sport event legacies
Jensen and Cornwell (2017)Sport sponsorship
Geurin and Burch (2017)Branding and social media
Rohde and Breuer (2017)Economics and club ownership
Popp and Woratschek (2016)Branding and social media
Lee et al. (2016)Athlete endorsement
MacIntosh et al. (2016)Sport for development and peace
O’Boyle and Shilbury (2016)Sport governance
Swierzy et al. (2018)Organizational capacity
Jones et al. (2017)Community capacity
Larkin and Fink (2016)Fantasy sports
Katz et al. (2018)Branding and communities
Heere (2018)eSport
Inoue et al. (2017)Sport spectators
Burton et al. (2017)Leadership
Naraine and Parent (2016)Social media

Note. Top cited articles from European Sport Management Quarterly, International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship, Journal of Sport Management, Sport Management Review, and Sport Marketing Quarterly, 2016–2020. Adapted from Web of Science.

Sport management scholars have increasingly examined the ways in which sport can be a source for good and change in society. Sport for development and peace—or the use of sport for meeting goals and addressing concerns at the individual, group, or community levels—represents one example. The foci of those efforts include peace building, social issues, education, public health, inclusion of underserved populations, and the like. As of 2019, over 560 organizations around the world engaged in sport for development and peace efforts (Cunningham, 2019). Schulenkorf and colleagues have offered reviews, including an analysis of the theoretical advances, areas of promise for using sport to meet goals and create change, and gaps in practice (Peachey et al., 2019; Schulenkorf, 2017; Schulenkorf et al., 2016). Other researchers have explicitly examined the ways in which sport serves to promote physical and psychological health, while contributing to broader public health agendas (Edwards & Rowe, 2019). Sport is a particularly useful tool for promoting the health and well-being among otherwise underserved populations, including Indigenous women in Australia (Stronach et al., 2019), refugees in Germany and The Netherlands (Anderson et al., 2019), and obese children (Sparvero & Warner, 2019), among others.

Other researchers have focused on the role of new technologies, and we outline two examples here. The first is eSport. Though there is some debate as to whether eSport represents sport, recreation, or another activity all together (Cunningham et al., 2018; Funk et al., 2018; Hallmann & Giel, 2018), there is no denying eSport’s worldwide appeal. With loyal fans and innovative ways of connecting with people (Pizzo et al., 2018; Qian et al., 2020), eSport generates remarkable revenues and serves as an appealing venue for potential sponsors to reach a young audience. Other researchers focusing on new technologies have examined the role of social media. In some ways, this communication form simply reifies existing inequalities, such as the gendered nature of sport (Geurin-Eagleman & Burch, 2016). However, social media also offers novel possibilities, including social activism (Yan et al., 2018), engaging fans in new ways (Baena, 2016; Doyle et al., 2016; Popp et al., 2016; Wakefield, 2016), and developing brand connections (Anagnostopoulos et al., 2018; Geurin & Burch, 2017; Popp & Woratschek, 2016).

Sport management scholars have also increasingly recognized the importance of communities and networks. From a marketing standpoint, researchers have identified the value of brand communities and networks (Katz et al., 2019; Katz et al., 2018) in helping to explain fans’ emotional responses and their behaviors. As Heere and James (2007) have argued, “fans of sports teams see themselves as members of an organization, not just consumers of a product” (p. 319).

Our review also shows that sport management scholars have embraced novel research methods. Much of this growth is in the area of qualitative research. Shaw and Hoeber have noted the value of adopting innovative qualitative methods to yield new insights (Hoeber & Shaw, 2017; Shaw & Hoeber, 2016; Singer et al., 2019), and researchers have increasingly followed this path using autoethnography, digital ethnography, phenomenology, and narratives (among other approaches) to gain a better understanding of topics ranging from sport governance to fandom. Other authors, such as Zhang, Du, et al., (2016) have advocated for mixed methods, effectively integrating qualitative and quantitative techniques—an approach scholars have used to explore employee creativity (Paek et al., 2020) and disciplinary incidents (Deal et al., 2018), among others.

Finally, we note differences in research emphases and methodological approaches based on the context and researcher background. U.S. scholars largely focus on intercollegiate athletics, men’s sports, and the use of sport to enact social change. Though there is a general emphasis on quantitative methods and adoption of a postpositivist perspective, many U.S. scholars have offered meaningful advances in qualitative research methods and critical paradigms. On the other hand, much of the research from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand focuses on nonprofit and club sports, volunteers, governance, and sport communities. These researchers largely employ qualitative methods, including some of the aforementioned innovative approaches. In Europe, the research focus is more varied, with some scholars focusing on governance and sport policy, others on the professionalization of football clubs, and still others on advancing the understanding of the sport–climate change relationship. The approaches to answering these questions also vary widely. Finally, in scholarship from Asia, we see a strong focus on sport marketing, services, and fans, with researchers largely relying on cross-sectional and experimental designs to answer their research questions.

Discussion and Conclusions

In the 40 years since Brooks (1981) published Perspectives on the Academic Discipline of Physical Education: A Tribute to G. Lawrence Rarick, the field of sport management, both as a professional industry and an academic discipline, developed into a bourgeoning domain. Universities and colleges across the globe offer degree programs in sport management—from bachelor’s degrees to doctoral degrees (North American Society for Sport Management, 2021). The numbers will continue to grow as the sport industry remains strong in industrialized nations and developing countries continue to acquire an interest in better implementation and management of sport systems. Furthermore, as mentioned in the “Emerging Trends” section, sport for development has resulted in numerous organizations and associations using sport as a mechanism to attain various social and humanitarian missions in all areas of the world (Gadais, 2020). Whereas the pandemic has had a substantial negative impact on the sport industry overall (Sunseon, 2020), sport participation and live viewership will be seen by many as some of the strongest markers of the “return to normalcy” in the postpandemic era.

The review of the sport management literature shows that sport management has drifted substantially from its roots in physical education. Whereas there are still strong ties to sport sociology, sport management (research and curricula) has little in common with physical education or the many of the subdisciplines mentioned in Brooks’s (1981) original work. It shifted away from the physical science of sport and participation toward examinations using social sciences theories to understand better sport organizations, and those working in them, and to enhance the management of sport at all levels. Throughout these 40 years, research in the field has produced many valuable insights to theory and practice and continues to mature, expand, and progress. Indeed, it is an exciting time to be a sport management academician.

The current and future stewards of the discipline of sport management must remain vigilant to industry needs, theoretical advancements, and shifting societal expectations to ensure the field continues to thrive and expand. It is difficult to know what the next 40 years will bring and what sport management will look like after that time. However, over the last 40 years, an incredibly solid foundation has been built.

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Cunningham is with the Center for Sport Management Research and Education, Dept. of Health and Kinesiology, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA. Fink is with the Mark H. McCormack Dept. of Sport Management, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Amherst, MA, USA. Zhang is with the Dept. of Kinesiology, University of Georgia, Athens, GA, USA.

Cunningham (gbcunningham@tamu.edu) is corresponding author.
  • View in gallery

    —Sport management research productivity over time. Note. Journal of Sport Management (1987–2020): 880 research articles. Sport Marketing Quarterly (1992–2020): 655 research articles. Sport Management Review (1998–2020): 620 research articles. International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship (1999–2020): 439 research articles. European Sport Management Quarterly (2001–2020): 492 research articles.

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