Last Updated on August 3, 2023
Interview with Dr. Sean Dahlin
Sports Degrees Online had the chance to catch up with Dr. Sean Dahlin of Central Washington University. Dr. Dahlin shares his journey into a career in sports and later academia. Professor Dahlin touches on subjects ranging from how to determine which sport management program is the best fit to the importance of experiential learning and the value of leadership skills.
About Dr. Sean Dahlin
Dr. Sean Dahlin is an assistant professor of Sport Management at Central Washington University, where he is also the director of the Northwest Center for Sport. Dr. Dahlin is the program director for the undergraduate Sport Management program at CWU.
Sports Degrees Online: Today we are speaking with Dr. Sean Dahlin, Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Central Washington University. How are you doing today, professor?
Professor Sean Dahlin: Doing well.
Sports Degrees Online: Professor, prior to your career in academia you spent over a decade in coaching and athletic administration. Can you talk a bit about why you chose a career in sports?
Professor Sean Dahlin: It was pretty simple for me – I’m obsessed with sports, and that’s basically how it happened. I started out as a high school baseball coach when I was still kind of toward the end of my collegiate career, and making that transition.
So I coached high school baseball and while I was finishing my playing career and my undergraduate degree in Portuguese and Spanish. So it was a lot different.
But my perspective then was that all of the coaches at that time were also professors. That was still a common thing. And so I was trying to figure out what I would do so that I could ultimately be a college coach, knowing that I’d probably need to be a professor in something.
At the time, I had thought about foreign language with Portuguese and Spanish. And then for a year after my bachelor’s degree, I coached high school baseball in Oregon and taught at the high school level for a year and quickly realized that was not a great fit. It was a great experience still, but that wasn’t the age range that really kind of got my juices flowing and made me passionate about what I wanted to do.
So I went back to graduate school for Hispanic linguistics, and I also continued coaching high school baseball again. But when it got to the point where they wanted me to think about a thesis for my masters, there was no interest. I had no interest in typing about where the tongue was in the mouth for how they say certain sounds in a foreign language.
After that realization, I did some soul searching and I did some research. Sport management wasn’t really a thing that I knew about, but I started searching, trying to find what now eventually was sport management.
I found a sport management program in Idaho, and I knew that I wanted to coach college baseball, at least at that point. So I actually moved over to kind of the Boise area and NAIA school and started coaching college baseball and began a master’s degree in Athletic Administration.
That really changed my perspective on things. I was still gung-ho about college athletics, and I had some different opportunities in college athletics on the coaching side and the athletic administrative side.
And so that’s kind of where I found my passion before becoming an academic, at a small college Division III NAIA school. I got to wear a lot of hats and I realized that I’m pretty good at being a generalist. I know a little bit about a lot of things, and that fit my personality well.
But in terms of why I chose to do that, I always knew that I wanted to do something in sport. It was just trying to figure out what that other piece was going to be. And then once I realized that I could get a degree in sport, it was easy. I think I was trying to be a renaissance man at first and making sure I was well-rounded. But finally I just gave into my obsession essentially and decided to work in sport all the way through.
Sports Degrees Online: At Central Washington, you offer both an undergraduate sport management degree and a graduate level sport and athletic administration program. Can you talk us through some of the highlights of each of those programs?
Professor Sean Dahlin: Our sport management undergraduate major (we call them “specializations”) has the core of the sport management major which consists of about seven or eight courses that every student has to take. After that, our students are able to choose from four specializations.
We’ve got sport business, which is the one with the most students in it, and that’s kind of your traditional sport management track.
We also have sport coaching, recreation management, and sports communication which we just started this last fall. So our students have the opportunity to take something like a ‘mini minor’ inside of their major, essentially. We have a lot of students that will take even more than one of those too.
We might have a student that is a sport business specialization as well as a sport coaching specialization or whatever different kind of combinations they want to do. And what we’ve found is it gives them more skills to understand and be prepared for different opportunities, whether they be within sport or outside of sport.
We’ve had some alumni who have had success after our program getting into different fields that weren’t related to sport simple because they had a lot of transferrable skills. In our sport management major, [we set it up to help students develop those various marketable skills.
And our program is interdisciplinary in that we have partnerships with other departments and colleges on campus. We have a partnership with the College of Business, as we are housed in the college of education. And we also have a partnership with the Department of Communications to offer our Sports Communication specialization.
Looking at our Sport and Athletic Administration Master’s program, that degree is taught fully online. So that program is vastly different from the undergraduate program, which is largely on campus. We have been offering the online master’s program for over twenty years, whereas our undergraduate program is in just its sixth year.
[It got started as a degree geared towards] high school coaches and athletic directors and has now morphed to include graduate assistants in our athletic department, and other students working toward careers in professional sport as well. So it’s a bit of a mixture, but the main focus is still those looking to work in college or high school athletics. That’s a full-time, two-year program.
Sports Degrees Online: With regard to the specialization areas you mentioned within the degree program, I see more and more programs out there offering those opportunities. But as there are so many programs out there to choose from, I think it can be overwhelming for students to decide which sport management program is the best fit for them. What are some of the factors that students should keep in mind as they’re beginning their search or refining their search to find which sport management program’s going to be the best fit for them
Professor Sean Dahlin: Yeah, I think we’re pretty transparent about the fact that if our program isn’t the one for you, then that’s completely fine. And not only that, we’re going to hopefully try to connect you with other programs that we know about that we think would be a good fit.
I don’t want you here under false pretenses, you thinking you’re going to get one thing and you get another. Fit is really important for me.
With that being said, we are more of kind of a generalist program just in terms of the fact that we have graduates in master’s programs or in jobs in sport that are kind of across the board. We don’t necessarily have just one specialty, and thats exactly what we are trying to do.
That’s why we have multiple specializations and are working on others currently as well. But if there are those you know, for instance that you are going to be in marketing, then you’ll want to find that program with a focus is in marketing and you target that.
On the flip side, if you don’t know exactly what you want, then a program like ours might be a good fit where you can experiment and choose things a little bit more. For example, are you looking for a hardcore business program, or are you looking for more variety? And I think that sometimes will help students make some decisions for themselves.
Our program is unique in that not all sport management programs have a sport coaching specialization, but we have myself and another professor with expertise and experience in this area, so we feature that as a strength of our program. We actually have a good number of students who are interested in the sport coaching side.
Another factor to consider is does it matter if it’s a state school or a private school? You know, that’s the difference based on tuition, potential scholarship opportunities, internship opportunities around, can you continue directly into a master’s program after, and much more.
If you’re thinking of college athletics or even high school athletics, there are just a lot of factors to take into consideration.
I think if somebody really doesn’t know what they want to do, only that they want to work in sports, as long as you find a sport management program where you have professors that care, I don’t think you can go wrong necessarily. But the question will be, “what’s the fit for you?” Do you want smaller class sizes, or do you like the bigger campus with the buzz around you? I think the answer to that question may be just as important as the major itself. We really do want to make sure that we are helping students find the best fit for themselves, whatever that may be.
Sports Degrees Online: I think that’s great awareness, and students should definitely appreciate that kind of approach from a potential professor for sure. At Central Washington, you are also the director of the Northwest Center for Sport. Can you talk a bit about the Center for Sport, namely what its mission is, what does it do, and who do you work with?
Professor Sean Dahlin: I think the Northwest Center for Sport is something that we do actually utilize to set ourselves apart from other programs. It is literally just a center or an institute that helps us so we can get students involved as much as possible outside the classroom – that extracurricular, co-curricular kind of setup.
We’re able to have enough funds flowing through to it, to an extent where we can assist students in terms of opportunities, networking, and those kinds of things.
The vision for our center is that we’re committed to advancing knowledge and experiential opportunities for students to allow them to lead the sports industry into the future.
That’s rather broad, but the idea is for us to get our students outside the classroom, visiting facilities, meeting with people and networking with them, understanding what they do, doing informational interviews so they know who our students are.
It’s the idea of lifelong learning and helping our students understand what path they will want to follow. And then not only that, but we know that they are the future of the sport industry and preparing them for that. So we prepare them with the leadership skills, organizational skills, and all those things that need to be done so the sports industry can be better than it is today.
Each year in the fall, we host our Northwest Sport Management Summit on campus, where we bring guest speakers from the region and around the country to come speak to our students.
We have a traditional keynote speaker, one or two panels of guest speakers, then we try to do something a little more practical. We have done mock interview workshops, speed networking with those that work in sport, and other activities like that to build our students skills and experience.
We also have a student trip that we go on every year, which in recent years has included Portland, Seattle and now Las Vegas this year. So those trips are also a great experience for them to kind of get outside of the Pacific Northwest, but also see the cool stuff that they have in our area as well.
We also partner with the Seattle Mariners and our alumni department, and we do a CW night, so it’s focused on the alumni and students going to Seattle Mariners game. And our students are involved in making phone calls to them to get some practice with helping them in selling tickets and then working the event itself.
So, those are three of the things we do. And then throughout the whole thing, we’ve got a sport management association, which is our student organization for our undergraduate students that they can get involved in. And we have a lot more events which we host, including hosting a series of guest speakers who come on campus or do presentations online.
FInally, we also have our ambassador program for the Northwest Center for Sport. That’s typically master students that are helping us in different areas of the Northwest Center for Sports, kind of help that grow as well. So, it’s just a lot of different opportunities to give students experience in leadership roles, networking, visiting places and seeing what would be the best fit for them and how they can be future leaders in the sport industry.
Sports Degrees Online: Wow, that sounds like a huge asset to have on campus at CWU. With regard to the experiential opportunities generally – like the speed networking, getting off campus to help run events or sell tickets, visiting real sports organizations – how important are those types of experiences as part of a sport management education? And what can you say about how this type of experience helps students?
Professor Sean Dahlin: Yeah, I mean, truthfully no offense to myself as a professor, but those experiences are probably more important and better experiences for them because we’re trying to get our students out in front of people that work in sports every day, who are also potentially hiring managers. So they know that our students are good first of all, and then our students can learn what they do.
No matter how much I can talk in the classroom, at the end of the day, the students getting out and having those experiences with visiting facilities or the speed networking, or even the internship opportunities to build up their own resume, that’s clearly more important than what you learn in the classroom. No doubt.
There is definitely a place for what you learn in the classroom and trying to apply that into what you do outside of it. But that experience, knowledge and networking, that’s how they’re going to make that next step. So, it is a building block thing a little bit, but that’s definitely what sets apart the success we’ve had with our students moving on is these different opportunities they have outside the classroom to jumpstart their career.
So that’s pretty simple, right? If we didn’t have that piece, it would be much harder. Whereas, with that piece of it, and now we see that six years in our undergrad program, we have alums that are doing some really great things in the sport industry and they’re bought in, so now they want to help our current students. And so it’s just perpetual and it’s really cool to see that happening. But it’s because of the Northwest Center for Sport Management Association, the events that we have and the trips we go on, and the internship opportunities, that experiential piece, that’s the most important thing for sure.
Sports Degrees Online: Part of our goal at Sports Degrees Online is to highlight and promote areas of growth within sports where some of the best opportunities exist today and in the near future. What are some fields in sport management and related fields that you feel like have good career potential at this time?
Professor Sean Dahlin: That’s a good question. I think your typical positions are still very valid and important. I think the sport industry right now is actually – I don’t want to say it’s easier to get into – but there are less applicants and candidates for positions than there were in the past. And that’s largely due to covid.
Covid changed the perspective on a lot of things in terms of the sport industry when we’re looking at it from a sport management, sport coaching perspective. There’s no doubt that we have alumni that are getting opportunities right now that even 5, 6, 7 years ago, they wouldn’t have had in terms of moving up in an organization just due to the sheer number of candidates and people working in sport.
With that changing, that’s made a difference also in the way we approach our students and say, “Hey, you’re a senior right now, you could be an assistant athletic director, or you could be a sales manager in a year or two. So you got to be ready for that.”
And so that’s kind of changed our perspective in how we prepare our students and focusing a little bit more on the leadership side than we would have maybe in the past knowing they’ve had to pay their dues.
But college athletics is still a place where there are a lot of positions are available in a lot of different areas. Some opportunities are in areas that are not viewed as always the most fun for some people, but compliance is one aread that is somewhat overlooked. I think compliance is a great gateway if you’re willing & wanting to work with students in terms of eligibility, compliance issues with coaches and teams, those kinds of things seems to be one area.
Another area that I’m sure everybody’s going to be saying is sport analytics on the business side and on the player side is definitely a continual area of growth for sure.
I think on the sports communication side, the one that we’re asked the most about is, do we have students who are alums that have experience with graphic design? And I think that’s one of them, you know, video production or graphic design. Those are areas that if you have those skills, you’re going to be set for a good amount of time.
And then from the sport management perspective, there is the business side to it. So if you can generate revenue, there’s going to be a place for you ensuring that you have the correct morals and ethics for that.
But so those are some areas I’m sure just right now is a time that if you’re interested in sport and if you can put in the time and you get the experience you need, there’s a good chance that if you network the right way that you’re going to set yourself up in good positions almost regardless of what you’re looking into because the opportunities are a little bit more out there than they had been in the past.
Sports Degrees Online: With regard to the alumni you mentioned, perhaps finding themselves in leadership positions sooner than in the past – do you get the impression that those students need a master’s degree or certificate, for example, in order to qualify for those promotions? Or are you finding that people even with undergraduate degrees and some good experience are eligible for those positions?
Professor Sean Dahlin: I think it depends on the context or the area that you’re looking to work in sport. We would typically say if you’re looking at professional sport – basically not an institution of learning, so not high school or not college athletics – a bachelor’s degree will suffice. You wouldn’t necessarily need a master’s degree to move up into a professional sport organization. They’re worried much more about your experience than your educational, academic pursuit. And so in those cases, we do have students with just a bachelor’s degree moving up in those organizations.
Because again, that master’s degree is less important in those contexts. [It could certainly make a difference if two otherwise equal candidates were competing for a job and one of them has that master’s degree], but I think it matters less in that case.
With high school and college athletics, it’s still that trend that you kind of need that master’s degree to have that full-time position, or to move into that assistant athletic director or director or manager level position.
I don’t know if that’s going to change because again, we’re institutions of learning and there are standards on the academic side for some of that. They’re always emergency hires or if you network really well or if you’re just a rockstar. But generally speaking, if you’re trying to find a full-time position in high school athletics or college athletics, that master’s degree is still going to be really vitally important. Whereas in Pro sport, it’s just not as much.
Sports Degrees Online: My last question for you, professor, your academic research centers around leadership styles and coaching effectiveness, particularly in collegiate athletics. Why are you passionate about these subjects?
Professor Sean Dahlin: I think definitely my experience, having worked in college athletics, so I would say that’s my wheelhouse. My strongest network is college athletics, and my experience on the coaching and the administrative side was also college athletics.
Why leadership? Leadership has always appealed to me. Organizational behavior, those kinds of things of how an organization functions and how a leader functions within that organization is always appealing to me. What the culture is like for a team, those kinds of things. Trying to be effective with that, whether it’s a coach or even an administrator. And that’s what gets my juices flowing.
It’s different for everybody, but if you start talking about leadership styles and theories, it’s easy for me to geek out on that and then throw that into college athletics. Whether it’s a coach or administrator, I’ll probably start losing sleep because I just get out passionate about it. But for me, truthfully, on the research side, if it’s not practical, if it’s not something that can be applicable, I struggle with that.
So I’m very much a proponent of applied research. Just throwing out theories to throw out theories, that’s great, but that doesn’t help me or anyone else. [Applied research] is much more interesting to me, and I think it’s much more important, honestly, for people to consider than these theories. [Instead], get that research and see what a coach is actually doing or what an administrator or athlete is really doing and analyze whether it is working or not. And I think that’s a really important piece for me of that research.
Sports Degrees Online: On the topic of leadership, was just thinking if a sport management student is also going to study leadership styles and study leadership in general, wouldn’t that set them up for success a few years down the road when whatever organization they land with is looking for exactly that – leadership – on teams?
Professor Sean Dahlin: I’m totally biased, so for me obviously that’s the case. But I think that’s the piece that other industries including sport are missing where it does become so specialized. The higher up you go, those leadership skills or communication skills that are vitally important, how you work within an organization, those kinds of things, [are not always present]. So, we do have an emphasis on that. That’s largely based on my passions, my interests, my expertise, and then the other professors we have here similarly. But that’s our perspective and that’s our philosophy, is we’re going to train you as a leader, and that’s going to benefit you in the long run one way or the other.
Sports Degrees Online: Awesome. Great. Well, that’s all I’ve got for now, professor. Thanks so much for joining us today.