Staying Ahead Of The Game: How An MBA Is Helping Professional Athletes Prepare For New Careers
Allison Loomis, a professional water polo player, explains how an AGSM MBA is helping her accelerate her potential
Allison Loomis has been swimming for as long as she can remember. When she discovered water polo in her early teens, it was instantly clear that the sport would become an enormous part of her life.
After years of competing and coaching, she received a scholarship to play Division I water polo and to study business, specializing in marketing, at the University of California, Irvine. At the same time, she worked on the marketing and events team for USA Water Polo—the sport’s official body in the US.
“Learning the business of sport furthered my interest in gaining a high-level managerial perspective,” she said.
Undertaking an MBA was the ideal way to transition, building on the transferable skills she acquired over her athletic career, while opening new career options to turn to once she retired from water polo.
Allison had always wanted to study abroad, and Australia quickly stood out. Not only is the country a “water polo powerhouse,” it is also home to a growing number of start-ups—the perfect destination for someone with an entrepreneurial spirit.
“I think Australia presents a really interesting business market,” Allison says. “I worked a little bit with startups and incubators during my undergraduate degree, and I could see that scene starting to grow in Australia. I know start-ups offer a lot of business opportunities.”
Allison chose the Full-Time MBA program at the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) at the University of New South Wales Business School.
The program’s small, international cohort and strong track record for supporting athletes during their study make it the ideal choice. Athletes are also eligible for the AGSM Leadership Excellence in Sport Scholarship, which contributes towards tuition fee waivers.
AGSM offers the flexibility for athletes to continue their professional sporting career, while studying at the business school. Allison took advantage of this flexibility by competing in tournaments with the UNSW Wests National Women’s Water Polo team while she completed her MBA studies.
Honing soft skills for business
In the MBA program, Allison quickly discovered parallels between competitive sport and business. Both require certain skills and traits for success, like teamwork, time management, problem-solving, and resilience.
“I think the MBA program was really unique in allowing me to showcase the strengths I currently had, but also develop them toward a more managerial business perspective,” she reflects.
During the MBA, Allison honed her time management skills by balancing her commitment to the UNSW water polo team with full-time study. AGSM’s flexible program structure enabled her to complete coursework and submit assignments online, while competing internationally and interstate.
“I was even able to complete one of my final exams in Japan, while I was representing UNSW in an international tournament,” she says with a laugh.
Meanwhile, working with a tight-knit cohort of 50 students helped her bring the teamwork skills she developed through sport into a business context, and build on them.
“I was constantly working with different people from different backgrounds—and that’s how the business world is as well,” she notes.
Making professional connections
Working with this diverse cohort—which represented 19 nationalities and a wide range of professional backgrounds— was Allison’s first step in building a professional network.
Hers was the first AGSM MBA cohort to achieve 50/50 gender parity, placing it among just 5% of global business schools to achieve this for two consecutive years, (2019 and 2020 respectively).
Interacting with peers, alumni, and industry experts at regular networking events helped Allison practice and develop the communication skills she will need to succeed in her post-sport career.
“So much of the business world is about those connections, and AGSM does a really good job of putting you in situations to boost your network and also your confidence,” she explains.
In fact, Allison says that networking is one of the most important skills the MBA has imparted.
“Sport has given me a lot of confidence, but by putting yourself out there, you make connections that could one day help you with your career and help you pivot into a new industry that you wouldn’t have thought to explore,” she says.
For Allison, this new industry was film, media, and entertainment. She had always been fascinated by the storytelling employed by companies like Disney and Pixar and the power of their marketing collateral but choosing film as a career for her was a new step.
Allison is confident she can transition into film with the skills and network she built through the AGSM MBA.
“The AGSM Career Development Center has been great—they’re really making sure I have the resources I need to pursue that dream,” she reports.
Building a business toolkit
Allison’s MBA has also given her a business toolkit that will help her achieve this goal.
She chose to supplement the marketing expertise she brought to the program with courses that would sharpen her leadership skills, like Managerial Decision Making, and Negotiations & Strategy.
“I didn't have much experience with negotiations prior to the MBA, but I found it really relevant,” she says. “It’s not just about negotiating salary… It is crucial for projects or really anything in a company setting.
“Electives like these will really help with my career progression in the future.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered profound shifts in the business landscape, Allison believes that the skills she developed at AGSM will serve her well in her career.
“I’m working on expanding my network and making connections that will help me transition into a marketing career in the entertainment sector,” she says.
Despite her industry shift, Allison plans to keep playing water polo for a couple more years alongside her new career prospects and sees her involvement with the sport stretching far beyond her retirement from the game.
“I want to continue to give back to the sport that’s been such a big part of who I am,” she says. “I plan to use my business skills to inspire the next generation of players to love the game as much as I do.”