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Real Madrid has long prided itself on being just a little bit ahead of other European football clubs.

More often than not, that pride is justified by cold, hard numbers: no other football team has won more European Championships (10). No other football team makes more money (€550m last year). The most expensive player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, wears the white jersey of Real Madrid. For good measure, so does the second-most expensive footballer, Gareth Bale.

So many records and it is easy to overlook that the Spanish club is also in the vanguard in an entirely different field: business education.

In 2006, Real Madrid teamed up with Universidad Europea, a Madrid-based private university that is part of the Laureate group, to set up a series of master degrees aimed at the sports industry. The programme took a while to gain traction but has grown rapidly in recent years. Officially known as the Real Madrid Graduate School-Universidad Europea, it expects close to 400 students to graduate from its Madrid campus this year — 120 in the MBA programme alone. Student numbers have doubled in two years and are projected to double again by 2020.

The club insists that it does a lot more than simply lend its name. Teachers include 65 members of Real Madrid’s staff, from marketing professionals to media experts and physiotherapists. Perhaps the most striking show of the club’s commitment, however, can be found at the very top of the school hierarchy: its director-general is none other than Emilio Butragueño, a legendary Real Madrid player from the 1980s and 1990s and a close associate of Florentino Pérez, the club president.

In an interview at Real Madrid’s imposing Santiago Bernabéu stadium, Mr Butragueño says the creation of the school is a response to the profound changes in the world of sports: “When I started playing for Real Madrid in 1984, there was no department of communications. There was no marketing department. That is unthinkable today. A football club, no matter how small, can no longer exist without these departments. At Real Madrid today, for example, there are close to 40 people working on marketing alone — and the unit accounts for about 38 per cent of our annual revenues,” he says.

Whether fans and athletes like it or not, says Mr Butragueño, sports clubs have become like companies. “We hate the word here at Real Madrid, but the truth is we are part of an industry.”

The transformation from weekend passion to lucrative global industry means there is strong demand for executives, marketing and media experts and other professionals schooled in the business of sport. And that, says the former striker, is where the Real Madrid Graduate School comes in. Managing a sports club, he argues, is not the same as managing a company.

That means the preparation and training for a career in sports management also has to be different: “A football club is a company. But you have a different kind of complexity when you are dealing with football or basketball players.

“Above all, there is an emotional component that is outside your control. You can plan things as well as you want. But, in the end, a bad call from a referee or a couple of injuries that take out key players in a critical match can mean you still won’t achieve your objective.”

Top-level staff at a professional football club also has to contend with the vagaries of an irascible fan base and the instability that comes with electing a new president every few years. How, then, does the school prepare its students for such an environment? By exposing them as much and as often as possible to the real world, says Marisa Sáenz, who directs the school’s MBA programme.

“Our classes are very practical, and many take place in the form of visits. There is a difference between learning in class how Wimbledon functions and actually going there and hearing from the management team at Wimbledon,” she says.

MBA students go on two trips during their course — one to London, the other to New York. They are also required to complete at least two months of internships — either during their studies or on completion.

Real Madrid takes in about 100 students for internships every year but recent graduates have also spent time at Chelsea, Wembley Stadium, Atlético de Madrid and the Spanish basketball association.

All course units, such as marketing or finance, are supplemented by lectures from professionals. “For the students, this is incredibly valuable,” says Ms Sáenz. “They are basically learning in real time what is going on in the real world.”

Over the course of the year, students are required to develop and deliver three projects related to the business of sports. Last year, for example, one group came up with a system for exploiting and commercialising a club’s fan database.

Looking ahead, Mr Butragueño says both club and university are keen to expand the programme. They have developed a five-year plan that promises to double student numbers and double revenues by 2020.

The Real Madrid Graduate School-Universidad Europea also aims to increase the number of international partner academies that offer the same sports MBA from 11 to 15. This year, the school signed up partner universities in Australia, Britain and Colombia.

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