How chasing your passion can lead to a fulfilling career 

Whether you started your career in a particular industry for its earning potential or just followed the crowd, one thing Associate Professor Sarah Jane Kelly has learned is the key to career fulfilment is following your passion. We caught up with Sarah to chat about how she found the perfect marriage between work and her biggest passion, sport.

Can you tell us a bit about your career?

I started my career as a corporate lawyer after completing my undergraduate degree in commerce and law at The University of Queensland (UQ). However, when I commenced my UQ Master of Business Administration (MBA) in 2002, my career path took an unexpected turn. I did some courses with a marketing professor from the United States who specialised in sports marketing and was inspired. Working with her really encouraged me to see how I could combine my passion for sports with a successful career transition.

Tell us a bit about your love for sports

I’ve always been what you’d call ‘sports mad’. I grew up in Brisbane playing the typical Aussie childhood sports like netball and swimming. Today, I’m a keen stand-up paddleboarder and runner. I find sports relaxing and essential for wellbeing, but I also love that they are a great equaliser that can cross cultural divides and act as an agent for social change.

How did your love of sport and your desire to study meet?

I went on to do further studies in sports marketing and psychology and completed a PhD, changing my career path completely to become an academic at UQ Business School in the fields of marketing and law, with a focus on sports. 

My research is diverse, but I leverage my expertise from different fields to investigate issues in sport, ranging from ambush marketing, harmful product marketing in sport, esports and next-generation engagement, event legacy, sports integrity and sports scandal. The common thread in my research is the objective of finding evidence-based strategy and policy to address issues in sport that threaten sports sustainability or vulnerable stakeholders in sport such as children.

Ok, so you’re a nut for sports, but you also have a passion for numbers, too. Tell us how your other interests have filtered into your career.

I am fascinated with the role data and analytics play in sports, along with developing effective governance in sport – I consult with lots of sporting organisations to do just that. One area that people find particularly interesting is my research into sports scandals. This topic also has marketing, legal and governance consequences because we look up to our sports stars so much in Australia. Sports organisations, athletes and sponsors also trade on trust and are concerned with protecting the reputation of their brands, so this research helps to inform strategies for responding to reputational crises from both legal and brand perspectives.

From doping to match-fixing and scandalous behaviour, it can have far-reaching impacts when our sports stars make very public mistakes. When you delve into these stories, they can be stranger than fiction. I often tell my students they are more engaging than anything you could watch on Netflix.

What are you up to these days?

Currently, I am looking at the impact of the rise of esports, organised tournaments and competitions in online gaming. It’s a rapidly growing field, and for next-generation fans, it has become one of the most popular forms of entertainment and a multi-billion-dollar economic sector.

Esports brings a wealth of opportunities, from social connectivity, and problem-solving collaboratively and under pressure, to enhanced skills relating to coding, communication, analytics and creative industries. There are also risks with The World Health Organization recently adding online gaming to its list of serious addictions alongside alcohol and drugs – so we need to think about both sides of the equation with young participants’ wellbeing as the focus and make sure we can realise the opportunities without harmful consequences. For example, testing the potential for esports to incentivise and reward players for positive behaviours like engaging in physical activity. 

And what about in your spare time?

Alongside my research, I also work as a non-executive director on the boards of several local and national organisations, including as the Deputy Chair of Tourism and Events Queensland and the Brisbane Lions AFL Football Club. This year, I was also appointed as a director on the Brisbane 2032 Organising Committee and am so excited about what the Games mean for our city, state, nation and Oceania region.

I am really passionate about promoting women’s sports and athletes as a fan, an administrator and as the leader of The Minerva Network in Queensland. This is a national not-for-profit organisation supporting elite female athletes through a pro bono mentoring network uniting them with a female business leader, and mentor, and also providing training and development workshops.

We have found athletes really appreciate the independent support from outside their sports, to help give them the confidence to engage with the business community, seek employment opportunities, plan their career transition and articulate their value beyond sport.

I truly believe sports can transform lives and communities. It is a super-connector, a vehicle for wellbeing, and a showcase for human rights, fairness, respect and equality. The drama of sport keeps us interested and it is that engagement that can be leveraged for purposeful messaging for powerful causes.

What advice do you have for people a little nervous about quitting their job and following their passion?

You often hear it said that if you can do what you love and have a bigger purpose, you’ll always be happy – and I think that rings true for me.

Working in the sports industry and with a great range of organisations is fantastic, but one of my other great loves is education.Working at UQ Business School, I get to spend my days alongside some of the brightest and most interesting people you can imagine, to teach the next generation of leaders in the MBA program I graduated from twenty years ago. I see something really special in today's students – a spark and activism that creates a real sense of optimism and hope for the future.

This is a generation that is driven by their passions and, I hope, also finds purpose and impact with whatever paths they choose.

Where could a UQ MBA take your career? Visit the UQ MBA website for more information and to apply. 

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Feel the fear and then leap 


Working in a male-dominated industry from a woman on the inside