One of the first questions I usually get asked from students is “How do I get started in the sports industry?”. As I’ve worked with more and more students, I think I’ve come to understand why students have such a difficult time getting started. For many, the sports industry is limited to their local professional sports team or perhaps even to a very specific role like General Manager or Agent. If your idea of starting in sports is running the Phoenix Suns like your personal fantasy basketball team, you’re going to struggle.
It’s here that I often share how I got started in sports. My undergraduate degree is in Finance. It may come as a surprise to you that I’ve never had a finance internship. The reason for this is that I chose Finance as a major when I was 17 and didn’t really know what Finance was. All I knew was that it had the highest paying graduate salaries. As I trudged through my junior year of classes, I realized I didn’t want to work in Finance. I didn’t want to sell insurance, cold-call prospective clients, or work 80 hours a week in New York, Chicago or San Francisco, the major financial hubs of the US. Fortunately, I was also a part of the Business School Council and we held monthly meetings with professionals on campus. At one of these meetings, the women’s basketball coach, Charli Turner-Thorne, gave the best 15-minute speech I’d ever heard on leadership and developing a team. I sent her a poorly phrased email early the next morning letting her know how much I enjoyed her talk and that if she needed any help, from cleaning lockers to mailing out letters, I’d be happy to help. To my surprise, I got a response within the hour inviting me down to come and meet one of the assistant coaches. And that’s how I got started working in sports. To my surprise, they needed tall guys to help their team improve. I became a women’s basketball men’s practice player.
It wasn’t glamourous. It wasn’t GM of the Suns. But it was something I was super excited about and ended up doing for three years. It’s during those three years that I was able to separate myself from others that volunteered their time. I never missed a practice. I was always willing to help before or after practice with extra drills. I even volunteered to pass out t-shirts during a game when they were short staffed. And I managed to do it all with a huge smile on my face because I believed in the organization and the coaching staff.
If you’re reading this, you’ve likely already decided that you want to work in sports. That’s great. In fact, you are one step further ahead than I was at your same age. What I’d ask for you to do next is think about why you want to work in sports. Many times, students want to work in sports because they love sports. Their favorite memories are watching the game with their dad, hitting the game winning home run or maybe even just the thrill of competing and camaraderie is what draws you to sports. Those are all great things, but they aren’t why you should work in sports. In fact, playing sports, loving sports and working in sports are very different things. The reasons I’ve given for working in sports aren’t much different than wanting to be a Finance major because it pays the most and I like spending money. In fact, if you go into a job interview and say you want job X because you love team Y, I’m going to guess you won’t get the position. You’ll get the position when you start to take the approach of, I love this organization, I love the vision you’ve sent, and I will do anything you need to help bring that vision to fruition.
So how do you get started working in sports? Think about the teams, the leagues, the organizations that are most in need of help. Everyone wants to work for football or basketball but not many are willing to take an elbow to the face and come back the next day with a beaming smile. Think about what jobs you’d be fired up to go to each day. It’s those jobs that will get you started and more importantly keep you going in the world of sports.
I end my story by talking about my next job in sports. I spent three years helping the women’s basketball team and not once did I ask them what they could do for me. In fact, about a month before graduation, Charli asked me what I was doing when I graduated. That’s, by the way, a really painful question when you have absolutely nothing lined up. To my surprise, Charli offered to call the Director of the Sports Business MBA program on my behalf and set up an interview for me the next day. In that interview, Ray Artigue, former CMO of the Suns and Director of the program said, “Charli says you are fantastic”. Sheepishly I said, “I’m sure she says that about everyone”. His reply has stuck with me to this day. “I’ve never heard her say that about anyone”. As you can imagine, that’s not the type of thing you typically hear in an interview. And that’s how you get where you want to go in sports and in life. It’s an incredibly small community built on recommendations and relationships. How do you get started in sports? Easy. Go do something with full and complete passion and let the next steps take care of themselves. If that means working for a small D2 team, fine. If that means long commutes or extra time making things work, ok. It requires faith and perseverance but if you are in the right spot and enjoying what you are doing, the difficult times, the elbows to the face, will fly by and you’ll love every minute of it.