It was a daunting question to answer my senior year of high school, and it never got any easier each time it was asked: what do you want to study in college?
What my parents, teachers, and friends were all asking really was: what do you want to do for a career?
I admit I was a bit of a grasshopper and dreamer in my younger years. I had the dream of learning guitar and being a rock star. I had the vision that I could start a t-shirt enterprise. There was a good amount of time I thought I could be a career soldier. However, my passion always boiled down to being in sports. Even after the longest, hardest day of school, or practice, I always found myself making time to play Madden. Most people play Madden to play football online against their friends. However, I was more in love with franchise mode. I loved scouting new talent, scouring the rosters for an under-the-radar type guy. Anyone building a champion can tell you to get Peyton Manning, but he is not realistically available. It takes a true GM genius to find the Jason Worilds or Cameron Wakes of the world.
And so, with about ten years of seasoning under my belt, I decided to focus my energy on doing everything I could to get into sports, specifically in the team operations department.
- 1) Beggars can’t be choosers
My first real opportunity to work for a professional sports franchise came in the form of an internship job fair. At the time, I already had a job working for an advertising agency, but I viewed that as a job, and not a career. You have to be honest with yourself and recognize that accomplishing certain things in life will take sacrifices. I went to the job fair, and found myself mulling around a large room with over 300 people, waiting in various lines for my 5 minute window to pitch myself to whoever was sitting at the table.
As I said before, I wanted operations. However, from the length of the line I saw, so did everyone else. I applied to 4 departments that day: Media Relations, Accounting, Baseball Operations, and Community Outreach.
I recognized this was my shot to get in with a team. If you are looking to make a career in sports, you need to understand that you may start in a completely different field than where you dreamt you would be. The first step is getting in the door. From there, you can mingle and network your way over to where you want to be. That was my tactic. I accepted an internship position, a pay cut from what I was making at the advertising agency, in a department that I had never dreamed of working in before. A year later I will tell you it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
- 2) Prioritize Your Life
Working in professional sports is not an easy gig. Many people see a game on TV, or hear a press conference on the radio, and think it has to be the best job in the world. However, you need to realize that when you just start out, you may not be that face in front of the microphone. You will most likely be part of the crew behind the scenes making the show as amazing as it is. And while it can be a lot of fun, it will also consume a lot of time and energy.
Before a press conference can happen, someone has to screen press credentials, prepare media packets, set up the chairs, set up the audio equipment, prepare the players for the conference, and then there is all the work needed post press conference.
For me, as an intern, my goal was to always be available for whatever my department needed of me. Early morning clinic? I wanted to be there. Late night game? I wanted to be there. I lived the furthest from the ballpark but I made sure I was available for everything. This meant missing out on movie nights with my girlfriend, birthday vacation with my roommate, holiday fireworks and more. It may be tough to attend the July 4th cookout with your family if you work for an MLB team that has a home game. Professional sports features a lot of night games, weekend games, and long home stands. Be ready to miss some things.
- 3) Recognize It Is a Humble Beginning
As I said before, I took a pay cut to become an intern. One of the hardest parts about working in sports, especially when you just start out, is the low pay. There are thousands of people who want the job you have, and it makes negotiating a higher salary a bit tough to do. Luckily for me I had no student loans, no car payments, and parents who could support as I basically lived in the red, as I tried to gain experience and grow within the industry. I would drive 100 miles a day, and when parent thought I was crazy and asked how I do it, I just told them “it’s for the love of the game.”
- 4) Be Adaptable
Aside from wanting to be available for anything and everything, it also helps to be adaptable. This applied on a small and large scale. While I worked in one specific department, I also made myself available to help out in other departments when I could. Though your title may be marketing associate, you will gain more additional recognition if you help out in guest services (just for example) on game day.
Secondly, the fraternity of front office staff is a small one. Promotions may be few and far between within your franchise, so you should be open to the idea of moving to another team, another city and in some cases another sport entirely. If you limit yourself to one path, it puts you at a severe disadvantage as far as growing long term.
- 5) Networking Is Everything
There is an old adage, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” and in sports that phrase carries a lot of weight. After my internship, I interviewed with several other clubs in baseball, and ultimately accepted a job working for the league office. None of those doors would have opened for me had I not been referred for the position from my superiors.
Maintain contact with your connections as often as you can. I still email my former department weekly, and we have become close friends. They still refer me for positions around the league. Moreover, I also still communicate with other high level front office members I worked with outside of my department. For instance, one weekend when I did not have work, I wrote to a director in baseball operations and asked if I could shadow him for an afternoon. That created a contact for me I would later use to get an interview with the Detroit Tigers.
The sports landscape is always changing too. Just as players pick new teams in the off-season, so too does the front office staff. Every time a friend of mine leaves the team and takes a position elsewhere, my network expands to a new team. Maintaining a good relationship with your former co-workers is key for keeping your hopes alive to grow in this field.