The image of men working with a Scotch and cigarette on the corner of their desk while the big game plays on a TV in the background isn’t reserved for the writers of Mad Men.
This has been the long-standing perception of the sports industry, an all-boys club where men are men and if you don’t know the 1974 AL MVP off the top of your head you, sir, are not welcome.
Opportunities for female sports executives, and even just entry to mid-level staff, have often been few and far between. Of course there have been a few high-profile female sports executives, former Raiders CEO Amy Trask and Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations for Major League Baseball Kim Ng names come to mind, but those have been the proud anomalies, not a standard or to this point, a symbol of growth.
All that is changing, and it’s not just perception, its reality.
“Globalization and technology have transformed the sport industry over the past decade, leading to new ways of experiencing and consuming sport, and subsequently, new opportunities for business and society,” says Sanyin Siang, Executive Director, Coach K Leadership & Ethics at Duke University Fuqua School of Business. “Women have not only become a bigger part of the fan base, but also as decision makers, change agents, and major players in the industry as a whole.”
Even before this sea change in the sports industry started taking hold Kimberly Trichel, Director of Community Relations and Charitable Giving for the Fiesta Bowl began her against the odds journey toward a career in sports.
“After graduating college I was open to any opportunity to break into the sports industry and was initially hired as a receptionist for the Central Hockey League in 2001. It was a very humbling experience to take a receptionist position but I knew that I wanted to work in sports and this was my opportunity to prove that I could do any job exceptionally well when I put my mind to it.
“By the time I left the CHL, I had worked my way up to Director of Sales and Marketing.”
That was just the start for Trichel.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, she has advanced in leaps and bounds over the last decade plus with a simple and straight-forward philosophy of open-mindedness, a willingness to prove herself and an uncanny ability to relate to people, players and a community.
To learn more about how Kimberly Trichel has reached such rarefied air in the sports industry and to use her experience as a blueprint for your own, read on:
Being a receptionist in minor league hockey clearly wasn’t your dream career, how did you take this opportunity and make it into something bigger?
Trichel: I love to tell the story of my final interview with Brad Treliving (now the GM of the Calgary Flames) and how he told me there was not that much room for growth in the CHL, but he admired my willingness to support other departments and he just wanted to make sure that I was fine accepting a position as a receptionist, since there really was no other department that needed staff.
I then began volunteering my assistance in other departments and helped create structure in the Merchandise Licensing department, which lead to Arena License Agreements, marketing and eventually sales. I also eventually ended up running all special events for the CHL such as Job Fairs, League Meetings, etc by simply helping out at registration desks and taking on more responsibility each year.
After 6 years in minor league hockey you made it to the pro’s with the Phoenix Coyotes working your way up from Executive Assistant to the GM to eventually becoming Executive Director of Coyotes Charitable foundation – why do you think you kept growing so rapidly at the Coyotes?
Trichel: I always like to exceed expectations and if there is more work to be done, then I want to help complete it! I enjoy adding structure and a friendly, positive work environment and in my opinion that has led to much of my success.
I enjoy networking and I really have to love what I am doing as I want to exude passion about my position or organization and share that excitement with others. Every organization has goals that are necessary to be successful and if you are always sharing with everyone you meet how wonderful your job is and the organization you work for, the sponsors, business partners, community partnerships, etc. will follow shortly after.
In all of your stops – both in minor league hockey and professional hockey – have you ever felt it was a struggle to gain respect as a woman in the sports business world?
Trichel: I was almost always the only women on the executive teams throughout my time in hockey so I used this to my advantage and created the compassionate and supportive leadership role which allowed me to be very approachable and open minded to new ideas and processes.
I have a very friendly and outgoing personality so I think that contributes to the numerous friendships and partnerships I have made throughout the years. People will enjoy working with you, and for you, if you prove to them that you value their time and talent and guide them in areas in which a true partnership/friendship can grow.
You are very much a team off the ice as well and you need to give others credit where credit is due.
I think we can all agree that respect has to be earned and as a women in the sports industry, in particular hockey, if that is your role, than you need to know where your team sits in the standings, who is injured, who is leading in points, but more importantly how that impacts your organization.
One of the main responsibilities of community relations is working with the athletes and getting their involvement – I’ve dealt with athletes my entire career, some are great and some are awful – how would you rate your experience with the players and their overall level of participation and engagement?
Trichel: The Hockey Operations department for the Arizona Coyotes from General Manager Don Maloney, to Head Coach Dave Tippett, to Shane Doan and all of the players I encountered over my 7 seasons there, I cannot express into words how kind, passionate and involved they all were in the Arizona community.
I always received participation when I needed it and over the years became friends with many of the staff and players and their families and came to understand what they are passionate about and what inspires them.
Hockey players are so down to earth and very humble…some of them painfully shy! The key to getting engagement in any type of business setting is finding a good fit for each individual and not assuming that everyone is willing and able to help all of the time.
Any tips for best handling players and getting their best focus and attention?
Trichel: I found that getting to know the players wives and girlfriends was a great start to handling the players and their community service. The players would for the most part always tell me “yes”, but maybe not love the idea or community project I assigned them too.
After receiving feedback from their other half, I was able to place them in areas that really interested them and helped highlight their personal interests in the community. Not everyone is the best at visiting sick kids in the hospital, but they may excel in a situation such as teaching special needs kids how to play street hockey.
It is also always important to show the players what impact they are making in the community and share special stories with them that create emotional appeal to their community service work.
If you are spending time away from your family during your time off of a busy road schedule, it always works well to explain the difference they are making by just showing up at an event for 1 hour.
Over your career I’m sure you’ve done a great deal of hiring and firing – when you hire interns or entry level employees, what are the primary things you are looking for?
Trichel: I always look for an outgoing personality, eye contact, conversational skills and I always ask them if they saw the last game or if they know what is going on in the news with our organization.
I think there are a lot of people that see working in sports as a glamorous job and it is fun and can be very rewarding, but it is hard work and not every day is filled with successes.
I want real people that can handle real problems and not get stressed out easily.
As a woman working in sports, what suggestions would you give other women who want to pursue a career in the business of sports?
Trichel: My suggestion is that if you want to work in sports, you need to have thick skin! You also need great networking skills and the ability to multi-task. Almost all departments flow into one another for various projects to reach organizational goals.
Careers for women in sports are not as prevalent and in my opinion it is simply due to the lack of interest on the part of the women applying for the jobs. As in any job, an employer wants to hire someone who is willing to work hard and to learn about that particular organization.
If you want to work in sports, make sure it is for the right reasons. You will never be happy in sports if you are not willing to work long hours and to truly appreciate the fans that help keep your particular organization successful.
Sometimes your next career advancement depends on playoffs, ownership changes, media coverage, etc. so you need to go with the flow and use your passion to get through the difficult days. You always need to be willing to learn more and seek advice from those around you that are successful in their careers.
If you are interviewing for a position in sports than you need to be very knowledgeable about the sport or the players or their organizational shortfalls so you can identify with your interviewer and sell yourself as a great asset to the organization.
You need to prove that you are the best person for the job and it won’t matter if you are a woman if you can carry on a conversation about current standings or stand out players and speak intelligently about how normal business practices can benefit their organization.