An Unofficial Masters Course for Working in Sports

working in sports as a career
Working in sports requires more than just a love of the game, it requires a plan and a skill set
Sports equal temptation.

Watching the games we love makes the world seem simple; men and women compete, we watch and enjoy, they make money.

It’s only logical that ‘We, The People’ would want in on the financial benefits of sports. Many are lured in to a pursuit of a sports career with a false preconception of fast money and easy work, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Oh it’s true, working in sports, in my heavily biased mind, is the ideal career path, and I would never have chosen to do anything else…but it is not easy. You need a well thought out plan if you want to step foot in the arena, and if you don't have one you are just wasting your time.

“Hiring managers don’t like hearing people say they want to ‘work in sports’ or that they are just looking for a job that helps them ‘break into’ the industry,” says Carl Manteau Director of Group Sales for the Milwaukee Bucks. “We don’t hire people to help them break-in, we hire the people that will best help our team achieve its goals. Knowing this, my advice is to position yourself as someone that will help the team more than the team will help you.”

Manteau knows better than most, after graduating with his Masters in Sports Administration he had no plan, but he quickly learned he needed one.

“Coming out of school I just wanted to ‘work in sports’, which now makes me cringe. It wasn't until my internship with the Minnesota Timberwolves that I got exposed to the business side of the industry and uncovered my passion for it. Since that time I've set goals for myself and continuously make adjustments along the way.”

Now a decade plus into a successful sales career with teams in the NBA, NHL, AHL, AFL and NBADL, Manteau hires the next generation of sports sales associates and has a strong point of view on the right and wrong way to start working in sports.

If you think working in sports is in your future, you must read more from the Milwaukee Bucks Carl Manteau:

It's a dream of many to work for a pro team and you started working for the Cavaliers pretty soon after graduation as both a Youth Basketball Manager and Group Events Specialist - why did the Cavaliers hire you?

Manteau: That’s a great question and there are many layers to the answer.

working in sports what you need
Carl Manteau's hiring philosophy, "Look for the things that can't be taught"
It’s first important to mention that I was rejected by dozens of other teams before I got my opportunity with the Cavs. All of the rejections helped me to refine my phone and face-to-face interview skills so that I was confident in my abilities when I eventually received the call to interview with the Cavs.

Despite not having any sales background, I think the Cavs took a chance on me because they saw the energy, determination and work ethic I would put into being successful. They also saw that I’d spent a lot of time preparing to work in the industry (jobs, internships, shadowing, etc.) and that I was serious about making this my career and dedicated to making it a reality.

You jumped into a sports sales career and were recognized as being in the Top 25 across the entire NBA in Group Sales Revenue for 3 consecutive seasons - in your opinion what makes someone good at sports sales? And how did you learn these skills, was it on the job or did you get a foundation in the classroom?

Manteau: My training came entirely on the job and I benefited greatly from having managers that were solely focused on providing the resources and coaching to be successful. Having a supportive environment with the freedom to grow and gain confidence is one very big factor in being good at sales.

Additionally, a person needs to have an unwavering work ethic, be intrinsically motivated and have a deep passion for selling if they are going to be good at it. Let me stress that last point again – a person needs a passion for selling, not just for working in sports.

A lot of people get into this industry because they think it will be all glitz and glamour, which couldn't be farther from the truth. Trust me, the sex-appeal of working in sports fades quickly if you don’t love what you do.

To be great at selling you also need to be a great story teller. Selling sports is not like selling in other industries – there is no physical product and no one needs sports. We are selling experiences, memories and emotions. To do this well requires the ability to paint the picture and show there is value in the investment.

After a long time with the Cavs (and their surrounding properties) you jumped to the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets as Group Sales Director where you had more management and hiring responsibilities - as a hiring manager, what are you looking for when you hire sales associates?

Manteau:  My former VP at the Cavaliers, Michael Tomon (now President of North America Sports & Events for Legends), gave me some great recruiting advice that I still use to this day, “Look for the things that can’t be taught.”

I can teach salespeople how to get through the gatekeeper, battle objections and use a contact management system. I can’t teach them to have a strong work ethic, to be open to learning, to be a leader, to have a positive attitude or to have a passion for selling.

You either have these traits or you don’t.

Most of my interview questions are designed to uncover how strong these traits are in each person. Additionally, I’m looking for previous experiences that show a commitment and a path leading to the position I’m recruiting for.

working in sports sales jobs sports careers

Is there an advantage for someone who goes to college and studies sports management vs someone who goes to college and studies business administration?

Manteau: Not in sales. The real advantage comes from the work done outside the classroom.

  • What internships have they had?

  • What jobs have they worked?

  • What teams have they shadowed?

  • Who have they networked with?

  • What have they done to distinguish themselves from the hundreds of other applicants and prove they are the most qualified for the position?

In most cases, it’s not the degree (or where the degree is from) that makes the difference – it’s the drive in the individual.

You have interviewed a lot of people - what are some of your biggest pet peeves when searching through resumes or conducting interviews?


1: Errors

working in sports resume mistakes
Take the time to do things right or quickly lose any chance at employment
The percentage of people that submit applications with spelling and/or grammatical errors is truly astounding. If you can’t be trusted to spell check your own resume then why should an employer ever trust you with the safekeeping of their brand? Always proofread your work. Then have 2 to 3 other people proofread it. Then proofread it again. Then hit send.

2: Not Applying for the Right Job

This happens all the time – I’ll ask someone interviewing for a sales position what their aspirations are and they reply, “I really want to be in marketing (or community relations or public relations or team services, etc.)”. As a hiring manager, all I hear is “I’m only interviewing with you because I haven’t been able to get the job I actually want,” and, “I’ll leave you as soon as I get the first opportunity.”

Don’t apply for jobs you don’t want - It’s a waste of your time and mine.

3: Not Asking Questions

Good hiring managers will be very thorough when they explain the responsibilities of the position, but there’s no way they can cover it all. This is why we open it up for questions. It’s very disappointing when people don’t have any or when they say, “You’ve answered everything already.” You are interviewing for a position that could change your life, it’s your responsibility to get the necessary information in order to make that decision. The only way to do this is to ask questions.

4: Not Being Prepared

Phone interviews and the face-to-face interviews are your opportunities to put your best foot forward and get the position you desire. Don’t leave your dreams up to chance – prepare!

Practice what you are going to say, have your stats ready, bring extra copies of your resume, be ready to promote yourself!

This is also important - look the part! I’m still amazed when candidates show up without a suit coat, without a tie, and/or without shaving. Sports is a great industry and a lot of fun, but it’s still a business. If you want to be a professional you need to look like one.

working in sports sales careers
Success in sports sales is less about team success and more about selling an experience and memory
5: No Cover Letter

I’m a firm believer that if someone truly desires a position then he/she will invest the time to write a cover letter for it. Not writing one tells me you aren't really that serious about the position and that, if hired, you may not take the responsibilities of the job seriously.

What do you see as the main skill lacking in today's job seeker?

Manteau: I wouldn't say that any specific skills are lacking, but I have noticed a trend over the past several years of recent college grads having an elevated sense of entitlement and a decreased work ethic.

There are no shortcuts to success and everyone in this industry has to pay their dues in order to move up. Having a fancy degree from a distinguished institution doesn’t mean you can skip directly into a leadership position. That sounds harsh, I know, but experience matters and experience takes time.

Hustle also matters.

In this tech-driven era, some salespeople will go out of their way to avoid picking up the phone. They’d rather text, email, tweet, swipe and post than pick up the phone and connect. Social tools are an important (and ever-increasing) part of our industry but they are not a replacement for hard work.

The titans in this industry are the ones with the strongest commitment to excellence and work the hardest to achieve it.

You found your way back to the NBA after a little over a year in the NHL, now you are Group Sales Director for the up-and-coming Milwaukee Bucks (Hello Jabari!)- you worked for the Cavs with LeBron James and now the Bucks in the midst of a long rebuild - how much does the success of the team you work for impact your personal success?

working in sports sales milwaukee bucks
"The hours are long, the demands are high and the stress can be intense, but I absolutely love what I do" Carl Manteau, Group Sales Director for the Milwaukee Bucks
Manteau: Don’t get me wrong, winning helps and can make the good times even greater. That being said, I can’t control wins and losses. Sports is a roller coaster and no one stays at the top forever (trust me – I survived “The Decision” in Cleveland).

Knowing this, it’s important to focus on the things I can control: my attitude and the way I approach each day. Go in with a positive attitude and positive results usually follow.

I also have a part in controlling the processes and practices my team uses. Best practices work regardless of the team’s record or the league they play in. I've applied the same techniques and found sales success in the NBA, NHL, AHL, AFL, D-League and with arena shows (Circus, Disney on Ice, Monster Trucks, etc.).

My largest group sale wasn’t to see LeBron, it was for a minor league hockey game. For that group it wasn’t about the team’s record or star players, it was about value. Deliver on that and you’ll find success anywhere.

If someone came up to you and said "I really want to work in sports, how do I break in?" What would you tell them and why?

Manteau: Let’s assume it was a woman asking the question. I would first ask her “Why do you want to work in sports?” to see if she is truly serious about the business or if she just thinks sports sounds like a fun industry to work in.

  • Assuming she’s serious, I’d then ask her to specify the position she desires. Does she want sales, marketing, public relations, human resources, housekeeping, accounting, community relations, game operations, broadcasting, etc.? All of these are sports careers and they all have very different points of entry.

  • Once I know the specific job she wants I’d ask her what she’s done to qualify herself for that position. For example, has she ever worked with, shadowed or interviewed anyone that has held that position? If not, how does she know she really wants that job?

  • Experience is very important and hiring managers want to see that your experiences are directly relevant to the position you are applying for. If she didn’t have any experience I would tell her to start by reaching out to all collegiate, minor league and major league teams in the area to see if she could volunteer at events, shadow executives and apply for internships.

  • If she did have experience, I’d recommend that she connect on LinkedIn with executives in the industry that could be in a position to hire her into the role she wants.

  • Finally, no matter what job she wants, I’d tell her to remember that she is in sales. She is in the business of selling herself as the best candidate. Her resume and LinkedIn profile are all sales pieces and she needs to make sure they are flawless and doing a great job of promoting all of her best qualities. She also needs to be able to personally recite why she’s the best and this takes practice (don’t just go into an interview and wing-it). I’d also point out that sales is a numbers game. The more teams she applies for the better her odds of are getting the job she wants.

Related to this, I’d ask if she’s willing to relocate to a new city or state. To move up in this industry you often have to move to a different team. If this is not something she’s willing to do then I’d ask her to question if sports is really the industry for her.

To grow my career I've had to move several times. Every move has put incredible pressure on my wife, my family and my friendships. To persevere requires a strong support network and I’m incredibly fortunate to have that (my wife is a bigger sports fan than I am!).

For me it has been worth it.

The hours are long, the demands are high and the stress can be intense, but I absolutely love what I do. Not many people get to say that and I don’t take the opportunity that I have for granted.

working in sports sales jobs sports careers
By Brian Clapp | August 27, 2014
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