The Best Place to Start Your Sports Career - For Real.
Many expect they’ll be rubbing elbows with famous athletes and walking red carpets at major events, while others realize to be successful in sports means having such a deep passion for the game, and the business surrounding it, that those fluffy moments don’t actually matter.
“I take a lot of pride in the fact that I started at the bottom of the ladder and have worked my way up in this business,” recalls Joe Greene, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League (USHL).
“I’ve been the mascot, picked up concessions, and have pulled the tarp during a rainstorm. Those experiences aren’t exactly the first things that come to mind when you dream of working in sports, but they’ve shaped who I am and I can relate to the people that are willing to do whatever it takes to help the team. Versatility is a key ingredient to increasing your value in this business, especially at this level.”
The USHL is a junior ice hockey league, consisting of players that are 20 years old or younger and preparing to be drafted in the NHL. Leagues like juniors and minors are actually the perfect place to begin a sports career, allowing for a wide-ranging, and hands-on, education in the business of sports.
You’ll have a specific job title, but your job expectation is to be involved in everything that needs doing.
“While I’ve had opportunities in the NBA and NHL over the course of my career, I love what I do at this level. It offers me the opportunity to be involved in all aspects of the business. Whether its ticket sales, corporate sales, merchandise, marketing or providing leadership and guidance to help further the growth of our employees, every single day is unique.”
But Greene also acknowledges it takes a special kind of person to thrive in an environment like juniors.
“Our head coach and I are constantly looking for people who are ‘wired’ like us. That may sound a little crazy but this profession is very demanding. This isn’t a nine-to-five job and committing to what we do is crucial and takes a very strong work ethic,” informs Greene.
Teamwork is an attribute often used to describe successful sports franchises, who leverage their innate knowledge of each other’s strengths and weaknesses to band together for success, but the same holds true for the staff behind the scenes.
“Successful people in this industry are typically very strong team players that will do whatever it takes to help their teammates. I owe a lot of my success to those people who chose to give me a chance to prove myself when I didn’t have a lot of experience in the business. I’m fortunate to be in a position now to provide employees with those same types of opportunities.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about having passion for what you do.”
Greene has been hiring staff for years and has identified a certain segment of society that fits well in the minor and junior leagues, one that has the necessary competitive juices, work ethic and background in teamwork.
“Former high school and collegiate athletes who interview well have historically been great hires,” says Greene. “Candidates that have a strong will to compete and be the absolute best certainly make themselves stand out. We empower our employees to make decisions using their best judgement but also give them the chance to use their creativity to find new ways to get fans to games.”
And therein lies one of the biggest challenges teams in the minors or junior leagues face, attracting people to the games. Sure, they may be the only game in town, but that isn’t enough to separate most people from their hard earned money. The burden lies at the feet of the staff to give the local community a strong reason to attend, and often that starts with creativity.
“In addition to work ethic and teamwork, creativity is a key component at this level. In a recent fan experience survey we conducted, having too many other things to do was the number one response when we asked attendees why they don’t attend more games. It’s our job to give them reasons to come back more often and that takes a daily commitment to thinking differently.
“Identifying unique ticket package opportunities, introducing new benefits, and designing theme nights to attract new fans all force you to think differently.”
Lower level teams also have an opportunity they can tap into, a community that isn’t often exposed to athletes on the verge of stardom. Bringing the team story, and the athletes themselves, into the community can make a deep and lasting connection.
“In this career, you live it every hour of every day. If you’re at the grocery store and someone asks about the logo, that’s an opportunity to share our story. Building those one-on-one relationships is a full-time job for everyone in our organization. I still keep in touch with fans and corporate partners that I’ve met during my career in all of the markets I’ve worked in. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great people in this industry who’ve shared the same commitment to customer service and community relations. When your owners, coaches, and staff members all buy-in to a strong commitment to community relations, the results are tremendous.”
While the challenges are vast, working in the minor or junior leagues is akin to getting your Masters in sports business, and provides the type of hands-on experience that employers at the next level are looking for.
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