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Working Behind The Scenes In College Athletics

I worked in college athletics for nearly 20 years. In that time, I hired and did my best to mentor a number of young people who had dreams of a career in sports. The first thing that I told them, and it was the first thing I was told when I started at Eastern Washington University in 1989, is that they will get as much, or as little as they want to out of this position.

Dave Cook, who is still the Sports Information Director at EWU, gave me my first opportunity to be a paid employee in the SID office, while I was still a student. He was a one-man shop and was looking for any help that he could find. I don’t believe that he was sure what to expect from me. He started me out with the basic everyday tasks of the office, typing, filing, answering phones, etc. He told me that as I became more comfortable and confident in what I was doing, he would increase my responsibilities.

Three years later, when I graduated, I was the primary media contact for half of the sports sponsored by the university and had a full-time job offer from the school. I worked at a total of four different universities, in four different states, and have wonderful life-long friends and memories from each of them. The athletics departments that I worked in were approached by literally hundreds of kids with the dream of a career in sports. The glamour of being in the spotlight, being on national television and winning the national championship was the dream that they all had. That is a great dream, but unfortunately, it is not the reality for a vast majority of those in the business.

A career in sports is very rewarding. There are many benefits and “perks” to working in this industry. But it is very rare to break into the business and immediately be in one of the positions that you see on television. For every head coach that is interviewed at halftime of the Kentucky-Duke basketball game on ESPN, there is a marketing intern who is responsible for putting out the big shoes, jersey and shorts out on the court for the promotion with two little kids during a time out.

Not all departments will have a Phil Knight like the University of Oregon

For every athletic director who meets with the founder of Nike in a suite at an Oregon football game, there is an event management staff person who has been there since 8:00 a.m., stocking each of the suites with beverages and game programs and making sure that the caterer is on time with the correct menu. In my own experience I have had a number of workers who came in and loved the job and turned it into a thriving career. I have also had those who lasted one weekend and decided that watching sports on TV was a lot more fun.

One I remember came to us as a high school student. He was looking to do the required community service that his high school required for graduation. He began work taking tickets at soccer and volleyball games. Eventually he came to work at football games, helping set-up on Saturday mornings. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at our university and began working as a work-study student in the ticket office. He became very involved in event management and ticketing at the more than 250 events we hosted each school year. Upon graduating from college he became the assistant ticket manager for the department and has held that position for the past five years.

Another less successful story involves a student who came to the department to volunteer. He had always wanted to be in sports and just wanted the chance to get his foot in the door. The problems arose when he stated that he didn’t want to work nights or weekends, because that was “his time”. He did not understand that the events that he wanted to be a part of happened at nights and on weekends. He wanted to come in and be an administrator immediately, without going through the day-to-day grind that is the sports industry. He lasted about two months and decided to move on to other ventures.

I have never had the opportunity or the privilege to work at any of the large “BCS” type schools. My entire career has been spent at the “Mid-major” level of college athletics. Honestly, I am not sure that I would change places with any of those big schools even if I had been given the chance.

Being at this level has allowed me to learn skills and explore other areas of interest within college athletics. While I started in sports information early on, my career has also included positions in event management, marketing, promotions, facilities, operations, alumni relations, student relations, development, sales and ticket operations. It is these experiences that make all of the long hours and small paychecks worth it to me. I have friends all over the country that I would do anything for and who I know would do anything for me.

Don’t fret if you’re young and trying to break out into the business. You can still get a career in sports business.

So, from a guy who has led a “Mid-Major” life in college athletics here are some of my best tips and recommendations for the young person looking to get into this life. Try to figure out as quickly as possible if you really love sports, or just like it a lot – When you work in this profession, it can become all-encompassing. You will work seven days a week during parts of the year. You will work all day at the office and then have a game to work 3-4 nights a week. Weekends become the busy work time.

Football games, basketball games, volleyball games, soccer games – sometimes all on the same day. After your first month or two, you will know if this feels like work or if you are still enjoying yourself. If it feels like work, it might be time to look for something else. You will spend too much time and energy in this profession for it to be a drag on you. You will come to resent the one thing that you have enjoyed your entire life. Get out before it ruins your love of sport.

Find a position at a small school or conference office – These places are generally understaffed and will allow you to get “hands-on” experience in a variety of areas. If you go to a big school or a major conference, you might spend eight months filing papers in a back office. Be willing to branch out – The more experience you have in different aspects of the business, the more attractive you are to potential employers. Salary should not be the sole driving force in deciding on a position – When you are taking you first position in sports, you are not going to make a lot of money. You may have two offers in front of you. One that pays more, but limits your growth and experiences. The other may not pay as much, but you will be exposed to all facets of the operation. The second option is what is best for your career. It is tough to turn down money, but looking to the future, it is the best decision.

Make contacts and stay in touch – You never know if the person you meet at that conference is going to be the one who can help you find that dream job down the road. As you meet people, collect business cards, trade e-mail addresses, etc. And then stay in touch. In today’s job market, everybody has a degree, everybody has internships. It comes down to the relationships that you have created. Do you know somebody, who knows the decision maker for that position that you are looking for?

Are you willing to be a team player?

Be a team player – Be willing to help out whenever and where ever possible. If you see somebody with a bunch of boxes that need to be moved, just jump in and help move them. It may not be “your job”, but it will go a long way towards your next job. People see what is happening and who is willing to help and they remember. Just about every job description has a line near that bottom that reads “. . . and all other duties as assigned by the director.” These nine words make everything your job.

College athletics is a great industry. There are hundreds and thousands of wonderful caring people who work daily to make college athletics the best that it can be for the student-athletes and for the fans and supporters of all of the teams. There are nearly 90 different sports that are offered at the colleges and universities around the country.

This piece was not meant to serve as a deterrent to those looking to get into the industry, only one man’s view of a 20-year career working behind the scenes and having the time of his life.

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9 Responses to Working Behind The Scenes In College Athletics

  1. Kiki Cunningham January 31, 2013 at 6:17 am #

    This is a great article. Being a female trying to pursue a career in sports management is definitely stressful, but I’m always reminded why I am doing what I’m doing because of my love and passion for not only sports but the industry itself. Everything about the business of sports is fascinating and I am excited to see what my career path will be after graduating from my undergraduate program.

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