(This is a guest article by Jason Kobeda)
The ability to network has become an essential skill for those seeking employment in the sports industry. When I began pursuing a career in the NFL, I quickly learned how much competition there was. I traveled to the Senior Bowl week of practices and NFL Combine, where NFL personnel congregate during the off-season to evaluate talent. This presented rare opportunities to meet key people and I returned the following three years while completing my degree.
These are a few methods I used to put myself in the same room with the NFL personnel who had the power to hire me. These tips relate to football events, but are transferable to other sports business conference, MLB Winter Meetings, NBA Combine, etc.
1. Write introductory letters: Anytime you know you’re going to see someone that’s important to your career search, always write them a letter beforehand telling them what you want to do and that you’re hoping to meet them at the event. It is then much easier and more effective to approach that person and say, “Mr./Mrs. —-, my name is Jason Kobeda, it’s nice to meet you. I’m not sure if you got my letter last week, but may I have a minute of your time to discuss potential internships in your department?”
2. Offer to volunteer: If you’re attending an event that lasts several days, offer to volunteer for a team. Many of these teams don’t bring a full staff in order to cut down on their travel and overhead expenses. Don’t get frustrated if you don’t receive responses to most of your letters, you always have to be willing to take a shot.
3. Try to get credentialed: If the teams are not receptive to your offers to volunteer for them, do what you can to get credentialed for the events. The Senior Bowl and NFL Combine will give you credentials if you can provide proof that you’re a journalist or if a team will vouch for you. This is another area where you may need to get creative, but if you can get credentialed, it will give you more privileges and make the networking process much more effective.
4. Stick to the beaten path: The official hotels for these events are often luxurious and pricey, but staying in the same hotel as your networking targets is important. The opportunity to meet an executive in the elevator or the lobby can mean all the difference. If there’s a coffee shop in your hotel, get there very early, buy a newspaper and wait. I’m willing to bet the majority of people you want meet will pass through that coffee shop in the morning. The same goes for the hotel bar at night. I’ve met several front office personnel by bouncing around different hotel bars once the work day was over.
5. Provide a service: Being able to provide a prospective employer with services they need is a great way to show your worth and increase your chances of getting hired. At the Senior Bowl, I noticed that several coaches and scouts would arrive at the stadium after the kickers and punters had already practiced, so I got there early and started to record the lengths and hang-times of individual players’ kicks and provided those stats to whoever wanted it. Many of them were very happy to have the information.
6. Do your homework: Know what your networking subjects look like and what personnel changes have recently occurred in their organization. Before I had the convenience of an iPhone, I would type notes with pictures of new coaches or GM’s that I wasn’t familiar with.
7. Bring personal business cards: The small cost you will pay for business cards is worth the message they send when you hand them out. A simple, professional looking business card with your name and contact information is a quick way to show that you’re on top of your game.
8. Be prepared to interview: I was interviewed on the spot in the bleachers of a football stadium. Be sure to bring any resumes, portfolios or sample work you would need in the event you’re granted an interview. Also, always dress like you’re looking for a job (keep a suit nearby). Never wear team colors or logos to these functions as you’ll need to be prepared to interview with anyone, even your favorite team’s rival.
9. Don’t be shy: When you approach an executive, keep in mind that you may never see this person again. It’s easy to get shy or intimidated when Bill Parcells sits down next to you in a coffee shop, but put yourself in his shoes. If you want to work for him you have to show that you’re confident and professional enough to handle anything. Rejection is part of the networking game, so you shouldn’t fear it.
10. Follow up: Each time you meet someone and have a conversation with them, make a note about the person and the conversation and reference it in your follow up letter to them. Be sure to write the follow-up as soon as possible so that the encounter is fresh in your mind and, more importantly, their mind.
Over the four years that I made these travels, I met only a handful of other young people in my position. Executives are much more engaging and helpful when separate you yourself from the crowd. These are certainly not the only ways to make an impression, but I hope they’ll help you to think creatively when pursuing your career in sports.
Jason Kobeda is Business Specialist at the Sports & Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh. His previous experiences include operations positions with the Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers and Football Scout at Joe Butler’s Metro Index Scouting Service. To learn more about Jason connect with him on LinkedIn.