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A Step by Step Guide to Getting into the Sports Biz

By Chris Zeppenfeld

Sports business can be highly competitive, but here's a four-year plan for breaking in.

There's good news and bad news about the demand for entry-level candidates in sports business. The bad news is that it can be highly competitive, as evidenced by the sheer explosion of sport management programs that colleges are offering now. The good news is that ANYONE can get a job in the sports industry. It's primarily an experience-driven business.

Especially at the entry-level, the hiring managers are looking to see what internships you did with sports teams while you were in college more so than where you went to school. Sports business is so unique from so many other professions because there's literally a blueprint for where you want to go. You want to be a Vice President of Sales and Marketing someday....start as a Ticket Sales Intern, then get a Account Executive/Inside Sales job selling ticket sales. From there, you become an Inside Sales Manager, then a Director of Sales, and finally you can reach your goal as a VP. I can't remember a hiring manager ever telling me that they liked a candidate solely based on the fact they had an MBA from so-and-so school. It really has everything to do with what your business experience is.

If you're really set on making sports business your career, you really will need at least 2-4 internships before you graduate. There's really no discussion about your degree-you can't break into this business without earning your bachelor's degree. If I had to plan a college student's itinerary for 4 years, I would set it up like this:

  • Freshman Year - Volunteer for a local sports team in any capacity. Major league, minor league, bush league, it doesn't matter. Teams always need volunteer help. Keep an eye out for any major sports events coming to your Cleveland for example, we have the Women's Final Four in March 2007. That would be an excellent first opportunity for a college freshman to get a taste of things. If you're in a small city, call your local team and ask them if they could use some volunteers.

  • Sophomore Year - You'll want to nail down your first internship here. I don't think the department matters so much as that you get your foot in the door. I like to call it the "snowball effect" because it seems that the candidate who has at least 6 months of internship experience with a sports team has a big-time advantage over the newbie with no experience whatsoever.
  • Junior Year - I'd suggest making this a summer internship in ticket sales if you can for 2 reasons. One, you'll definitely want to have some ticket sales experience. Even if you don't feel that ticket sales is your calling, the knowledge and experience that you get from selling tickets will be extremely valuable in the future. I can't stress this enough....ticket sales really is the lifeblood of the sport. That's where the money comes to pay for the players. You can have the best community relations staff, the best public relations, the best everything, but if your sales staff can't put butts in seats, then the team as a business will fail. If you want to be the President of a team someday, you're going to have to know how to sell, simple as that. Two, while many of the internships in sports are unpaid, there are quite a few of ticket sales internships that do allow the interns to make some commission off of their sales. Look, I understand how difficult it is to be 19-20 years old, trying to work as hard as you can to advance your career, all the while trying to hold the fort financially for yourself. But the ticket sales internships can give you that valuable experience you'll need, and you might be able to make a few bucks along the way to stay afloat.

  • Senior Year - By now, you should be narrowing down which part of the business you want to get into, and focusing your internship search on that area. If you want that Corporate Sales Internship with the NFL team, you'll be in much better shape than your competition if you did that volunteer event your freshman year, did that game operations internship team your sophomore year, did that ticket sales internship your junior year....sensing the theme here?

I will say one word of caution about internships: make sure you get everything you possibly can out of them. Don't just be what I like to call "this semester's intern." You want to be the best intern they've EVER had. Take ownership of a project. Ask if anyone else on the staff needs help with anything. Interview everyone you can about how they got where they are. Interns come and go every semester at these teams; make yourself valuable to the team, and opportunities will come your way!

Chris Zeppenfeld is a Senior Manager at TeamWork Online.

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