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Rising Stars: Catching a Bounce in Sports Business

By Andrea Calabretta

Chris thought he'd have to finish his MBA before starting out in sports business, but a few lucky breaks (and a lot of hard work) brought him to a great job in sports recruiting, where he makes contacts daily at teams across the country. He describes his current job as an MBA program on steroids.

Name: Chris Zeppenfeld
School: John Carroll University
Major: Business Management
Years Out of College: 0-2
Title: Senior Manager
Company: TeamWork Online?
First Steps

I literally walked at graduation on Sunday and started my internship on Monday with the local minor league hockey team here, the Cleveland Barons. I graduated cum laude in May 2005 from John Carroll University in three years with a degree in Business Management at age 21. At the time, the plan was to graduate a year early so that I could use that money to go directly into the master's program at Carroll and earn my MBA. I knew I wanted to get into the sports business, but I figured I would get all of the schooling out of the way first, and then tackle the job market once I graduated from grad school.

From Then to Now

When I was 16, I took a job as a server at Primanti Brothers, a famous sandwich place in my hometown of Pittsburgh. I worked there pretty much every Friday and Saturday night and Sunday Steeler games during high school. Half of Heinz Field would cram into the bar after the game.

About 6 weeks before I was set to graduate from college, I landed a summer internship with the Cleveland Barons (a local minor league hockey team, now known as the Worcester Sharks of the AHL). As the Public Relations intern, I created the entire media guide from scratch for the team.

While I was working with the Barons, a friend who currently works at the Indiana Pacers advised me to give Buffy Filippell at TeamWork Online a call. I asked if I could speak with her about my career. Buffy was wonderful...I think we talked for over 2 hours. She showed me a little bit of how she was doing her business, and I noticed that she had this massive Excel spreadsheet for a call list that her prior Client Services Manager was using. I offered to create a database for her that would better organize her call list.

Meanwhile, Buffy was searching for someone to replace her #2, as he had taken a job with the Florida Panthers. I'll never forget the call I received about a day later. She asked if I would be willing to come onboard full-time with her. It really was a whirlwind week for me....I started as just an intern for the local hockey team thinking I'd be going to grad school for the next two years for my MBA, and ended the week as the Manager of Client Services for the "godmother of sports business!"

Challenges Faced

For me, it was scaling back some of the boldness I had. I think when I graduated college, I had this maverick attitude that I was going to implement all of my wonderfully creative ideas and new ways of thinking to the business. When I was an undergraduate, I was always the leader of whatever I was doing. I was used to (and maybe a little too comfortable) with calling the shots. I think college can tend to give you this inflated ego complex a little bit, but that's not really how it works in business.

You have to play what Buffy likes to call "the game." Things like when you bring up new ideas, how to present them to your boss, when to back off that idea, when to revisit an idea you brought up before---it's all part of "the game." It's a little naive to think that the business world is going to bow down to the ideas of some brash 21-year-old former intern with grand total of 2 months of business experience!

My Experience

I work with our 350+ professional and minor league licensees, teams, agencies, and national governing bodies, managing much of the day-to-day activities on their recruiting systems, which includes anything from posting jobs to helping hiring managers sort through their candidates. I'm also responsible for providing customer service to the applicants. I also oversee all the candidate interaction on all our by-invitation only job fairs.

I like to say there are two speeds here at TeamWork: busy and pure chaos. We have two companies going. TeamWork Consulting is an executive search firm for General Managers, CEOs, Presidents of teams. This is Buffy's realm. I manage most of TeamWork Online. I get to have a say in pretty much everything that the TeamWork Online business does. The TeamWork Online business licenses out recruiting software so sports organizations can recruit their own executives using custom-made online software. Most of the positions that I post online will be entry-level and mid-level positions (and internships, too), but occasionally we will have some senior-level positions posted online as well. We average about 600-650 jobs posted on any given day, with about 10 new people being hired online everyday! I probably deal with about 400-450 different hiring managers from our clientele with these positions.

My typical day is whirl wind of emails and phone calls from clients. I manage a number of other day-to-day activities such as calculating our stat reports, making changes to our database, and editing material on our website. The best part of my job is that I get to not only help so many of the hiring mangers with their staffing needs, but I get to hear sports executives' stories, too. I'm only 23 years old, but it's the coolest feeling in the world being able to make a difference for these teams, and at the same time, I'm getting to know these people on a personal level. I really appreciate that at such a young age that I have the opportunity to do this everyday.

If there's one great thing about sports business, it is that talented young business professionals are given the opportunities to excel. You could spend 25 years in a traditional business setting with a big business and never make it past mid-management just because of the sheer size of some of these companies. It's rare that you see anyone under the age of 50 running a Fortune 500 company, but in sports, one can move up the corporate ladder fairly quickly. It's not uncommon to see Sales Managers in their mid-20's, Vice Presidents in their 30's, and President's in their early 40's.

Next Steps

Warmer weather! The winters here in Cleveland are freezing! Seriously though, I'm still working on what's the best next step to get where ultimately every sports business executive aspires to be...the President/General Manager of a team. Wherever is the best opportunity for me, that's where I'll go.

At the current time, I do not plan to continue my MBA program. To be honest, working here at TeamWork is like its own sports business MBA program---an MBA program on steroids, if you will. I get a chance to see in real-time how 350+ teams, organizations, leagues, etc. run their teams. Plus, I also get to see how each of these teams run each of their departments...I've worked with everyone from Human Resources Managers to Vice Presidents of Marketing to Ticket Sales Managers and even Presidents and CEO's of teams. It's an awful lot to take in, but my time here has as much to do with soaking in knowledge of the industry as doing my job effectively.

Did I Ever Think I'd End Up Here?

I've always been a big sports nut, as a fan and as a player. When I was a little tyke, I played hockey, soccer, baseball, name, I played it. When I was 12, I had to choose which sport to focus on because of the time commitment and money associated with playing at a club level. I chose soccer, and played club/premier soccer all through middle school and high school. There was a lot of travel seemed like every weekend I was traveling to another state to play in these Premier Cup tournaments, and then racing back to work home at Primanti's, doing my schoolwork on the car ride back. I also played soccer for my high school in the fall, but because of the time commitment to my club team, I couldn't really play any other high school sports in the other seasons.

During college, I actually switched gears and joined the men's club volleyball team (John Carroll does not have a varsity men's volleyball team). I had never played on an organized volleyball team before, but I quickly took a liking to the sport and played as a setter.

Advice for Others

I advise job seekers to keep working hard, even if the lack of rewards leaves you frustrated. I think we all need a friendly bounce here and there to take the next step sometimes. But you have to put yourself in position to get lucky. No one just happens to get lucky in job hunting. People who work hard, stay the course, make sacrifices, etc. are the ones who have more opportunities to catch a good bounce.

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.

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