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Got Hoop Dreams? Get an Internship in Sports

By Dimity McDowell

Even if you're not destined to play in the pros, there are plenty of lucrative jobs in sports.

How do you jump-start a sports career? Try an internship with a pro team.
Are you an ESPN addict? Do you rattle off baseball stats like the alphabet? Is your apartment stocked with hockey sticks, NASCAR posters, and everything in between? If so, maybe you're the next Pedro Martinez. Or maybe, despite your sports expertise, you've got no shot at hoopin' it up with Sheryl Swoopes.

But no worries. Even if you're not destined to play in the pros, there are plenty of lucrative jobs in sports, ranging from newspaper writing to sports photography, from equipment management to media relations. Unfortunately, no matter how vivid your sports fantasies are, you might have a tough time translating them into a full-time position unless you start with an internship. An internship will prepare you for a pro performance - and introduce you to the realities of the industry. "Students need to know what it's like to be on the firing line," says Melvin Helitzer, author of The Dream Job: Sports Publicity, Promotion and Marketing. "They think they'll be entertaining the press and hanging with the athletes, but working in pro sports can be a 24/7 job, and it's not very glamorous."

Marcie Black, 23, did a 15-week internship with the NBA's Indiana Pacers to complete her major in sports management at the University of Illinois. Now Black is a big advocate of internships. "Our professors warned us that it's hard to get into professional organizations," she says. Nevertheless, Black was not deterred by the fact that she knew no one at the Pacers.

She started her quest by calling the team's general number to get automated directions for the internship application procedure. She then sent a cover letter and resume to the community relations department because she felt that department would be "more social, and more my speed." (The Pacers employ between eight and 20 interns at a time in everything from media relations and broadcast production to sports marketing and game operations.) Black applied for a semester internship, which is less competitive than a summer position, but she still had to prove herself in an interview with the Pacers' vice president of communications. Black says she was really nervous before the interview, but she relaxed as soon as she sat down. "We really had more of a conversation than an interview," she says.

As an intern, Black's typical day included sorting fan mail (some players like it opened, some don't) and accommodating special requests for donations of team paraphernalia. When her reserves got low, she set up signature sessions with the players to stock up on autographed balls and jerseys. "They're fairly good about it, especially if you turn on MTV," she says.

For Black, interacting with the players was definitely the highlight of the job, especially when she got to interview them for press tidbits (best fact: center Rik Smits wears a size 22 shoe). When asked about her least favorite aspect, she's hard pressed to answer. "If I had to pick something, it would be when other departments ask me to help them when I'm already busy," she says. "As an intern, you can't really say no." But, she adds, helping out in media relations or making calls in ticket sales gave her a more complete picture of the business.

Black recently moved to Phoenix, Arizona, and with the Pacer internship on her resume, she's set to find another job in community relations. She's already inquired about possibilities with the Phoenix Suns, but isn't too hopeful: "They try to hire internally, usually hiring former interns," she says. Nevertheless, she's ready to follow the advice she would give to other interns - be persistent above all else, and religiously follow the team you want to work for.

If persistence doesn't pay off, Helitzer says that Black should look to smaller organizations, even though she's had experience with a pro team. "Big organizations have a director of community relations, in addition to a staff, but at a smaller organization, you're the whole department, plus much more," says Helitzer. While there are more-established ways to get an internship, a phone call and an offer to volunteer your time may be all you need. Just as a minor league pitcher learns the ropes in Triple A ball, taking an out-of-the-limelight job can be a first step.

"Everybody wants to work for the NBA or NHL or Major League Baseball, but there are so many more opportunities out there," says Helitzer. He predicts that the field of sports event planning - turning the NBA All-Star Game into a three-day affair-will see phenomenal growth in the next few years. In addition, Helitzer cites as potential employers everything from the "Stars on Ice" tour to the Women's United Soccer Association, a newly formed women's pro soccer league.

Helitzer has one piece of parting advice for aspiring sports mavens: All the sports know-how in the world won't get you far if you don't remember that pro sports is big business. Brainstorming new advertising venues or creative public relations tactics before your interview will help you prove that you are more than just an average sports fan - and may just be your ticket to the big leagues.

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