Breaking Into the Sports-Management Game

By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 5, 2006

Tomorrow, millions of Super Bowl viewers will return to day jobs that have nothing to do with athletic pursuits. But for Bethesda resident Ricky Mattei, 24, every workday is sports-related.

In January, Mattei began working as an account executive for Washington's professional men's soccer team, D.C. United, for which his job focuses on persuading more Hispanic fans to attend games. "I said I'd never go into sales, but I love it," he said.

Sports management is a $221 billion industry, up from $182.8 billion in 1999, according to the Charlotte-based Sports Business Journal. The field includes advertising, endorsements, facility construction, apparel, broadcast rights, concessions, ticket sales, community recreation programs and much more.

But insiders caution that being an athlete or avid sports fan doesn't automatically mean you are cut out for employment in the sports world. "There's a naive sex appeal sometimes among people who read the sports section or watch ESPN SportsCenter three times a day and think that because they know players' batting averages they should be working in sports," said Jeff Yocom, vice president for executive search and placement of the Tualatin, Ore., sports-marketing firm Game Face Inc. "At the end of the day, sports is a business," Yocom said.

The doors to a sports career are more open than they used to be to people of all backgrounds, experts said. "For years, people got into sports because they had an uncle on the team or knew someone . . . or because they had a letter jacket," said G. Lynn Lashbrook, president and founder of Sports Management Worldwide, an online sports-management training and placement organization in Portland, Ore. "But now it's more business-oriented," with more opportunities for women and minorities.

Still, it's not easy to get into or succeed in this industry. "There is still a much larger supply of candidates than places in the field," said Yocom.

In applying for jobs, it's an advantage to have taken relevant courses and have an undergraduate or graduate degree in sports management. Alternatively, you can complete a training program that specializes in the sports business. Mattei attended such a program at Game Face's Executive Academy, which he describes as "mostly a sales training camp." Although he had no prior sports-related work experience other than as a professional volleyball player in Puerto Rico, he landed a job with D.C. United shortly after completing the two-week program.

An internship is another path to a sports job, said Ronald Dick, assistant professor of sports management at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. "It helps you get your feet wet," he said, noting that internships are usually unpaid, last two to three months and vary in the duties assigned.

When seeking an internship or entry level sports job, think broadly, including minor league and college teams, high school athletic departments and community recreation programs, Dick said. "There are only 30 general managers in Major League Baseball in the world and only a handful of real-life Jerry Maguires," he said, referring to the fictional sports agent in the 1996 film.

Matt Goldberg, a senior at James Madison University who is majoring in sports management and business, spent last summer as an unpaid intern at Octagon, a McLean sports- and entertainment-marketing firm. His tasks were mostly menial, including making copies, sending letters and shipping merchandise, he recalled. "You definitely have to put in your time," he said, noting that he loves the "behind-the scenes aspects of sports" and hopes to become a professional team's general manager.

To build your career, seek out teams that need your help rather than ones that are already winning championships, advised Robert Cornilles, president of Game Face. "Ask yourself, 'where can I make the most difference?' " he said. Also, keep in mind that sports is a mobile industry. "Your first job is not likely to be where you will retire," he said. "Very few people start and end with the Redskins."

And even though some professional athletes draw millions of dollars, don't expect anyone to show you that kind of money. Sports management "is primarily a young person's industry, with long hours and relatively low pay," Cornilles said.

But there are perks, he noted, such as the opportunity to be around exceptional athletes or attend games frequently. Besides, he said, "you've got the coolest business card in town when you work in sports."

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