Many of us grew up playing high school ball while a gifted few experienced the thrill of college athletics. But nearly all kids dream of hitting buzzer beaters in Madison Square Garden, crushing home runs into the Wrigley Field bleachers and catching touchdown passes in frigid Lambeau Field. Only a select group—a sliver of a percent—actually live out the fantasy of playing professional sports. So where does that leave the rest of us? The ones that never stopped loving sports. The ones that believe sporting events give purpose to athletes and deliver pure joy to fans. We seek out a new career path when the hope of playing in the pros ends. Car sales, tax accounting, marine biology, retail marketing, politics, restaurateur. But sometimes the pull of sports is too strong and a job in sports is the only fulfilling career option.

Your journey towards a dream sports job can drift in several directions—go work for a sports organization or join up with a firm that supports the sports industry. Do you want to work for a sports franchise, helping set the stage for the big game? Or would you prefer supporting teams from outside the building with branding, catering, consulting or advertising? Joining a team’s business support staff truly connects you to a franchise—wear team colors, tailgate in the parking lot and cheer hard on game day. It also means your work is narrowed. Doing, or building, something for one company limits your exposure to different environments and experiences. Vendors and sports media members work outside the bubble, often dealing with multiple teams and creating a product or service that helps a larger customer, or fan, base. So where do you fit? Which path will you take?

Go work for a sports team—you can’t beat it!

When you accept a position with a sports team—professional, amateur or collegiate—the success of your career is inextricably linked to that of the organization. Higher group and individual ticket sales along with merchandise revenue means growth for the team and for your career. So, whether you’re in accounting, marketing, scouting, sales or public relations, you’re a cheerleader for the team. Make no mistake, there’s a symbiotic relationship between the on-field product—players, coaches, scouts, front office personnel—and the small staff of business professionals that buttresses the team. If the organization is innovating on the field they’re likely open to new technologies and new ideas in your department. That’s a team that knows how to win on, and away from, the field.

Each organization has a mission and each one goes about achieving it uniquely. When working for a sports team you accept that mission and ingrain it into the work you do. You’re not a vendor helping install a new computer network or locker room equipment. You’re part of the in-house marketing team or managing the group ticket sales department. Take the long view approach when making decisions. How can this choice benefit the team for the next 6 years rather than the next 6 months? That might seem like a burden but the intimate relationship you build with the organization makes it feel less so. And remember that you’re working for a small business. The millions of dollars going through the building each day makes it feel Fortune 500 but hundreds—not thousands—of full-time employees support the team. When staff is lean you’ll help out across the organization and, at times, find yourself doing work you least expected. If you’re comfortable wearing the colors, cheering on the team and narrowing your focus then working for a sports team is the right path for you.

Go work for a sports industry vendor—the best of both worlds!

It takes a lot to bring a world-class sporting event to thousands of in-stadium fans along with millions of television viewers, a few hundred full-time staffers can’t do it all. Outsourcing in the sporting industry is common; it allows teams to focus on roster building and revenue growth. Each vendor—facility managers, food and beverage concessions, branding experts, security, analytics groups—brings a particular expertise to the market. That product or service can be perfected and sold to sports teams, translating to more exposure for the great work you do.

Do you enjoy consulting? You’re the outsider that comes into an organization for a short-time and provides advice or implements a new project. You get to see how sports businesses function and how different leaders lead. You feel the constant thrill of stepping into a brand new situation and lending your expertise to the team. And then you get to walk away and help another team. As a vendor your company isn’t tied to one sports team, you won’t bleed Lakers’ gold-and-purple or Raiders’ black-and-silver. This type of business is for people that prefer a more traditionally corporate environment but still enjoy the intermingling of sports. You’ll find that, in this setting, your interactions with team employees feels somewhat distant because of the outsourced vendor-team relationship. But you’ll get the access you need to do your job and still get to peak behind the sports curtain from time-to-time. You get to work in the sports industry but you aren’t connected to the successes or failures of one team alone. It’s the best of both worlds.  

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