Thursday, August 16, 2012

On working in #sportsbiz

The hardest thing about working in the sports industry is breaking in. There are a ton of blogs that tell that tale, so I will skip over that part of my experience. All you need to know is that I worked hard in multiple internships and contracts in the media industry, from newspapers to live sports broadcast production to earning my communications stripes through volunteer non-profit positions. The only internship I didn't do was one with a sports team, which would've been an asset, but as my other jobs put me in direct contact with team executives, I learned a fair bit about the inner workings of a sport organization through observation and interaction.

When I landed the Director of Media Relations position with the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs, I was both surprised and relieved. I was surprised not because I wasn't confident about my skills, but because I had interviewed for several sport communications positions in the past few years and never gotten that call. This position was a more senior role than those I had previously applied for, and though I knew I had rocked the interview, I still was apprehensive at my chances. But my hard work and persistence paid off, and I was hired.

Whether it was a case of "right place, right time" or simply because it was my time does not matter. I got in. Finally.

That's when I discovered the second hardest thing about working in the sports industry. The chaos and fatigue of working long days (and nights). I had known that this was the reality in this type of work - and in all media work, actually - but living it in this scenario felt different. Plus, if you're a perfectionist like me, that also means a lot of sleepless nights worrying about how to get things better organized so that you can do the best job you are able to do.

Needless to say, when I was let go in June after a tough season jam-packed with major events and new promotions, I was shocked. I felt like I was still recovering from the past season, and well on my way to setting up the next season so that it would be far less chaotic. I was also hurt and confused. I felt like I had sacrificed so much to finally get my shot at rocking the sports media world and was cut short from doing truly awesome things with the team.

I later discovered that my dismissal was but one element of a major summer restructuring plan, and that I hadn't done anything "wrong". But as anyone who has been laid off can tell you, that doesn't make you feel any better.

My world was a mess. I didn't know what I was doing and where I was going. Eventually, I found out that the remaining executives still thought I was awesome and that my work was brilliant. My work ethic was exemplary, my ideas were awesome, and my strategies and execution were innovative and exceptional. That helped to lessen the blow. But I still felt like I had been stranded on a deserted island, with food and escape routes dangling just out of my reach.

I did what any smart young adult would do. I cut my losses - and my expenses - and went back into student mode. After all, I still had a Master's thesis to write. And as anyone who has worked full-time in sport communications can tell you, I didn't really have any spare time while I was with the Bulldogs. I therefore wasn't able to meet my lofty goal of finishing my thesis while I worked.

And now, I feel like I am back at square one, struggling to get a chance to prove my worth in the sports industry. No experience is ever wasted, to be sure, and holding a senior position in a professional sport organization, however brief that experience was, will certainly help me in my next endeavor. 

But frankly, I thought we'd done this already. I thought we were finally past this point. 

But in my passion and excitement, I had forgotten that the sports industry is volatile and so much of its stability depends on the attitudes of owners, commissioners, and yes, even fans. It is unfortunate that after all these years of pro sports development, its employees are still the ones with the most to lose, especially since having a well-rounded, experienced, passionate and dedicated team of staffers is key to ensuring a team's success in failing markets. After all, you can have the best players in the league, but if no one knows they're there, who's going to buy tickets? Ads? Merchandise?

It may be true that without athletes, there is no professional sports industry. But it takes a committed core group of employees to make it successful.

And so, it's a shame that breaking in to the sports industry remains the hardest thing about working in the sports industry, even for experienced professionals. Whether you've got one year under your belt or 20 years of experience in various positions and markets, this experience has taught me that you are never safe. 

But maybe this is the hardest thing about working in the sports industry. You never can never truly be comforted that your investment is safe and will yield high returns, or any returns at all. And that's why so many of us sail our boats away from the isolated island that is pro sports, searching for more stable waters. A long, fruitful career in the sports industry - in any industry these days, really - is no longer a given, once you've proven your worth. 

And I'm starting to wonder if perhaps it's time for me to sail away as well.