Getting ahead by going beyond: Becoming a major player in the minor leagues

by Trent ferguson - chief revenue officer & alternate governor of the allen americans (ECHL) | December 05, 2019

Let’s not beat around the bush, the sports world is a hard fraternity to break into. We have all heard the hard-luck stories, even told a few, of what it took to get a chance in this career. The competition is fierce, and there always seems to be someone with twice the experience willing to work for half the pay for every job opening that comes along. A few years ago, I heard a statistic, not sure of the source, that only 24% of students graduating with a sports management degree will find a job in the front office of a sports team. Based on the hundreds of resumes I receive each year, the statistic seams about right.

Now here we are, the lucky few, the ones who actually listened to those before us, and simply got our foot in the door. We have long hours and low pay in front of us, still competing with the person beside us for the chance to move up the ladder, away from the ticket sales cubicle making 60 calls a day and into the President/GM office where the fun can finally begin. So how do you do it? How do you turn all that time and energy getting here, into a career?

2007 was the year I got my shot; Account Executive with an ECHL hockey team. At the time, it seemed like a waste of education and experience, having graduated with a Degree in Business Management. I spent two years as a manager with Coca-Cola with full benefits and a company car. Now I had to begin at the bottom for $17,000/year plus commission, surrounded by four-foot cubicles and guys who had been in the hockey business for years. This was my first look from inside the business I had dreamed about for so long, and the view was bleak. Account Executives and Directors who had worked for other teams and for a much longer time, sitting right next to me as a constant reminder of what my future could hold, and the challenges I would face if I was going to work my way up in the industry.

It didn’t take long, a matter of days before I decided if I was going to get ahead, I needed to start turning the status quo into a status WHOA! Change for the sake of change will always set you back, but improving on the system in place, while effectively doing your job, can catapult your success. In my case, I had two things working in my favor; the nature of the minor leagues, and the unique training from Coca-Cola that was outside of the normal procedures of the office I was in.

The minor leagues, in general, require a broad skill set at every level of the organization. The fans arrive, the game is played, the entertainment is activated, same as in the majors, however, in the minors all of this is executed with a staff of ten as opposed to the hundred that can make up a major league office. This opportunity to put on a different hat at a moment’s notice, allows you to create additional value for yourself, develop new skills, and reveal passions or interests in particular areas of the business that you may not have thought about before. Broadening your skills and increasing your value to the organization is important, but don’t forget the need to continuously excel at the primary role you were hired to fulfill. You have to be great from 9-5 and grow from 5-9. To put it another way; you need to put in an effective eight hours of great work a day that you were hired to do and add value and grow into other areas during off time. Growing into other areas can include; helping out with other departments, volunteering for special projects, and simply studying, reading, and educating yourself so as to become as proficient as possible in every aspect of the business.

What I learned working with Coca-Cola helped pull this all together. Working in a global organization, competing for space in every form of the imagination; it became ingrained in me that a true career is a 24/7 proposition. There will always be; one more call to make, one more tweak on a proposal, one more opportunity to gain an inch of space. The secret to this non-stop development, is to incorporate as much of your life into your job as possible. There is NO work-life balance, but simply work-life management. We use the term “work smarter not harder” but in this case, what we are really doing is leveraging every aspect of our lives to make the other aspects better. Time at home relaxing means reading a book written by those sports managers that have come before us. Watching Monday night football means taking note of sponsorships and corporate activations. Three straight weekends of hockey games means my family saves on entertainment expenses and gets to enjoy the games with me.

You have been “working” 18 hours a day for the last 24 months, becoming an expert in your field, creating revenue for your team, increasing value for your fans; why are you still sitting at the same desk? The quick answer to the question; no one noticed you. Another big difference between the Major Leagues and the Minor Leagues, is that we need to be our own promoters. ESPN will not cover a sell-out crowd or a top sponsorship signing the way it does for the Majors, you need to do it. Platforms like LinkedIn give us an outstanding opportunity to inform others within our industry of the great things our teams are doing, while also shining the light on ourselves. Building your network and sharing ideas are crucial to your success.

When I first started in the ECHL, my team’s entire sales and marketing department consisted of seven people, which means to move up, you need to move out. I was very fortunate to work for a team that began growing exponentially within two years of me starting. But even with doubling the staff over the years and receiving several promotions, eventually I hit a ceiling. If you are focusing on growth, and building your career, you too will eventually reach a stopping point within your organization, and it is probably going to come quicker than you thought it would. If you have not built your network and spotlighted your personal and team accolades, your opportunities are going to become limited. Just as you have learned to build upon your sphere of influence to grow your sales, you must do the same thing to grow your career. Dozens of growth opportunities happen throughout the industry every week, make sure you are setting the groundwork to take advantage of them when YOUR time is right.

There it is; the secret to success [chuckling] in Minor League sports. As simple as it sounds, we are only doing the job in a way that everyone is capable of, but not everyone is willing to do. I understand that sometimes the hardships look too great, but success does require sacrifice in conjunction with passion. There are three characteristics that every single person I hire must possess; career driven, team oriented, and a strong work ethic. These three combined traits ensure that an individual is going to push themselves in order to drive the company. Don’t just become the sports executive that every team would like to have, become the one they feel they can’t survive without.

Trent

Trent Ferguson is a 13-year veteran in professional sports. He has held several roles in vastly different markets during his career including; Director of Sales, President, and Chief Revenue Officer. Over the years, Trent has been able to advise dozens of professional and collegiate teams on how to maximize assets and grow revenue streams outside of the industry norms, as well as mentor hundreds of sports executives on how to excel and advance in their careers. Trent is extremely passionate about continuously developing more opportunities for teams to increase profitability as well as grooming young executives for the ever-changing industry’s future. He currently resides in the popular sports mecca of Dallas, TX where he enjoys sharing his love for the business of sports daily with his wife and two kids.