It has been nearly a decade since I began my career in the sports industry. However, I can say that when my journey began, I had no idea what professional opportunities existed on the business side of sports or the range of career paths within sports marketing partnerships. All I knew was that I loved competing as a college athlete, and if there was an opportunity to spend my post-playing career connected to the industry that had given me so much, I was going to give it my all to break into it.
And while I know there are countless ways to begin a career in sports, below are a few general themes and stories from my path that I’m hoping will provide a few tricks of the trade to help you land a career in sports marketing partnerships.
1. You’re Always Interviewing
My career in sports began after my athletic playing career ended, which in my case, happened to be my senior year of college at the University of Detroit Mercy. I was fortunate to have an incredible professor, academic advisor, and mentor who supported me throughout my undergraduate experience. This professor also happened to be a consultant for several college athletic departments, conference offices, and professional sports organizations, including Miami University’s athletic department. In addition, this professor informed me that Miami University has a few internship positions available every summer, and I should consider applying. After an on-campus interview and a positive reference letter from my professor, I officially secured my first internship in sports.
Takeaway: While the formal application and interview process is essential, I had been interviewing for that position since I met my professor four years ago. His positive referral was the difference in me winning the role.
To maximize any job opportunity, you need to not only excel at the role you are hired for, but you also need to take advantage of your available “down-time”
2. Maximize Your Opportunity
My internship at Miami University was scheduled for only 10-weeks, which meant that I would need to take advantage of every day to maximize the experience. Beyond doing an exceptional job on my assigned projects and tasks as part of the internship, this meant building genuine relationships with colleagues on staff, learning about their roles/departments, and most importantly, understanding their career paths. Through these conversations, which happened over coffee/lunch, in a 1-on-1 meeting, on the golf course, or at the fitness center, I recognized I was most interested in revenue generation departments of Development, Ticket Sales, and Sponsorship. I also learned that many of the senior leaders within the department had attended business school, law school, or had a master’s degree specific to their field. Ultimately, this led me to attend Ohio University for graduate school, where I received my MBA and Masters in Sports Administration. Two of my three reference letters for graduate school came from my internship at Miami, including the former alum who first introduced me to the program.
Takeaway: To maximize any job opportunity, you need to not only excel at the role you are hired for, but you also need to take advantage of your available “down-time” before, during, and after work hours to learn about the entire business and build genuine personal relationships.
3. Share Your Story, Say ‘Yes’ To Opportunities
After setting my sights on graduate school, I knew I needed to gain additional professional experiences to improve my chances of being accepted into my top program of choice. Fortunately, I was offered an internship with the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) through a connection I made during my internship at Miami University. I held the title of Sales and Marketing Intern, which meant that I supported all revenue-generating departments, including our sponsorship & events group. The CCHA was my first exposure to working in marketing partnerships, and the first partnership I activated was with our league partner, Warrior Sports. As luck would have it, I ultimately was accepted into graduate school at Ohio University. After my internship with the CCHA concluded, Warrior Sports offered me a role in its experiential and retail marketing department. As a result, I spent the remainder of my time before beginning grad school working in their US headquarters.
Takeaway: Put yourself out there and build relationships with the various agencies, vendors, league/team contacts. Most importantly, let those individuals know what your interests are, what your timing/availability is, and say ‘yes’ knowing that yes will lead to more opportunities.
4. Volunteer Your Time & Network
Once I arrived at Ohio University, it became clear that marketing partnerships was the industry segment I was most interested in pursuing. My two priorities were: 1.) gain experience selling, activating, and managing partnerships, and 2.) build relationships with classmates & alumni, who also were passionate about this segment of the industry. First, to gain the necessary experience, I knew I needed to volunteer my time with any department/committee/organization to increase my knowledge base. This led to working in Ohio U’s IMG office, volunteering with the Cincinnati Bengals game day activation team, and participating in on-campus marketing partnership programs. Second, to expedite my learning curve, I scheduled time with alumni working in the field to learn from their personal experiences. These conversations happened over phone calls, coffees/meals in Athens, OH, in the car while driving them to the airport, or visiting their cities/stadiums/arenas/campuses. Throughout my two years in graduate school, I focused on these two areas, resulting in me gaining a full-time role with NASCAR’s national sponsorship division upon graduation.
Takeaway: The best way to learn sports marketing partnerships is by actively participating in the process of selling, activating, or managing a partnership or program. It doesn’t matter the property, brand, or agency; take advantage of every opportunity to learn. And when you are not volunteering or working, spend time building relationships with professionals actively working full-time in the industry.
These steps have been a building block for my career and have helped shape the professional I am today. I hope these themes, stories, and tips help you on your journey and ultimately help you land a career in an incredibly fulfilling industry.
John Nowicki is currently the Director of Corporate Partnerships at Excel Sports Management. He's been in the industry for 7+ years and has work experience with the Oakland A's, NASCAR, Cincinnati Bengals and IMG. He has his undergrad degree from the University of Detroit - Mercy and his MBA and MSA from Ohio University. He's also a mentor in theClubhouse and if you're interested in setting up a call with him you can book one here.