NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL.
The core four leagues are where almost every aspiring sport management professional wishes to establish their career. However, the reality is that many will get their foot in the door in minor league sports or college athletics and I am lucky to consider myself one of them.
I can take away several key attributes that I learned from starting my career in the American Hockey League, with the Syracuse Crunch, but there are three that stand out: You wear many hats, you need to be creative, and in order to succeed you must prospect everywhere.
Wear Many Hats
The average Account Executive job description might read, “Sell group, season ticket, or suite packages”. However, a lot of times you don’t really know what falls under one of the final bullets on the JD. It reads “Perform other tasks, projects, and responsibilities as assigned”. These tasks and projects vary significantly from organization to organization and league to league.
Our main responsibilities were selling as many tickets as we could pack into the 6,400-person arena. At the time, our entire staff from ownership on down was only 12 people, so it was all hands-on deck, all the time. I want to touch on three separate occasions where the “wear many hats” stood true:
We hosted a full day of hockey in Syracuse University’s Carrier Dome for the first time ever. The weeks leading up to the game, I found myself there until 2 am to help hang board advertisements and other tasks. After the completion of the game, I quickly changed out of my suit and into a track suit. Not to go home, but to help sledgehammer the ice and transport it outside of the Carrier Dome, so they could get the court ready for the Women’s Basketball game the following afternoon.
We would work diligently to sell any event that groups and organizations would be interested in purchasing tickets for. One of my most successful events was a sneaker expo that I held on the ice. It included over 75 vendors and 500 patrons, all of whom bought tickets for our game that night. However, when it came to setting up the tables on the ice for the vendors and organizing security for the event, that fell on my shoulders. With our front office being so small, we were the ones that not only sold the event, but also executed all the details as well.
- We hosted the AHL All-Star Game in Syracuse and we were tasked to sell out both the skills competition and the game the next day. However, when the players arrived at the airport from all around North America to participate, the front office staff was the first to welcome them. We would grab their equipment, throw them in a large truck and deliver them to the locker room.
I learned first-hand that minor league sports helps you find your passion and the experience teaches you about every aspect of an organization.
Syracuse, NY is driven by one sports entity and that is Syracuse University Athletics. Syracuse Basketball is like a religion during the cold winter months, where they still pack 36,000 people for a game in February. So, getting creative to sell our games was important for us to achieve success. From the sneaker expo I talked about earlier, to Star Wars Night, to Pucks for Paws, the amount of innovation that went into planning our annual theme nights was integral to our success.
Our Owner, Howard Dolgon, had over 30 years of experience in marketing and promotion, from World Cup Soccer to the Olympic Games. Some of the ideas that he would generate during our brainstorm sessions would seem so out there that we would say, there is no way anybody would come out for this. Howard’s ideas, along with Jim Sarosy and Vance Lederman’s leadership with our staff is the main reason why the Syracuse Crunch are the longest independent ownership group in the AHL.
I learned from my first day on the job, that everywhere you go is a lead. When you see a billboard, turn on the radio, go out to eat, it’s all business. We didn’t have pre-vetted and prioritized lead lists that were provided to us. My coworkers and I were taught to prospect from the bottom-up in an effort to find some potential in something that someone else might have missed. With this concept, we were able to find niches in markets that were cost conscious, but still wanted to be part of the sports landscape. We sold them anything from mini plans, to small business packages, to multi-year partnerships. We had lot's of flexibility and we were always looking for new business. That skill sticks with me today.
The value of entertainment and helping a non-profit raise money were at the core of our business model. Nearly every sale needed a creative approach. We needed something other than just “attending the game”. I learned first-hand that minor league sports helps you find your passion and the experience teaches you about every aspect of an organization. The most important takeaway though, is that you’ll develop a great appreciation for how every department works in unison to form a cohesive unit! I'm thankful for the opportunities it offered me.
Jonathan Smaldon is a Manager, Premium Partnerships with the New York Jets. Prior to that he was a Sr. Account Executive, Group Sales at the Jets and Director of Group Sales with the Syracuse Crunch Hockey Club. You can connect with Jonathan on LinkedIn here.