“There are no mistakes, only opportunities.” -Tina Fey
I guess you would say I had a pretty typical start in the sports industry, but the path that followed took me on an adventure I never could have imagined. My childhood dream was to become a professor of vocal music. However, after learning more about the profession and finding out that most of my day would probably include composing and teaching music theory, I quickly realized that despite my love and passion for music, it shouldn’t be a career for me.
I always loved attending minor league baseball games and thought, well, this could be a fun thing to explore. During my senior year of high school, I had the chance to shadow Rob Zerjav, the President & GM of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, the Class ‘A’ Affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers. As insignificant as this seems, it really was the cornerstone for me starting to build my career in sports & entertainment. I ended up joining the Timber Rattlers staff the next season and spent four great years working for an amazing organization.
To this day, I can still wholeheartedly say that my time at the Timber Rattlers was the best four years of my life. That’s not just because we got to do crazy things like dress up in cow suits, do tarp pulls at 3 a.m., and have some pretty amazing stories that none of us will ever repeat again. What truly made it the best was the people I spent the 70-hour weeks with and the lessons I learned from our amazing leadership team.
Immediately after my fourth season with the team I had the chance to interview with the Boston Red Sox for a job running game presentation and administration efforts for their spring training operation. When I received my offer letter, I was almost 100% sure that I wasn’t going to take the job. But before I made my final decision, I reached out to Rob to ask his opinion. Thankfully, that one phone call to Rob changed my life for the better, just as the day I shadowed him four years prior. I don’t remember exactly what Rob said, but what I took away from it was if I have the chance to grow, do good work, and learn from exceptional leaders then there was no reason not to take the job. A short time later I was packing up my life and moving to Florida for my shot in the big leagues.
I learned a lot in my time at the Red Sox, but the biggest take away I have from my time with the team is the importance of having a positive, supportive, and fun culture. My VP at the time was Katie Haas (Katie is now the COO for the Western & Southern Open). In our office Katie encouraged us to work our butts off, but also taught us to never forget to have fun and enjoy everything that comes with working for one of the most storied franchises in all of sports.
I vividly remember a day when we had to move close to what seemed like 1,000 folding chairs from storage rooms in the green monster to our hospitality tent across the property with a single golf cart. I think my arms almost fell off at the end of the day, but what was gained was an inseparable bond with my coworkers, and they’ve become some of the closest friends I have in my life.
Since then I’ve had the chance to work in sponsorship activation for Octagon working with some of the world’s most influential brands and now, I work as an Account Manager on the membership services team for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. To be completely honest, I wasn’t really looking to make a change when I first interviewed with the Kings, but I thought it might be fun to step out of my comfort zone and do something different if the right opportunity presented itself.
I interviewed with Matthew Johnson and Lisa Feigenbaum. Despite telling them I wasn’t motivated at all by money (Yes, I know how weird that is. What salesperson isn’t motivated by money!?), they still decided to offer me a job on their team. What inspired me to make a change is one common thing both Lisa and Matt made extremely clear. When you work for the Kings, you’re family. We take care of each other, we help each other grow, and always have each other’s backs. That key quality of this amazing organization is what lead both my mind and my heart to take the leap and move across the country to Sacramento.
As I’m now heading into my third season with the team, I truly can’t imagine doing anything else, despite how cliché that statement sounds. What I’ve found here in Sacramento is another amazing group of coworkers and a leadership team that I’m able to be myself with, grow with, and share this crazy ride with. I had a 1-on-1 with Justin Petkus (Kings VP of Ticket Sales & Service) a few weeks ago and he gave me a piece of advice that really spoke to me and I think it rings true in how I got to where I am today. He said, “Don’t be a title chaser, be an opportunity chaser.”
So, to all of those who are looking for their first job or looking to make a change in this demanding, fun, and rewarding industry: explore every opportunity but make sure you’re taking an opportunity for the right reasons, not just for a title or for the “cool factor”. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, it only helps you grow personally and professionally. And, make every effort to join a company with a culture that values you as an individual and has a leadership team that is willing to help you grow and cares about you. You may end up somewhere that you never in a million years thought you’d be, but it might just be the best adventure of your life. It has been for me.
Matt Thome is an Account Manager in Membership Services at the Sacramento Kings. He's been in the sports industry for 6+ years. He's a consultant on the side and is a mentor in theClubhouse. He's an open networker and you you can connect with Matt here.