#MySportsBizStart: Lexie Sidney - Sacrifice, rejection and success in sports
by lexie sidney - Director of strategic marketing, houston dynamo | March 05, 2019
Most people think working for a sports team means free tickets, being friends with the players, knowing the inside scoop before it happens, and being the biggest superfan in the world. In some cases, that’s true. But there is an entirely other side of the industry that people don’t see.
I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, the middle child and only girl of a typical Midwestern family taught to work hard, treat people right and always remain loyal to your sports teams. My brothers and I grew up on movies like Rudy, Hoosiers, Sandlot and A League of Their Own. Our family had season tickets to the Indiana Pacers, Indianapolis Colts, and Indiana Hoosiers football and basketball, and sports brought our family together through the years.
I attended Indiana University and studied Sport Marketing and Management, determined to make my biggest passion a career. Before my senior year of college, after applying to dozens of sports openings without much response, I accepted a summer Marketing internship with the Newark Bears independent baseball team and moved in with my aunt and uncle who lived in a nearby suburb. The full-time staff consisted of three people and 15 or so college kids also doing their summer internships. We spent weeks cold-calling potential leads, with very little success. We also did all kinds of odd jobs like stuffing mailers, pulling tarp, and even dancing the YMCA on the dugout. Not surprisingly, the Bears are no longer in business, but they did teach me that there are all kinds of things that go into keeping a team alive (or not).
The experience was enough to scare me into wondering if my entire career plan was a mistake, until I received a call from the Indiana Pacers offering me a fall internship within the Community Relations department- one of the summer positions I had applied for weeks prior. I arranged my class schedule so I could spend three days a week driving an hour each way to work. My first project was assisting with Media Day, where staff escorted players through dozens of photo, video and interview stations. In just a few hours, I had gained an appreciation for how it was done at the professional level. During the semester-long position, I assisted with a variety of Pacers community programs and spent my days researching Indiana Heroes candidates, mailing donations for charitable fundraising, visiting schools with Boomer the mascot, all while juggling a full-course load at school. My passion for the work grew with every event and my bosses and coworkers were just as dedicated. It felt like this was the place where I was meant to be, the work I was meant to do. But something the professors don’t tell you is that no matter how well you do, sometimes the jobs just aren’t there. The internships are competitive but employment is extremely rare. I left the Pacers with great memories and relationships, but no job.
After graduating and a short stint with USA Diving as an Events and Marketing intern, I received the opportunity to intern with the my favorite team, the Indianapolis Colts in the Community Relations department. I had applied for the internship program every year in college and never even got a call. There’s truth to the saying, “It’s not about who you know, it’s about who knows you.” While most interns had a personal connection with someone at the team, I learned that it was the Pacers experience on my resume and my former boss’ recommendation that landed me an interview.
Although I was still an intern, I had a lot more autonomy than my previous jobs. I led the planning of Community Tuesday player visits, managed projects like the Bleed Blue Blood Drive and organized gameday collections each home game. I barely got to watch the games, but I’ll never forget standing on the sidelines at Lucas Oil Field as my favorite childhood player Marvin Harrison got inducted into the Colts Ring of Honor.
The other thing I didn’t know about the sports industry was how much I would hear the word “No”. I interviewed with NBA, NFL, and WNBA positions that didn’t work out, and didn’t even get responses from countless other applications. I made a last-ditch effort and applied for all remaining openings around the country and finally received an offer from the Atlanta Braves for a year-long Community Affairs traineeship.
For the second time, I moved across the country. This time I had no family around and I had bills to pay. I had no backup plan if this didn’t work out. I learned the city, the community programs and the team, but it was incredibly lonely with no support system. Thankfully, I found some amazing people within the organization who made work enjoyable, a feat when working seven-game homestands on top of a full work week. The role was very similar to what I had done in previous organizations, but the Foundation side was new to me and the front office was much larger, so I spent a lot of time learning what other employees did.
Halfway through the season, my boss from the Colts reached out to let me know that there was a job opening and asked if I would be interested. This was my chance- this was my dream job at my favorite team, and I was so ready to come home to all the people I loved. It felt meant to be.
Until I finished second to another former intern. I was devastated. I was a year out of school, on my fifth internship and alone. I questioned why I had put myself through all of the long hours, low pay and cross country moves and decided that while this was Chipper Jones’ last season in the big leagues, it would also be mine. If I didn’t get a job out of my time with the Braves, I would move home and find a new path. After two more long-distance interview processes without an offer, my boss at the Braves recommended me for a Community Relations/Corporate Communications position with the Dallas Mavericks. At this point, I was confident in my experience but was realistic that the opportunity may not pan out. I was working a Braves game when I received a call offering me the job.
Then reality sank in. I had only been to Texas for my interview. I would have to move again. The salary was half of what friends of mine were making in the corporate world. There were so many reasons to say no, but I didn’t want to regret walking away at this point.
I made the move and I worked to put my mark on programs that had been done the same way for the last 10 years. I fought to prove that our department was just as important as others. Did we generate revenue? Not directly, but we provided new sponsorship platforms. Did we expand our brand reach? Not traditionally, but the goodwill grew fans. There was an offseason with quite a lot of turnover and I was approached by the new Marketing VP about an opportunity to move into a marketing role. I was flattered to be considered and was intrigued about taking a new position, but was torn because my heart had been on the non profit charitable side for so long.
It was the best decision I made in my career.
It stretched me to learn much more about other areas of the sports business, working on campaigns with the ticketing and sponsorship departments. I was able to use my prior event experience to build promotion plans for each game of the season. I managed advertising budgets, had a small staff of my own and still helped to scale our outreach efforts. But what I fell in love with most was thinking creatively to find ways to bridge different departments, grow the Mavs brand and create memorable moments for our fans.
Moving up in the sports industry also comes with its challenges.
As the youngest employee by far in a management role and one of very few women, I had to earn respect in a higher profile position and wanted to prove my worth. Most of the company was from Texas and had only worked for the Mavs. As with any workplace, there were lots of personality types, lots of egos, and lots of barriers to break. I struggled internally with how to fit in and if I could be respected as both a professional and a person. Ultimately, I watched the people in the company who I admired and followed how they managed their teams. But the biggest thing I realized is that I brought something to the company no one else could: my perspective. I made myself a promise that I wouldn’t shy away from sharing ideas and speaking up, even if it made me or others uncomfortable.
When my family relocated to Houston a few years ago, I struggled leaving a job where I had worked so hard to make a name for myself. Even now, with years of full-time experience, I knew it would be tough to find a sports job in a new city. I eventually landed my current role with the Houston Dynamo where I oversee the digital team and the marketing platforms for our sponsorship, ticket sales, and merchandise departments. I had to learn the game of soccer but remained confident that my varied background could translate to another league, another market, and another organization. But as I’ve grown more comfortable in my career, my newest challenge is trying to find the elusive work-life balance.
The real story is that working in sports comes with tons of sacrifice. It can be a grind to work long hours and spend nights, weekends and holidays away from your family. It can be disheartening to get told no way more frequently than yes. It can be lonely to move all over the country and have to build a new life each time. It can be bittersweet even when you get a great opportunity to find success and comfort in your abilities.
Yes, I’ve enjoyed access to free tickets, cool swag and chances to work with players. But the sports business has provided me with a few things I consider so much more valuable. I have the opportunity to spend every day at a job that challenges me and combines my passion and skills. I have made lasting relationships with friends and mentors across the country. And above all, I get to provide others with the types of experiences that brought my family together.
It’s not for everyone, but the sports business is special. As Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, “It’s the hard that makes it great. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it.”
Lexie Sidney is the Director of Strategic Marketing at the Houston Dynamo of the MLS. She has nearly 10 years of sports industry experience working with 6 different teams and properties. As a Clubhouse member of ours she's very gracious with her time and has a passion for giving back and helping others succeed in the industry. She's a regular Clubhouse contributor so be on the lookout for her next piece!