Navigating the Sports Career Landscape

by Ryan Ireland: Marketing & Communications Manager - National Lacrosse League
November 30, 2021

When you think of working in professional sports, what leagues come to mind? Most would answer NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, or MLS. These are the pinnacle leagues in the United States, and everyone wants to work for them, but they can be difficult organizations to find a role with. Over time though, I have found a love and passion for working for the National Lacrosse League.

I studied Sport Management at Ohio University. While at OU, I learned about the industry's best practices, ongoing trends, and professional advice about landing that first job. The biggest piece of advice my professors preached is never to chase a logo but chase a mentor who will help you grow into your career and an organization with a culture that suits your needs. You could work at an organization with a reputable name, but if you dislike your job, the culture is toxic, and your manager isn't helping you develop, no amount of swag will make up for it. Over time, I have come to fully understand what they meant.

I took a slight detour in my path out of school. I started as an Inside Sales Representative with the Colorado Rapids at Kroenke Sports and Entertainment (KSE) before landing my first marketing role with the Colorado Mammoth of the National Lacrosse League, also owned by KSE. I had actually interviewed with the Denver Nuggets for a marketing role first. I didn’t get the Nuggets job but was offered the role with the Mammoth because I talked about my prior experiences with the Denver Outlaws and University of Denver lacrosse program.

"My advice to those looking to get into the industry is to broaden your horizon when searching because you may find a gem you weren’t expecting. Do your homework when searching for roles in both the organization and management."

I had no idea what to expect; it was a new role for a team and sport I hardly knew. I had gone to my first game about a year prior and just remembered that I could not believe I had never attended a game before. I was in awe the whole night and thought the product was top tier. Why had I never attended before? This has been my motivating question for almost five years now in my work.

When I told my friends that I took a job with the Mammoth, they always asked questions like “how long do you see yourself working for them?” or “would you rather work for X team?". My answer simply was always "no," which they would never believe, but it was the honest truth.

Working in the NLL has provided so many opportunities at an early stage of my career. The Mammoth marketing department consisted of one person, me. It is a smaller league but to work with the best athletes in the world, averaging 12,000 fans per game, and in a world-class venue like Ball Arena, there was not much else I could ask for. I got to work on every facet of the organization. I wrote press releases, handled media purchasing, creative, setting theme nights, planning gamedays, helping move tickets, and pitch sponsorships. I even dressed as the mascot on occasion and was a judge for the dance team.

After four seasons with the Mammoth, a position became open at the NLL, and I jumped on the opportunity to try and help grow the sport across North America. Since 2017 when I first started working in the NLL, the league has gone from nine teams to 15 teams; we have gone from not having any broadcast to being on ESPN and TSN. We have added amazing owners into our league like Joe Tsai, Wayne Gretzky, Steve Nash, and Comcast Spectacor, among others.

Many people have never heard of the National Lacrosse League, which is understandable. We know we are a niche sport, but the fanbase is hungry and we are finally getting the exposure necessary to grow our game. We find that once people attend their first game, they are usually hooked. Box lacrosse is easy to understand if you enjoy other sports like hockey or basketball. Tickets are affordable, and the atmosphere is unbelievable. It also doesn't hurt when we averaged about 10,000 fans per game during our last full season.

I connect with students via the mentor program and commonly ask, “what is a typical day like for you?”. I always chuckle because every day varies drastically, which is one reason why I love my job. Our league office consists of 17 people. Total. To say we wear a lot of hats is an understatement. We are a small but mighty team with individuals coming from a variety of backgrounds. I get to work on a little bit of everything, including website development, paid media, social responsibility, free-to-play game, press releases, team services, and more.

What am I trying to get to with all of this? We all know working in sports is competitive and challenging. We all know the long hours we put into our work and how exciting it was to get our first job. If you are able to find an organization that will help you grow, with coworkers you enjoy working with, and feel like you make a real impact, you likely found an organization worth staying around for.

My advice to those looking to get into the industry is to broaden your horizon when searching because you may find a gem you weren’t expecting. Do your homework when searching for roles in both the organization and management. Don't be afraid to look for a role in a smaller organization or sport you are unfamiliar with. Your friends might not get it, but the experiences you will be able to take from it from a professional development point of view are priceless.

Whenever I interview, I hate the question, "where do you see yourself in five years?" I finished undergrad about six years ago, and to say I would be working in professional lacrosse, a sport I had little knowledge of prior, would be one of the last things I would have said. It truly has been the best blessing of my young career to help me develop into a well-rounded professional, and I could not imagine being anywhere else.

Ryan Ireland is the Marketing and Communications Manager for the National Lacrosse League. Ryan works in all things marketing for the league, including website management, social responsibility programs, paid media, branding, social media, gamification, data analysis, and event management. Prior to arriving at the NLL, Ryan worked for the Colorado Mammoth from 2017-2020 as the Marketing and Promotions Coordinator. Ryan earned a degree in Sport Management from Ohio University. He is currently getting his Masters of Sport Administration from Ohio University, graduating in 2022 as part of the Professional Masters of Sports Administration program. Ryan is a Mentor in theClubhouse and you can schedule a call with him here.