The top 5 things I learned in my first year in sports leadership

by zach Henderson - Manager, Inside Sales at the Washington nationals | February 18, 2020

From my first opportunity with the Philadelphia Eagles, I knew that this was going to be an amazing industry to work in... but not without facing challenges. I originally grew up in a small farming town in Lancaster, PA, where the closest professional sports teams were over an hour away. Coming from a small town and attending a University with a young Sports Program, I knew I would have to work harder to prove myself. So, I developed a drive that eventually pushed me further in my career than I ever expected.

After graduation, I started my sales career with the Pittsburgh Pirates as an Inside Sales Representative. Now this seems like a dream come true, right? Well, it was... but it didn’t come without doubts on where the journey would lead me.

“What would I need to do to succeed? How talented are the reps I will be competing against? What did I just get myself into, I don’t have any sales experience?”

These thoughts rushed through my head as I stepped into PNC Park on my first day as a sport sales professional. The reality was, I had a lot to learn in a very short amount of time.

Flash forward to today and now I’m the Inside Sales Manager with the Washington Nationals. I know what you’re thinking, “well what did you do to separate yourself, and what did you learn during your time there?” The funny part is, although I learned a lot from being a seller early in my career, a lot of the life lessons have come since starting as a first-time manager.

Here are the top five things I’ve learned in my first year of sports leadership:

1. No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care

In our business, we are results driven and by definition our job is to generate revenue. Not just a few million dollars of revenue, but the Ticket Sales and Service teams are responsible for generating the largest amount of incremental revenue in the organization. That being said, no one finds themselves in a leadership position without first finding that level of success in the office.

Once you jump into the leadership side of the business, you must first figure out how your reps are going to buy into you and your brand as a leader. The key to all of this is showing how much you genuinely care about your reps, their career development, and their growth. Without trust being established upfront, reps will never fully respect past work ethic and success until they know how much you care.

2. The harder you try to work, the less you actually accomplish

As a rep in this business, your overall day is a numbers game. “How many calls can I make, how many meetings can I close, how hard will I push to outwork the person beside me?”

When you get to the management level, hard work is not the only thing that will drive results for you. The ability to stay organized, maximize efficiency, and prioritize tasks will make or break you as a leader. As a rep, you only have yourself to account for. As a manager, you are juggling multiple schedules, tasks, and meetings which put you into a whole different ballgame.

3. Leaders have to motivate everyone differently, while treating everyone equally

When taking a look at reps in this business, especially entry-level reps, you will find that everyone is motivated in their own unique way. Based on my experience, if I were to categorize my reps, there are two separate buckets. First, you will find that there are individuals who are motivated by being challenged. The “tell me I can’t do something and I’ll show you I can” mentality is something that a lot of reps respond to and will run through walls for.

Second, the other 50% of individuals need positive reinforcement. If you push them too hard, they will retreat back into their shells. These are the individuals that need reinforcement of their accomplishments and emphasis on what they’re excelling in. The hardest part of having reps in these two buckets, is finding a way to balance motivation differently while treating everyone equally.

4. The sports world needs more big brothers/sisters, not friends and parents

Reps who find themselves being promoted into their first management roles have an uphill battle when learning the ropes. No, I’m not saying that because of the lack of experience, I say this because the mindset reps have when they receive this promotion. With many first-time managers (not all) being close in age and recently performing the very role they oversee; they tend to treat their reps more like friends or parents rather than the big brother/sister.

The first year of a reps career is vital and they need someone who they look up to, someone they see as a role model, and someone who is teaching them the ropes, while holding them accountable. Managers need to separate themselves from the “friend zone” and understand that reps have parental figures in their life and they need a coach and mentor.

5. Sometimes you need to lead your staff towards a goal even when you can’t see the finish line

As a manager, there will be times, whether it be your first few months or third year on the job, that you are tasked with implementing something new. Also, there are going to be times when you are asked to execute a new campaign, contest, or process that you know nothing about. The idea of being a leader and pushing towards a new goal or something that may not even be built yet can scare you to death, but that is exactly why you were hired.

In today’s world, sports organizations and managers are always looking to stay ahead of the curve. “What are other teams doing that we’re not? How are they executing their training? Why are they landing better talent than us?” All of us at some point in our career will be tasked with taking these questions and fears head on. That is the only way that we grow, the only way that we get better, and the only way that teams progress forward year over year. So, get comfortable with leading the race, even when you can’t see the finish line.

For all senior level representatives and soon to be leaders, make sure you read the tips above carefully. Although there is still a lot to learn, the tips above are the five biggest takeaways from my first year in management.


Zach Henderson is the Manager of Inside Sales at the Washington Nationals. He graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2013 but he's technically been working in sports since 2008. He's had stints with the Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers and Pittsburgh Pirates before moving to DC to work with the Nationals in 2017. He's been very successful in a short period of time and has been very gracious with his time, offering to help others. He's also a mentor in theClubhouse and if you'd like to connect with Zach you can find him here.