Five Things I Learned While Doing Social Media in the Sports Industry
So, you want to work in sports, do you?
This was frequently my response to receiving emails from bright, energetic soon-to-be college graduates who were seeking advice, opportunity, or just a reply from me while I was working in a role they may have considered their dream job. As someone who was once that college grad with a fire in his belly to learn as much as I could about the sports industry and hopefully, maybe, possibly squeeze a big toe into it one day, I always tried to reply to as many of these solicitations for guidance as I could. Unfortunately, that wasn't always possible, so I'm hoping this post serves as a blanket response to the common question: "What advice do you have for someone trying to get into the business?"
I won't bore you with my background in sports and sports writing, but I will fully disclose that I am no longer in the industry, which has given me perhaps an even better perspective to jot down a few tips and stories about the BFR (that's Brutal Facts of Reality, an industry term) of working in sports, particularly at the digital and social media level.
Let's jump right into this:
1. Before you apply for a sports job, the most important thing you MUST determine is: "Do I have 'IT'?"
Be honest with yourself from the very start: Do you have what it takes to work in sports? No, this has nothing to do with being a fan, watching hours of SportsCenter replays, or having every push notification known to man set up on your phone so you know exactly when LeBron James sneezes.
This is about "it" — the innate ability to do whatever it takes, whatever you're asked, whatever is needed to get the job done at any time of day, month, or year. Before you do anything, you need to look deep inside and figure that out.
I have seen many talented people come and go because they didn't have "it" in their DNA. They could write circles around other journalists or put together detailed scope documents that would leave no stone unturned — none of that mattered when the call came in at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night when the team was about to announce a free-agent signing; None of that mattered when Christmas came around and they couldn't handle not being at home with family; None of that mattered when they had to miss their best friend's wedding because the couple selfishly decided to get married during football season.
Let me be clear: You WILL miss important, crucial life events because of your career choice. I spent many Thanksgivings and Christmases at a local, empty restaurant eating a burger with an intern because I had "it." I missed my family like crazy. It was difficult, but I did it all for my dream of working in sports. You have to be absolutely sure you have the ability to make tough sacrifices for your career or it just won't work for you.
2. Be a generalist, not a specialist
You want to be the next Erin Andrews and that's great, because you have goals and you're clearly working toward them. The pitfall here, however, is that zoom-focusing on that goal runs the risk of painting yourself into a very specific corner that could be difficult to escape from.
As you go through the end of your college days or the first few years of your career, pick up as many skills as you possibly can. Seek out the opportunities to turn your weaknesses into strengths. I guarantee you that's what Erin Andrews did. Your reel may be polished and your camera presence may be as magnetic as it can get, but can you write an SEO headline if you needed to? What about a blog post? Can you edit copy? Would you be able to operate a digital camera to take skilled photographs at an event you're covering?
If you're answering "no" to any of these questions, you need to find the opportunity to build these skills. It always surprised me to see how many digital media professionals, who do impeccable work in their niche, struggle with the English language in a written context. You speak the language; learn how to write it and you'll make yourself far more valuable to employers.
My situation was the exact opposite: I came in with writing and social media skills and left with on-camera abilities. On my second day of work for a team, I was asked to do an on-camera, one-on-one interview with Deion Sanders. I had never once set foot in front of a camera (I had a radio show in college I co-hosted called "Faces for Radio") nor had I done any standup work or learned how differently an on-camera interview should flow from one done off-camera. I was scared, but I took the challenge on. Six years and countless on-camera interviews and stand-ups later, I'm very confident in my on-camera presence and comfort level. My embrace of that particular aspect outside of my written job description served me well during my time with the team and makes me a more well-rounded candidate afterward.
3. No, you're not going to be Superstar Athlete's best friend (unless you make an effort most won't)
"OMG, u work for the Podunk Atomsmashers? Are u friends with Superstar Athlete??!"
No. Chances are, you're not.
Depending on your role, you may know each other. If you're a writer/reporter, you may have asked him a couple of questions here and there in press huddles. You may have passed him in the hallway at work and, if you were lucky enough to be noticed as a fellow human being, you might politely nod at one another. You may have sat in the seat adjacent to him on the team bus on the way to the airport and you were close enough to hear the cacophony of hi-hat cymbal spewing from his headphones. Make no mistake: You're definitely not friends.
It's not impossible to forge a friendship, however, if you feel a personal relationship is crucial to being able to do your role better. If you're going to take on this difficult conquest, however, you must do what others might be intimidated by.
Think about things from Superstar Athlete's perspective: It's an open locker room session for the media and you're milling around with other reporters. Superstar Athlete doesn't see you as a team employee, your paycheck signed by the same person who signs his. He sees you as media. That, in itself, is a challenge that you can probably figure out how to overcome. As Superstar Athlete stands at his locker, reporters and cameramen surround him, block him in, force him to talk — WE MUST KNOW YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT THE GAME!!! You're lucky enough to get a question in, which Superstar Athlete thoughtfully answers in great detail and you feel a connection has been made. The next time you see him, you approach and ask him to record a Snapchat message for fans. A week later, you're checking his pulse on doing a 30-minute Twitter takeover with you in the near future. You rinse, wash, and repeat this over and over, but it's all OK because you're chums, right?
Know what Superstar Athlete thinks when he sees you?
"Crap, this dude always wants something from me."
That's a tough wall to crash through once it's up. Superstar Athlete may seem bionic on the playing field, but he's human, just like you. And, just like you, he has a lot of things to do and always gets asked to do more. When you're one of the people who only talks to him when you need something from him, a pattern is developed and, boom — suddenly Superstar Athlete is using that 4.4 speed to leave because he always seems to have to pick up his grandmother from the airport when you come around.
You've got to find ways to build a relationship outside of work context, but you have to do it in a way that's not overbearing and obnoxious. It's going to take time, so pick and choose your times to execute this strategy. Be prepared for a long haul if bridging this gap results in work that makes your coworkers wonder, "How did he get Superstar Athlete to do that?!"
When you see him in the hallway, look him in the eye and say "good morning!" loud enough for him to hear. Who cares if he doesn't respond? Ask about how his dog/kids/wife/boo is doing when you're equally uncomfortable at a banquet event. Take an interest in talking to him off-the-record about things he enjoys outside of football. A friendship is bound to take root as long as you don't cross the line of becoming the dreaded "jocksniffer." Your patience will keep you from wading into that point-of-no-return.
4. Your work will not always be about the team.
You love sports and that's why you want to get into the industry. You want to cover the team as a writer or social media professional and give fans incredible amounts of wonderful, delicious Snapchatty access that's centered around the sport and the players year-round. That's good, because you should want to deliver like that.
Unless your team has stocked up on digital resources, things are unlikely to unfold that way. As a social media manager or coordinator, for example, there are marketing campaigns that need to be executed, contractually-obligated sponsorship posts that have to be worked through, and meetings. Don't forget about meetings.
Know that your work won't always revolve around the team going in and you'll be in a much better position to manage the time you do spend on the team while still accomplishing other important tasks that may not excite you as much at a high level.
5. Be ready to hear the word "no." A lot.
This one can be applied across social media as an industry as CEOs and public relations professionals continue to try to understand your purpose and why your existence and expertise is important to your overall organizational goals. You're going to come up with the best ideas ever. You are — you're just that good.
You're also going to hear "no" or "absolutely not" or some form of rejection I'll refrain from using here due to this being a post for all ages. Be prepared for this.
When I have an idea, I'm the type of person who's so excited about it that I need to tell everyone about it because surely they'll share in my enthusiasm for the next big viral thing since the Harlem Shake. The BFR: Womp, womp.
The enthusiasm is great — definitely have that — but have the restraint to sit down, take a breath, and really think through your idea. You have so many questions to answer: What would it take to get it done?; How many man-hours?; What do you think the ROI would be?; Is it worth it?; What are the pitfalls?; Is this "on-brand"? Poke holes in your idea until you're absolutely sure it can still hold water, then sit down and scope it out.
The execution of every idea should start with a goal. It's not good enough to just have a great idea; you've got to have something you want to accomplish with the execution of that idea. Figure out what that is, then let the idea flow from there. It might take many shapes and forms from its original conception by the time you're done putting it all on paper — identifying risks, defining success, and determining the resources to get it all done — but in the end, you're prepared to present your idea in a more structured way that speaks to those in management.
Has anyone else done what you're proposing before? They say that sports leagues are copycat and they are, all the way to the digital departments. If another team did something similar and had some major success with it, arming yourself with this information puts you in a better position to argue your case when you hear your first "no." If you're blazing a trail and trying to innovate with your idea, you better have some really good reasons in your scope document that go beyond just your departmental goals and aspirations. What does your idea do for the organization overall? And, by all means, if this applies, figure out how this could bring in revenue and clearly have that vision stated.
Having an idea you're jacked up about turned down initially doesn't mean it's a bad idea; it just means that those at the top poked holes you didn't, saw risks you couldn't, and believed the ROI wasn't there. If you anticipate those things and really put the time into figuring out why executing your idea is crucial to the goals of the entire organization, you're going to hear a lot more affirmatives as you seek to push the envelope.
- When applying for a sports job, if your cover letter starts with some variation of "I've been a huge fan since...", just hit backspace a lot and start with something else. When I would go through resumes and cover letters, the last thing I wanted was someone I may have to babysit because they couldn't stifle the fan in them. Look, we're all fans — that's why we get into sports. But "fan" is short for "fanatic" and identifying yourself as such has the opposite effect you're intending. If you have been a lifelong fan of the team you're apply to, you may want to shine a light on your breadth of knowledge about the team. Let the professional in you write about how your knowledge can be an asset to the organization and let the fan in you catch a breather on the bench. No hiring manager wants to be called into the GM's office because you tried on Superstar Athlete's uniform after-hours and it was all caught on security cam — because we really do think you'll do that.
- Your work-life balance is up to you and no one else. No one's going to make time for you to have a personal life but you. While you MUST have that innate ability to get the adrenaline going when you're told to drop everything at a moment's notice or work a holiday or two, you've got to understand that you will get burnt out. Take your vacation. Invest in personal relationships away from work. Get a hobby. It's easy to get caught up in the rapid current of working in sports until you realize it's what defines you. This doesn't sound like such a bad thing, but it is. Don't let that happen.
- Take a moment and look around. Stop. Breathe. You made it. Enjoy it. It's rare when someone makes an entire career out of being in the sports industry, so while you're in it, love it. Take a selfie on the field before the game. Revel in the history of some ancient stadium you'll visit during the season. Remember why you wanted to get into sports in the first place. When you hang up your proverbial cleats and open a new chapter of your life, you'll be glad you took those mental or actual snapshots of the milestone moments. Working for a sports team is a privilege and it offers so many unique opportunities — always make sure you're taking the time to connect your soul with those moments. Any dream worth living depends on that connection.