Monday, April 7, 2014

Volunteer Your Way to the Career You Want

Image from Pixabay - Creative Commons

“How can I be useful, of what service can I be? There is something inside me, what can it be?”
- Unknown

Over the past 12 years, I have had numerous sports business professionals speak to students in my sports marketing classes. The inevitable question that is asked more than any other is "What advice can you give for someone who wants to break into the sports industry?" Interestingly, the answer to that question does not vary much from one professional to another. The answer heard most often is "get related experience and build a network of professional contacts. There you have it- two secrets to success for working in sports! Of course, the simplicity of gaining experience and building a network is quickly overshadowed by obstacles for doing these things. "How can I get experience" and "Who would give me an opportunity to learn" are examples of questions that stop many would be sports marketers in their tracks, planting self-doubt about one's ability to have a dream career.

Adopt a Service Mindset

 So, how do you gain experience in sports marketing when many open positions seek candidates with experience? Internships are an obvious answer, but they are very competitive to obtain and often unpaid positions. For many students, making a significant 4-6 month time commitment with an organization with zero compensation is not feasible given their financial situation. An alternative is seek out volunteer opportunities, short-term or one-off events that need "sweat equity" from committed volunteers in order to succeed. Volunteers of the unsung heroes of events ranging from a 5K race, to football game day, to a golf tournament. Their work is largely unnoticed and uncompensated, but volunteers benefit from intrinsic rewards of the sense of accomplishment by doing something that adds value to others.

Benefits of Volunteerism

If you are serious about wanting a career in sports marketing, you need to become serious about finding volunteer opportunities. They are more plentiful than internships and are potential learning opportunities. Three benefits you can realize from volunteering are:
  1. Low risk way to "kick the tires" - The short term nature of volunteer opportunities allow you to observe what goes on in a particular job or organization. For example, if you have an interest in collegiate athletics but are unsure if that interest translates into career interest, volunteering as support staff on football game days would be a way to get exposed to the responsibilities and tasks performed by employees in a collegiate athletics marketing department. Volunteerism is a form of sampling; you get small quantities of the job experience and can determine if you want to continue down this path or explore other opportunities.
  2. Build your skill set - Ultimately, you will be hired for what you can do more than what you know and certainly not for the list of courses you took in college. Volunteerism can take you out of your comfort zone and put us in situations in which you gain experience solving problems, dealing with customers, and meeting deadlines. Your goal is to get off the bench and get in the game; volunteering with sports properties gets you in the action.
  3. Expand your network - While volunteerism is thought of primarily for its potential to help you gain experience, do not lose sight of the fact that you will most likely be "performing" in front of other people. For example, several of my students volunteered this past weekend with the Nashville Sports Council in support of its work with the NCAA Women's Final Four. The event is attended by numerous athletic marketing administrators and corporate sponsors, creating potential opportunities to meet important people and engage in networking. I have even had students offered job opportunities (outside of sports) by fans with whom they have interacted while volunteering at sporting events.

Get off the Couch and into the Game

You may be interested in marketing spectator sports, but the marketing side is definitely not a spectator sport. The reality is you probably will not get hired because of the degree and list of courses taken that appear on your résumé. They are necessary, but not sufficient credentials to get hired. To be competitive, you need experience- it's that simple. Take control of gaining experience by converting from spectator to participant and volunteer to position your personal brand to compete in a very crowded space.