Work in the Sports Industry

One person’s experience working in the NBA and Major League Baseball…

Melinda Travis started her career in professional sports working as an in-house broadcasting reporter and associate radio producer for the NBA’s Orlando Magic. As an integral part of the team’s daily sports news cycle, she had a ringside seat as the players interacted with the media.

After her work in the NBA, Travis went back in her native Canada where she gained her sports communications credentials at Major League Baseball, managing media relations and grassroots events for MLB International’s Toronto office. In that capacity, she also worked in marketing and communications and helped develop and execute campaigns that increased media coverage and public awareness for Canadian players in the Major League and furthered media interest in the game overall.

Professional Sports Stadium

Travis has since transformed her professional sports experience, media, agency and communications background into her position as co-founder and chief operating officer for Comment Communications, a sports and entertainment communications firm.

However, her experiences, memories and relationships that were honed and developed working in professional sports are still a big part of what she does today. She shared those experiences and more in this interview with JobMonkey.

Getting Started

Like many who aspire to work in pro sports, Melinda Travis got her start through an internship – hers with the NBA’s Orlando Magic. She worked with the Magic’s broadcasting department and the team had a program that allows qualified post grads the opportunity to fill critical positions that are central to the day-to-day operations of the team.

“I was the one and only in-house reporter for the Magic Radio Network,” says Travis. “My primary responsibility was to gather content for the network’s shows which meant interviewing the players every day after practice. On game days, I would attend shoot-arounds for both teams and gather more material for our pre-game and half-time shows. As the season went on, I also began writing and producing my own halftime features, which turned into weekly assignments.

“With this job Travis was court side for every Orlando Magic home game. This, she says “was by far the most exhilarating part of my day-to-day job. To see the intensity of the game that close, to see the power and athleticism of the athletes from that vantage point and to hear the conversations among the players during the game is something very few people get to experience.”

Those were some of the positives.

The hard part for Travis, was also the part many people covet in a position with a professional sports team – getting up close and personal with the players.

“As a 22-year-old girl fresh out of journalism school, NBA locker rooms were definitely intimidating in the beginning,” says Travis. “While my intimidation disappeared after the first few times, I was never really 100 percent comfortable. I always felt it to be very intrusive for the players who really just wanted to shower and get dressed without a throng of reporters waving a mic in their face.”

At MLB, Travis’ role was much different as she moved out of broadcasting and into the marketing and communications arm of professional sports. She was part of MLB International’s Toronto office where the overall goal was to increase the sport’s popularity in Canada and attract more fans to the game. Her primary role was to oversee the league’s grassroots marketing initiatives and generate media awareness about what MLB was doing in Canada. She managed relationships with Canada’s amateur baseball federations working closely with them to implement MLB-sponsored development programs. She was also responsible for fostering relationships with Canadian players already in the major leagues and increasing their media coverage in their home country.

For Travis, this was on opportunity where the perks of the job paid off.

“One of the best parts about working for MLB was unlimited access to ballparks,” she said. “As an employee of the league office, I had an American and National League pass that allowed me and a guest access to any game at any park in the major leagues. In Toronto, my husband and I lived walking distance from SkyDome and spent almost every weekend at the ballpark during the season. There was no better way to spend the afternoon.”

From a professional standpoint, working for a league office was a great experience, Travis said, because she saw “the big picture” and gained an understanding of the broad issues that affect the sport across the board – from broadcast rights and sponsorship to licensing and operations.

“Working for a small satellite office magnified that experience even more, because the department was made up of me and my boss, the Director of Marketing & Media,” says Travis. “As a result, I was included in every aspect of strategic planning and participated in high-level meetings with network executives and top consumer brand managers from the very beginning.”

Travis continued: “I would say to anyone wanting a career in baseball, especially at the team level, the season is long – 162 games equals a lot of work and thousands of hours. I don’t think a lot of people understand that going in. You have to love the game to make that kind of commitment day in and day out, year after year. If you don’t, you will burn out quickly.”

How to Get Started in Pro Sports

What worked for me – and I think still holds true – is being very targeted in your approach,” says Travis. “You cannot send all 30 NBA teams your resume and expect to get any results, even for an internship. You’ve got to make a shortlist of your top organizations and put your efforts into finding a point of entry so that you can start building relationships with people on the inside.”

How do you do that?

Travis:  Well, I knew I wanted to intern with the Magic so that’s where I focused. After getting the internship package, I immediately called the broadcast department contact listed on the paperwork to ask her more questions about the program. We had a great conversation and just like that, I had my entry point. I completed my package, sent it in and followed up with a note, and then continued to send her new work samples as I completed more during the school year. My goal was to get an interview because I knew if I interviewed, I could seal the deal. So, I decided to get a bit more creative. I called my contact at the Magic and told her I was going to be in Orlando soon for a family vacation and wanted to know if I could come and meet her in person. When she agreed, I told my family we were going to Florida. It worked and I was offered the internship on the spot, months before the final decision was supposed to have been made.

Aside from being persistent and determined – you have to be able to back up your work. Because sports is so competitive, you have to – flat out– be better than anyone else. That means becoming a student of the game and doing your homework – every day.    For me, it meant pouring over NBA team media guides so that I could recognize the faces of every single player and coach, listening to hours and hours of radio interviews so I could learn their voices (very important for radio), and reading the columns of the top NBA writers every day so I always knew the issues of the day – trade rumors, injuries, coaching changes, organizational problems, locker room unrest, etc.

Ultimately, you’ve got to have a plan – know where you want to work, what job you’d like to do, who you need to know to get in, how you plan on meeting those influential people, and developing the skills you need before you meet them so that you have something to offer. This last point is critical. In my experience, you cannot even expect to get an internship in professional sports without some kind of prior experience in sports — so start early.

Get involved with your high school or collegiate athletic program. If you want to be a sports journalist, get involved with the school paper and start writing sports stories. If you want to be a sports therapist, volunteer as an assistant to your school’s athletic trainer – anything and everything is relevant. Before applying to the Magic, I’d already interned for a local track & field club (which led to a volunteer position with the Canadian Olympic Association), I used my journalism school credentials to regularly get into Ottawa Senators games so I could gather interviews with NHL players for my portfolio, and I also interned at The Sports Network (Canada’s ESPN) during my spring breaks. You have to demonstrate you’re serious and that you’re prepared to put the kind of work in that a career in pro sports demands.

How to Stand Out from the Rest of the Crowd

There may not be a more competitive industry than that of professional sports. Whether it’s working in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, WNBA, or a job in the MLS, or any of the minor leagues, the competition is intense and the talent pool is deep. Those from ages 18 to 80 seek jobs in pro sports.

To get noticed you need to stand out from the crowd. Here is how Travis did that:

The Resume

“I put a great deal of time into putting my resume packages together,” says Travis. “I would incorporate my cover letter and resume into a folder that would also include samples of my work, reference letters from the high profile internships I’d already had, photos of myself interviewing recognizable athletes, and anything else that I felt demonstrated value to my prospective employer. For example, when I applied for the MLB position, I included in my package, a brief presentation on my ideas of how to increase baseball’s profile in Canada to demonstrate my critical thinking and knowledge of the key issues.”

The Interview

“Prior to each interview, I put in hours of preparation, reading every shred of news, researching the key issues and writing mock question and answers so that I could prove I had a depth of knowledge that other candidates did not possess,” says Travis.Once I was “in”, my goal was to learn and absorb as much as I could to earn more responsibility. Even as an intern, I would spend hours just watching my boss produce the pre-game shows so I could learn how to do it. Once I learned how to do it, she was able to shift some of her workload to me, increasing my value to the department and opening up more opportunities for me as a producer. It was the same thing at MLB. The more I learned components of my boss’ job, the more my role expanded and the more he relied on me.

Life in Pro Sports: The Inside Tips you Need to Know

Travis has these words of advice based on her years of experience in pro sports. Job seekers need to clearly understand these comments before getting into the industry:

  • It’s critical to understand that if you work for a team, you will not have a social life during the season. You will have to be at every single game and work 12-16 hour days on game day. If you don’t love it, you’re not going to last.
  • In the beginning, you won’t be doing it for the money. Jobs in sports do not pay well until you start working your way up.
  • It’s not all glamorous, there is a lot of grunt work to be done and you have to accept it willingly.
  • You may never get to see a game. Depending on what department you’re in, game day duties may have you in a production truck in the parking lot, at a studio miles away from the arena, in the press room away from the action or in the hallways coordinating time out and half-time entertainment. I was one of the lucky ones who actually got to sit courtside during the game since I actually had to watch the game to do my job, but most of the other interns did not.

 How Do you Find a Job In Pro Sports?

  • Like any other job seeking endeavor, it’s all about developing relationships. Besides contacting teams directly, there are other places you can meet prospective employees. Most industry conferences are open to anyone and usually offer discounted rates to students. Conferences offer great opportunities to introduce yourself to team personnel who are in attendance. Just be sure you have something to say. Perhaps you’ve done your research and you realize you went to the same college, or are from the same home town – these are all conversation starters that will open the door for you to make an effective introduction. Most people are also very open to answering any question you may have so equip yourself with a list of basic questions you might like to have answered by an industry pro. Most of the executives you meet have all been where you are and are more than happy to give you a minute of their time, if you approach them in a professional way.
  • Other ways you can develop relationships with sports professionals are through social media networks like Linkedin and Twitter. Many students have reached out to me through Linkedin for career advice and if they sound professional, intelligent and serious, I am always more than happy to give them some time over the phone and/or sit with them in person. I have both hired some of these people and/or referred them for other positions. You won’t get hired if people don’t know you exist so it’s important to find a way to be top of mind with people in a position of influence. Usually, by the time a job actually posts, the employer already has an idea who they will hire. Posting is sometimes just a formality. It’s critical that they know who you are before a job becomes available.

Tips for Woman Getting into Pro Sports

  • From my experience, I always felt I had to be that much better. I never wanted to make a mistake because I think people expect women to make more mistakes, especially when it comes to knowledge of the game and/or players.
  • I also think women are second-guessed more than men. I experienced this when I interned at the Sports Network when I was doing something as simple as logging tape. I was logging footage from the Cowboys training camp and was ID’ing the players on the screen. One of the guys next to me looked over at my notes and said – are you sure that’s Nate Newton?  I answered yes – with certainty – but he wasn’t satisfied. He called over all the other guys who were sitting near us to weigh in and they all told me I better double check the media guide to make sure. Of course, I knew without question that it was Nate Newton and that I didn’t need to check the media guide. I did check to make everyone feel better, but I’m certain that if I were a guy, no one would have felt the need to do what they did.

Travis’ Journey

When Travis’ internship in Orlando was up, she had to come back to Canada because she wasn’t able to secure the proper work authorization to stay in the U.S.

“I knew about half way through the season that this would be the case so I knew I had to start making inroads back in my home country to have any shot of securing a position when I finished my internship,” says Travis. “The first thing I did was look at the schedule to find out when the Toronto Raptors were coming to town. A few weeks before, I reached out to the PR director who would be traveling with the team to see if I could get a meeting with him when he was in town. He was more than happy to sit with me and gave me the rundown of the sports landscape in Toronto and what some of my options might be. He gave me contacts for other department heads as well as a contact at NBA Canada. As soon as my internship was over, I flew to Toronto and had meetings with everyone. I really thought it would be easy because after all, I had a full NBA season under my belt, which very few people applying for jobs with the Raptors would have, and I already had made quite a few friends within the organization.

My first week back, I got called for two openings – one was in ticket sales with the Raptors and one was with The Sports Network, offering me a summer editorial assistant position. I was so sold on the NBA and was so sure I’d get in with the Raptors, I turned down the position that was offered to me at TSN. Needless to say, I did not get the ticket sales job (my sales qualifications were not great) and got passed up for 2 other positions with the Raptors.

  • Needing a job to keep a roof over my head, I went to a temp agency and took an admin job with a financial services company that I really believed would be “temporary.”
  • Weeks turned to months and months became a full year. I was still keeping in touch with my contacts at the Raptors/NBA, but there just weren’t any available positions.
  • To keep myself from becoming too miserable, I decided to take advantage of the free educational opportunities my current employer was offering and took a variety of financial services courses to get money savvy. As anxious as I was to get back into sports, the knowledge I gained would serve me well and looking back, I’m glad I had the opportunity.
  • I finally saw a way “out” of financial services and back “in” to sports, when NBA Canada had a job opening for a receptionist. I didn’t care that the job available was the lowest level of the totem pole, I just wanted back in.
  • My contact there, who became an amazing mentor to me, was reluctant to throw my hat in the ring because she knew that despite my passion for the NBA, I would probably be equally as miserable being a receptionist as I was working at a financial services company. I tried to convince her otherwise, but after 3 interviews, she delivered the news – that she could not, in good conscience, offer me a job as a receptionist. What she did do, however, was refer me to MLB for the Marketing & Media manager position which turned out to be the perfect fit. I didn’t love baseball, but I didn’t love it because I was never exposed to it. Once I got to experience the game up close and truly learn it, I was hooked.

The Truth Behind the Relationship With the Athletes

Travis offered these tips:

  • Unless you’re working in broadcasting, PR or Player Development, you really don’t get to deal with the athletes at all. In fact, in my experience, fraternizing with the athletes is more or less frowned upon.
  • Even working in broadcasting and having to interview the players every day as part of my job, I still had to be careful. I was accused of getting “too cozy” with a player because I seemed to be interviewing him more than the others. I was horrified because in fact, I actually was interviewing him more than the others because he consistently gave me the best sound bites and made our broadcasts stronger! I came to realize that because I was young, and a female, there would always be people who would be happy to make those kind of assumptions, but I learned not to let it bother me or impede me from doing the best job I could.

Gaining Transferrable skills

  • More than anything, the experiences helped me understand the player’s perspective. I think that often times, fans forget these guys are human. People think that because athletes make a lot of money, they should do every single media interview, they should sign every autograph, they shouldn’t ever get upset or get into any trouble off the court or field. When you interact with the players every day, you realize the stress some of these external expectations cause them and you start to see why they sometimes do what fans and the media might view negatively.
  • That’s part of the reason I made the switch from journalist to PR professional. I realized how much athletes dislike dealing with the media and because they dislike it, they overlook the massive opportunity media presents to enhance their careers over the long term.
  • At Comment, we do more than just “media train” athletes and get them comfortable in front of the camera, we help them understand the dynamics of the workings of the media and show them how to leverage the media’s influence to build a more lucrative career.

Other Inside Secrets to Find a Job in Pro Sports

  • Cast your net wider. Understand that if you do want to work in sports, there are other options outside of working for a team or league office. There are PR firms like ours, sports marketing agencies, sports law firms, and a multitude of positions with corporate sponsors. Most major companies have entire departments dedicated to overseeing the management and activation of their sports sponsorships. If the idea of working 12-16 hours every day during the baseball season doesn’t appeal to you, you may want to explore these outside options first.

Because sports positions are few and far between, you probably won’t get a job right away. Don’t get discouraged and don’t give up. Instead, use your “down time” to work on YOU so that when the call comes, you’ll be ready. Get subscriptions to ESPN the Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Sports Business Journal, Baseball Weekly or any other publication that will help you become an expert. Hone your communications skills – whether you’re in PR, broadcasting, ticket sales, sponsorship sales or player development, you need to be a good communicator. Join Toastmasters or take another public speaking course. Read time management books, take personal development classes, workout, get healthy and get used to balancing a busy schedule.

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