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Breaking into the Sports Business Industry: A Note from my 30-Year-Old Self to my 20-Year-Old Self

Everyone loves sports.

Our culture is predicated around them for better or for worse. Sport has served as humanity’s greatest form of unwritten entertainment from it’s very beginning. And since then, sport has transcended humanity, snowballing into a captivating phenomenon over the centuries into what we know it to be today.

I am one of those people who became unequivocally enthralled by the power of sport from the very beginning. At 5, I was religiously reading the Sports Section of the Boston Globe. By 10, I was tapping my toes and fidgeting with my batting gloves in the Little League batter’s box emulating my favorite Boston Red Sox, Nomar Garciaparra.  When I was 15, my all-boys catholic prep school gave us the day off school so students could attend the parade and celebrate the New England Patriots winning their 2nd Super Bowl, which has now turned into 6 (and counting).  And at 20, I accepted a summer internship to work at Nike’s World Headquarters in Beaverton, OR … marking the day I officially transformed my passionate fandom into making it a career and launching my path into the sports business industry.

As a young, eager junior at Georgetown University, the sports business industry was something I dove into passionately, yet somewhat by chance. And now, after having just turned 30 this past year, it has caused me to think back on everything I’ve learned in my] career as a sports business professional. I will get approached from time to time by college students or recent college grads asking for advice about the industry … and so I figured I would reflect on a few things (many of which I failed miserably at and others that I did okay with) that I wish I could tell my 20 year old-self who had just accepted that first sports business internship.

Be Opportunistic. It may sound like a cliché, it may even sound blatantly obvious … but I believe it’s the single greatest factor that distinguishes people who succeed in this industry versus people who don’t. That first Nike internship I got was somewhat of an odd happening. I received an email from a Georgetown email domain that looked identical to the hundreds of other spam emails I receive … however for some reason I opened it.

Nike was a company that I resonated with from being an athlete … it was the company I chose when my dad told me I could pick any one stock to invest in as just a little kid (it turned out to be an ok pick). Needless to say, I followed through with the application process and sure enough became the one Georgetown student-athlete that Nike chose that year to be part of their Summer Internship Program. It was only until after I was out in Beaverton, OR that I realized how lucky I had gotten. Nike received about 10,000 applications for their Summer Internship Program that year and only 90 were selected (45 student-athletes from Nike sponsored universities and 45 “at-large” candidates).  After doing the math and realizing that was a 0.09% acceptance rate, my sense of opportunity heightened.

While I had been opportunistic to have secured that internship, I look back at that experience and realize I could’ve been more opportunistic in my time at Nike. While I was definitely doing some cool things like playing hoops with LeBron James and showing Manchester City around the Nike campus, I underestimated how valuable an opportunity that was to network and build more meaningful relationships with key people within the company. Several people in that intern class with me (many of whom I’m still friends with today) have advanced through the ranks at Nike over the last 10 years and are in various Senior Director roles, due in large part to the networking and relationship-building they did during the course of their two months on the Nike campus that summer.

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Nike’s World Headquarters in Beaverton, OR. 

Never underestimate the power of your current situations (no matter what it might be) and take advantage of the resources you have at your disposal.

 

Be Patient. The sports industry is an interesting one given the discrepancy between earnings of athletes and everyone else in the industry. Manny Machado signs a $300 million deal yesterday in becoming the San Diego Padres newest shortstop and simultaneously you have an extremely competitive application process to get selected to be one of the San Diego Padres unpaid summer interns. Because its sports, people are willing to work for next to nothing to be in the industry. Consequentially, entry level salaries fall below many other industries.

When I had graduated from Georgetown in 2012 (after having gotten both my BA in English and my MS in Sports Management), I had a good majority of friends go straight into Finance. Meanwhile, I chose to head down to sunny (yet somewhat desolate) Bradenton, FL to work at IMG Academy … making a fraction of what my friends were making at any of the big banks or consulting firms.

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IMG Academy is one of the world’s biggest and most renown sports academies in Bradenton, FL. The campus is over 500 acreas, costs over $80,000/yr to attend and hosts many of the world’s top professional athletes throughout the course of the year. 

I occasionally had fleeting thoughts of whether I had made the right decision with my career, but my day-to-day work of being at one of the world’s best sports academies and largest global sports companies made it worth it.  And while that was certainly a humble beginning, I very quickly got promoted within 6 months from running the Academy’s Soccer camp/team business to overseeing their brand-new Lacrosse program. In growing the program from 15 Floridians to 50 boys from all over North America and becoming a nationally ranked lacrosse program, my experience at IMG Academy was incredibly rewarding.

The sports business industry is not a race, especially at the beginning given the nature of the industry. Find the right environment, with a path for growth and your patience will pay dividends sooner rather than later.

 

Find a Mentor. Most people want to help other people … it’s human nature. This is a concept that extends far beyond just the sports industry; however, it was something I didn’t fully grasp early on. I think I had a do-it-yourself mentality for much of my early career, perhaps due to my competitive nature of being a former athlete or perhaps simply due to lack of experience.

I would encourage all people new to the sports business industry to try to find one (or a few) people whose careers they regard highly and whose footsteps they want to follow. Get to know that person or people and build a relationship with them.

For me, these mentors I developed during my earlier years In the industry introduced me to key people, gave me advise on important career steps I was considering, and ultimately opened doors to more opportunity within the industry. Just like sales, people buy from people … and when a well-regarded person in the industry can endorse your own abilities and character, more doors will quickly open up.

Surround yourself with the right people and find the one or two you really connect with on a personal level, whose career path you identify with, and cultivate those relationships.

 

Put Yourself Out There. The sports and entertainment industry is perhaps more of a people industry than any other industry in business. And while yes, there are some technical-based jobs within sport, the very nature of the industry is predicated on people. The cliché holds true: “It’s who you know, not necessarily what you know.” People are often the commodity within sports business, whether it be an athlete you’re trying to sign, a sponsor you’re trying to land, or an audience you’re trying to market to.

CatapultWorkshop
Catapult hosts workshops throughout the world for coaches and users to learn and better utilize their wearable technology. 

This has never been truer for me than in my most recent endeavor with Catapult Sports. When I transitioned over to the sports technology field about a year and a half ago, I had lots to learn quickly about the industry while simultaneously trying to hit my number and do my job as a Business Development Manager. Much of my time was spent early on attending conferences and conventions, meeting with the major players in the space (both externally and internally at Catapult). Sometimes it would mean staying up late and having a drink with an expert Catapult client/user after a long day at a convention, another time it might be listening to a panelist speaker at a workshop and being compelled to engage with that person in deep conversation afterwards.

You can’t be afraid to swing and miss … that’s part of being a professional. Roll up your sleeves, talk to people, go to conferences, and put yourself out there to not only listen but also to be heard.

Soccer’s First American Superstar

I get asked every once in a while, “who is the best soccer player you’ve ever played against?” Having played Division 1 soccer at Georgetown for five years, semi-professionally with DC United U23’s as well as stints on trial with DC United and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, I’ve certainly played against several elite players. I’ve played against Herman Trophy winners Joseph Lapira and O’Brien White, International heroes like Andre Blake and Jaime Moreno, and MLS all-stars like Charlie Davies and Dwayne De Desario. The answer, however, is clear as day … that is, 19-year-old Christian Pulisic.

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Myself and Jaime Moreno (MLS’ All-Time Leading Goal Scorer) challenging for a header

At the time I played Pulisic, he was merely 15 years old … and needless to say it was a humbling experience. He was playing with the U17 US Men’s National Team down at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL against my amateur men’s team, the St Petersburg Kickers, a perennial men’s amateur powerhouse and national champion contender. Despite our Kickers team being made up of ex D1 college guys and ex pro’s in their “prime” (20’s and early 30’s), we lost to Pulisic and their group of 15 and 16’s year olds by a score of 4-1, with Pulisic leading the way with a few goals to his credit.

 

As difficult a score-line that is for me to admit; at the time, I’m not sure I would have readily said that the little 15-year-old center midfielder was the best player I had ever played against. He wasn’t running by anyone or muscling people off the ball (given his age and physical maturation), but his technique, vision and ball control were unquestionably the best on the pitch (despite being half the age of many).  And with a hat-trick and an assist in the stat sheet, he was clearly the man of the match.

United States v Colombia: Group A - Copa America Centenario
Christian Pulisic played on both the U15 and U17 US Youth National Teams while training down at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. 

Fast forward to today, about four years later. Before having turned 19 years old (which he did on September 18th), Pulisic has had 9 goals in 60 club games (regular starter for Borussia Dortmund in Germany’s 1st Division) and has 7 international goals in 18 games to his name for the US National Team. In comparison, before Lionel Messi turned 19, he had a similar 9 club goals in 34 club games but only 2 international goals in 9 international games. Nor was Christiano Ronaldo as dominant as Pulisic at that age, with only 6 club goals in 53 club games before the age of 19 and 0 international games to his credit.

 

Featured on CBS’s national “60 Minutes” last Sunday night, Pulisic has already become a celebrity and the face of American soccer. In fact, US Men’s National Coach, Bruce Arena, calls him soccer’s “first American superstar.” Despite the lofty words, it’s hard to argue. Earning $8 million a year with one of Germany’s top clubs, performing better than any other US National Team member at the moment, and having just turned 19 two weeks ago, I tend to agree with Coach Arena’s proclamation as the first American soccer superstar.

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Why is he different? What has allowed Pulisic to stand out this much in a country that is continuously ridiculed across the world for their lack of homegrown soccer talent. Before we talk about the play, I think it’s actually more important to understand the environment he has been put in (as well as removed from) to allow him to grow and mature as a player.

 

  1. US National Team Early – Pulisic started playing with the US Youth National Teams at the age of 14 where he played with both the U15 and U17 teams. He was a captain of the U17 team and scored 20 goals in 34 games through his 2-year cycle with them. This exposure at international events like the 2015 U17 World Cup in Chile where he had a goal and an assist put him on the radar for top international clubs and paved the way for him to Dortmund.
  2. No College Soccer – Despite both his parents playing collegiate soccer at George Mason, Pulisic did not go that route. While collegiate soccer is a great route for most (myself included), for the top 1-2% players in this country who will go on to play professionally and internationally, the game is oversaturated with under-talented players. For the most part, collegiate soccer promotes a direct, physical style of play that severely hinders the development of the more technical and skillful players and stunts their overall growth.
  3. Overseas – As much as the MLS has grown over the course of its 20+ year existence, the best soccer is still played overseas in Europe. Yes this is changing, but the reality is there is a reason why more people in this country choose to watch the EPL over the MLS … the quality.

 

As much of a team game that soccer is (more than any of the top 4 American sports – baseball, football, hockey and basketball), the importance of the playing environment a youth player acclimates too, is exponentially magnified.

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Pulisic’s combination of low center of gravity and speed allows him to dribble at a level that Americans ever never witnessed at his age. 

In looking at Pulisic’s actual game, there are really three attributes that he possesses that have allowed him to transcend the rest of the talent pool in the United States. And quite frankly, after Pulisic, should be weighted heavier when evaluating youth talent in this country. The first is God-given, and that is the combination of his low center of gravity (5’8’’) and speed. This allows him to dribble the ball more aggressively and effectively at defenders than any other player we’ve ever seen in this country at his age. Second … his technique. This may be his greatest asset. His touch, two-footedness, and range of pass, are the things that are immediately apparent when watching him play. His last attribute is largely environment-driven, and that is, his decision-making and vision. Pulisic plays as though he’s been playing at the international level for years (which he has, just not for very long with the US Men’s National Team). His 7 goals in 18 international games speak to his composure on and off the ball, ball speed, and decision making in the attacking third at the game’s highest level.

 

Hyping youth talent seems to have become a sports media cliché in the modern era. But numbers don’t lie … this kid has been better than the best in the game were at his age. And on Friday night, the United States plays in their most important game since their 2014 World Cup elimination game against Belgium, when they take on Panama in a World Cup Qualifier in Orlando, FL. The United States currently sit at fourth in World Cup Qualifying while Panama sits at third, with only the top 3 advancing to the 2018 World Cup. A win secures the US greater than a 90% chance of qualifying, while a loss would dramatically decrease their chances to 44%.

SPI Chance to Qualify

 

We’re at an incredibly pivotal time for the game of soccer in this country and the US National Team. We’re at an equally pivotal time in Christian Pulisic’s career, as he attempts to qualify for his first ever World Cup.

 

The country will be watching on Friday night.

The Power of the Pre-Draft Pick

One “arena” of the sports business world that is often overlooked is the athletic training facility for professional athletes, specifically for the sports of football and basketball. Many of the high profile collegiate or amateur athletes who declare themselves eligible for the NFL or NBA drafts chose to do their training at a world-class sports training facility. With the NFL draft less than 2 months past, and the NBA draft only 5 days away, this seems to be a highly relevant topic.

I think it might be important to understand the dynamics of this business before diving into the details of it. While these training facilities exist for athletes across all sports, the training facilities that focus on athletes preparing for the NFL and NBA drafts are easily the biggest. That is because those two drafts are the biggest in magnitude. The MLB draft has 40 rounds and thus loses its luster. Moreover, many of those prospects spend several seasons in the minors or play college ball before seeing a major league roster. Similarly, the NHL draft does not give fans the immediate satisfaction of seeing players that are “NHL ready.” It takes most top picks in the NHL draft 3-4 years before they are actually playing in an NHL game. Conversely, the NFL and NBA drafts generate lots of buzz, interest, and excitement from fans because nearly all first round picks are just about guaranteed to make their teams the following year giving fans a reason to watch the event on TV.

The NHL Draft attracts very low attendance figures compared to the NFL and NBA Drafts.
The NHL Draft attracts very low attendance figures compared to the NFL and NBA Drafts.

Many of the top agencies will sign athletes right when they declare themselves eligible for the NFL and NBA drafts. Both the NFL and NBA have formal pre-draft combines that are essentially showcases for NFL and NBA management to examine players. They both happen 1-2 months before the draft and allow NFL and NBA GM’s, coaches, and scouts to see all of the athletes’ performance measurements (bench press, vertical jump, etc). Because so much weight is put into these athletic measurements, agents will pay top-dollar for their signed athletes to do their pre-draft training at the very best facilities in the world. With GM’s making million dollar-drafting decisions sometimes based upon a tenth of a second in a wide receiver’s 40-yard sprint, the return on investment for agents on sending their clients to the very best facilities is ever important.

This opens up a market space for facilities that specialize in training professional athletes. To begin with, it’s a very saturated marketplace with hundreds and hundreds of trainers and facilities doing various versions of the same thing. One of the biggest training facilities is EXOS, formerly known as Athletes Performance. EXOS was founded in 1999 by Mark Verstegen and has exponentially grown to where now they have facilities in Tempe (AZ), Phoenix (AZ), Carson (CA), San Diego (CA), Gulf Breeze (FL), Raleigh (NC), and Frisco (TX). They boast 523 players drafted, seven #1 overall picks and 105 first-rounders. Jadeveon Clowney, Greg Robinson and Blake Bortles all attended EXOS and obviously their hard work at these facilities paid off with big pay-days as the #1 overall pick in the NFL drafts.

Another top facility for NFL pre-draft combine training is IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. The Academy started as a tennis academy with the one of the best tennis coaches of all time, Nick Bollettieri, who was responsible for training about half of the draw in the 1986 US Open. From there, the deep pockets of IMG (International Management Group) were able to take it from purely a tennis academy to a world class training facility for many more sports, football and basketball being two of them. Within the last 10 years or so, IMG has landed 86 first round picks, five #1 overall picks, including names like Cam Newton, LaDainian Tomlinson, Luke Joeckel, Luke Kuechly, Ryan Tannehill as well as Super Bowl MVP’s like Drew Brees and Eli Manning.

The #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Jadeveon Clowney, trained at EXOS with Mark Verstegen.
The #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Jadeveon Clowney, trained at EXOS with Mark Verstegen.

On the basketball side, there are a few workout facilities that stand out: Impact Basketball (Las Vegas, NV), Project Basketball (Oakland, CA), and Evolution Athletics (Chicago, IL). Impact Basketball began in 1997 when former Division 1 coach, Joe Abunassar, applied his unique approach to basketball development to guide the careers of several of the best NBA players. Today, Impact Basketball has three locations as well as programs running in over a dozen countries … they have laid claim to over 100 NBA draft picks in the last 7 years. Joe’s early group of clients was Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups, Tyronn Lue, Al Harrington, Tayshaun Prince and Dahntay Jones. From there, Joe was able to start the IMG Basketball Academy in Bradenton, Florida. He then added facilities in Las Vegas and Los Angeles that train over 200 professionals, men’s and women’s national teams, McDonalds and NCAA All-Americans, foreign professionals and young talented amateurs who train at his summer camps and his Impact Academy.

Joe Abunassar has done an incredible job growing his Impact Basketball Academy.
Joe Abunassar has done an incredible job growing his Impact Basketball Academy.

Jeff Pagliocca, with Evolution Athletics in Illinois, is a little newer to the game of combine training, although is quickly building an impressive list of alumni. Everyone from Luol Deng, to Will Bynum to most recently Frank Kaminsky as well as Aaron and Andrew Harrison have used Pagliocca and his staff to prepare for the NBA draft combine.

Virtually all of these training facilities feature cross-training components including mental conditioning, speed training, nutrition, and other components of how to be the consummate professional. In virtually all of these examples of world-class training facilities, the business model has started from a well-known coach or trainer being able to attract a few big name athletes. From there it becomes a snow-ball effect in large sense, where other young up-and-coming athletes want to train where the other best athletes are training. It is here where managing the relationships with the large agencies becomes crucial, as they are ultimately the ones spending the dollars. At this point it becomes a marketing exercise, where the coaches rely on a marketing and business development staff to generate the buzz of who is coming to train at their facility and to permeate that news to the youth athletes, the high school athletes, the college athletes and even the professional athletes.

IMG Academy does a tremendous job in leveraging their NFL Draft combine athletes to market some of their other training products.
IMG Academy does a tremendous job in leveraging their NFL Draft combine athletes to market some of their other training products.

The business is now off and running and new revenue streams open up for these facilities. With the ability to market these big names, the facilities generally then create youth summer camps, individualized private training sessions, team training, events, consulting and sometimes will even look to get into player representation and player endorsements. If executed properly, the pre-draft combine training niche marketplace can have a rippling effect over a potential very large business.

It is a very saturated market with lots of facilities trying to do similar things … and like anything else; the cream generally rises to the top.

The Crossover Clash

On Saturday, May 9th two Top 10 high school lacrosse programs faced off in what was the inaugural “Crossover Clash” featuring the Hill Academy from Toronto, Canada and IMG Academy from Bradenton, FL. The Hill Academy came in ranked #5th in the high school lacrosse rankings, while IMG boasted a #7 ranking. The game featured a total of 35 Division 1 recruits and what would be a total of 41 goals as the Hill Academy edged IMG by a score of 21-20.

The Hill Academy, coached by one of the game’s all-time greats Brodie Merrill, is in its ninth year and has already established as a factory of top college lacrosse products. The Hill Academy teaches very much of a Canadian box-style offense that has proved to be so effective at the International level. Merrill, a Canadian himself, has seen first-hand the rewards of the box style of lacrosse that Team Canada has used to top the US in two out of the last three World Championships.

Similarly, the IMG Academy uses a box intensive style of play that is very much up-tempo. Led by Head Coach Bill Shatz, one of the all-time leading goal scorers at Ithaca College, IMG Academy is only in its third year as a lacrosse program. Already, IMG has become a similar type of division 1 factory that the Hill Academy has developed into over the last few years.

Both the Hill Academy and IMG Academy are uniquely structured in that the typical school day is divided equally between academics and sport training. While they both have their differences, this degree of specialization has already shown its advantages where both of these schools are producing upwards of 70% of its graduates to the Division 1 collegiate lacrosse level. Both prep schools tend to attract the some of the most talented lacrosse student-athletes in North America, but perhaps more importantly, the most dedicated lacrosse student-athletes.

The 21-20 score this past Saturday was very indicative of the styles both programs play … as it seemed whoever had the ball last would win the game. However, this up-tempo, player centric, motion offense both the Hill and IMG implemented is a growing trend at the collegiate level as well. The average goals scored by the eight quarterfinal advancing teams in the NCAA Division 1 men’s lacrosse tournament this weekend were 16 gpg. Comparatively, in the last 5 years the average goals per game of the 8 teams that advanced to the quarterfinals were as follows: 12.88 gpg (2014), 13.75 gpg (2013), 13.25 gpg (2012), 12.62 gpg (2011) and 12.25 gpg (2010). With the introduction of the shot clock and tweaked the substitution rules, the college games is trending to a higher scoring, “up and down” tempo that aligns closely with both the Hill and IMG’s style of play.

This past Saturday was the start of what promises to become one of the best rivalries in high school lacrosse.

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