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Climbing Your Way To The Sports Industry C-Suite

By JASON BELZER, Liz Boardman, Bret Fishkind
9 min read

So you’ve broken into the sports industry, but how do make your way up the corporate ladder and into the coveted C-Suite?

 

The sad reality is that the majority of mid-level professionals in the business of sports never reach the top – not because they don’t have the resilience to navigate one of the world’s most competitive and cutthroat industries, but rather because they mistakenly assume they can get themselves promoted simply by working longer and harder than those sitting next to them. What they fail to realize is that extended hours and superior work is the bare minimum needed to survive in sports, much less thrive. Moreover, professionals at every level of the sports industry often miss the mark when it comes to developing the management and leadership skills necessary to flourish in different environments and at different times of their career.  Long gone are the days in which mastery of the Four Ps, Five Forces and Six Sigma are enough to guarantee ones induction into the hallowed halls of the C-Suite.

 

How then should young aspiring sports executives adequately prepare themselves to move up the ladder? What abilities should they develop, and what skills should they hone as they make their way through the business?

 

Due to the dynamic and diverse nature of the sports industry, there is no easy way to answer these questions. From teams, to leagues, agencies to athletic departments, there are countless, different careers available to professionals in the sports business, and an equally varied number of paths they may traverse to the top of their respective specializations. Yet for all the differences that various occupations within the sports industries have, we can definitively point to a broad set of capabilities and aptitudes that organizations seek from candidates at various levels of the corporate hierarchy.

 

Director and Manager

Examples: Director of Ticketing, Director of Development, Account Director, Client Services Manager, Marketing Partnerships Manager

 

Sports industry professionals at the manager and director levels are uniquely positioned to develop and learn key skills and abilities necessary to move up to the executive level, without being overtly pressured to manage multiple business units at once. That being said, industry professionals at this level who seek to ascend will have to differentiate themselves from the competition primarily through both superior performance within their specific function and a practiced ability to competently and efficiently lead teams. Qualifications necessary for directorial and managerial level positions in sports include:

 

  • Exceptional job performance and project management, with the ability to perform consistently and efficiently without constant supervision. Proactively sells, markets, and serves as an ambassador of the organization, both externally and internally, and without the implicit instruction to do so.
  • Clear grasp and implementation of management skills, particularly when it comes to learning to leverage other talented team members to complete tasks. This includes the willingness to selflessly support direct supervisors and other senior managers in their own efforts to move up the ladder.

 

The tendency for younger leaders to be promoted into managerial roles in sports, especially in comparison to other industries, means that professionals must be able to prove they are mature enough to warrant such consideration and execute once given the opportunity. It cannot be wholly self-focused; industry professionals can plateau at the director level because they are so focused on their own careers that they fail to help those around them in their own pursuits. The small and close-knit nature of the industry means that young professionals unwilling to contribute to the betterment of the organization and their peers can falter as they attempt to move up the ladder.

 

It is also worth noting that those who ascend to the sports industry C-Suite do not always take a linear path to get there. Because of the diversity of the industry, and the varied size and nature of its teams and organizations, aspiring leaders will make horizontal moves to best position themselves and eventually jump to the next level. This will broaden a leader’s skill set and show a nimbleness and learning agility that is critical.

 

Vice President and Associate Executive

Examples: VP of Ticketing, VP of Sales, VP of Marketing, Associate Commissioner, Associate Athletic Director, General Manager of Sales

 

Mid-level sports executives are faced with a difficult challenge – they must diligently work to develop the abilities and skills necessary to position themselves to ascend, while simultaneously performing above and beyond their peers so as to be admired and fostered by hiring managers, executive recruiters, and key organizational leaders. It may seem that these two tasks are inherently tied together, and to an extent they are, but accomplishing both is not as simple as it may seem. At times, vice presidents and other comparable leveled leaders are siloed into particular departments where they have the opportunity to excel their particular position, but not to cultivate the broad range of capabilities needed to progress their careers. It is thus imperative that aspiring C-Suite executives not only set themselves apart in their specific function, but make every effort possible to develop cross-vertical skills. Qualifications necessary for successful mid-level executives in sports include:

 

  • Fundamental grasp of broader organizational processes that allows them to support C-Suite leader(s) in developing and implementing short- and long-term strategic plans.  Mid-level executives must prove their ability to understand the “bigger picture” by working hand-in-hand with the C-suite to drive the organization and its culture forward. Becoming a trusted and respected advisor to executive teams and franchise owners alike is a pre-requisite to being tapped for succession.
  • Exposure and command of verticals outside their own discipline, parlayed into demonstrable ability to successfully bridge silos within an organization and to spur employees to work together towards common goals. It is not only critical for mid-level executives to learn and develop a broader set of leadership skills, but also to prove that they are an effective and solutions-oriented manager who is respected by their team.

 

The sports industry has evolved to the point that mid-level executives are now not only responsible for managing their own individual business units, but also must be active members of their organization’s senior leadership who are responsible for advising the C-Suite on critical decisions. Inevitably, they must be team-oriented and capable of constant multitasking, and all the while unenviable leading without rank.

 

C-Suite and Senior Executive

Examples: Team President, Chief Executive Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Revenue Officer, Commissioner, Athletic Director, Senior Associate AD

 

The highest level of sports business management also bears the biggest responsibilities, which in turn requires the most extensive and robust set of skills from those making the leap.  While their titles may sometimes differ, top level sports executives have more in common with their counterparts in the corporate world than most people realize.  Those who truly wish to not only differentiate themselves as candidates, but thrive when given the opportunity to lead, must also be superior communicators, collaborators, and strategic thinkers. Qualifications necessary for becoming a senior level executive in sports include:

 

  • Ability to predict industry innovation and steer organizations towards the new and different, while simultaneously being able to convey and implement a broader strategic vision across various enterprises and business units. C-Suite executives in sports should be able to separate their organization from the norm through the execution of ground-breaking strategies, but must also be adept at financial management so as to both spend and conserve an organization’s resources tactically.
  • Sharpened emotional intelligence and the aptitude to connect, understand and empathize with all members of an organization, whatever their impact is on the bottom line. This includes the ability to listen and balance both internal and external constituencies, heeding advice and ultimately making decisions that set the organization on the best possible path. Additionally, they must also be able to parlay these persuasive abilities in a way that allows them to influence and steer their superiors (e.g. ownership groups, university presidents) into concurring with their own visions for the organization.
  • Credibility within both the sports business community and their respective vertical, built through substantial industry experience and by being mentored and shepherded by executives who preceded them. This credibility must translate into gravitas and finesse; senior executives in the sports business must be able to instill confidence and build consensus across a broad range of constituencies while operating under the watchful eye of the media.

 

If the competencies seem complex, it is because the role of a C-Suite executive is equally so. Most large sports organizations now have budgets that exceed hundreds of millions of dollars, equaling – and sometimes dwarfing – their corporate world counterparts. Executives selected to lead such large operations must be as intelligent as they are nimble when it comes to steering their organizations through an industry that is changing rapidly.

 

Take for example, Larry Scott, who became commissioner of the Pacific-12 Conference in 2009 after six years as CEO and Chairman of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). During his time at the WTA, Scott was tasked with turning around an organization facing unique operating constraints and struggling to obtain mass appeal. Through the implementation of a bold strategic plan, Scott was able to bring a five-fold increase in sponsorship money to the association, increasing total revenue by more than 250 percent and bring its popularity to an all time high.

 

It should come as no surprise then, that in the six years since he has taken the helm of the Pac-12, Scott has ensured that the conference has been at the forefront of innovation in college athletics. From spearheading  its expansion with the addition of the University of Utah and University of Colorado, to the launching of the Pac-12 network, to the announcement of a major push into the Far East, there is little question that Larry Scott embodies key skills and abilities that aspiring sports business executives should model.

 

Of course, it is important to remember that while these skills are critical elements of executive leadership, they are not always easily transferable. Prior to joining Colorado State University as its athletic director, Jack Graham was an accomplished executive who was president of ICAT Managers, one of the world’s leading catastrophic risk insurance companies. Graham, an alumnus and former quarterback at the school, hired nine head coaches, extended the contracts for football, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball coaches, increased ticket sales, and made great strides in fund-raising for CSU’s athletics program.

 

On a university campus though, perhaps even more important is the ability to balance and enfranchise diverse constituencies, including the university’s leaders, donors, alumni, faculty, athletes, and others.  In a corporate setting, you answer to a board and shareholders, who are happy (or will remain relatively placated) as long as there is positive shareholder return.

 

It is also worth noting that leaders that ascend to the top of the corporate hierarchy in sports should almost always have the ability to excel at multiple roles at that level. Take, for instance, Valerie Camillo, who recently became Chief Revenue and Marketing Officer for the MLB’s Washington Nationals and is in charge of all revenue-generating activity for the team. Camillo spent several years as VP of the NBA’s Team Marketing and Business Operations (TMBO) group, overseeing the implementation of an analytics function for team business performance. While it would appear as though Camillo’s primary specialization is in business development, her skills and competencies make her far more of a corporate utility player. Prior to joining the NBA, Camillo spent some 15 years in consulting, including building and managing a $40 million business comprised of 90+ people during her time with Booz Allen. It’s precisely that type of diverse experience that has positioned her as one of the most respected sports executives in the industry.

 

Those who seek to make their way to the sports industry C-Suite must always remain cognizant of the long and challenging path they will face to get there. The business of sports does not provide the type of operating environment that allows young professionals to distinguish themselves as easily as they can in other industries. Nonetheless, through diversification of skills and experiences, nimble and agile leadership, and superior relationship building, a path to the top is achievable.

 

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