Nearly all sports have a place where raw but talented individuals can receive training in best practices, before advancing to high profile positions within other organizations. For example, professional basketball has “G” League, golf has its “Q” school and baseball has the minors. While these places are a launching pad for athletes, they are also fertile ground for venues looking for aspiring sports facility leaders.
The question, in the post-pandemic era, is how organizations can go about finding, training, cultivating – and, of course, keeping talented professionals. Much has changed in the way professional education is presented and consumed. Here are some examples of how today’s leaders are keeping a strong workforce.
Years ago, Wes Hall was one of those aspiring professionals. Hall got his start interning for Minor League Baseball teams where any given day would involve parking cars, donning a mascot uniform or pulling tarps prior to rainouts. “It was grueling, unglamourous work, but it allowed me to touch a bunch of different areas in venue management and event operations. It led me to my next role and the one after that,” said Hall.
Now, Hall helps venues within the SF Network optimize performance and meet operational goals. He advises facility operators in several areas including building productive teams. For employers in the sports tourism field, finding people who, like Hall, are willing to do the little things needed to provide a great guest experience is critical to success.
In this article, we will examine how high performing sports, events and recreation professionals not only discover the next generation of facility leaders, but how they grow them within their organizations.
What Experiences, Traits and Skills Are Important?
Building a high performing team starts with understanding the skills and traits that translate to operational effectiveness. While traits such as undaunted determination and work ethic are not easily learned, a few experiences are transferrable to sports facility management.
“A common thread I’ve found is that people who work in the events industry tend to do well in sports,” said Lori Moore, account executive, Sports Facilities Companies. “People who work in this industry know how to prepare and how to adjust when things come up and they will always come up.” Moore also found that people with experience in convention center operations and collegiate sports have performed well in sports facility management for similar reasons.
Creative problem solving is a highly desirable skill among facility leaders, particularly when paired with strong communication skills. “You must be a people person in this industry. The individuals who do the best in our industry are the ones that aren’t afraid to talk to and find the right people to solve specific problems,” said Mark Beale the general manager of the John T. Rhodes Myrtle Beach Sports Center (MBSC).
Additionally, venue leaders look for a broad set of tangible skills when finding new talent, including an understanding of financial management and an ability to learn and take on multiple roles. The latter skill is crucial for leadership success. “As a GM, I’d have a hard time asking someone to do something if I hadn’t done it before,” said Hall of the importance of learning multiple skills. To grow into a leadership role, he worked in a variety of areas, including facility kitchens and family entertainment centers, with the goal of learning how operational processes in these areas come together to ensure a facility runs optimally.
Where Do Sports, Event and Recreation Professionals Find Top Talent?
When talking to industry leaders, it becomes apparent that the preferred place to find new leaders is among their employees and the best place to look for employees is among their interns. “We love having interns because we get to coach them up to be the type of employees we need them to be. Because of that, we often look internally for managers,” said Beale.
At Myrtle Beach Sports Center, finding industry leaders starts with an internship program. The program is organized in partnership with Horry-Georgetown Technical College’s sports tourism program. Over the years, several interns have gone on to full-time roles at the venue, including two current employees. Beale pointed to the broad range of experiences that interns receive during the program as a reason they grow into effective sports tourism professionals. “Our program includes a little bit of everything. We have our interns support our marketing initiatives by creating social media posts and writing press releases. We also have them sell tickets and we can customize our program to fit their interests, including events management.”
While internship programs provide a comprehensive introduction to the sports management industry for students, it also helps professionals determine who has the necessary traits to advance their career. “We run our internship program during the summer when our schedule is at its toughest. That’s where we put them through the gauntlet in terms of activities from facility and turf maintenance to event operations to marketing. It’s challenging, but it gives interns a great taste of what they are going to get into operationally,” said Todd Yancey, an account executive at SFC.
Prior to his current role, Yancey served as the general manager for Elizabethtown Sports Park, where they partnered with several local universities, including Western Kentucky University, to bring aspiring professionals to the complex.
When organizations aren’t looking inward for new talent, they also rely on industry events such as Sports ETA’s conferences to discover experienced sports events professionals. These events are particularly appealing because it allows managers to engage with a large pool of professionals who have a deep interest in, and a connection to, the industry.
The Role of College and University Programs
The sports tourism industry places a high value on the type of experience that comes from internships and volunteering when finding new team members; this naturally leads to questions about the continued role of college and university programs in this process. However, according to Beale and other venue leaders, school programs still play an important part in the development of future sports professionals. “Getting a sports management degree can be very helpful for young professionals because it will guide them in whatever direction they want to go, whether it’s sports facility operations, events or working with pro or college teams,” said Beale.
College programs can help groom professionals for specialized sports as well. One such program can be found at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. The school is one of the few in the nation to offer a degree in tennis management. Students in this program, many of whom have been lifelong players (and who want to stay connected to their sport but have no intention of being on the pro circuit) learn about the business of tennis. The program covers all aspects of tennis facility management, including operations, event production and facility maintenance, as well as coaching and player development. Graduates of this program advance to a variety of roles within the sport including tournament directors, youth program developers, instructors and country club directors.
The sports tourism industry also pursues future professionals from programs outside of sports. Cedar Point Sports Center works with students at the Hospitality and Resort Management program at Bowling Green State University’s Sandusky, Ohio campus. “We decided to work with a college that has a hospitality and resort management major because people look at our sports venues, in many ways, as a tourism destination,” said Hall.
The Importance of Service
Not matter what avenue a sports, events or recreation professional takes to find team members, the importance of finding people who are passionate about serving guests can’t be denied. The top venues are filled with customer-centric employees and leaders and their internship programs are geared around building empathy for the customer.
Sports tourism is more about service provided behind the scenes than what takes place on the field or court. And the organizations that find employees who understand and embrace this concept are the ones that often drive record-breaking success. SDM