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Athletic Participation and Leadership: How Sports Can Prepare You for Life

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By: Meaghan McCloskey, @Meaghan_Mc3

The Seattle Women's Leadership Breakfast gave women the chance to learn from and network with top female executives in the area.

A few short weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Seattle Women’s Leadership Breakfast presented by the Seattle Sports Commission and moderated by Jen Mueller, a local reporter for ROOT Sports and owner of Talk Sporty to Me. The hour-long discussion centered on how participating in sports helps develop leadership skills in the business world. Featured on the panel were:

  • Colleen McAleer: President of the Washington Business Alliance and a former collegiate cheerleader and Army veteran.
  • Carrianne Smith: Area Director of Sales and Marketing for Starwood Hotels & Resorts and a former figure skater.
  • Frances Traisman: Vice President of Sales for the Seattle Mariners and a former cheerleader and gymnast.
  • Alisha Valavanis: President & General Manager of the Seattle Storm and a former collegiate basketball player.

Throughout the hour-long conversation, these inspiring women touched on the importance of athletic participation and how it can prepare you for a successful life long after your playing days are over. While there were multiple points discussed, the three that stuck out were the importance of teamwork, leading no matter what and the importance of confidence.

“Talent doesn’t matter if you can’t work as a team”

— Alisha Valavanis

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work…

Teamwork was the biggest point of emphasis during the discussion. Like sports, you have to be able to work as a team in the workplace. Everybody has a different role, but each one is critical for success. One point Valavanis made was, “Talent doesn’t matter if you can’t work as a team.” This is important because it emphasizes what you’re working towards is bigger than yourself, and there are some things you can’t accomplish on your own.

Valavanis’s comment re-affirm the notion that the most successful teams are the ones who collaborate and bring out the best in each other. Everyone brings something different to the table, no matter if it’s at work or in sports. When you can utilize everyone’s strength harmoniously, you’ll have more fun and accomplish more.

Being coachable was another characteristic mentioned because it shows you can take feedback to better your performance. When playing a sport, you have to be able to take feedback from your coach in order to improve. The same goes for the workplace. It’s not always easy to listen to criticism, but it will help make you a stronger person and a better performer. Remember that your coach (or boss) is part of your team and they want you to be successful.

“Play your role well. When you can do everything in your role well, you’ll be ready to take on more tasks in addition to what you already do.”

— Frances Traisman

Leaders Lead…

While titles are important when it comes to distinguishing leaders, they shouldn’t keep you from being a leader in your role. In sports, you’ll often hear about underclassmen being leaders, even though they haven’t been on the team as long as the upperclassmen. With that in mind, you don’t have to be the CEO or Vice President of a company in order to be considered a leader.

Smith mentioned that sometimes you’ll need a nudge from someone else, but that’s where being coachable comes in. You’re always learning from your peers, whether you’re an intern or C-Suite level employee. If you’re still new to a company, don’t be afraid to speak up in meetings or offer your ideas to a coworker who might have more “pull” than you.

There have been multiple times in my career where I had an idea, presented it to the right person, and they listened and loved it. It didn’t matter to them that I was in a seasonal-position or wasn’t working in the same department as them. There have also been times when I presented ideas that went nowhere, but that doesn’t mean my opinion wasn’t valued. Sometimes the timing is bad or it doesn’t fit with their vision, but speaking up shows that you are proactive and care about the company, product, and consumers/fans.

Traisman’s advice to those in attendance was to, “Play your role well. When you can do everything in your role well, you’ll be ready to take on more tasks in addition to what you already do. But you have to master your tasks first.”

This advice is important because it’s easy for people can get ahead of themselves and want to take on more before they’re ready. It reminded me of the saying, “Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.” I’m definitely guilty of wanting to do a little bit of everything, but am constantly reminded that’s not always the best route. Doing a few things well is better than doing lots of things poorly.

Be Confident and Passionate…

The panelists were asked how someone can “own their space”, and having confidence was mentioned across the board. You have to trust and be proud of yourself and not be afraid to go for it. This also includes negotiating for yourself. It’s not always easy to speak up and defend yourself, but you have to be able to convey your value because hard work won’t always cut it.

I used to have a hard time speaking up, but thanks to my peers, some classes in college, and involvement in extra-curriculars, I’ve been able to put aside my fears and just go for it. The worst thing someone can say is “no”, but if you have confidence in yourself, you’ll be able to use that “no” as motivation and not be complacent.

They also mentioned you should be passionate about what you do. If you’re passionate about something, chances are you’re very knowledgeable about it. The more knowledgeable a person is about something, the more likely they are to speak up because they’re confident in what they know. Passion equals knowledge equals confidence. Find your passion and use that to build your confidence.

You don’t have to be the star-athlete or on a Division I team in order to reap the benefits sport has to offer. Just by joining a team, you’re showing that you want to work for something bigger than yourself. Sports participation helps you learn time-management, teamwork, and self-motivation, all which are crucial characteristics for being a leader and are frequently mentioned in job descriptions. You might not realize the benefits at the time, but when you get to the working world, you’ll see a lot of similarities.

Professional Development

Fuel Academy Propels Fans and Staff At Michigan International Speedway

In the past, MIS brought on seasonal staff to help its ticket sales and customer service efforts. However, this year it formalized that program and structured training, branding it Fuel Academy.

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MIS Fuel Academy
Photo Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Breaking into the sports industry can be a daunting career path, so Michigan International Speedway has launched a training program that not only helps young professionals, but aims to improve the track’s customer service as well.

In the past, MIS brought on seasonal staff to help its ticket sales and customer service efforts. However, this year it formalized that program and structured training, branding it Fuel Academy – an effort MIS President Rick Brenner says aims to help both the employee and the organization.

“For the past few years, we’ve worked to create and implement outbound sales to provide customers with better service, and allow folks to talk to people here at the track,” Brenner said. “Now, we want to frame it up, give it its own face and brand — the goal is to create an opportunity for young people to come in and grow and sell tickets.”

READ MORE: A Look at the New Foundation of Richmond Raceway’s Ticket Sales

Brenner said the development of the Fuel Academy was a group effort internally at MIS, especially spurred by the hiring of Ryan Shelton and Michael Neis. They helped put together a “guide book” for success and lead the Fuel Academy class through role-playing conversations and product knowledge before letting them loose in sales efforts.

Shelton, the vice president of business operations, joined MIS earlier this year following six years with the Salem Red Sox, including three seasons as the team’s president and general manager. Neis joined the team as director of ticket sales and service following six years with the Oakland Athletics, most recently as director of membership and premium services.

“A lot of young professionals, college students, are looking for their first opportunities to get into the sports business,” Brenner said. “This is an opportunity for them to learn from some of the very best and development skill sets and provide them with a road map to top-notch service.”

Brenner said the goal for Fuel Academy is to prepare students to sell better during their time at MIS but also setting them up for greater success in their careers – even if that’s not with the organization.

From the outside Fuel Academy may look similar to any other inside sales program, Shelton said, but it is based on what he’s learned on throughout his career and adapted and evolved with the times. The first week is largely spent with leadership discussing the organization’s “why,” he said, and the new staff also spends the week going through role play situations and product knowledge so they’re fully comfortable by the time they jump on the phones.

Through the rest of the 24-week program, there are weekly individual meetings to look at their greatest victory and figure out if it’s repeatable and to set goals and to fix hitches throughout their sales process, whether the issue is getting appointments or closing sales.

“We don’t want to have them feeling lost or a manager feeling frustrating and bottling things up,” Shelton said. “A lot of it is helping them understand we control our destiny. We really want them to understand it controllable and developing relationships with clients and engaging them to lead them to return at a higher rate.”

Like MIS, more organizations are looking toward a more personalized approach to building young professionals’ careers, ranging from sales specific programs in colleges to sales leadership programs within pro sports organizations, like the Atlanta Hawks.

“Selfishly, we could probably hold on to them longer, but we don’t look at people as a number, we look at them as people and do whatever we can do to help them get to whatever they want to do at the next level,” Myers Dean, Hawks manager of new memberships said. “We don’t want to hold them back. Now we have so many, they call us when they need account executive, and most of the time we can send them a few right away.”

Shelton said through running programs similar to Fuel Academy throughout his career, he’s seen approximately 75% stay in the sports business, many advancing to leadership positions. He’s now the only remaining professional in sports from his 14-person inside sales class.

The past weekend was one of the biggest days of the year for MIS, with the FireKeepers Casino 400. Brenner said it was a crucial weekend to have these young professionals better prepared and on the ground telling the story of MIS’ fan-centric endeavors, as well as selling renewal plans for next year. Now they’ll prepare for the next major race in August.

Having more highly-trained salespeople will also be a boon for the track, which added several new fan-friendly initiatives this year such as an air-conditioned hospitality area and free pit passes for children under 12. Tickets are also now priced dynamically based on demand, Brenner said, to help make them more affordable. The 1,400-acre site also features free concerts and other entertainment options beyond just racing.

READ MORE: How NASCAR Stays Up to Speed in the Ever-Changing Digital Space

“We’ve added a slew of entertainment options and focused on our fan experience and want to show them we value their time with how we’re treating them,” Brenner said. “We’re really looking at the total experienced building out a package around the races.”

Brenner said he hopes the introduction of the more-structured Fuel Academy will not only help “fuel our crowd,” but also the young professional he hopes it attracts.

“Hopefully we look down the road 10 years and we’ve got a whole bunch of alumni that are either here or excelling and moving on to organizations across sports,” Brenner said. “We want to embrace the fact that folks are interested in sports and that it’s a great path to start a career and develop knowledge that will be useful in any sport or facility.”

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Professional Development

Inside The Huddle: Group Expectations with Michael Taylor

After ten years on the business side of pro basketball, Michael Taylor has learned how valuable persistence and personal branding are in ticket sales.

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In the buildup to Front Office Sports’ Ticketing Huddle at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on May 10, we’re introducing you to the huddle leaders who will be lending their expertise to the conversation.

Today, meet Michael Taylor: Director of Team Marketing & Business Operations at the National Basketball Association (NBA). Taylor will be one of the leaders of the huddle “Squad Goals: The Evolution of Group Expectations.”

Taylor played basketball at West Virginia State University, where he graduated in 2004 with a degree in business administration and management. After playing basketball in Europe for a few years, pursuing a career on the business side of basketball simply made sense. It’s also proved to be a natural fit. For example, during his time in Detroit with Palace Sports and Entertainment, the group sales department jumped from 29th in revenue leaguewide to fifth in just over three years.

READ MORE: Inside The Huddle: Premium Sales with Naimah German

Now, with over a decade in the NBA, Taylor takes great pride in the people he has been able to develop.

“I look at some of the people that I’ve been able to work with and have hired and are thriving in the industry and moving on to different leadership positions, and that is probably the thing I’m most proud of,” he says. “The people and the development pieces are where I like to focus my time.”

The biggest mistake that Taylor sees young reps making in their early years is not having a short memory.

“In this business you have to be able to take the bad days…the days where you make a hundred calls and 50 people hang up on you and you leave 50 voicemails and no one returns,” he says. “You have to be able to maintain the same enthusiasm, the same confidence on that next call. And then, on the flip side, you have a day where maybe you made that big sale. Do you then slack off? Do you get complacent? Do you not focus on your fundamentals anymore because you’re starting to see some success? Don’t focus on what happened yesterday, whether it was good or bad, but approach each day as a chance to be great.”

READ MORE: Inside The Huddle: Group Expectations With Josh Feinberg

Taylor’s other piece of advice to young professionals just beginning their career in ticket sales is to constantly be maintaining their reputation online and in real life.

“It’s never too early to think of yourself as a brand,” he say. “The things that you do now, you’re building your reputation before you even realize it. The sports world is small. When you think about applying for internships or applying for jobs, your reputation is what speaks before you even get into the room. Everything that they do either adds to their brand, or it takes away from it.”

Meet Michael and hear more of his thoughts on the current ticketing space at the Front Office Sports Ticketing Huddle at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, CA on May 10. For tickets and additional info, click here.

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Professional Development

Inside The Huddle: Premium Sales with Naimah German

German will lend her expertise on premium sales at the Front Office Sports Ticketing Huddle at the Oakland Coliseum on May 10.

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In the buildup to Front Office Sports’ Ticketing Huddle at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on May 10, we’re introducing you to the huddle leaders who will be lending their expertise to the conversation.

Today, meet Naimah German: Premium Sales Consultant with Legends at the Las Vegas Stadium (the future home of the Raiders). German will be one of the leaders of the huddle “The Experience Economy: Navigating Shifting Premium Sales Demands.”

READ MORE: Inside The Huddle: Group Expectations With Josh Feinberg

German made the move to Nevada in January of 2018 ahead of the Raiders moving to and playing their first season in Las Vegas in 2020. In the months since, German and the rest of the organization have had their hands full in the best possible way.

“It has been a whirlwind to have that many people on the waitlist,” she says, “but we were all committed from the very beginning, and we are making adjustments as we go along. So it’s been a lot of learning as we go through that process of checks and balances and communicating with one another.”

Prior to arriving in Las Vegas, German graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2007 and worked in insurance and advertising sales for a number of years before completing her master’s degree through Northeastern University in 2014. German’s breakthrough, and what she describes as one of her proudest professional accomplishments, came in 2015 when she landed a Membership Development Associate role with the Miami Dolphins.

“That was the most rigorous process to get a job that I’ve ever been through,” German says, reflecting on the experience. “I did two separate phone interviews and then I had to fly myself out to Miami. But I knew that if I went down there, I was going to come back with the job. They had a hundred of us participate in a sales combine, and we competed for a job over the course of that whole weekend. They accepted nine people into that inside sales class and I was one of the nine.”

German then joined the Legends crew in 2016 as a Premium Sales Consultant with the Atlanta Falcons, where she stayed for about a year and a half before moving on to her current role in Las Vegas. With her experience on the premium side, German has learned that the ability to build strong relationships with clients go a long way.

“Ask questions and you will be able to build a relationship with someone and know why they want what they want,” she says. “Everyone wants the top-notch experience, so being able to identify potential problems early in the process is going to help alleviate any potential frustration.”

In her experience, German notices that many young sports professionals can define themselves by their work. While careers are important, she urges everyone to maintain a balance. 

READ MORE: Inside The Huddle: Selling A New Team With Ted Glick

“Don’t let the job take over your identity,” she says. “Sometimes people forget who they are with all their motivations and ambitions and what they want to do. Knowing you are more than what you do is a much healthier attitude to have in this business.”

Throughout her career, German has not lost sight of how sports can be a force for good. This is the primary reason she wanted to pursue a career in the industry, and why she continues down this path today.

“Sports is something that brings people together,” she says. “I always come back to that. When you’re at a game, we’re all one. We’re united.”

Meet Naimah and hear more of your thoughts on the current ticketing space at the Front Office Sports Ticketing Huddle at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, CA on May 10. For tickets and additional info, click here.

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