Networking and mentoring are "all the rage" in contemporary career counseling, but Kathy DeBoer cautions against a creeping loss of informality and sense of ease. "Networking comes down to being interested in people," she says, "and people will recoil when that interest is inauthentic, just a tool for landing a job." Likewise, she added, mentoring, at its heart, "is friendship."
DeBoer, the executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association, was a member of a campus panel for "Careers in Sports Business." The event assembled six distinguished individuals (including three alumni), ex-athletes all, who make their livings in a variety of sports enterprises. How they got to where they are; what was important on the journey; what, in hindsight, they might have done differently; and what advice they could impart to "K" students aspiring to sports business careers were matters for lively a discussion attended by more than a hundred people. It was sponsored by the College's Center for Career and Professional Development, the Business Guild, and the Department of Athletics.
Attorney and sports agent Storm Kirschenbaum (founder of Metis Sports Management, LLC) stressed the importance of standing out. There are, after all, as many competitors in business as there are in sports. The former Division I left handed hitting outfielder recalled striking out every at bat in his final collegiate game. He'd been overmatched by an overpowering southpaw. After the game, as the teams congratulated each other and he shook the pitcher's hand, he said, "I'm gonna rep you." He was already thinking ahead to post-playing-days career possibilities. And even if the pitcher thought him crazy (the expression on his face, said Kirschenbaum, suggested that he did), Kirschenbaum did stand out, and the art of doing that launches sports business careers. Well, standing out and persistence, he added.
Persistence was the advice of Kalamazoo College alumnus Charles Tucker '56. "You can't have 'can't' in your vocabulary," he said. Every experience offers the opportunity to take notes and ask questions, and those who don't do those things put themselves at a competitive disadvantage. He cited James Thurber's character Walter Mitty, a person who wanted to be several heroes at the same time. Mitty may be a good symbol of a liberal arts-ish jump off point for the right opportunity, which often comes unexpectedly. Tucker has been a lawyer, newspaper sports columnist, stand-up comic, magazine writer, talk show host, and English professor before founding (in his kitchen!) and managing The Sports Network, today the world's largest independently owned supplier of sports scores and information.
Fellow alumnus Jeff Pellegrom (Class of 1988) cited the indispensability of experience and internships (the latter most likely unpaid). The economics and mathematics double major's first experience in the business of sports was founding the Kalamazoo College Triathlon as a student. Somewhat lemonade-stand-like at its inception - the inaugural race drew maybe 20 participants - the event has persisted long after Pellegrom's graduation and grown steadily. More importantly, it immersed the Hornet swimmer in the business of sports - lining up sponsors, advertising and marketing, attracting those 20 "customers."
"Minor league systems in all professional sports live on internships - most unpaid," he said. "But they are opportunities to learn the business." Pellegrom is proof of the cross-fertilization of sports in business. The former swimmer is a current executive (vice president and CFO) of a professional hockey franchise (Minnesota Wild). He noted the athletic diversity of four recent "hockey" interns: two basketball players, one hockey player, and one who didn't play collegiate sports at all. What they had in common? The thing that mattered most: "they could all sell tickets."
A "personal brand" is how one sells oneself to potential employers in the sports marketplace, according to Timon Corwin '86. "It's never too early to begin building your personal brand," he told students. He started as a junior tennis player, simply by the way
"Unpaid internships are opportunities to learn the business."he acted in victory and in defeat. "You build your brand - and you make a difference - by accepting requests and making offers," he explained. "In addition, Kalamazoo College is an incredible opportunity to build a great brand for yourself - through study abroad; internships and externships; network building, starting with professors; and, for many [a quarter of "K" students in fact], participation in intercollegiate athletics."
Corwin stressed the importance of pursuing your passion. His was tennis, which he played through college and afterwards, right up until law school. He continues to discover the value of his law school experience, though he has never practice law. During a prestigious law school internship in Frankfurt, Germany, he had his "pursue-your-passion" epiphany that he "must get back to tennis." That led to a successful coaching career at "K" and, after that, a position as senior director for the junior and collegiate competition for USTA Player Development.
When you pursue your passion be ready for surprises - most delightful, some not, said Kurt David. The best-selling author (From Glory Days) and TV host and producer today counsels athletes transitioning from their playing careers to life after sports. It can be a very difficult transition, one that David experienced in his own journey from professional basketball to his current work. "It took time, but I've come to discover that I'm as passionate about what I'm doing today as I ever was playing basketball. It feels good to have that passion again."
Perhaps the passion for sports comes from its ideal of meritocracy, concluded Kathy DeBoer, who played professional basketball before there was any market for it, but learned many valuable business lessons from the experience. "In sports and in business, your success is based on what you achieve," which is often measurable statistically. Competition is fierce, achievement wins; and these facts are opening sports business opportunities for women and men, said the former Division I volleyball coach and athletic director.