Sports Networking – How to Bootstrap It from Anywhere

Oh the good old boys. An old school industry ran in an old school way. Sports are progressing… slowly… but they’re progressing. I’m not just talking about women working in sports either. I’m talking about people working in sports that didn’t get hired because they’re a son, or niece or friend of a friend. Whether you like it or not, networking in this industry is vital to getting hired and succeeding in this industry.

I went to college in Shreveport, Louisiana where you wouldn’t expect much opportunity to meet the right people in the sports industry. I wanted to either be a sports agent or do marketing for a professional sports team or clothing brand at the time. Both of those professions require knowing the right people. Most people meet the right people by scoring an internship, working as an assistant, being a coffee boy, or sweeping their floors first. The ones that are more likely to get the jobs though are the ones who have a personal connection with somebody within the organization. Unfortunately connections mean more than qualifications for post grads in sports.

So, how did I get so well connected coming from a school with no sports business department and a town with no major sports teams? I bootstrapped the heck out of it and now can connect with literally anybody in the sports industry at any time with my personal network.

Starting a Sports Networking Meetup

My Junior year of college I discovered somebody I felt I could relate to. My brother Trevor told me about a guy named Lewis Howes and said that he was a former athlete who teaches people how to network in sports, and is a self made entrepreneur himself. So I checked out Lewis blog, his sports networking site, and it all started to click. Networking events. Lewis hosted what seemed to be a lot of networking events and established himself as a person that could link people with somebody else. The importance of his role as the networker put him in a position of power since he had something the rich and powerful wanted… introductions to other rich and powerful people.

Every networking event that the SportsNetworker and Lewis talked about however were in cities like Los Angeles and New York. There was nothing even close to Shreveport, Louisiana. So long story short… instead of waiting for somebody to host one near me, or wait until I graduated, I decided to just start one myself and see if people would show up. So I took to LinkedIn.

Step 1 to Connecting with the Audience

The first step to bootstrapping my networking in sports was LinkedIn. With LinkedIn I searched for everyone that worked in sports in the Shreveport, Louisiana area by simply searching the term “sports” in Shreveport, LA. I was blown away. There were hundreds of people that popped up working for college athletics, minor league baseball teams, sports agencies, hockey, and more. So I added them all. I didn’t just click add and move on though. I clicked add, then typed the reason why I was adding them;

“Hey [Name], Next month I’m kicking off a super casual happy hour meetup for those of us who work in the sports industry to grab a beer and get to know each other a bit. I wanted to personally invite you and hope to connect soon! I’ll let you know the exact date and place and what not when it’s all set. Thanks for your time and chat soon! – Kyle”

The key to my message was that I wanted every person to feel special, and I wanted to seem real and not like a professional drone. Professional drones are no fun after work. They’re the ones with name tags and walk around with their fingers interlaced and posture on point. People who say “grab a beer” sound like a good time since hey, I want to grab a beer… not work.

I couldn’t say how many people accepted my link up request, but it was in the hundreds. About half of them responded to my message. Then I ran across Lewis Howes story on networking on LinkedIn. Here is where I discovered the power of a group.

Step 2 to Create a Group for your Audience

Step 2 of bootstrapping my networking in sports was creating a LinkedIn group for my new connections about our sports industry meetups. In just a few days after creating the Louisiana Sports Industry Meetup I had over a hundred people join the group after sending out invites to the group to my new Louisiana connections. Now I knew there were people who would actually show up. I picked a date and location for the first meetup, posted it on the group, and began advertising a bit. I advertised on my school campus, sent invites to the sports professionals in the area via email, and reached out to other organizations to help spread the word.

Step 3 to Put on the Meetup

Step 3 was the meetup. I reserved a table at Buffalo Wild Wings and showed up by myself because I didn’t know anybody else that wanted to work in sports. This was nerve racking reserving a table for 15 people… and even more nerve racking when I was sitting there 10 minutes past the meetup time and I was still all alone. Even more nerve racking when my waiter comes to ask if they can borrow a table since he noticed I was all alone for the past 40 minutes. Then somebody showed up. I apologized for there not being anybody else there but the woman was quick to correct me and tell me not to apologize, and that she was “just thankful somebody is trying to do something like this”. A few minutes later people started to show. Our first meetup had 12 people, and around 30 beers drank. I envisioned a meetup being around 50 people. Not 12. I only got a table for 15 because BWW wouldn’t let me reserve for more than 15 on their busiest night of the week. Thank God they didn’t let me get a table for 50 haha. But, now I’ve learned that 12 people is an insanely big number for a meetup like this. Especially for the first one. I also learned that all 12 people thought that they had to pay to be there… and they came expecting to pay to be there because most every networking event costs money to be there. If people are willing to spend money on something, then it’s of true value. The number of people there wasn’t the win for the meetup… the people who were there was the win. The group had heavy players in the sports industry in Louisiana. An owner of a sports ad agency and talent agent, a sports reporter, 2 assistant Athletic Directors, a journalist, an ironman competitor, the head of the Shreveport sports museum, a college athletic trainer and more. These weren’t interns or college kids trying to get a job like I expected. These were the people in positions of power.

One of the First Meetups at Buffalo Wild Wings in Shreveport, LA
Me at the first Meetup at Buffalo Wild Wings in Shreveport, LA

The second meetup was the same exact people with the addition of 1 more, and the 3rd meetup I brought a guest speaker. The Team USA Olympic Weight Lifting coach, Kyle Pierce. I had over 60 RSVP’s for this and hosted it at a local cowork space. 8 people actually showed. Again, I felt embarrassed, and apologized to Kyle who typically gets paid to speak, but did this because he liked the idea. He as the last woman stopped me from apologizing and made me look around to see who was there. What I saw was $50 in free appetizers and drinks I bought for 8 people, a kickass slide show on the projection screen and a live musician playing acoustically… that was a lot for a college kid. What he saw wasn’t just 8 people… he saw 8 heavy players in the local sports industry. 8 people who combined could connect me with anybody I want in the country pretty much. So Kyle changed up his speech to a round table discussion that last 3 hours. The people there told me it was better than they could have imagined, and I realized the power of quality over quantity. I was onto something.

Me and Kyle Pierce at the last Louisiana Sports Industry Meetup in 2011.
Me and Kyle Pierce at the last Louisiana Sports Industry Meetup in 2011. This is the exact moment he was explaining the power of quality over quantity.

This group I ended up putting together just 5 meetups, but every meetup was of significant value. I was in a position of being the connector in the city of Shreveport over just 5 months of meetups. I’m still in contact with a few of the attendees and one has even gone as far as helping me do a music festival. The meetup there ended because I left college for baseball, and eventually started another meetup in Los Angeles, CA.

Los Angeles Sports Industry Meetup

I hate nametag events where people are speed dating around passing out cards and giving business pitches. I don’t care about your business pitch unless I ask you for it. I also don’t like people trying to sell me on something I don’t need. That was the power of my networking events in Louisiana for the heavy players. They were showing up and casually getting to know other people over a beer, and if business came out of it then awesome. Nobody ever gave a business pitch though. Nobody ever tried to be a salesman. People just chatted, shared stories, made jokes about each others drink orders, and had a genuinely good time. It was a disruption in their routine. A pleasant one. This is what I thought Los Angeles needed, and I was right.

Every single person that showed up to my first Los Angeles meetup I’m still in touch with. In fact, every single person that showed up to my first 3 Los Angeles meetups I’m now good friends with and have offered endless connections. The first meetup consisted of 2 Olympic gold medals and an NFL Pro Bowler. 2 current Olympic track runners showed up, and a former NFL star. It was just 4 of us at the Yardhouse in down town LA… but it was 4 athletes going through the same thing… trying to switch from sports to business. It seemed like a fail with 30 RSVP’s on the LinkedIn group, but I’d learned to not trust RSVP’s anymore. It was a huge success because of who was there, not how many were there. My second meetup I met 3 more people that are now good friends. A former 1st round pick in MLB and 2 girls that are kicking butt in the sports media world. The next couple of events had a few additions and new faces before the last one I ever did un LA had 50 people show up. What’s funny is the event with 50 people was in reality my only unsuccessful meetup.

Why was an event where over 50 people show up unsuccessful? Because I never got to create personal connections, and too many job hounds and college kids showed up. It was fun, but not successful. Business pitches started as people tried to meet everybody, so nobody truly got to know anybody. Also, I started noticing the people in positions of power looked miserable as the job hounds were talking to them, not with them. One person mentioned, “we should have done name tags.” The group was cool, and could have been something I could make some money off of, but it was no longer of significant value to the heavy hitters I had been connecting with in the smaller groups. I did one more meetup after that, but it was just myself and my buddy Arnie who I met through the group. After this one, I left for Arizona. The LA Sports Industry Meetup is still going as I handed it off to somebody else to take on.

I’m now kicking off a new meetup in Arizona since that’s where I live now. This one seems to be the most successful one to date, and once again is with a bunch of people I don’t know and I doubt know me. Networking will never end for me, and will never end for people trying to succeed in this good ole boys industry of sports.

Today I’ve found myself being the person that my idols are reaching out to and thanking for connecting them with somebody or getting them into certain events. The combination of my networking events, use of Twitter and LinkedIn to reach out to people in sports, and lack of fear of failure has taken me a long way.

I shared this story for you to use as a guideline to start your own events no matter where you are or what you’re doing. To see my successes and failures. Not living in a big city, or area where all of the big networking events are is no excuse to not know the right people. Complaining because somebody else got the job that you wanted because somebody less qualified, but friends with HR head got it is lame. It’s a cop out. Just because you weren’t born into any connections in sports doesn’t mean that you can’t be more connected than most of those who were. Just because you’re from a small town (I’m from a town of 25,00o in southern Oregon) doesn’t mean that you can’t be friends with your idols in sports. It doesn’t mean you can’t earn a good rep among those in the power position of hiring you. You getting or not getting your dream job in sports has nothing to do with other people knowing the right people… it has to do with you not putting in the effort to know the right people yourself. Yes it sucks that personal relationships trump your college degree a lot of the time in the sports industry… but, if you have personal relationships and a college degree, now you’re a force to be reckoned with in the sports hiring world.

“If you build it, they will come.” (But you have to have a plan and put in the work to make it fun and valuable as well.)

 

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