Take Advantage of Volunteer Opportunities in Sports

Today’s guest post is about Professor Nels Popp’s experience volunteering at sporting events, specifically this year’s Super Bowl. Volunteering at sporting events is a great way to network. Quite often you’ll run into other volunteers who are sports industry professionals and who use volunteering at these events for their own networking efforts. You can make invaluable connections, and have something new to put on your resume.

Professor Nels Popp
Professor Nels Popp volunteering at Super Bowl XLVI

Guest author: Nels Popp, Assistant Professor, Kinesiology and Recreation (Illinois State University)

As a sport management professor, I believe one of my primary duties is to help students find jobs in their dream industry; the business of sports. We advocate students do several things to improve their chances of landing an entry level position in this incredibly competitive field, one of which is volunteering for as many activities as possible. Even though I now get to put the letters P, H, D after my name, I still consider myself a student and this year decided I would volunteer at the Super Bowl. Of course, the Super Bowl is also our nation’s greatest single day sporting event and it is probably not returning to the Midwest anytime soon, so I had some selfish motives for getting involved. But ultimately, I thought by participating, I would be role modeling for our students and it might give me a chance to demonstrate how to transform a volunteer opportunity into a career development platform.

There are many opportunities.

While I will discuss shortly some ways to be strategic in volunteering, I want to point out that students should not simply set their sights on only working events that seem glamorous or have the most “fan appeal.” I have volunteered in a variety of capacities in the past, some at large events or related to my favorite sports but also at some events or with organizations that I never imagined myself affiliating with.

I have been fortunate enough to volunteer with the McDonald’s High School All-American POWERade Jam Fest (when Blake Griffin and Kevin Love were high school seniors) and at an AVP beach volleyball tour stop. I also had the chance to coach youth basketball teams, work at 5K fun runs, and be involved with an event called the National Senior Games. I currently volunteer with an organization called the Miracle League, which is a baseball little league for kids with disabilities. Each of these volunteer opportunities presented unique situations which could have been leveraged towards helping someone land an entry-level job in sports.

How do you volunteer for these events?

One of the first questions I’ve gotten about volunteering for this year’s Super Bowl is “How did you sign up for that?” Organizing volunteers for all of the events in Indianapolis started about two years ago. If someone wanted to volunteer for the game, they needed to register about 18 months in advance with the Indiana Sports Corp. Many major sport events that rotate locations are co-managed by a local sports commission. The Super Bowl, the Final Four, the MLB All-Star Game–these are just some of the events in which a local sports commission will work in conjunction with a sport organization such as the NFL, NCAA, or MLB to host an event.

Many of these sports commissions keep volunteer databases so that they can call on staff to work when the commission successfully bids for events. For example, I signed up about four years ago with the Indiana Sports Corp, the sports commission that operates out of Indianapolis. The ISC regularly sends me opportunities via email about upcoming events they are hosting and for which they need staff. These events range from corporate Olympics and non-profit fun runs, to the Big Ten Basketball Tournament and NCAA Regional games. About two years ago, they sent a posting stating they were looking for Super Bowl volunteers, which immediately caught my eye.

Be strategic.

This segues nicely to my next point, which is, if you are going to volunteer but also have career advancement motives, I suggest being strategic in how you go about volunteering. When the Super Bowl opportunity came up, I knew it would very popular. I was right. There were over 8,000 volunteers brought in, but I read that something like 12,000 people applied. Even though I wasn’t sure about how everything would work out, I applied for things as soon as I had the chance.

With the Super Bowl, the Indiana Sports Corp actually tried to weed out people that were not serious about volunteering so they sent out several application updates throughout the process, asking me to update my online profile, asking me to submit a resume, asking me to allow the FBI to complete a background check, and asking me what specific positions I would like to be assigned. I’m not always great about replying to emails quickly, but whenever I saw a Super Bowl update from the ISC, I replied as soon as I could, which I know paid dividends.

For example, when I was sent a list of all the different positions and shifts I could work during the two weeks leading up the game, I replied within a couple of hours. I checked that same email a day later, and many of the shifts I had applied for were closed, meaning those shifts were no longer available.

To get the most out of a volunteering experience, students need to be willing to do things they might not be comfortable doing and they need to be willing to break out of their comfort zone, whether it is talking to people they have never met, being assertive in uncomfortable situations, or taking initiative even if they have not been assigned a specific job duty.

Another thing I did was research some of the activities taking place in Indianapolis during Super Bowl week. Volunteers were needed for everything from airport greeters, to parking lot attendants, to zip line assistants. I had read in the SportsBusiness Journal about a new concept the NFL was rolling out in Indy called the NFL House, which was a high-end business center dedicated to bringing together NFL partners to discuss business in a welcoming, catered environment. After reading about the concept, I knew immediately that this was an area I wanted to see and get involved. When the list of assignments came out, I made sure two of my shifts were with the NFL House.

Sometimes you have to make sacrifices.             

For an event like the Super Bowl, I was willing to make some sacrifices to volunteer. In fact my wife still doesn’t understand why I would volunteer for an entire weekend instead of hanging out at home with the family. I think this is an important lesson for students. Volunteering for the game meant losing an entire weekend, which is a valuable commodity (and made for a long Monday on my return). It also involved driving the 3-hour trek to Indianapolis twice, once for a training session and once for the actual Super Bowl weekend. (For my training session, I left the house at 6 am on a Saturday, drove three hours, completed an hour and a half training session, met a friend for lunch, then turned around and drove three hours home).

It also meant I did not get to watch the game. I never stepped foot inside Lucas Oil Stadium and I only saw Mario Manningham’s 38-yard sideline catch and Tom Brady’s final dropped hail Mary on the highlights because I was driving home from Indianapolis during the game. That was the price I paid for volunteering at the event.

What are the benefits?

So having said all that, what were benefits of working this event? As a pseudo job seeker (I’m always looking for opportunities for our students), the first answer would be networking. The way my duties were structured, I did not have a chance to meet as many people as I would have liked. However, my first assignment was to work at a Super Bowl Host Committee Donor Party on Saturday night where my supervisor was Kat McVay, a design project coordinator with Adidas. Kat had been communicating with our volunteer staff prior to Super Bowl week and was a terrific onsite resource. She is also clearly a great industry connection. (As a side note, guests at the Saturday night party included Steelers HOFer Lynn Swann, former Giants RB Rodney Hampton, and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, so I did get to see a couple of cool people as well.)

At my NFL House assignment, I got to know Michele Lago, a San Francisco consultant who was brought in to help design and run the NFL house concept. Michele, whose portfolio includes coordinating corporate hospitality at the Olympics, the Masters, SI’s swimsuit issue launch, and Super Bowls, was a great leader who immediately connected with her volunteer staff. In addition to Michele, the NFL hired a sport marketing agency called SportsMark to assist with managing the NFL House, and I was able to meet and work with several members of their staff while on duty.

Also many of the other volunteers were great contacts as they all had strong interests in sport and had volunteered at many of the other events in town. In fact I spent several hours stationed next to a staff member whose assignment during the week was a security post inside the Patriots hotel (he had some great stories).

Always be looking for opportunities to network.

Another thing I did to network was use my Super Bowl opportunity to connect with other industry people I knew in Indianapolis. I have a connection who works for the NCAA. When I drove to Indy for my training session, I asked if he wanted to meet for lunch. During lunch I told him what I was doing and by the end of our meal, he had offered me a place to stay for Super Bowl weekend. As it turned out, he was hosting a Super Bowl party that weekend, and his other guests included a corporate sales manager from the Kansas City Royals and an associate athletic director at Ohio State—all great contacts for me to add to my network.

In addition, just being in the middle of the Super Bowl festivities is a memory I will not forgot. I definitely took in the atmosphere–the zip lines, the stadium, the bands, the street parties, the crowds, and the excitement. On Sunday, I managed to watch the ESPN crew shoot one of their segments prior to my volunteer shift. I got an up close look at Coach Ditka, Jerry Rice, and Cris Carter. Later in the day I found myself just a few feet from Steve Young and Chris Berman.

Volunteering also included some nice swag, including a winter jacket, two shirts, great parking, plenty of food, and of course one of those great blue and white Super Scarves. I walked away with some great photos and a much better understanding of just how enormous the Super Bowl has become. Also, for the rest of my life, I can now include a line on my C.V. that reads “Super Bowl XLVI Volunteer Staff.”

Published with permission of author.


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  • Jeremy Rosenthal
    February 15, 2012

    Volunteering is great. I am actually volunteering for the women’s final four in Denver this year. I actually made that connection with a previous internship. I interned for the Indiana Fever and my boss Kevin Messenger introduced me to Rick Nixon, who handles media services for the NCAA and the main contact for the women’s final four. I contacted Rick and he said he would love for me to come to Denver and volunteer.

  • J. Remington
    February 18, 2013

    This is almost a year old by now, but still a great article! I can identify with pretty much everything you mentioned. I too was a volunteer at the Indy Super Bowl, and had to drive 3hrs from home to get there. I definitely enjoyed being a part of the huge event, and really enjoyed the festivities. I am also a member of the ISC, and really enjoy working at their events. As a Sport Management/Business Administration student, I have found it to be very helpful in building my resume and applying for jobs or internships I am interested in.