I think this is one of the most important questions for young sports job seekers. I’ve been asked some version of this question many times, and I’ve always been reluctant to answer, because my experience might be different than others. For me, having a niche area has always been beneficial. When I was an attorney, my niche area kept me employed at my firm when other associates at my level were laid off and then helped me land a job at another firm when virtually no one was hiring at the height of the recession. Then when I wanted to work in sports media full-time, I believe focusing on the business side of college sports by founding BusinessofCollegeSports.com helped me get noticed.
At some level, I think we all know that being an expert in an area can make us indispensable or highly sought-after. What about when you’re just starting out though? Is it best to get experience in a number of areas – maybe do one internship in ticketing, another in public relations and yet another in operations? Then you have the experience to apply for jobs in different areas, right?
Right…but would you have a better shot at that PR job if you’d only ever done PR internships and had a more detailed background in that area?
That’s the question I took to three people who’ve done hiring in sports: Todd Stewart (athletic director at Western Kentucky University), Josh Rawitch (senior vice president of communications for the Arizona Diamondbacks) and Mary Pink (associate athletic director for marketing at Iowa State).
Pink says, “It’s not that having other experiences isn’t nice to have, but then I find you don’t get that in-depth in your experience and can’t really make your mark. I have seen where students have interned in different areas of an athletic department and then when I look at their experience, it just isn’t enough in any one area.”
In fact, athletic administrators at several schools tell me when they post a job announcement and ask for a specific number of years of experience in a given area (for example, three years of communications experience) their human resources department will hold them to that specification and not allow them to hire a candidate whose resume demonstrates less.
In addition to that, Pink says she would fear a candidate with only a small amount of experience in an area would have to be trained. When there are other candidates who already have a more extensive background in that area, it only make sense to go with the more experienced candidate who can presumably hit the ground running.
I can hear you now – don’t you get credit for being willing to do anything? Taking on any job available?
“I would be concerned that the student wasn’t sure what they really wanted to do because they had tried so many options,” said Pink.
Rawitch echoed Pink’s sentiments. “I usually tell [students] to try to and pick an area and focus on it rather than have a bunch of different areas of ‘expertise.’ I do so because from my vantage point, I want someone who is really interested in Communications rather than someone who says, ‘I’ll do anything, I just want to get my foot in the door.'”
Stewart doesn’t want to completely discount the benefits of having experience in multiple areas. He says it “underscores the candidate has a broad-based understanding of multiple areas and could likely be taught any immediate skills he or she might be missing.”
Nonetheless, Stewart said the job still usually goes to the candidate with more experience in the specific area related to the open position.
“My personal preference generally would be to hire the candidate who has a tremendous amount of experience in the specific area we are hiring, because this person is likely the most ready to jump right into the job responsibilities and begin performing immediately.”
Not sure what you want to do yet?
Rawitch says his best advice for those folks is, “to be to make sure they take advantage of a few different types of opportunities at their university. As a freshman, I was a part of the Student Advisory Board for Indiana Athletics which was more marketing/promotions on a volunteer basis. By my junior year, I had applied and got a student assistant paid position in the Sports Information Department, and that’s when I realized I wanted to focus on PR/Communications.”
In an ideal world, I think you’d want to use your early college years to try out different areas and the later years to intern in a specific area of interest. The key though is to get some experience while you’re still in college and can find a job right on campus.
“My biggest pet peeve is students who tell me that their dream is to work in sports, or that they’ve always wanted a career in sports and yet, they haven’t gotten involved at their university’s athletic department,” said Rawitch. “To me, that screams laziness and a lack of commitment to that kind of career, and the only excuse would be if your school doesn’t have athletics!”
UPDATE: Tracie Hitz, CMO of Old Hat Creative and a former associate athletic director at Northwestern University, tackled this topic recently as well. I don’t want to beat you over the head with it, but she has much the same advice.