Thought Leadership

Playing the Game: 4 Tips for Building a Career in Sports PR

During my 35 years in sports public relations, I’ve met many people, from college students to mid-career executives, who aspire to build a career like mine because of their passion for the game. That’s a perfectly valid motivation, one that helped drive me in the direction of my career path.

However, a love of sports alone is only the price of entry.

An undergraduate anthropology major at University of Pennsylvania, I didn’t actively consider a career in public relations until I was fortunate enough to secure an internship at NBC Sports in New York after my sophomore year. Under the watchful eye of my eventual mentor, NBC Sports PR chief Mike Cohen, I learned how to leverage both my innate strengths with the abilities I needed to hone.

Our discipline has evolved in many ways since I entered the profession (such as the role social media plays in our world), but this mix of natural and acquired skill remains critical for anyone engineering a career in public relations — especially at the agency or corporate level. And it goes beyond an infatuation with diamonds, gridirons, hoops and fairways.

If you’re hoping to cultivate a successful career in sports public relations, or virtually any communications function, then remember these four things.

1. Master one, specific area

Fandom will only get you so far. To deliver what we at Taylor define as “irreplaceable value” to your client partners, you must develop a thorough understanding of all aspects of a sport — including deep and actionable fan insights, key influencers from executives to athletes to media, how and why different sponsors approach activation around major sports properties, and the economics of the game.

About 20 years ago, I began working with a client in the bowling industry. What did I know about bowling? Like a lot of folks, I enjoyed the sport on occasion. But that wasn’t enough. I had to immerse myself in the business of the industry. This involved building relationships with marketers, athletes, media, equipment manufacturers, the people running the sanctioning organizations and even individuals on the technology side of the sport. I learned more than I ever cared to about the viscosity of lane oil and its effect on the ball’s angle of impact.

The work paid off. I gained credibility as a subject matter expert and could converse with everyone from CEO’s to bowling media to bowling center owners. A national industry magazine even interviewed me, and I was later named to its list of the most influential people in the sport. More importantly, I was well postioned to counsel my client and other key constituents in the areas where they needed guidance: public relations and marketing.

2. Communicate effectively

The difference between followers and leaders? Exceptional written and verbal communications skills, to start. Whether you’re selling a creative concept or articulating program results, clear, concise and compelling communication enhances your position as a trusted and valued counselor on any subject. It’s critical to be able to gain someone’s attention, trust and confidence.

Being so involved in sports, I have spent a lot of time working major events intermingling with media, league executives, marketers and agencies. The ability to navigate this dynamic landscape as a respected and trusted communicator on behalf of your agency and client partner is a true measure of your success as a professional. Some are born with this skill – I was not – but quite often, it is something that can be developed and cultivated over time under the tutelage of the right people.

3. Keep your interests diverse

Even if you spend your entire career in sports, it’s still important to diversify and broaden your horizons. If you’re on the agency side, do not limit yourself to sports-related accounts. Proactively look to support accounts in other consumer categories, be it entertainment, tech or travel – it will expose you to a broader and more colorful world. You’ll meet greater more challenges, learn new ways of thinking and evolve into a more well-rounded person and professional.

4. Stay perpetually curious

When I speak to students who are considering a career in public relations, I always emphasize how important it is to be curious from that very first job interview through arc of your career. Striving to be better informed about a diverse range of subjects can help propel you on a continual growth path, keeping you energized and motivated. Without curiosity, you’ll eventually hit a wall, become bored and wind up exiting out the back door to another profession. I’ve seen it happen far too many times.

My first job out of college was with Mike Cohen, who hired me when he started his own agency. We worked side by side in a small office in Manhattan, sitting so close to each other that he would eavesdrop on my phone conversations with media and clients and even “join in” on occasion by picking up the phone to finish or correct my thoughts. Talk about pressure!

Nonetheless, it was a great experience that motivated me to want to learn more and more. I asked Mike questions all the time, soaked up all of his sage advice and counsel, and got to know the many stars in his universe.

Considering everything I’ve outlined above about sports and public relations, do you have, or are willing to develop, the qualities that define success? As you plan or navigate your career path, ask yourself this question: Do you want to be a leader – someone who inspires your colleagues and clients and cultivates relationships with people from all corners of the sports world – or are you most comfortable just grabbing a beer, kicking up your feet and enjoying a good game with friends?

The gap between the two can be as wide and expansive as the outfield at Yankee Stadium.

Bryan Harris is COO and Managing Partner of Taylor.

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