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Building a Career in Professional Sports

Every week I receive numerous requests, emails and tweets asking for career advice on how to successfully find a job and build a career in professional sports. Many of these requests focus on positions and jobs within the team management ranks.

It is always difficult to provide advice in a short email or within a 140 character tweet, so I decided to write this career blog in response to the multiple requests I receive.

I have been asked what is probably the most difficult question to answer regarding the field of professional sports. And that question is, how do I get started? There is no simple answer, and even a complicated answer will often not provide you with the information you need. It is a very complex issue, but I will do my best to give you some guidance in this regard.

First and foremost, I advise anyone attempting to get into this field to be prepared to fail. The number of young people who seek to enter the field of professional sports is vast. However, the number of applicants who successfully find employment in the area of sports is tiny. Therefore, I hereby tender to you the best advice you will get. Assume you will fail, and make sure you have developed expertise in another area or areas. You must be equipped to be successful in another profession in the event you are unsuccessful in finding employment in the area of sports.

So how does a young person get started in this field? First of all, a prospective employee must decide whether he or she wants to work on the “talent” (player personnel) side or the business side. Either way, you must realize that opportunities are limited. There are only thirty (30) NHL clubs, and people fight like wounded tigers to keep their jobs.

On the talent side, there are a limited number of avenues open to you. These include the general manager and assistant general manager jobs, coaching, scouting and training. General Managers (and Assistants) historically came from the pro ranks as players (this is increasingly rare), or as players with post-playing coaching experience. A large number (and growing) have MBA or law degrees.

Coaching is a skill with its own training and experiential requirements. If this is the avenue you seek, you need advice from someone else, and you need to seek coaching experience at once.

Scouting is a lonely and difficult job. Most of our scouts either played professionally or worked in junior hockey prior to working for us. The ability to identify NHL-level talent while watching players as young as sixteen years of age is a rare one.

Training requires specialized schooling and education. There are two sides to this trade. We employ Equipment Managers and Athletic Trainers. Most Equipment Managers start in junior or college hockey. And Athletic Training is a specialized profession which requires a minimum of a four-year undergraduate degree in that specialty.

The business side encompasses all the same areas that any business requires: Finance, Computer Services, Sales and Marketing and Human Resources. Professional sports also require employees in Building Management, Broadcasting and Sponsorship. The number of employees on the business side is far greater than on the talent side, and there is less turnover. Business skills also have the advantage of generally translating well to businesses of different types. They also cross over nicely as between specific sports. Jobs on the business side outnumber those on the talent side by a ratio of 4:1 or better.

Back to the talent side. Opportunities are quite limited. To get involved on the talent side, you typically require some genuine and specific expertise in the sport in which you hope to work. These opportunities are limited, and people who secure such jobs generally tend to try hard to stay in them. Turnover is quite low in such positions numerically. On a percentage basis, however, the casualty rate is high! In this area, you should diligently look for internships with clubs, as some clubs hire young people in the off-season. I would encourage you to look in this area. Academic excellence and solid work experience are your best building blocks for entry.

There are seven other areas: other sports, minor league and amateur hockey, NGB’s, leagues, unions, broadcasting, officiating and agents.

Obviously, the National Hockey League is not the only professional sports league in North America. There is the NFL, MLB, NBA, CFL, MLS and more. Also, the motor sports, ring sports, tennis and golf.

Minor league sports teams develop lots of major league talent or the talent and business sides. Amateur sports as well, such as the CHL.

NGB’s, or National Governing Bodies, and International Federations also employ significant numbers of personnel. There are a large number of these, and they employ large numbers.

The various professional leagues employ large staffs in a full spectrum of skill sets. All of the four major league sports maintain their principal offices in New York.

Correspondingly, the players in each sport are all members of their respective players’ association. Each of the four players’ associations also maintain good-sized staffs.

Broadcasting requires specialized training and skills. The broadcasters themselves constitute a truly minute number, and requires extensive experience in Minor League or College Hockey.

The broadcast business, on the other hand, is quite large. Officiating is yet another way to work in professional sports. The skating component makes hockey officials unique.

Virtually all professional athletes are represented by agents. These agents all maintain staffs as well. This can be a good place to start.

While this piece may seem discouraging (it is intended to be realistic), I would encourage you to pursue your dream. Provided you have a solid foundation upon which to fall back, this industry can always absorb bright and talented young people on both sides of the business!

Finally, both the Sports Lawyers Association, Canadian and American Bar Associations have student enrollments. Their addresses are listed below along with other useful information.

I sense your energy and drive. I hope you find this information useful in your quest. Good luck!

Yours truly,

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Brian P. Burke
President and General Manager

Posted in Burke's Blog |
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