SBJ/April 25 - May 1, 2011/Opinion

How to restart career in sports business

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Is it possible go back to the future, undergo a Madonna-like reinvention, and daily compete with the Facebook crowd while clutching an iPad and a Daytimer?

I’m about to find out.

In 1978, I became the first sports promotion director in the now defunct Southwest Conference, and, along with others, created the Mustang Mania promotional campaign that catapulted SMU’s return to national prominence and helped revolutionize the collegiate marketing world. I and my colleagues, who are now leaders in the sports world, learned the trade together from a true pioneer, Russ Potts. He didn’t start the business, but he wasn’t far behind.

After being eased out at SMU by an athletic director with a different philosophy, I chose the self-employment route. Joined by a partner, we started a sports marketing company, and for 14 years created and managed events across the country. On paper, we did some extraordinary things. Our bank statement, just ordinary.

The never-ending risk of sometimes winning, sometimes losing (money, that is) inherent in that business drove me out of sports and into the commercial real estate business. I honed my skills and enjoyed my time at several great companies. However, for whatever reason — the economy, timing, me — I never turned the corner in terms of career satisfaction or monetary gain. With that thought slowly tightening as a noose around my neck, I woke up one night and screamed at myself, “What in the world am I doing?”

I had to go back to sports.

As I met with trusted friends and sports contacts of many years, I felt the excitement return. My decision to leave sports nine years ago was partly due to the lure of real estate riches and to a degree of burnout because I chose not to work my way up with a school, team or organization. As much as I loved sports, I had grown tired of occasionally going hungry.

My mentor hammered home the thought that although the best time to have pursued a more stable opportunity in sports was when I left, the second best time was now. I wasn’t about to let this one get away despite knowing that my name had recently appeared on the AARP rolls.

I was recently hired by a collegiate marketing company, a perfect fit for my skill set and passion. I’m working with and for a talented group of people, some of whom weren’t even born when I first started in this business.

Things have changed. The emphasis on technology only makes the basics easier. The ability to sell, create, be resourceful and communicate will always be the difference. Email may have replaced the fax machine but it will never replace the call you must make before and after.

Growing in computer savvy, social networking and digital media are my goals for 2011. I’ve found that repeatedly asking for help is frowned upon by millennials. No need to be scared, I can learn it.

My advice to them would be to build and nurture your network every day and cultivate curiosity. I was taught to link in way before LinkedIn. Although I had left the business, I never totally checked out. I was able to make the transition back into sports marketing because I learned early on that choices and people are all that matter. The SMU athletic director that eased me out remained a trusted friend and made a crucial call on my behalf to an executive at my new employer.

For those like me: Resolve to never again be a clock watcher. It stops for no one and can never be turned back. Our past clock can refine us, it does not have to define us.

It’s never too late to start over.

Brad Thomas (bthomas@learfield.com) is a senior director of business development at Learfield Sports. Follow him on Twitter @brad23thomas.

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