Off the Field and into the Boardroom- What I’ve Learned from Pro Athletes
What did it take to win gold in Sochi; find the mental strength to sink a 20 foot putt on the 18th at Augusta to win the Masters; or contribute to one of only four teams to battle through immense pressure, at such a young age, to reach the Final Four during March Madness?
I’ve had the good fortune of meeting and working with several high-profile athletes during my career in sports marketing. Growing up a golf kid, the highlight was probably my interactions with Mike Weir and Fred Couples during my tenure at IMG, but I won’t focus solely on golf since being objective is key in the business of sports and sponsorship marketing.
Through the last 14 years, my experience working around some of the biggest professional athletes in the world, across all genres of sports, has allowed me to appreciate both why and how these athletes found success. I’ve been very fortunate to not only observe professional athletes from a closer perspective than the average sports fan, but to ask them specific questions that I’ve used as a guidepost throughout my career. If success leaves tracks, here are the top five footprints that you can borrow as you navigate along your own personal journey – whether it’s just beginning or you are well on your way.
Stay on Top of Your Game
The business of sports, sponsorship sales in particular, is not a sprint, but more of a marathon. In fact, it’s more like a world cup circuit. Think motorsports, whereby, the driver’s ultimate goal is to capture the most points throughout the year to earn the coveted mark of World Champion and etch their place in history (i.e. just because you win the Indianapolis 500, doesn’t mean you’re the best). Win the Indy and five other races that year, or back-to-back World Championships, well, that’s a whole different story.
Let’s say you’ve been building partnerships at a particular property or agency for a number of years producing great results and winning activations (perhaps an SMCC award here and there). You’ve consistently been the top performer, but you haven’t landed that big whale – the big new title sponsor that captures all the attention both internally and externally. What if the new recruit makes a cold call in her second week on the job and strikes gold? Does this mean she’s the new world champion of sponsorship or you’re anything less? Perhaps down the road she’ll challenge you, but it’s the unique and rare ability to demonstrate consistent wins and performance that set the best from the rest.
On the flip side, just because you close a new deal, does not mean it’s time to relax. Instead, it’s time to ramp things up. You’ve got momentum and confidence on your side. Harness that positive energy and use it to your advantage. This is what builds a career and not a one hit wonder.
It used to drive me crazy when people asked “hey Mazereeuw, sell anything today?” because most of the time they don’t fully appreciate or understand the complexity of selling sponsorship. However, if you keep holding onto the one or two deals you did last year and have nothing else in the pipeline, the clock will keep on ticking and your position at the top will fade. Do you think Michael Jordan wanted to stop after his first championship; how about Tiger Woods after winning his first Masters back in ‘97 by 12 strokes or Sidney Crosby after hoisting his first Stanley Cup in Detroit? What about the Canadian men on Sochi’s Gold medal hockey team who won back in Vancouver – did they stay idle or hit the gas?
Attitude is Everything
Having an expectant attitude is not an in-the-moment feeling; it’s a philosophy that you need to subscribe to on an ongoing basis. There have been numerous times throughout my career where I thought that I’d caught the white whale – the big new partner that will change everything – then only for everything to fall apart at the last minute or realize the client was misrepresenting their decision making ability. Trust me, it happens more than you’d think. Multiple meeting and hours upon hours of creative proposal writing and various options to activate only to be left empty handed in the end. You can see how easy it is to question everything or blame yourself for dropping the ball. Sure sometimes you get the “error,” but regardless, you need to drive things forward. Pick up the bat and swing again. Did John Elway give up after losing three SuperBowls in four years? No, he came back eight years later and won two back-to-back championships en route to becoming one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
Build a Winning Team
In the business of sports there are agents, managers, coaches, trainers, etc. It’s not any one person that achieves success in isolation. Regardless of your role, it takes a team and I’m not just talking about team sports. Think about Golf or Tennis and the army behind the scenes from coaches and doctors to agents and the throngs of fans living vicariously through every move. Surround yourself with great people. People who allow you to be your best and provide the context you need to drive yourself and your career forward.
My network is constantly evolving and it’s paramount that I put people first. Sure, not everyone is going to be a corporate partner, but if you build the relationship first, the business will follow. Who knows, you may find a great friend or mentor along the way. People have much more to offer than just a quick cash transaction.
“You become what you think about” – Earl Nightingale
Just as professional athletes visualize the race or picture the goal, you have to believe in what you’re doing – completely. Some days are tough, because failure is inevitable, but that’s where you’ll find the learning and growth. Muscle through the losses by never taking your eye off the big picture.
Stop and ask yourself how you ended up here. Whether you’re still in school, an intern or an established sports marketing executive. What was the sequence of events that led you to this point? When I was little and people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my response was that I wanted to own a golf shop or as a kid who liked to create things, I thought that I’d draw cartoons for a living – maybe work for Disney in their animation studios. My point is, your thoughts tend to control your actions, and your actions determine your path. Through a series of events and choices, I channeled my passion for sports and creativity and ended up here…in sports marketing and sponsorship.
Find Comfort in the Uncomfortable
You know the butterflies or nauseous feeling you get before the big game a.k.a. first day on a new job, the minutes leading up to your big presentation or how about the first time you’re put on the spot in a big meeting? Why do certain basketball players get the ball in the dying seconds; those wide receivers, who are inevitably going to be double-teamed, still get the pass on 3rd down to win the Grey Cup, at home; or the players chosen to take the final position in a sudden-death shootout at the World Cup? Were they nervous, of course, but they’ve trained themselves to find comfort in being uncomfortable.
If you’re not feeling nervous or unsure of what to expect throughout your career, then you’re not challenging yourself and you’re never going to grow. You need to expand your comfort. Don’t be complacent and don’t settle for status quo. Find the uncomfortable zone and find it again and again. That feeling is fleeting with practice and experience. Once it goes away, keep looking for it. It’s the only way to realize your full potential.
When you watch March Madness unfold in the coming days, tune in to the Masters or follow your favourite NHL team as the regular season winds down and the fight for a coveted playoff spot begins, ask yourself how these players ended up on top and what you can glean from their success. How are you going to win the Gold medal in sponsorship marketing…and repeat.