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The business of selling sports

by Safia Ahmad April 7, 2015
The business of selling sports

A professional shares what it’s like to work side-by-side with athletic stars

Graphic by Marie-Pier LaRose.

Graphic by Marie-Pier LaRose.

What do the Montreal Canadiens Club 1909 campaign, the NFL’s Super Bowl weekend and the frenzy surrounding March Madness in college basketball all have in common? They are each examples of sports marketing. Many people have a vague understanding of what sports marketing is. Broadly, it entails the “promotion of sports events and teams as well as the promotion of other products and services through sporting events and sports teams,” according to the Information Resources Management Association. However, to those of us who are avid sports lovers or who have a genuine interest in the business behind sports, a few things come to mind before the ghastly definition.

Most of us believe that sports marketing is glamorous; after all, there’s nothing cooler than meeting and working with athletes and other professionals in the sports world. Consequently, sports marketing might not seem like a realistic or attainable goal in the minds of many. However, sports marketing has become an integral part in the business of sports. Since the 1990’s, professional North American sports leagues like the NFL, NHL, MLB, and NBA have been transformed into major entertainment businesses.

The influence of sports marketing is such that many universities throughout the continent are offering Bachelors and Masters degrees in the field. According to Ray Lalonde, who is the Managing Director, Olympic Excellence Day of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), an individual’s success in the field is based on more than high grades.

“Part of the problem today for young people [is that they have this] kind of thinking that ‘my education is good, grades are good, social skills are good, I guess that means I’m going to be able to assert myself and demand or be a candidate for high level job [of] some sort.’ In reality, some of the most important things to remember about the sport business is the hard work and energy spent learning about the industry,” Lalonde said.

Like with any job, most individuals are likely to start off at the bottom of the ladder. In sports marketing, this often involves an entry-level position or internship, which is often unpaid. The goal at this stage is to distinguish oneself from the pack early on in order to reach the next level. Therefore, it is no surprise that Lalonde places a great deal of importance on intangible qualities such as a strong work ethic.

“Whether you’re delivering groceries or working in a gas station … the discipline that you show is going to be a part of your legacy later on and lead you to better places if you put in the time,” Lalonde said.

Lalonde is a particularly good example of how hard work and discipline early on can bring success later on in life. Much like many students today, Lalonde had a simple part time job growing up. He was flipping burgers at a McDonalds in Trois-Rivières when he was 12 years old, and four years later he was an assistant manager. He would go on to leave an illustrious legacy with the Montreal Canadiens and the Alouettes as the vice-president and chief director of marketing and President, respectively.

Naturally competitive and driven, Lalonde was heavily involved in sports his entire life as he played football for the McGill Redmen and went on to be an assistant coach for the Penn State University football team while he was completing his degree in sports administration.
Although he was fully immersed in a competitive environment, he does not believe that a heavy involvement in sport is necessary to succeed in the sports business.

“[Not] all athletes … go on to become great coaches, and [not] all coaches are … necessarily former athletes,” Lalonde said. “There’s an advantage [to] having played sports before at a high level, but that doesn’t mean that that’s the only way to get it done.”

Nonetheless, just like athletes, sports marketers are based on their performance. In sports marketing, “there’s that added element of competition, of energy and passion that drives people to want to compete, to be the best they can possibly be on the playing field,” Lalonde said. Much like in any profession, pressure will always be omnipresent. It is up to the individual to perform their responsibilities to perfection. Sports marketing is not a field that should be feared, but rather embraced and explored. Like with any career choice, there are going to be ups and downs.

“You can’t succeed at every level,” Lalonde said. “You need to fail, you need to follow your faith … that’s where you [have] to keep plugging away. Be ready to move in different directions, improve on what you’ve done and realize that you can still get ahead.”

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