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By: Christiana Johns, @cmjohns

I never imagined I’d be working in sports. And if you asked me when I was 22 and graduating from college if I wanted to work in sports or what I wanted to do at all, you would have received a blank look. I had no idea.

But after a few internships, graduate school, tons of rejections, and three states later (Louisiana > Illinois > back to Louisiana > Texas), I’ve created a path for myself in the sports industry, albeit an unconventional one, but mine.

Not everyone takes the same path, and it doesn’t mean if your course doesn’t look like someone else’s, that you can’t end up in a similar position — or in one you never imagined.

Most people who work in sports begin the same way, probably working as student assistants at their college’s sports information department or spending their summers doing internships for professional teams or leagues. I didn’t. I had no idea what I wanted, but I took advantage of opportunities to help me figure out what I wanted — and what I didn’t want — that helped shape my career path.

During my sophomore year at LSU, I had a very kind, encouraging teacher who suggested that I pursue journalism based on my writing skills. So I joined the staff of the student newspaper my junior year, writing entertainment stories and copy editing the sports section. Anyone who wants to improve his writing or learn the importance of meeting deadlines should have this experience. However, I also learned I didn’t want to work for a newspaper.

After college, I became the editor of a community magazine in Baton Rouge, producing two magazines every month. Not only did I continue to write, but I also gained valuable experience about managing projects and accounts, and training interns. (I also had two part-time jobs during this time, truly learning the meaning of budgeting and time management.) Yet, this wasn’t for me either.

I continually toyed with the idea of going to graduate school out of state. I wanted the experience of living somewhere totally different from South Louisiana, and I knew moving to a new city would present more opportunities. So in the fall of 2008, I moved to Chicago to pursue my master’s degree at DePaul University.

I wholeheartedly believe in the experience of getting outside of your comfort zone; you will learn just how resilient and adaptable you are. I studied abroad one summer in the United Kingdom and France, and without this experience, I don’t think I would have had the courage to move to Chicago on my own. This is where the sports industry and my career intersected.

However, my first year of school had me questioning what I was going after, and in the midst of the Great Recession, job prospects were slim and my career outlook was dim. After two internships — one at a public interest research group followed by the web department of a local news station — I still wasn’t convinced of what jobs I wanted to pursue.

The Olympics was a hot topic in The Windy City when I started graduate school. The United States Olympic Committee selected Chicago as a host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics, with the International Olympic Committee’s decision to come the following year. DePaul offered a class on reporting about the Chicago bid, and since I have always been fascinated by the Olympics, I jumped at the chance to enroll.

That decision changed everything for me.

Part of the course required attending community meetings with Chicago 2016 representatives and reporting on how the surrounding areas would be affected before, during and after the Games. My teacher and later invaluable mentor mentioned to me that the USOC would be in town for a media summit and told me I should go help out.

“What do they need me to do?”
“Doesn’t matter. Go find out.”

I spent almost three days in a hotel conference room teaching myself Adobe InDesign and helping to write and edit stories for the USOC while a few of my fellow students interviewed Olympians and Olympic hopefuls to develop a daily newsletter for the media. Our hard work and enthusiasm was enough to land us the opportunity of a lifetime: to work with the USOC Media Services staff in Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

I spent nearly a month in Vancouver with six of my classmates (in a small, two-bedroom apartment) working 12–14 hours a day, writing stories, conducting interviews with Olympians and transcribing quotes, and updating the USOC’s online press box and breaking news Twitter feed. It was one of the most grueling and incredible experiences of my life, which I would have never had the opportunity without my teacher’s advice of “show up and find out.”

That unique experience landed me at the Sun Belt Conference in my hometown of New Orleans where I spent two years as the main media contact for cross country, volleyball, swimming and diving, tennis and softball. During my time here, I had the opportunity to volunteer with the Allstate Sugar Bowl for three bowl games and the BCS National Championship in three years. I was also selected to represent the conference in Indianapolis for a mock selection for the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. I learned so much about college athletics during my two years with the league, and I met some incredible people who took a chance on me without having any experience in a SID office.

And that’s where I hit a roadblock. After two years as an intern with the Sun Belt, I was searching for jobs in professional and college sports. I went to THE OLYMPICS! I worked two years in Division I athletics! I had dozens of interviews, but nothing panned out (I kept every cover letter for jobs I applied to: all 100+ of them). It was a rude awakening at how tough it is to get in the door. It was humbling, and without the support of my friends and family, it would have been much tougher to go through that alone.

But as life often works out, an opportunity presented itself that I never would have considered. A friend living in Houston convinced me to look for jobs in the area, and it turns out that my communications background along with some experience in tennis (I had never even seen a tennis match in my life until I was in charge of running both the men’s and women’s Sun Belt Championships — at the same time) led me to working with the United States Professional Tennis Association. While I’m not on the sidelines or in the press box anymore, I’ve learned a lot about the tennis industry, working with member associations, and grassroots marketing. I also had the opportunity to promote the Tennis Teachers Conference in New York in 2014 and attend the US Open!

There are all kinds of jobs in sports. Not every job is going to put you in the locker room or on the field, and you’d be surprised how much more you can learn about a team or the industry behind the scenes.

If I knew I wanted to work in sports when I was 19 years old, I would have eagerly volunteered as much as possible with LSU’s sports information department. But like many college kids, I had no idea I wanted to do that. But by learning what I did — and did not — want for my career by taking a chance and taking advantage of the opportunities in front of me, I was able to create my own roadmap and still end up in the sports industry.

Nothing worth having is going to be easy, so if this is your passion and your dream, create your course for getting where you want to be. Don’t ever give up.

Christiana Johns is the Public Relations Coordinator at the United States Professional Tennis Association. Follow her on Twitter here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.