By: Jason Stein, @JStein209
Front Office Sports is proud to have sat down with Tom Phelps, Executive Sales Associate for the US Naval Academy Athletic Association. He has worked in sports throughout his entire career spending time in minor league sports, with the NBA and now in collegiate athletics at the Naval Academy. As Executive Sales Associate, he oversees all group and season ticket sales for Naval Academy varsity revenue sports and represents the Naval Academy Athletic Association at functions in the community. He was gracious enough to offer up his time and insight into ticket sales on the collegiate level, how to best approach breaking into sports and why networking is critical for success in this industry.
Briefly describe your journey working in sports and what the vast background you have accumulated leading to your current role working with the Naval Academy?
It’s been 20 plus years working in sports, and I have worked in a little bit of everywhere. I’ve been lucky enough to work with in the NBA, the minor leagues, college basketball, college baseball, college hockey, and little bit of indoor soccer. Now, I am working with wrestling, football and lacrosse, so there aren’t too many sports I haven’t yet hit upon.
Working in sports gives you great networking opportunities and allows you to meet people in other sports. These opportunities have allowed me to dabble in other things such as promoting a professional wrestling show back a long time ago and working with a NASCAR team a few years back. That’s the great thing, I’ve done a little bit of everything!
Working in so many different areas of sports business, what was your experience like at first breaking into the industry, and as you initially started to move up throughout your career?
It was a different world back in ’93 when I was getting ready to graduate from college. I had a degree in history, I had never taken any sport classes in college and never worked in sports, but I thought maybe I could try to work in sports. I knew I should try then because it’s much harder to go to work somewhere else for ten years and then try to get into sports.
It just so happened that there was a minor league baseball team in the next town over from where I went to college. I called the number I found in the phone book and asked if they would be hiring anybody.
They asked if I was looking for an internship, but I told them I was looking for a job and they ended up inviting me in for an interview. What got me the job was when they asked if I’ve ever done phone sales before and I told them that I used to do phone sales and telemarketing from home.
I was doing a little bit everything at the very low-end level, but it got me in the door. It allowed me to network, get experience and grow professionally. I would come to find out that the person who owned the minor league baseball team, also owned a professional minor league hockey team, was running an independent professional baseball league, and had been the former owner of the Durham Bulls. Even though I was just working for one team, I now hand connections to a handful of teams.
I then got a job with the Washington Bullets in an inside sales position which led to me getting the same position at Georgetown [University], where there was only one other person selling. I went from being one of one hundred and fifty people with the Bullets, to one of two at Georgetown.
What would you recommend as the best way for people to break into the sports industry?
When just trying to get in, I always say try to go low. I started working in rookie ball and minor league baseball, but I was able to do a ton of different things.
When I went to the Bullets, the interns were making copies all-day or sorting out mail. Yes it’s glamorous working in the NBA, but you’re not learning as much as you could be other places.
When I walked out of the Appalachian League, I had done so many different things, and it’s great at that lower level, and I tell people, minor league baseball they’re hiring a lot and there’s teams that you don’t really know too much about but they’re there hiring.
I speak to students at classes and many people don’t want to start in sales, but it’s something that if you do it…it’s the best way for you to make yourself valuable, and people want to hold onto you, and at same time you might be able to use that experience as a springboard.
You don’t want to pigeonhole yourself one way or another; and especially when you’re starting out, it’s great to be able to look at the different jobs out there.
When looking at your journey, what do you feel has helped you most as you began progressing throughout your career in sports?
I think it’s really networking and just getting out there. Going through my mind, several of the jobs that I’ve held, came through networking or just doing the investigating work.
Networking, which with technology is so much easier now, and also getting to know people, has allowed me to be in contact with people across a variety of cities and it has helped me immensely.
That said, in life people will say how they have ‘X’ amount of Facebook friends or Twitter followers, but how many of them are people you actually talk to or are they going to talk to you? It’s great to have the connections, but you got to deal with reality and not just be friends out there on the Internet.
Are there any particular traits of qualities people must have, that you feel are going to be most important for aspiring sports business professionals to have to succeed in the industry?
I’m going to sound very cliché but it comes down to following your passion. If your passion is sports, show that passion, but also be willing to work. You might have to start with some menial stuff that isn’t that much fun, but you don’t question it.
Be willing to learn, be open minded to everything, and don’t shut down anything. Have the passion and go the extra mile, it’s a cliché, but it’s really true, and I would also include being inquisitive and don’t be afraid to ask for suggestions or advice.
If you had to define the sports business industry in one word, what would that word be and why?
I would say it is fun! It is fun because, for me I work in sales, but what I’m selling is fun. When I go to a networking event, there are six people in the room selling insurance and six people selling financial planning, but I’m in athletics, and I am selling tickets to sports games!
It’s a different job and it is definitely different than anything else, and again, I’m in sales but what I’m selling is fun. If you’re in PR, you’re doing something that’s fun, if you’re working in operations and setting up for an event, it’s an event that is going to be fun!
For people who are starting out and trying to get into sports, there are a lot of different areas that you can try to get into. It’s not as hard as people think to get in the door if you’re willing to volunteer and if you’re willing to work very hard at the beginning. You just have to make the most of it when you get the chance!
We would like to thank Tom for his time and insight and we wish him the best in his future endeavors!