This interview is presented to you by the University of Nebraska — Lincoln Master of Arts in Business with a Specialization in Intercollegiate Athletics Administration.
By: D.J. Podgorny, @DJPodgorny
The path to a career in sports for Joel Zawacki, Assistant General Manager of Corporate Sales & Marketing for the Indianapolis Indians, started on the baseball diamond. Having had a passion for sports throughout his life, Zawacki was thrilled to continue his playing career as a pitcher at the University of Indianapolis (UIndy) while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sports administration.
Although sports were always among Zawacki’s favorite hobbies, he still was “naive” about the various career paths within the industry. Upon enrolling at UIndy, he still had not settled on a formal major of study.
“I had considered law school, accounting, business or something along those lines. I just really focused in on taking prerequisite classes that first year and stumbled into a sports business class that really outlined a lot of the countless opportunities that there are in sports and entertainment. It connected my passion for sports with career opportunities. That’s where it started.”
Inspired by the many prospective ways to earn a living in sports, Zawacki elected to pursue a degree in sports administration.
As his studies progressed, Zawacki was able to gain real-world experience through internships with the Brevard County Manatees, a Single-A baseball in the Milwaukee Brewers farm system, and the Indiana Pacers. During his role with the Pacers, Zawacki first experienced corporate sales, something that ignited his fascination for sales and advertising.
Utilizing the relationships he was able to build during his internships, Zawacki landed his first full-time job with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians after graduating in just three and a half years. He entered the Indians as a sponsorship sales coordinator, working primarily in market activation and in a support role for account representatives.
From day one, Zawacki has brought fresh ideas to the table. With innovative thinking and results to back it up, it didn’t take long for him to climb the corporate ladder within the franchise. In only his second year at the Indians, Zawacki jumped into leadership, becoming the Director of Corporate Partnerships for the Indians. For three and a half years, Zawacki operated in this role until it expanded and he was named Director of Corporate Sales & Marketing in 2012.
Since Zawacki joined the Indians, sponsorship revenue has almost quadrupled. Such unprecedented growth would not have been possible without the leadership and vision of Zawacki.
“A lot has changed and evolved in the 10 years that I have been here. It took a lot of creativity and persistence to get leadership to invest in what we’re doing. I think the first thing was a shift in philosophy. I had a lot of great mentors in my time at the Pacers and my first year here at the Indians that attributed to that. The tactic of slapping a proposal or a menu of inventory in front of prospective partners just didn’t work and that’s what we were doing here.”
“The change in mindset was to build partnerships that are win-win and focus on retaining partners and growing renewal rate, which as at 95 percent today. Previously, everything was year-to-year and we didn’t really have any long-term partners. There’s just not enough time in the day to go back every year and redo the same partners over and over again. So, instituting multi-year partnerships allowed our sales team to go out and solicit new partners.”
With a sound strategy and a talented sales team, sponsorships skyrocketed in the last decade for the Indians. But, what does a great sell look like to Zawacki?
“I personally don’t view what my team does as sales, it’s more consulting. It’s not about just creating a win-win, it’s about creating a win-win-win. It should be a win for the Indians, our partners and our fans. If you can structure partnerships and deals where all three groups benefit, I think you’re onto something.”
“It’s all about finding that idea that aligns with your team’s brand, your image, your strategies and that also meets the goals and objectives of your partners in a unique way that engages the fans that are coming out to your games.”
“To me, it’s about being creative, not about trying to sell a partner on something or slap a logo on something. I think when you truly listen and get to understand what a partner is trying to accomplish, you can come up with some creative ways to integrate the two brands together.”
This mentality has clearly led to success and many long-term relationships for the Indians. Such methodologies and successes were drivers for Zawacki’s promotion to Assistant General Manager last month.
In addition to his role within the Indians, Zawacki is also active in his community. In his spare time, he serves on the Board of Trustees for Indian Chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, a charity near and dear to his family. Zawacki’s mother is a survivor and was diagnosed when he was a teenager.
Zawacki also maintains involvement with his alma mater, UIndy. Today he serves as an Advisory Board Member for their Kinesiology department, as well as on the Board of Directors for the Greyhound Club.
For young professionals interested in sports, Zawacki had the following advice:
“At the surface level, the best employees work hard and ask a lot of questions. They have a desire to learn and make things better. It’s not about checking a box to say they got something done, it’s about putting their name on what they’re doing and taking pride in that. When you can find people like that, that have that sort of passion, those are the folks that I’m always looking for.”
“There are a lot of people that think they love sports and that they’d love to work in sports, but it’s a lifestyle that’s not for everybody. Until you’re in it for a season or two, I don’t think you that you understand that fully.”
And for those that are frustrated either trying to break into the industry or advance to the next level in their current organization:
“Have patience. Influencing change, especially as a young up-and-comer, takes time.”
“It takes time to build trust. With each idea, success grows. Once you gain that momentum it will pick up pace and the hard work will eventually pay off. It doesn’t feel like that every day in the early days, but just have patience and work hard and good things usually happen.”
With such a stellar track record of success, innovation and creativity, the recent promotion to Assistant General Manager is a no-brainer. Expect continued success from the Indians and Zawacki as they continue to raise the bar in marketing and sales across the minor leagues.
Front Office Sports is proud to have spoken with Joel Zawacki. We would like to thank him for his time and insight and we wish him the best in his new role as Assistant General Manager of the Indianapolis Indians. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.