When sports dominate life, it’s time to get a job

If you love football, it’s a great time of year. Me? I can take it or leave it.

football.jpgAs I begin drafting this post, Cal is playing some team from Texas in the Whatever Bowl. I switched it on to stir the dead air of a quiet evening alone — just me and my laptop. That’s one great thing about spectator sports. They’re mindless, and they let you do other stuff. Maybe that’s why they go so well with beer. Hmmm. Hold on a sec.

Ah! There we go.

That’s not to say that spectator sports are just for dummies and beerhounds, but they’re hardly an intellectual pursuit. I’ve never come away from a football game with an expand worldview — not even when the Steelers won the Super Bowl. Have you?

I feel much the same way about public relations in sports. And for whatever reason, I feel compelled to put those thoughts on paper — or whatever.

At least five times a year I’m asked to advise students about careers in “sports PR.” First I ask, “Why sports?” and usually they tell me because they are hugehelitzer.jpg fans. Other times it’s because they’ve played sports all their lives and want to stay involved. No matter, as they get the same advice: Do your homework. Find out what sports PR people do. Learn about their job functions and their routine. And check the job market carefully. I sometimes even loan them Helitzer’s book on the subject.

During this research phase is when students learn that the bulk of sports PR jobs are at the collegiate, not the professional level. And they learn that they’ll be promoting field hockey to the hundred or so people who care, not some athletic phenom to adoring millions.

Once students complete the research, I advise them to keep an open mind on career paths in PR. If you still want to work in sports after you see the options, then follow your passion. Doing anything else can be downright depressing.

What I don’t tell students is how I really feel about this thing they call “sports PR.” And I never will tell them, because I don’t want to discourage inquiry. But if students do their research, they’ll find this post. And maybe it’ll give them something to chew on. Here’s why I don’t don’t encourage students to pursue sports PR:

  • Sports PR isn’t really PR. It’s marketing and sales promotion, and 90% of it is aimed at putting butts in seats. Sure, the sports folks use some of the tools associated with public relations — publicity, staged events, media tours and the like. But for the most part their practice involves one-way communication to “sell” folks a team, an athlete or both. It’s an honest living, to be sure, but it’s not public relations as I define it. Even Helitzer, whose book promotes this career track, subtitles the work “$port$ publicity, promotion and marketing.” (I do caution students that it’s seldom the PR people who make the big bucks in $port$.)
  • Sports PR is “level one” practice. If you studied PR at Kent State or most anywhere else, you learned about Grunig & Hunt’s 4 Models early in the process. If so, you know that sports PR fits the first level: press agentry. That’s the same practice model used by P.T. Barnum to bring bodies to the Big Top more than a century ago. It sometimes involves gimmicks and tomfoolery. It seldom involves anything resembling symmetrical or balanced communication.
  • Sports PR isn’t as challenging. OK, it’s not easy selling a 4-11 football team. Or is it? The Browns still sell out in Cleveland every week, and so do most NFL teams. Go figure. It’s a lot tougher pushing wrestling or swimming at the college level, but at least your bosses don’t expect many butts in the seats. Now, contrast sports promotion with managing a major crisis, a national product launch, or an IPO. See the difference?
  • Sports PR rules your life. This can be true of most any job if you don’t “leave it at the office.” But with sports, you can’t. Most games happen on weekends and during evening hours. In-season, the job can consume 7 days a week. And then there’s the travel. Sounds exciting to a 22-year-old, but it’s not so glamourous once you take on family obligations.
  • Sports doesn’t matter. OK, bring on the hate-mail. But I’m right. Sports is entertainment — a distraction from real life. Sports may enhance our lives for a few hours, but they don’t change the world in any significant way. (OK, there was that Miracle on Ice, but it was an abberation.) Contrast a sports PR job with a job that introduces a new cancer-treatment drug, or a job that supports fundraising to fight AIDS in Africa or improves schools in the inner city.

Can you use a public relations degree to break into the sports business? Of course. But a better path might involve two more years of schooling and a master’s degree in sports management or administration. That won’t make sports any more relevant to the world, but it may help get you a seat at the general manager’s table and a few more dollars in your pocket.

But no matter how you package the career, it’s never gonna be “real PR” in my mind. It just doesn’t fit the definition.

How’d the Steelers do this year, by the way? I was busy blogging.


One Response to When sports dominate life, it’s time to get a job

  1. Brian Wooley says:

    Well, the Steelers finished 8-8, but considering the start they had this season, a .500 record is a godsend. And keeping the Cincy Bungles out of the postseason was a nice little bit of gravy on top.

    As for your points against sports PR, I agree with nearly all of them. I would argue that making the blanket statement that sports “don’t matter” fails to take into account the significant amount of community involvement/charity work by sports franchises and individual athletes. I’m willing to bet, for instance, that the United Way is not of the opinion that the NFL doesn’t matter.

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