Q&A: Jason Miller, Team Sports Public Relations

The following is an interview with Jason Miller, the former Communications Manager for Palace Sports & Entertainment and Director of Public Relations for the Detroit Fury Arena Football team. It will give you some insights into working in public relations for a professional team.

Question: What was a normal day of work like for you?

There was really no normal day. Part of what made the job interesting was I could look forward to something different almost every day. During the season, I had a lot of responsibilities. Early in the week, I’d compile stats & game notes for the upcoming game. Later in the week I would try to get media coverage for my team. I’d call radio personalities, TV sports reporters, and even my own beat reporters from the papers, to make sure they were coming. Doing PR for an Arena Football Team is challenging because no one really wants to cover you. Throughout the season, my boss and I would try to think of different angles and stories would pitch to the media in order to keep us fresh and in the news. When the team is losing and attendance starts to dip, that’s when things really get tough! I also worked long, irregular hours during the season. Early in the week, I’d do a 9-10 hour day sometimes, to make sure my game notes were posted on time (per league rules), and game days were especially long. Assuming the game was a Saturday night with a 7:00pm kickoff, I’d be at the arena at 2 pm and I wouldn’t leave until close to midnight. Road trips, while fun to visit cities, crunch your work week and drain your energy because you fly the day before the game and come home a day after. Some trips, I would get back Sunday afternoon, and I had to be back at work at 8 am on Monday to start again.

Question: How was it different from the normal day of a sports marketing or sponsorship employee?

That is a tough question to answer. I wasn’t even situated close to the sales or marketing people so I am going on limited observations. They sat at their desks a lot and made useless banter with clients, but they also made a lot of cold calls to businesses. I had my share of cold calls, but I always called the same people – media personnel and talent. I also had to be at practice every day, in the locker room to talk to my coaches and players, and online researching stats and putting together press materials for the next game. I think a sales or marketing day is far more routine than mine. If I had a player appearance or interview that day, I was there for that. I spent a lot of time away from my desk. Their hours were very rigid too. They have to be at work at a certain time, take lunch at a certain time and leave at a certain time. My daily schedule was much more flexible.

Our jobs were so different, it was scary. Being a part of a larger sports family (PS&E), there is an entire marketing department to sell deals and promotions, but there was no single person dedicated to selling sponsorships for my team. Often, the Fury were bundled in with deals made for the Detroit Pistons. Because the Pistons were so hot from 2002-2004, PS&E held the bargaining chips, and often included the Fury in larger deals. There were a few deals made just for the AFL team, but they were small in scale. My job was AFL specific and the marketing team’s was company wide, with a strong emphasis on the Detroit Pistons and DTE Music Theater (a high-grossing outdoor concert pavilion owned by PS&E). I also worked with the players and coaches every day. The marketing people did not. I spoke to them daily, traveled with them, and my job was to act as their intermediary between the game on the field and everything else off of it.

Question: How does someone break into the team sports public relations field?

Trying not to sound too cliche, you need three things: luck, a workaholic’s mentality and a willingness to be poor. I was fortunate in that my first internship in the sports realm was paid, but most are not. No one just lands a job in sports PR. You have to work your tail off as an unpaid intern to get noticed first. Once you have been noticed by the PR staff, you need luck. PR jobs do not open up all the time, and what gets you the job is the recommendation of another PR person, especially one from the same league (i.e., NBA franchise to NBA franchise). There are small ways to get involved as a PR intern. The easiest is to volunteer to be a game-day intern.

Question: What education/certifications are needed and/or most useful?

There are no certifications needed, but an education in journalism or PR is an unofficial requirement. You need to be able to demonstrate your ability to write, verbally communicate with players, coaches, and media and staff members of your own organization. If you are in college, volunteer to work in your school’s athletic department. You’ll gain valuable experience, and many Athletic Director’s and associate Athletic Director’s have contacts in local professional sport franchises they may be able to leverage to get you in the door as an intern.

Question: Are there certain qualifications that help separate the best from the rest?

It’s nothing you can learn. It is attitude, people management and understanding boundaries. Everyone can learn to write game notes and make cold calls to media, but the best PR personnel are the ones who can manage the different needs and personalities they deal with everyday. I think a lot of people think if they get a job in sports, they’ll get to hang out with the players. WRONG. If you are working in sports to become their friends, you’ll never make it. PR personnel have a tough line to walk. On one hand, you need to be friendly with your players and coaches, but remember it is a business on the other. Second, media people, marketing people, league officials, etc. are all different & have different needs, and you need to be confident in yourself when dealing with them. If you aren’t, they’ll try to take advantage of you. Prioritizing my work was difficult when marketing people were asking me to provide players for an appearance, media people needed to talk to them for pre-game stories and league officials wanted me to post game stories all at the same time.

Question: Any specific tips for finding work as a beginner or with some experience?

Get an internship. Seriously, that’s it. Be persistent, almost annoying, trying to get in front of sports personnel. I have found that people in sports organizations are notorious at poor response time to communication. You need to stay on them. Once you get in, leverage their contacts in your favor.

Question: What are some downsides to the job?

I think it is safe to say that the two biggest downsides are hours you work and pay. You will be living very meagerly starting out in sports. The pay is pretty bad until you get to an executive level. Consider this; I got hundreds of resumes a year from people who want to work with an AFL franchise. How many do you think the ‘big-name’ franchises get? You are going to be way overworked and massively underpaid, and down-time is hard to come by during the season. That’s where the workaholic’s attitude plays a major factor.

Question: What are the best parts about the job?

The best parts of the job are working in an industry that everyone knows, loves and is constantly changing. When your team wins with a last-second touchdown pass, and you see the fans going crazy in the stands, it gets to you. Yeah, you weren’t on the field making plays, but you did play a part in the entire experience. For PR personnel, you can feel the emotion first hand after games. Win or loss, it is exciting to be a part of something that you cannot control in the end. I also enjoyed the travel, but anyone with an immediate family at home might not.

Question: Are there good online resources for both finding work as well as just learning about the field?

The best way to learn about the field is to get involved with it. There is so much that happens behind the scenes that I would imagine most fans have no idea exists. There are a few websites that post jobs in sports, but having the insider’s edge is always better.

Question: How much do each of these jobs pay at each level? Are some hourly and others salary?

All the jobs are salaried and pay depends on the level and organization. If I had to make a guess, I would say most sports PR people enter the field somewhere around the low $20Ks. I’ve seen PR people make less than $20K as an entry level person. The pay scale of the sports world is like a hockey stick. 90% of the people (wood) are on the blade, and the pay is worst there. Not until you make it to the stick part do you see a ‘good salary.’ It takes time and hard work to move up and out of the blade part.

Question: Do most jobs include benefits such as medical and dental etc.?

I would say yes. Most of your big-four sport franchises (NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB) have full benefits packages, and as you get higher in the organizational chart, some leagues provide their own benefits packages. The smaller, more “minor-league” teams probably offer benefits, but they may not be as great as their larger counterparts. I had a great benefits package with PS&E.

Question: How much vacation do these jobs usually have?

Vacation is tricky. I was given 10 days (2 work weeks), but I had to work for an entire year before I qualified for the paid vacation. Also, you cannot take your vacation during your season. For example, if you work for an NBA franchise, you cannot take off time between October and June as a PR staffer. Your vacation time can only be used between the time your team is eliminated from any post-season activity and a few weeks before training camp starts (mid-June through September). Even within that time frame, you need to work up to and around your league’s draft and major off-season player acquisitions.

Question: Are there internships available? Where? How do you get them?

There are almost always internships available. You need to be very proactive in finding them, and you need to make sure you are contacting the right people. The head PR staffers do not normally hire interns and make decisions like that. Call, email and check the web.

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