If you are planning on succeeding in the sports industry, “expect long hours, a lot of hard work, and a lot of fun”, says Jim Willits, the newly appointed Director of Ticket Sales for the Cleveland Indians.
“The biggest thing you need to realize is that you are working in the entertainment business. It has its highs and lows. No matter what happens on the field, court or ice, win or lose you still need to get out there and do your job. Whether it is sales, public relations or operations, you still need to come to work and make things happen.”
Jim has been making things happen on the sales side of the sports industry since graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Public Relations from Northwest Missouri State University in 1994. “I thought about working in sports as a kid, but I think every kid grows up wanting to be a professional athlete. When I got out of college, I said to myself I wanted to ‘Work in Sports’, so right out of college I got into the industry and stuck with it.”
Willits’ career started in the Western Professional Hockey League with the El Paso Buzzards. Throughout his years with the Buzzards, he took on responsibilities in a variety of departments and was introduced to a wide range of duties including advertising, promotions, in-game presentations, ticket sales and corporate partnerships.
The time spent performing such a wide variety of duties is typical while working for a minor league franchise. The front office is usually smaller than a major league team which really gives an employee the opportunity to cross over into many departments and learn how dependent each one is upon the other. After gaining such valuable experience, Jim made a career move to the National Hockey League where he spent five seasons with the Phoenix Coyotes.
Despite his experience with the Buzzards, Jim still had to start out on the ground floor with the Coyotes. He joined the Coyotes as a Ticket Sales Account Executive in May of 1997 and over the course of five seasons worked his way through the ranks to the position of Director of Ticket Sales where he remained until October of 2002.
With a Bachelor’s degree in Public Relations, you may wonder how Jim ended up in sales. He says it was in his blood and only a matter of time before it happened. “I started off in public relations with my intern position. That eventually developed into selling tickets because that is what the team needed. My parents are both sales people and I got into the ticket sales and loved it. I stuck with it and now I am fully engrained in that aspect of the business. It was kind of a natural flow for me with my upbringing. When I started doing it, I loved it and just continued doing it.”
While with the Coyotes, Jim saw many people in sports getting positions with other teams and other leagues. He says the networking and relationships were a key factor in getting his new position. “During my time with the Coyotes, I saw a lot of different individuals go in different directions and work for other teams. I know a lot of people, especially around the NHL, but I know a lot of VP’s and Directors of Sales and that helps get the word out about available positions.”
Currently, Jim works for the Cleveland Indians as their Director of Ticket Sales where he is responsible for all ticketing revenues including club seats, luxury suites and full and partial season ticket sales. Jim’s sales staff includes 10 full time employees and a small team of part-time sales associates that work during the off-season to sell tickets.
If you want to “Work in Sports”, Jim says getting a job is very much like making a sale. “Be persistent. Make sure you follow up and make sure you are very professional. Always leave your phone number in the voice mail. A cardinal rule for sales people is, if you don’t leave your phone number, it’s kind of hard to sell. With applying for a job in sports, you are selling yourself.”
Jim also added that while it may appear that the people you are trying to contact are ignoring you, they are most likely just busy and need a reminder. “In the sports industry, all the executives are busy and always moving a million miles an hour. If you leave only one email, one phone call or one message, you’re never going to get through to that person. You are going to have to leave three, or four or maybe even five messages. But don’t give up.”