Chicago native Mark Iralson has always been a fan of NHL hockey. “My first purchase as an adult was one of the old seats from Chicago Stadium”, says Iralson, now in his fifth season with the Nashville Predators. “When I received my first check from working with the Chicago Wolves hockey team, I decided this was the first thing I wanted.”
Mark decided a long time ago that he wanted to work in sports, fortunately for him, he has chosen a career path that has enabled him to stay close to his favorite sport. While earning a Bachelor’s degree at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, Iralson took it upon himself to learn about the presentation of athletic events and games and how the fans react throughout these events.
“I went to the assistant athletic director, John Butler, and I told him I would like to see what this is all about, I want to get involved. He said, OK, we’ll see what we can do and I’ll get back to you.” Mark was not about to stop there.
“The next day I came in again and said, how are you doing, I was here yesterday, do you have anything today, I want to do this, I want to learn. It was that day he gave me something to do. It was a simple task that he gave me just to get me out of his hair, but I did it and I asked if I could come back tomorrow and he said OK. The next thing you know I was working in the athletic department and I was his right-hand man.”
Butler, now the General Manager of the Peoria Rivermen hockey team, still tells the story about the guy who came back the next day. “He gave me my first shot and I am honored because every time I go back there, he always tells people that I was the kid who came back the next day after he told me ‘we’ll see’.
While still in college, Iralson worked one season as an intern for Peoria when a memo from the league office surfaced announcing the expansion of a new team to the Chicago area. Shortly there after, he was hired by the Chicago Wolves who were at the time, an expansion team in the International Hockey League (IHL). “I started there before we even had a roster. It was exciting to be part of a team from its infancy. I started there right out of college. I joined the Wolves as a ticket sales rep in their inaugural year, and I was there for the first four seasons. I did everything from ticket sales, then game operations and promotions, and ended up becoming director of game operations and promotions for them.”
It was that experience in Chicago that led Mark to Nashville. “At the time, our VP of Ticket Sales for the Wolves had gone to Nashville to be the VP of Ticket Sales and he had told them about me. A guy came to a couple of games while the Wolves were in the playoffs to check things out and get to know me. Once we won the championship and the season ended, he gave me the opportunity to come to Nashville.”
The two markets are entirely different. Chicago is a large market with a hockey following while Nashville is a small market with little knowledge of professional hockey. The challenges however that Iralson faced with each team were almost identical.
“One step that we had to overcome is that Nashville is not really a hockey market. Thus we had to bring more than the best sport in the world at the highest level, we had to bring the fans an entertaining show as well. We want to give the fans a reason to spend the $65 for a lower level seat to come out to a game. That is something this market was not really used to.”
Fortunately, his previous experience was put to use again in Nashville. In Chicago, Iralson faced filling seats for minor league hockey in a city where the Blackhawks were the only game in town. “Because it was a minor league team and we were in a solid hockey market, we had to put on a show. That is what really made the Wolves successful. We led the IHL in attendance every year.”
It was Mark’s ability to create that experience that excited the expansion franchise in Tennessee. Executives from the Predators enjoyed the experience at the Wolves’ games and they hoped to bring that same intensity and atmosphere to their new arena.
If you want to ‘Work in Sports’, Mark says you need be persistent, have patience, and most of all don’t give up. “I think the best advice is to not give up when you are told ‘No’. You send in your resume and you make a couple of phone calls and people give you the old line of ‘thanks, we’ll keep you in mind,’ that sort of thing. It is very easy to be discouraged.”
Even though he received many letters of rejection, he pressed on. “The one thing I kept on doing, I kept on plugging along, keeping my name out there. You don’t want to be too ‘in your face’, but stay out there in front of these people and show them that you are interested.”
Mark finished by saying you had better be prepared to work a lot of hours. “In sports, you work so many hours, it takes a lot of your time, but if it is something you want to pursue, don’t be afraid to go out there and say hey, I do want this and put in some time. Even if it is un-paid time, just show them you are willing to do anything to stay involved.”