By: Travis Gorsch, @tgorsch
Front Office Sports is proud to have sat down with Brad Keen, Assistant Athletic Director of Marketing at Penn State University. Mr. Keen’s path into the sports industry isn’t as ‘cut and dry’ as that of many sports business professionals. However, his previous management experience has greatly benefited him in his current position within the athletic department. He was gracious enough to offer his time as well as some helpful tips about work ethic and networking for young sports professionals.
You have a Bachelor’s in Public Relations and Master’s in Sport Management from the University of Alabama where you served on the Crimson Tide Athletic Marketing staff as a student. What advice do you have about getting involved while you are a student and how did your education prepare you for a career in sports?
My story is interesting and not as cut and dry as others. I started college at a small NAIA [National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics] school called Huntington College where I played soccer for a semester. I wasn’t a studious student and didn’t make the grades I needed to make which landed me back in Tuscaloosa, AL. at a community college where I didn’t make grades again. There I was 20 years old with no college credits. My mom said good luck you’re on your own. So I got a job working at Aeropostale, a clothing store. I did that for a little over a year and half while going to community college part time.
I started a new job bar tending at Applebee’s and two months into the job they asked if I wanted to be a manager. I was around 22 years old at the time. One night, shortly after turning 24, I was cussed out by a customer because she didn’t like her steak. I decided it was time to go back to school full-time after that. I started at Alabama in the fall of 2005 and was hired as a bartender at Boo Radley’s where one of my friends worked. I became the bar manager during undergrad. When I finished my Bachelors in January 2008 I had all this managerial experience and thought I should be able to go out and find a job but I couldn’t.
One of my buddies asked me to fill in for him at soccer camp where I met one of the directors who happened to be a department head for the Sport Management program at Alabama. He told me to stop by his office and meet with him about what I needed to do to get in to the program. I left his office with a staff directory of the University of Alabama’s athletic department. I parked next to the football stadium and on the way out decided I was going to go get an internship right then and there. I walked up the steps and banged on the doors until someone let me in.
I looked at the first name on my list and said I’m here to talk to Jennifer Martin about an internship. I started the next day as a 27-year-old intern doing anything and everything they asked me to do. I finished graduate school in August of 2010. There were lots of ups and downs along the way. I think it’s a lot easier to get in to athletics than people realize. It’s easier to get your foot in the door. What you do from that point on is up to you. If you are interested in interning and reach out to me I’m going to pass that along to my department and have them interview you. I really don’t think it’s that hard.
You have worked at Middle Tennessee State University (Assistant Director of Marketing & Promotions), Vanderbilt (Assistant Director of Sales & Marketing), and Wake Forest (Director of Marketing). Which position was the best in preparing you for your current position at Penn State and why?
Each position built off the previous. You’re never truly ready for the next position. You’re better prepared but to say you’re ready, personally I don’t think exists. I would honestly say that all of my experiences paved the way for me. A lot of the processes are the same. You are promoting an event, managing people, a budget, and relationships. If you can navigate those positions and come out standing it prepares you for things you might deal with at any job.
You work directly with the football program in ticketing, branding, and game day fan experience. What direction is ticketing headed with new technologies such as ‘The Beaver Stadium Virtual Venue Select-A-Seat’? How does this affect your position as Director of Marketing going forward?
Our decisions are data driven now rather than gut decisions that people were making five/ten years ago. With something like digital media we can track it and place it much more strategically than we could in the past. We are purposeful, intentional, and strategic.
You were able to make the jump to Penn State thanks to a connection you made with [Penn State University head football coach] James Franklin while at Vanderbilt. Can you speak about how important networking is and what advice you have for young professionals about networking?
I had the relationship with Coach Franklin at Vanderbilt because of my interaction with his staff. I had football and baseball at Vanderbilt. It wasn’t the end-all-be all but it definitely helped. As far as networking I want to mention this. Unless they know you and who you are they aren’t a part of your network. It’s not about who you know, it’s who knows you. Networks are a lot smaller than people think. If I talk about my network I probably only have about five people in my network. I know a lot of people and I have colleagues but they aren’t going to come in to play when I make my next career move. It’s important to interact with people in the industry, build relationships, ask questions when dealing with certain things, it’s important to pick up the phone and call a colleague.
Penn State has recently formed a Nittany Lion Fan Council comprised of alumni, fans, and students to discuss game day experience, communications, facilities, sales and ticketing, and redemption and retention. What do you hope to achieve as a result and how will you use this information to market athletic events in the future? What are you expecting from the first meeting?
I think it’s interesting in athletics we will sit in a room and talk about what we think the fans want or need. If you think about that and take a step back it’s like why don’t we just ask them. Granted, we have 600,000-700,000 alumni and lots of fans on game day. You can’t ask them all but we decided to ask some. As far as long term I don’t know what to expect. This council isn’t specific to football. We might come up with 100 ideas and 1 is good and 99 aren’t. I do think that as a department, being transparent and willing to listen is important. With large departments it’s hard to connect on an individual basis but we are trying to do that. I think the first meeting there will be a lot of listening.
You oversee 31 collegiate sports in your current position. Can you elaborate on how much work your job actually takes and everything that goes into it?
It is different every day. Yeah, I oversee 31 sports but I have managers and assistant directors in place. It’s key to have a great staff and mine is unbelievable. Without them there is no way we could do any of this. I rarely have to get involved with 30 of the 31 sports. The only time I need to get involved is for budgets, marketing plans, and initiatives that are being executed by the department. I have six full time staff that handle 30 sports which breaks down to about five sports a piece. I do specifically handle football which is quite the task. I am the sport administrator for cheer, dance, and blue band.
Which means I am responsible for budgets, hiring process, and providing support for groups. Another portion of my day is spent from a strategic standpoint looking at the marketing department. Our responsibilities, how we are handling our media, budget, marketing plan due dates, and managing staff. Vanderbilt’s head baseball coach told me “perfection is unachievable but if you don’t strive for it you’ll never get close” that’s how I look at it. I know I won’t be perfect but if it’s not my goal I’ll never be close. Every day is different, it’s a different challenge and opportunity. Some days I leave and feel good but some days I look back and think I got my butt kicked. I know I have an opportunity every day to redeem myself. That mentality and approach makes me successful.
People ask me what personality traits I look for in an employee. I tell them work ethic. If you don’t have a strong work ethic you’re not going to make it in athletics. If you have a strong work ethic I can teach you everything else but I can’t teach you to work hard. With a job in athletics make sure you’re in it for the right reasons. It’s a selfless job where you don’t get pats on the back. It’s a unique industry that’s not easy to work in some times. I tell my interns all the time ‘Just because you intern and go through the process doesn’t guarantee you a job. It guarantees you’ll be competitive but it doesn’t guarantee you the job.
We would like to thank Brad for his time and insight and we wish him the best of luck in all his future endeavors!