By: Justin Mears, @jmears26
For some, the path to a career in sports seems straightforward. Select an appropriate undergraduate major, rack up undergraduate internships, gain relevant experience, head to graduate school, complete more internships or a graduate assistantship and hope to stand out in a crowded field to obtain that entry level position we all covet.
For those of us who either missed the boat on the ‘standard’ path or are having to forge our own way in this crazy sports world, we can take comfort in knowing that, in actuality, there is no defined path we must follow to realize our dreams.
For Dan Lentz, a chance encounter in an Atlanta bakery set him on a course that would ultimately lead him into the world of ticket sales and on the fast track to a position as the Director of Sales and Marketing Partnerships with the Phoenix Suns.
Dan graduated from the University of Michigan in 2007 with a degree in Sports Management, having played on the Wolverines’ baseball team during his time there, as well. After graduation, Lentz took some time away from sports, securing his first job with Oppenheimer Funds in Denver. He spent a year at Oppenheimer, but ultimately decided that he “did not want to be in the investment world for the rest of [his] life.” He quit his job in Denver and moved back home to Michigan. However, 2008 was not an ideal time to quit your job and find gainful employment, so he spent six months giving baseball lessons and working at a local Banana Republic before a friend from college, who was preparing to begin graduate work at Emory University in Atlanta, suggested he move down there with him.
Upon arriving in Atlanta, Dan started working at a local bakery near his apartment. It was here that a chance encounter with a customer who worked for the Atlanta Braves, in the ticket sales department, resulted in him being encouraged to apply for a position in the Braves paid trainee program. This was his entry into sports, waiting tables at a local Atlanta bakery and ultimately securing a season long internship in an MLB ticket sales department. Although his role was in ticket sales, Dan knew within two or three months that his ultimate passion was in partnerships. At the end of his internship, Dan secured a Sales Executive position with Atlanta Motor Speedway on the recommendation of his client services manager.
While the position with Atlanta Motor Speedway opened up his eyes to a world beyond baseball, Dan knew quickly that NASCAR was not for him. He approached his boss about searching for another role in MLB ticket sales and was given a month to search around and apply for a new position. He applied for a job with the Colorado Rockies in group ticket sales. That position had already been filled, but the Rockies encouraged him to apply for an open job on the sponsorship team. Lentz said that he only wanted the interview “to throw my name in the hat and see what the questions would be like and how the interview would go.” However, two weeks later, he was offered the job and moved back out to Denver to sell partnerships for the Rockies. In September of 2015, he left for Phoenix and joined the Suns as the Director of Sales Marketing Partnerships.
In reflecting on how he arrived at his current position and what advice he would offer those seeking their first job in the sports world, Dan emphasized that there is something to be said for beginning to build relationships with those who work at recruiting agencies like Turnkey Search.
“Instead of filling all your time applying for tons of positions, the first interviews you do should be with sports recruiters. You should really try to make a mark on the people who are able to identify fits with organizations. That way, instead of applying for jobs constantly on websites, you can rely on people who know what they are doing. I was never really looking for jobs that I was approached for. I was just reached out to by people I trust in the recruiting business.”
In discussing how he used his relationships with recruiters to wind up in Phoenix, Dan said that another recruiting agency encouraged him to meet with the leadership team at the Suns.
“I came out to visit with them as a courtesy to the recruiter and fell in love with the people. I met them a couple years ago and they offered me a position, but I wasn’t ready to move. When Turnkey reached out back in July of last year, I checked to see who had left, but they were all still here and had been taken care of.”
Ultimately, it was the people that led Dan to his role with the Suns.
“What I wanted to do was make sure I was around the most successful and hard working people that I could. The group here, they are all killing it, showing up early and staying late, and I wanted to be around that. I wanted to go to my boss and know that she is 10 years ahead of me at this organization and when I have questions, I am getting an answer back that always has confidence behind it.”
Continuing to describe how relationships impacted his career progression, Dan said that “it’s a referral business. You have to take pride in your network of friends and counterparts.”
“The real interviews take place when you are not sitting in the seat across from someone who is going to hire you. You have to put in genuine time with folks and develop friendships as you progress in the industry.”
According to Dan, this means that you have to focus on growing your network authentically.
“This helps you develop credibility in terms of how you interact with people and lets you rely on people willing to recommend you instead of trying to impress people in the first 10 minutes of meeting them.”
“You still have to be buttoned up and ready to go when the time is right, but the majority of the equity in this industry comes because people have said positive things about how you work and conduct yourself."
While the idea of working in ticket sales may be at the bottom of some peoples’ dream job list, for Dan, it was an opportunity to get his foot in the door and to learn as much as possible about what he terms the “backbone of the industry.”
“I have run into so many people who were holding out for some marketing job or anything that would have them not having to sell. The people who are looking for the perfect job in the perfect city at the perfect time are letting opportunities go by them. What I always tell someone who is asking me about cracking the industry is to do the job that no one else wants to do.”
“Ticket sales gives you the backbone of what the industry is built on and helps you learn to interact with fans one on one. I could not recommend it enough and it is amazing how many people want nothing to do with it.”
It’s not just about learning the backbone of the industry, but also a great opportunity for personal development early on in your career.
“It’s a great way to make a decent amount of money while you are working your way up in sports. If you were to transition to an executive level role or eventually out of sales, that is all well and good, but being able to put together different deals, get different commissions, hit bonuses and hit team goals provides great opportunities to be successful from the start. There is a reason that sales people are commissioned and taken care of because, if they do a good job, they can provide a decent living for themselves.”
“The way I look at it, I was afforded a 10 month interview with the Atlanta Braves. My title was in ticket sales and the majority of my time was spent doing my day-to-day job and responsibilities that were hopefully being deemed successful, but, in reality, I was using my extra time as an extended interview.”
“This was not an interview in a formal setting, but I was able to talk with the people in partnerships and get to know the community department and volunteer for every event and go to every game.“
“You work in sports for a reason. To not enjoy and fully immerse yourself and be a part of the culture and organization, you are doing yourself a disservice and you should just go sell medical devices.”
When asked what keeps him motivated day in and day out to be successful in such a competitive industry, Dan pointed out that it’s all about the people he gets the opportunity to work with.
“I came here for the people 100 percent. I didn’t grow up playing basketball. I’m not from Phoenix. The people I work for and with are why I came here, and I couldn’t wait for the chance to learn from them.”
“It’s a desire to keep learning and see how much I can take on. I want to analyze and question why things are done certain ways. I’m not trying to get to a certain position by a certain age, but I want to learn as much as I can, and help it translate into my day-to-day life, perform my job, open up to people that I can help teach and just contribute positive good vibes to a fun industry.”
According to Dan, the only way to really learn as much as possible is to continue to be humble and willing to listen.
“I think people often don’t understand that if you can ask questions and really turn off your mind for a few minutes and actually listen, there is a lot that people can help you out with and, more often than not, they are willing to do so.”
Dan’s parting advice for the young sports industry professional came without hesitation.
“I think you need to work the long hours when you have the energy.”
“Create a list of where that first job is and where that first destination is that you want to go. You won’t be waiting on a senior level position with the Yankees. In reality, it will be a paid internship or school internship, but you should create a list of the areas you would go, sports you would work in and jobs you would want to be associated with. Get involved as soon as possible and begin the process. Once you do and you get time moving in a positive direction in terms of experience, you will be shocked at how many handshakes you give and people you meet.”
“You should always be trying to bring positivity to the workplace. It’s all one constant job interview and, as long as you don’t treat it like you are trying to get something from someone, you will come across as genuine and authentic and will be successful.”
“At the end of the day, it’s really cool that you can walk into work and you have presidents and general managers of an NBA team, and you are chatting them up about why certain trades were made or where they see the organization headed. That doesn’t wear off on me and as soon as it does, it probably makes financial sense to find another industry.”
“Finally, be hungry and the person who works the hardest and the longest. Hustle and hard work can really cover up for some developmental mistakes or processes while you are figuring everything out.”
We would like to thank Dan for taking the time to share his unique journey in the sports world. You can reach Dan on LinkedIn here.