I try to ground myself with the old saying of “never forget where you came from” on a daily basis. What many may not know is that I started my career as an intern at USA Swimming before a winding journey led me back as the Chief Marketing Officer. In the span of those 23 years from then to now, I learned some great lessons along the way and fortunately made a few good career choices along the way.
This blog is a bit more personal as I share some of my early experiences.
Spring 1990 – I was working in the women’s sports information office at the University of Arkansas for one of the best people in the business then and now – Bill Smith. (See my previous blog of “A Letter to the Baseball Coach Who Cut Me” as it was the most career-defining decision of my life). I had been the sports information contact for the swimming & diving team for two years and found a great rapport with the team and coaches. They really took me under their wing. I was then offered the internship at USA Swimming (through the U.S. Olympic Committee internship program) for the Fall semester. I really struggled with the decision on whether to accept the internship vs. the traditional summer internship period as it would mean leaving the swim team in a bind for the first half of the season. I sheepishly went to the swim coach at the time – Martin Smith (no relation to Bill) – to explain my dilemma. He looked at me and said, “Matt, you dumb ass. Take the internship. We’ll be just fine.”
Fall 1990 – I arrived at the U.S. Olympic Training Center exhausted from a long, two-day drive from Arkansas. (That, too, is another great story that I will only tell over cold beverages. Maybe.) I worked for the long-time communications team of Jeff Dimond who is a public affairs specialist with the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and Charlie Snyder who is now the Director of Communications at USA Volleyball. My intern project was sorting and identifying photo slides of hundreds of athletes and coaches that were dumped in huge boxes. Here’s a pic below of how photos used to be catalogued. It was painful and tedious. But by the end I could identify any coach and swimmer in the country. To this day, I still look back at the value of that entire internship and I can still pick Olympic swimmer Betsy Mitchell out of a crowd even though we have never met.
Winter 1991 – My internship ended in December 1990, and in a bit of lucky timing the FINA World Championships was held in January 1991 in Perth, Australia, during their summer. I volunteered to work for USA Swimming and paid my own airfare to get to Australia. I slept in the office shared by swimming, diving, water polo and synchronized swimming and would hear the fax machine (yep, pre-Internet) ring all night from the folks awake in the U.S.
Summer 1992 – From that internship and my work at Arkansas, it led to an opportunity to work in the research room at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona for NBC Sports. I never would have dreamed that would lead to working at nine total Olympic Games. It was the most pivotal moment in my personal life also as I met my wife Michelle Dusserre (@babygym94) there too. (Technically, we first met in the Newark airport headed to Barcelona). Michelle is a 1984 Olympic silver medalist in gymnastics and she was asked to work in the research room also. She had all the qualifications. I was simply available. I was recruited for the research room by Molly Solomon who is now executive producer and senior vice president at The Golf Channel and Michelle was recruited by Brett Goodman who is now senior vice president at NBC Olympics. Both of them worked for Peter Diamond, who is still a senior vice president at NBC Olympics. All three take credit for our marriage.
Summer 1993 – For the year following Barcelona I worked as a sports information grad assistant at Purdue University getting paid $7,000 for the school year. (There are some good karaoke and baseball announcing stories from there, too. Those are definitely stories to share over a cold beverage). That led to being named the Communications Coordinator at USA Swimming and nearly tripling my salary to $21,000. I was rich! That began a career at USA Swimming during the time period of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and the stressful experience of an Olympic Games on East Coast deadlines (when newspapers were king) and the scrum of the media mixed zone. Working in the mixed zone should be on anyone’s bucket list.
The Moral of the Story (So Far)
As I look back at those first years in the sports business, I see some common themes develop that I was oblivious to or wasn’t smart enough to see at the time. Today, I think they make for decent advice for future sports business job seekers:
1. Give Up Short-Term Pay for Long-Term Gain – in several cases I got paid little-to-nothing to work in the sports business as an intern or even a volunteer. I lived beyond my means and it sucked for a while surviving on press box pizza and hot dogs. But it all paid off in a long career that I love in sports.
2. Take Risks – While you feel the pressure to make the right decisions, it’s ok to take calculated risks in your career. In fact, it’s encouraged. Live in another state. Take that internship several states away. Take that international opportunity. Volunteer for that event. Introduce yourself to someone you have never met. It will pay off.
3. Recognize It’s a Relationship Business – the people I met, worked for along the way are still a part of my life 20+ years later. Cultivate those relationships and keep them. You may even be in a position to help the people who helped you someday.
4. Never Forget Where You Came From – we were all interns, punks, plebs or rookies. If you are still in that position, make sure you reach out and network, meet people, ask them about their career path. If you are advanced in your career, then oblige those requests when they come. We were all there too.