Dos and Don'ts: Networking in Sports
Twenty tips for getting (the most out of) informational interviews
If you have ever worked or networked in the sports industry, you probably know about The Reach-Out.
It’s almost a rite of passage for students and aspiring career-changers. You find team employees on LinkedIn or reverse-engineer their email addresses, ask for 20 minutes of their time, and hope to gain some insights for your future career. Absent the ability to quantify this, I would guess that the vast majority of people under 40 for whom getting into sports is a life goal have sent such messages, and virtually everyone in the industry has received them. (I’m sure something like this exists in many professions, but even seven months after changing careers, I still get more requests for advice about working in baseball than my current field.)
Normally, Labor Day is the unofficial start of the MLB hiring cycle for the following summer, but I saw my first set of job postings for 2023 last week, so the application process is underway. And with it will presumably come a new wave of Reach-Outs across the industry.
The Reach-Out is an important part of networking in sports. Obviously it’s a great opportunity to learn more about a very cool career, if you put in the effort to send a professional email and have a productive conversation. Secondarily — and, to be clear, this should not be your primary goal with it — your communications are a chance to make a good first impression on someone who could interview you for a job one day, and it’s crucial not to start off on the wrong foot in a small industry where reputations are hard to shake.
While I am no longer working in sports full-time, I have extensive experience on both sides of this process. I was a serial networker in college, and if I may toot my own horn, a pretty successful one. I also received an average of at least a few Reach-Outs per month over my several years working in baseball, and these conversations ran the gamut from mutually fulfilling to complete wastes of time. In other words, I have a good perspective not just on how to improve your chances of getting an informational interview, but how to ensure that you make the most of the valuable opportunity.
With that in mind, here are 10 pairs of Dos and Don’ts to make you a better networker and a more-successful Reach-Out-er. These tips are specifically tailored to baseball, but hopefully they are applicable to other industries as well. Thanks to the other sports professionals (linked throughout) who seconded or added to these tips!
Do: Reach out to people with jobs you want
Networking can be intimidating, especially when you are first starting out and cold-emailing people you don’t know. It can be especially daunting when it feels like a high-pressure situation, and when it’s apparently a big enough deal that people write 3,000-word essays on how (not) to do it. Don’t let that stop you. The Reach-Out really can be a good way to make contacts and get feedback on your career path. Most people in sports know what it’s like to have your dream and are happy to pay it forward to help a young person, as someone once did for them. But as Kyle Boddy, the founder of Driveline Baseball who has worked with several MLB teams, attests, you have to actually send the email.
I would particularly encourage non-men and BIPOC to do this. In my experience, the people who send Reach-Outs are usually white and almost exclusively present as men. The onus surely should not be on underrepresented groups to fix the diversity problems in the sports world, but so long as this is a major part of industry networking, people of all backgrounds should avail themselves of the opportunity.
Don’t: Get their name or gender wrong
This is as good a time as any to clarify that, as obvious and self-explanatory as some of these tips may seem, I can tell you from experience that they unfortunately don’t go without saying.
If you found my profile on LinkedIn or saw my listing on an employee roster, you should know that I spell my first name L-E-W, not L-O-U. Not taking the couple extra seconds to double-check the spelling is the single fastest way to make a bad first impression. Or if you’re emailing MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, make sure the word “Dear” isn’t followed by a name that’s not “Mike.”
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Most people don’t mind or even prefer being called by their first name instead of being addressed formally. If you opt for the honorific, be accurate with it — when writing to someone with a PhD, like Red Sox analyst Tyler Burch, make sure to use “Dr.” instead of “Mr.” (He might not mind the mistake, but there are plenty of people who do.) And especially do not misgender someone, as happens regularly to Sam Schultz of the Oakland Athletics and Julia Prusaczyk of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Do: Do some homework before you email
There are tens of thousands of people working for American professional sports teams, even without counting the players. When I see your message in my inbox, the first thing I want to know is why you sought out me. I’m not looking for flattery, I just want to make sure my experience is relevant to your path or goals before I give you a half-hour of my time. This, in so many words, was the most-common piece of advice shared by the people I talked to for this essay, including Tyrone Brooks, who heads MLB’s Diversity Pipeline Program.
Don’t: Message people willy-nilly
Once you’ve gotten the recipient’s name right, the best way to get them to ignore your email is to make it clear that you’ve copied and pasted the same form letter to dozens of people. If you’re asking a busy professional to take the time to give you advice, the least you can do is spend a couple minutes crafting a personal note. If that sounds like a lot of work, consider it a means to help pare down your list — as Detroit Tigers analyst Danny Vargovick notes, requesting phone calls with several people from the same team rather than focusing on a single person or two within an organization makes each recipient less likely to talk to you.
Do: Consider the calendar
If you’re interested enough in baseball to be pursuing a career in it, hopefully you don’t need me to tell you that there are times of year when certain people are going to be very busy. Player development staff will be basically unavailable at the start of Spring Training. An amateur scout is unlikely to answer your email in June, as would someone working in player personnel in July. Don’t try to get on their calendar if their team is in the postseason, and don’t bother them if they just got eliminated.
Don’t: Assume they’re free at other times
It apparently doesn’t go without saying that people in the sports industry work during the offseason. Yes, it’s more likely that they can make time for you when there isn’t a game that night, or after the draft is over, or once they’re back from Spring Training. But the grind of sports is constant, and even when you’re fulfilled by it, it can be all-consuming. Just because there’s no major event on the schedule (that you know of) doesn’t mean they’re not working hard. If they’re not, people in sports deserve to unplug and take a break in the rare instances that they can.
Plus, as baseball editor Tracy Greer would remind you, you’re probably not the only one trying to set up a call with them! It’s hard for people in that position to make time to talk to everyone.
Do: Follow up (politely)
If you sent a professional, respectful message and didn’t get a response because your prospective mentor is busy, it’s okay to send them a follow-up. Obviously you want to tread carefully — persistence can come across as impatience or even entitlement — but there have been times when I’ve simply lost track of emails from advice-seekers to whom I would otherwise have talked. I’d suggest waiting at least two weeks before following up, though Brooks says it’s acceptable to do so after five days, and he’s one of the foremost experts on networking within the sports world.
Don’t: Disrespect their limits
Often times a Reach-Out is a request for more than just a phone conversation — a Zoom meeting, a cup of coffee, occasionally even visiting the stadium offices (don’t ask for that one). There’s nothing wrong with talking face-to-face, and when it’s convenient I’m usually happy to do it. But an old-fashioned phone call tends to work best for me. If the person doing you a favor expresses such a preference, don’t push them on it.
In a similar vein, many industry professionals, like MLB Vice President of Data Operations Cory Schwartz, mentioned respecting the time limits you collectively set. If you asked someone for a half-hour of their time, consider that a hard stop unless they tell you otherwise. On the flipside, don’t ask someone to clear 20 minutes from their schedule if you have only 10 minutes’ worth of questions.
Do: Set specific goals for your conversation
So you passed the first milestone: You got someone who works in your dream field to talk to you about their career. Now, what do you want from them?
Are you looking for general insight about working in sports? Want to know more about what a job title means? Do you see similarities in your backgrounds and want to know how they apply their skills to baseball? The best way to meet your goals is to define them for yourself and express them to the person on the other end of the line.
Don’t: Misrepresent why you’re reaching out
For obvious reasons, employees of professional sports teams tend to be careful about what they say publicly. If you represent that you are seeking one-on-one professional advice, they may be more off-the-cuff with their words than they would if you were taking notes for a blog post or a class presentation. If the eventual audience for their advice goes beyond just you, tell them that up-front.
As a corollary, don’t say you’re looking for career advice and then treat it like you’re applying for a job. No matter your credentials, if you set up an informational interview as a false pretense for you to brag, they won’t be impressed.
Do: Identify specific interests
The hardest thing for me to respond to when talking to someone about working in sports was being asked what a typical day is like. There is no “typical day” in baseball, and there is no good way to say that without sounding evasive or self-important.
The second-biggest conversation stopper for me is when someone says they want to work in sports, but doesn’t have any specifics in mind beyond that.
It’s great to be flexible when you’re starting out in the industry, and I don’t expect anyone to have their career mapped out when they’re still in school. But the baseball industry is a huge umbrella. Do you want to be a data scientist? Are you interested in scouting? Do you want to get into development, and if so, do you mean player development or software development? Each path requires vastly different skill sets and thus would lead to dramatically different advice — and that’s not even considering how many types of people it takes to make the business side run. This was another very popular piece of crowdsourced advice, including from MLB’s Jason Bernard, who noted that expressing specific interests makes it easier to refer you to other people who can help you.
Don’t: Say you want to be a GM
When students do give me an actual answer for what they want to do within sports, many say that they want to head a Baseball Operations department. It’s a great dream and I never want to take it away from someone, but it’s not a constructive thing to say in this context. No team is going to hire an entry-level applicant as their General Manager. What are you going to do before you become a GM? How do you want to get your foot in the door?
The other thing that makes this a strange response is that, in all likelihood, the person you’re talking to is not running a team. I don’t know of any other industry where aspiring candidates ask mid- or even entry-level employees how to become a CEO. How much insight do you expect them to have about becoming their boss’s boss’s boss? I’m rooting for you, kid, but there aren’t many people who can help you do it.
Do: Talk about yourself
You’ve established directions for both your professional conversation and your potential career path. Now the biggest obstacle is that, aside from the (hopefully brief!) introduction in your email, I don’t know anything about your existing experience. What skills do you bring to the table? What makes you special, both as a potential applicant and as a person? Do you have any projects in your portfolio that you’re proud of? (It’s okay if you don’t, but make sure to give me the highlights if you do.) I don’t need your full life story, but be prepared to give me your spiel. Otherwise I can’t offer any individualized advice.
Don’t: Pry into their work
It might seem impolite to talk in-depth about the work you’ve done without asking your mentor about their projects. Yet sports are a zero-sum game, and any information or idea a team has is a potential competitive advantage. As such, industry professionals take the secrecy of their models and methods seriously. Couch whatever questions you ask about their day-to-days in generic terms, lest you both put them in the uncomfortable position of having to change the subject and come across as not taking the sensitivity seriously.
Do: Ask them for advice
Once you’ve explained your background and your aspirations, the person you’re talking to should have a good idea of how to bridge one to the other. This is your chance to get specific, individually tailored career advice from someone who knows the ins and outs of the field. Be prepared for it! The best questions you can ask are ones that both are difficult to answer without an industry-insider perspective and lead to specific action items for you. Some good examples I’ve heard include:
“What coding language would be most valuable for me to learn for these roles?”
“How does one get hands-on experience with tracking tech?”
“What’s the best way to demonstrate my skills to a team?”
If it’s something you can easily look up yourself or won’t lead to a tangible takeaway, it’s probably not the best use of your limited time.
Don’t: Ask them for handholding
There’s a very fine line between pointing you in the right direction and doing the work for you. Consider these potential alternate phrasings or follow-ups to the foregoing questions that I’ve also heard:
“How do you learn to code?”
“How do I get in touch with a college coach?”
“How can get more readers for my research blog?”
The professional on the other end of the phone is not a guidance counselor. If you are really having trouble and need help getting started, wait at least a week and then follow up in an email.
Do: Inquire about job opportunities
On the one hand, the purpose of an informational interview is to help you learn about the industry, not to get a head-start on a job application. Yet if you’ve gotten this far, both of you know that you want to work in sports, and at a certain point it feels disingenuous to maintain the kayfabe. Go ahead and ask if there are any openings in your area of interest, or when there might be some. Just make sure it’s clear that your inquiry is secondary to your advice-seeking, and not the other way around.
Don’t: Expect job opportunities
No matter how much you wow the person you’re talking to — which, again, shouldn’t be your goal here — this isn’t how teams hire people. “Please know it's an informational interview and not a job interview,” warns Nick Wan, who heads analytics for the Cincinnati Reds. “This isn’t a back door.” No one’s playing coy or winking as they say that, it’s the truth. The best thing you can do is use the advice you get to improve your résumé for later.
Do: Show appreciation
I know it sounds quaint to suggest that you write an appreciative note after a conversation, and to some it may come across as sucking up. But I’ll be honest, the few times that an aspiring professional has followed up on our call with an old-fashioned thank-you card have warmed my heart and seared into my memory. If writing a letter feels forced or archaic to you, I get a kick out of people keeping in touch to say that they learned a new skill at my suggestion or that my advice helped them get a job. It never hurts to return kindness to someone who showed it to you.
Don’t: Act like a fan
Congratulations! Your Reach-Out was a success: You found someone whose career you want to emulate, you got them on the phone, and you had a conversation that was as engaging as it was educational. There’s only one thing you can do to screw up now:
“So are you gonna sign Bryce Harper?”
For all its challenges, working in baseball is fun. You get to hang out at the ballpark, you feel a deep attachment to your work, and you see the fruits of your labor play out every night in front of tens of thousands of cheering fans. You will, by and large, have an awesome job.
But it is a job. And being jaded enough to compartmentalize how cool it is is a universal requirement for working in the industry. Asking if I get to meet the players, talking smack about teams, looking for inside trade rumors — in this context, any of it will undermine your credibility. Even as a joke. Assume I don’t know you well enough to know you’re kidding, and that it’s not an original one anyway.
The vast, vast majority of people who love sports don’t make a living from it. There’s nothing wrong with choosing that path, as I learned from experience. But if you present yourself as a fan before a professional, you’re sure to remain that way.
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