Neil Neukam Provides An Insight Into the Sports Industry

As I continue my journey towards breaking into the sports industry, I have run into numerous roadblocks forcing me to detour. All of these roadblocks seem to create a domino effect forcing me off-track, and I am not sure if there is a secret code that I need to decipher in order join the seemingly exclusive club of the sports industry. In order to gain some insight, I sought advice from Neil Neukam because he can provide a useful perspective with his nearly 20-years of experience in the sports industry.

Neil Neukam is the Assistant General Manager and Director of
Corporate Partnerships for the Toledo Mud Hens (Detroit Tigers Triple-A Affiliate) and the Toledo Walleyes (Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks ECHL Affiliate). He has spent nearly 20-years of his career working for the Mud Hens, so I was curious how he initially got his foot in the door with them. Neukam explains that his final internship, while an undergrad at the University of Toledo (UT), was with the Mud Hens, but this opportunity only came about after he took to heart some beneficial advice from mentor, Dr. Al Bohl. At the time Dr. Bohl was the Athletic Director at UT, and Neukam sought out his advice because he wanted a career in the sports industry. Dr. Bohl advised Neukam to get as much experience as he could while still in school and not to be concerned with the pay, if there was any, because the money would come eventually. Neukam followed through on Dr. Bohl’s advice, and he began volunteering for the Toledo Storm (former ECHL team) during their inaugural season. This opportunity provided Neukam not only with industry experience, but it taught him the invaluable lesson of networking.

While Neukam was volunteering for the Storm, he began meeting people within the industry, and it provided him new connections that, in turn, opened the door for him to new opportunities. After volunteering for the Storm, Neukam began volunteering at Raceway Park (horse harness racing), which finally led to his internship with the Mud Hens. He mentioned that his opportunities at Raceway Park and the Mud Hens were only made possible through the connections he made while working with the Storm. Neukam’s experience only further reaffirms the importance of networking because without connections to stand behind you, it is very easy to get overlooked, especially in such a highly competitive industry.

Then I asked Neukam follow-up question regarding experience, and I inquired, “How important is industry experience when you are looking at a potential employee? Personally, when I was in college I was unclear what my future career might be, so I did not gain much industry experience.” He replied that he is not so caught up with the experience side of things, but mainly he wants to have good people working for him and really care about they’re doing. However, Neukam did stress the importance of higher education, and he believes that a person’s education can make up for their lack of experience. His comment provides me with a sense of hope that organizations will not look at my lack of experience as a deficiency, but they put value in the education I have received.

After learning how Neukam was able to break into the industry, I wanted to understand the type of work his is involved in as an Assistant GM and Director of Corporate Partnerships, so I asked him what does he do on a typical day? He mentioned that as the Director of Corporate Partnerships, he typically oversees a staff ranging from two to four people, and they collectively work together in an effort to generate revenue for the Mud Hens and Walleyes through sponsorships. He continued saying this normally consists of meeting with different prospective advertisers/sponsors and creating sponsorship proposals. However, since he also an Assistant GM, he is also heavily involved with the day-to-day operations and various other aspects of the teams. Neukam clarified saying that one-day he could be working 100% in his area, while the next day he may spend working with Community Relations and Ticketing. He then concluded by saying that no two days are the same.

Once I gained an understanding of the type of work Neukam was involved in, I asked him, “What part of your job do you find most satisfying? Most challenging?” He proudly admits that the most satisfying part of his job is not just helping sponsorship partners promote and advertise their product, but seeing that it actually works them! It is very satisfying to create a beneficial partnership that generates tangible results. However, he finds a lack of time as the most challenging aspect of his job. He clarified this saying he believes that we’ve become a very instantaneous society, so people want, and expect, results right away which cannot always be done.

Following Neukam’s response regarding the satisfying and challenging parts of his job, I was interested which carried more weight with him so I asked him, “If you could do it all over again, would you still choose to work in the sports industry? Why? Is there anything that you would do differently?” He quickly answered that he would still choose to work in the sports industry, which proved to me that the challenges of his job do not carry as much weight as the satisfaction it provides him. He loves working in the industry because it is full of great people, and he does not believe there is anything he would do differently. But, merely out of curiosity, he might pursue other job opportunities he has had over the years just to see where it might have taken him in the industry.

Then, I concluded my questions asking, ”What advice would you give someone looking to enter the sports industry?” Neukam replied, “The same advice given to me by Dr. Bohl…do something, anything! Just get involved, meet people, and worry about the dollars later.” His advice only reiterates information I have previously learned from other industry leaders and in my current sports management course, which is to gain experience and network. I wish I could have taken advantage of more internship and volunteer opportunities in college, instead of having to work a retail job to pay the bills. However, I am currently paying the price because a lot of organizations will not hire me, even for an internship, because of my lack of experience. I know I cannot change the past, so his advice only fuels my efforts to utilize all my avenues for networking. I need to keep putting myself out there and continue looking for opportunities and making connections because, as I learned from this discussion, the secret code to break into the sports industry is networking and experience.

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