Students hear tales of hard knocks in sports business

January 16, 2019 / by / 0 Comment
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Greg Hanover spoke to Colangelo College of Business students on Tuesday about what it’s like to have a career in professional sports.

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

The quest to give Grand Canyon University students real-world experience means getting real about some harsh realities. It would be disingenuous to pat them on the head and send them out there without a heads-up.

That’s even more important when it comes to sports, and several Colangelo College of Business (CCOB) classes – both undergraduate and graduate – heard the it’s-not-all-fun-and-games message Tuesday from Greg Hanover, a former National Hockey League executive who’s now CEO of Liveops, a virtual call center company based in Scottsdale.

“They see what they see on TV and online,” said Hanover, the latest speaker in the CCOB Dean’s Speaker Series, “and they think the life of an athlete is the life you live as a sports executive. It couldn’t be further from the truth.”

For Hanover, the path into the stadium was a free internship with the Buffalo Bisons, a minor league baseball team in Buffalo, N.Y. He swept the floor under the stadium. He helped pull the tarpaulin over the field. He helped operate the scoreboard for $20 a game. He even got to do a little marketing, his primary reason for being there.

“That’s how you have to be to get in,” he said. “There are rare cases where people know people who help get them in. But for people who don’t have that, if you want to break in you have to be willing to start anywhere and have that willingness to say, ‘This may not be what I want to do, but this is my door in and I’m going to figure out how to work the maze and get to where I want to go.’ You’ve just got to have that drive.”

But the important thing was that he was meeting people.

“I walked around and introduced myself,” he said. “If I had free time, I’d say, ‘Hey, can I help you with anything?’ You get to know people and start building your brand and your reputation, and it pays off down the road.”

And pay off it did. Before long he was Marketing Coordinator for the Bisons. But the lure of the NHL, his passion growing up in Toronto, was strong, and when a former Bisons employee went to the Washington Capitals and told Hanover the NHL club needed an Events Coordinator, he jumped at the opportunity.

But even that part wasn’t easy. The Capitals didn’t pay for his travel – he had to get there on his own, and he wasn’t making a lot of money at the time (his first job paid only $24,000 a year).

He was hired … for $28,000 annually. But to him, only one thing mattered.

“I arrived. I did it,” he said. “I was working in the NHL.”

That led to becoming Director of Events for the Arizona Coyotes when they were opening their new arena in Glendale in 2003, and after the NHL was shut down by a strike for one season he migrated to the Florida Panthers to be their Director of Operations. He could have pursued jobs in Toronto or other hockey-crazed cities, but he saw a greater opportunity in helping the league grow where the weather is warmer.

The long days started to wear on him, however, and that convinced him it was time to do something else. When there’s a night game, he said, a typical sports executive gets to the office at 8 a.m. and doesn’t go home until 10 p.m. or later – then does it all over again the next day.

Dr. Mark Clifford, who manages the Sports Business program, had just delivered the very same message to his class a few hours earlier.

“It’s exactly what Greg said. It’s not the glamour side of sport, like hanging out and doing stuff with the athletes. You get some of that, but it’s not what it’s about. It’s about the job,” Clifford said.

“If you’re working for a professional sports team, you’re working 14-15 hours a day and you’re back early the next morning. If you’ve got back-to-back games, kiss your family goodbye for a couple of days.”   

Despite all that, it’s still a job filled with joy for people who love sports. Hanover’s advice to students: Be prepared to start at a low level, work long hours and accept low pay until you reach a director level, and don’t delay in building your network.

Humility plays well, too.

“You’ve got to be very humble in that environment,” he said. “You want to be seen as that person who’s humble and willing to do whatever it takes and help out and be a team player. If you do that, people are going to gravitate to you, they’re going to want you to be included and they’re going to want to work with you.”

And once you’re in, it can be as if you’ve never worked a day in your life.

“You make a lot of sacrifices in sports,” Hanover said, “but the camaraderie is a ton of fun.”

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or rick.vacek@gcu.edu.

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