Team Players: Potomac Alumni Excel at the Business of Sports
Baseball has often been described as a thinking man’s game. It’s a sport that requires both brains and brawn. As a lifelong baseball fan, Mike Carney ’01 loves the strategizing that takes place with each pitch. He gets it from the player’s perspective, too: A former college pitcher, Mike understands the sport’s cerebral nature; he knows that it takes more than a rocket arm or a nasty breaking ball to retire hitters on the diamond.
Now, as executive director of business strategy and analytics for the Washington Nationals, Mike is still executing strategic pitches. Although he’s not delivering fastballs from 60 feet, 6 inches away, Mike spends his days at Nats Park, trusting his talents as he devises and implements revenue and technology strategies to help the team win at the box office.
Mike and fellow Potomac School alumni Erin Vagley ’95 and Zach Leonsis ’07 are among the thousands of men and women who keep the wheels turning in the world of professional sports. While high-profile athletes, coaches, and owners are the public faces of a franchise, dedicated experts in behind-the-scenes roles play an equally essential part in keeping these organizations healthy and profitable.
Often lost amid the passion of rooting for our favorite teams is the reality that professional sports is a business. In fact, according to Forbes, the pro sports market in North America alone is expected to be worth more than $73 billion by 2019. Any market sector of that magnitude requires thousands of professionals to carry out day-to-day business operations and develop long-term strategies for success. While you won’t see highlights of Mike, Zach, or Erin’s performance on ESPN, their contributions are critical. And they’re lucky, as well, for they have found careers that enable them to combine their passion for sport with their talent for business.
Like Mike, who played club baseball at Northwestern University, Erin spent much of her youth on the field. At Potomac, she captained the varsity softball and soccer teams, then she went on to play club softball at Duke University. She even returned to Potomac briefly to serve as an assistant softball coach. Erin says, “From an early age, I loved playing sports and being a part of a team, and I loved coaching, but I never considered a career in professional sports.”
As president of Duke’s women’s club softball team, Erin was instrumental in drafting the first proposals petitioning the NCAA for the team’s varsity status. It was this process – from navigating NCAA compliance rules to understanding the intricacies of Title IX – that sparked Erin’s interest in pursuing law.
Yet, after receiving her J.D. from the University of Virginia in 2003 and working for nearly five years as a defense attorney with a prominent international law firm, Erin wasn’t satisfied with her career choice. She did some soul searching, and her mind kept coming back to her love of sports. She says, “By that point, I had ruled out practicing law, even sports law, so I began searching for other jobs in sports. The first thing I did was purchase a subscription to the weekly Sports Business Journal, which I read cover to cover. From that, I tried to learn as much as possible about the business of sports. I also leveraged my personal and professional networks to get informational interviews with people working in the industry. For every 10 people I contacted, I got one informational interview. I applied for every sports-related job I thought I was remotely qualified for, and many that I wasn’t. I didn’t get a single interview. The sports industry is very competitive.”
Eventually, Erin’s exploration led her to consider the field of human resources. She says that she was attracted to HR because “it’s similar to athletics in some ways. A primary function of HR in any business is helping to identify, secure, and retain the right players – people who can help the organization achieve its goals. There’s also a coaching component because HR professionals create programs that help employees develop their talents and skills, in order to help the whole team succeed.”
So, after nearly a decade working in law, Erin transitioned to a position as a human resources generalist for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. That move made something else clear: In addition to a change in profession, Erin wanted a change of scenery. She decided to relocate to Seattle.
Before making the move, Erin reached out to contacts and colleagues in various fields, looking for a position in HR. She recalls, “At the time, I wasn’t thinking about sports. I was contacting companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Boeing – companies that had a large presence in Seattle.” Ultimately, as fate would have it, one of her emails found its way to Adrian Hanauer, the majority owner of the Seattle Sounders FC, the city’s professional soccer franchise.
The stars had aligned. The Sounders were looking for an HR leader and preferred someone with legal expertise, as the club had recently split from the city’s professional football team, the Seattle Seahawks, and become an independent entity.
And so, when she wasn’t necessarily looking for a job in professional sports, Erin found the ideal position to combine her expertise with her passion. She could hardly believe her luck: She had landed an HR position with one of Major League Soccer’s most recognizable franchises!
Now in her fourth season with the Sounders, Erin is the team’s vice president of administration; her responsibilities include overseeing HR and IT for the club. She reflects, “It’s incredible to have the opportunity to do work that I enjoy, for an organization that I love. I have my dream job!”
Erin watched on the sidelines in Toronto as her team captured the 2016 MLS Cup, the first in the club’s history. The Sounders also continue to top the league in attendance and revenue year after year. Erin says, “Professional soccer is increasingly popular in the United States, and I’m excited to be part of a team that is leading that growth. Our average attendance exceeds 40,000 per match; that’s more than what most NHL, NBA, and MLB teams average!”
Erin feels fortunate that Mr. Hanauer saw her resume and reached out to her, but she knows that it took more than luck to earn her place in the world of professional sports. She reflects, “I had the legal and HR expertise that the team needed. My love of sports helps me do my job with joy and enthusiasm, but it was a combination of skills and experience, my network, and
Pursuing a career in sports was a more natural path for Zach, since his father, Ted Leonsis, is the founder, chairman, CEO, and majority owner of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, a company that counts among its assets three of Washington, DC’s elite professional sports franchises – the Wizards, the Capitals, and the Mystics.
Zach grew up playing sports and rooting for the hometown teams. He knew he wanted to work in the family business, but he also realized that he would need to acquire the skill-set necessary to make an impact in such a competitive industry. After earning a degree in communications and commerce from the University of Pennsylvania in 2011, Zach came back to DC to jump-start Monumental Sports & Entertainment’s Monumental Sports Network, which he now runs in conjunction with NBC Sports.
Zach was tasked with building and executing a business plan that would fuel the new enterprise, and he has turned the opportunity into something that hadn’t been done before in pro sports. He reflects, “Our objective was to create additional value within the organization. We looked at emerging media trends and recognized the tremendous opportunity for innovation there, so we set our sights on creating a first-of-its-kind online regional sports network. We took a very entrepreneurial approach that depended upon creativity, agility, and a reasonable amount of risk-taking.”
Under Zach’s leadership, Monumental Sports Network has grown from an ad-based blogging platform into something much more exciting. Recently, the network partnered with NBC Sports and CSN Mid-Atlantic to provide an over-the-top (OTT) subscription service that offers fans on-demand access to hundreds of live games, original programming, and members-only events.
In many ways, being the heir apparent in a big enterprise can be more stressful than just being an anonymous employee. Zach has to demonstrate on a daily basis why he’s a leader within the Monumental Sports & Entertainment universe. So, in addition to working hard and constantly scanning the horizon for new opportunities, he has continued to hone his skills; while developing Monumental Sports Network, Zach earned his M.B.A. from Georgetown University.
Monumental Sports & Entertainment owns the most professional teams of any enterprise in the United States. Along with the Washington Wizards, Capitals, and Mystics (and their respective home venues), the company owns two AFL teams – the Washington Valor and the Baltimore Brigade – and will soon launch an NBA 2K team and an NBA G-league team; they’re even venturing into the realm of endemic esports, with a recent strategic investment in Team Liquid. Suffice it to say, Monumental Sports & Entertainment has all the bases covered when it comes to sports. And as senior vice president and general manager of Monumental Sports Network, Zach Leonsis is always looking for new ways to leverage the ever-changing sports media landscape in support of the goals of the larger enterprise.
He says, “This is exciting work, and I feel fortunate to have a role in the success of teams that I grew up rooting for.” To those interested in a similar career, Zach offers the following advice: “When you’re asked the inevitable question, ‘Why do you want to work here?’ your first response can’t be ‘because I love sports.’ There are millions of people who love sports and know a lot about them, but it takes more than just passion to be successful. To work in professional sports, you need solid expertise in your particular field – whether that’s management, marketing, media, or whatever. You also need to be flexible
Just a short Metro ride away from Zach’s office, Mike spends his days working for another of DC’s premier professional sports franchises, Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals. Although his current role with the Nationals involves diligent planning, Mike did little strategizing on how to break into the sports industry; in fact, working in sports wasn’t even on his radar for the longest time.
Despite being a baseball player and fan since grade school, Mike never saw a career in sports as his calling. He played club baseball at Northwestern but spent his class time studying electrical engineering. He even did an engineering co-op with NASA, researching the capabilities of unmanned air vehicles. But after graduating in 2006, Mike channeled his knowledge and expertise into consulting, rather than engineering.
He joined a Chicago-based firm as an analytics consultant, traveling throughout the U.S. to advise technology directors on data infrastructure and data warehousing projects. After earning an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago in 2011, Mike transitioned from technology consulting to management consulting. Now, instead of advising technology directors about best practices, he was advising clients “with a C in front of their title,” he says with a laugh.
In 2011, Mike joined the DC-based consulting firm A.T. Kearney as manager of strategy, marketing, and sales practice. He loved his new position, he says, because it demanded that he “think bigger”: What are the problems that might be on the CEO or CFO’s mind, and how can we begin to address them? He enjoyed the challenge and the global nature of management consulting projects and had no intention of moving on. Then, one of the firm’s partners sent him a Nationals job posting in the fall of 2014.
Mike says, “This was an opportunity to apply what I’d learned in management consulting within the field of sports.” Suddenly, he saw a chance to use his unique business skill-set to break into an incredibly competitive industry – and one that he knew he would love being a part of.
Almost immediately, Mike traded in the boardroom for the ballpark. As head of the Nationals’ business strategy and analytics department, he was no longer traveling the world, pitching his ideas as a consultant does; he was stationed in DC and had the authority to execute his plans from the ground up. The beauty of this position for Mike was that it offered not only the opportunity to create and develop a strategy but also the chance to manage its implementation.
Now Mike spends his days developing projects that increase revenues and profits through a data-driven, analytical approach. His team uses new technologies to ensure that all of the outreach and marketing that the Nationals do is as personalized and targeted as possible. He says, “It’s my job to make sure we reach out with the right message, at the right time, to the right fan. We want to appeal to their interests and meet their needs but never come across as intrusive – that’s the worst thing a salesperson can be!”
Mike and his team are already tackling one of the most interesting variables in their 2018 planning process: How should the sales strategy change, given that the Nationals will be hosting baseball’s 2018 All-Star Game? Mike says, “Hosting the All-Star Game is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.” It’s his job to develop a strategy to parlay one of Major League Baseball’s annual highlights into increased season and general ticket sales for the Nats.
In July, the Nationals revealed the logo for the All-Star Game; from there, it’s been all systems go for Mike and his team. “We came up with a plan for how to connect the All-Star game with our sales, and now it’s time to put it in motion,” he says. And, with his eye always on analytics, he adds, “We’ll be able to use our projections to evaluate our success.”
Mike is thrilled to be doing something that he loves on a daily basis. Just like Zach and Erin, he feels privileged to be part of the world of professional sports, and to use his skills and expertise in support of that industry. He says, “For me, working
Mike, Erin, and Zach’s careers show that it takes more than a passion for sports to succeed in such a competitive industry. “The business is sports,” Erin says, “but it’s still a business. You have to be the best at what you do to help the organization function at the highest level.”
Just like playing sports, working in sports takes every ounce of effort and dedication. But when you reach the mountaintop, getting the chance to combine a love of sports with expertise in your professional field, it’s as sweet as a walk-off homerun, a buzzer-beating three-pointer, or a game-winning goal.