Jumping into the Sports World
Meadows alums talk about careers in professional sports and media
The Meadows + Dallas advantage, premium internships, first-rate digital and writing skills, maximizing the SMU network and more prepare students for the big leagues.
What is it about SMU alumni and sports? Take a look inside major league administration offices, sports companies and media outlets and you’ll likely find an SMU alumnus working in the executive suite or reporting courtside for the NBA, NFL, Nike, network affiliate television stations and other key organizations.
How did they do it? What steps did they take to establish careers in the sports world? Below, five Meadows alums share their experiences and advice on how to get in the game.
SMU’s three-point shot: preparation, location and connections
Dennis Rogers is director of communications for the Los Angeles Clippers. Before the Clippers, before his nine years as director of basketball communications for the New Orleans Hornets, before his five years as director of communications for the NBA Summer League-Las Vegas, Rogers was pursuing a B.A. in Public Affairs and Corporate Communications at SMU Meadows School of the Arts. He was keenly aware that the combination of SMU and Dallas – home to several major league sports organizations – meant he had chances to land stellar internships with the likes of the Dallas Cowboys, Mavericks, Dallas Stars Hockey, Texas Rangers and FC Dallas Soccer. He took advantage of his surroundings.
“Being in a major market with multiple sports teams was instrumental to my progress,” says Rogers. “Being in Dallas afforded me the opportunity to help out at Mavericks games, which in turn helped propel me to other opportunities once I graduated from SMU.” In addition to working on the Mavericks stats crew, he also interned with the Dallas Cowboys; his boss at the Cowboys was SMU alum Scott Purcel (B.B.A.; minor in Journalism ’91), director of broadcasting for the Dallas Cowboys.
After graduating from SMU in 2000, Rogers was determined to work in the NBA. He applied to every major league basketball team in the country, nearly 29 in all.
“My first NBA break was with the New Orleans Hornets,” he says. “I was hired by SMU alum Harold Kaufman, who at the time was the Hornets’ head of communications.” Kaufman, who led communications for the Hornets for 25 years and is currently executive director of communications with the New York Mets, graduated from Meadows in 1987 with a B.A. in Communication Arts/Public Relations.
SMU connections and experiences also helped Jonathan Rinehart (B.A. Journalism ’00), president of the Salt Lake City Stars. While a student, Rinehart was excited to meet Mavericks Public Relations Director Gregg Elkin, a guest speaker in Rinehart’s sports marketing class. Rinehart asked him about opportunities with the Mavericks, which led to part-time work and an internship with the team.
Shortly after graduation, Rinehart met with alumnus Purcel at the Cowboys and landed a broadcasting internship. When Rinehart moved to Colorado, Purcel connected him with SMU alumnus Eric Sebastian (B.A. Communication Arts/Public Relations ’94), who at the time worked in public relations for the Denver Nuggets. Rinehart worked for the Nuggets doing media relations for a couple of years before moving on to the Colorado Crush football team, and then on to the Utah Jazz, for which he worked 12 years as vice president of communications. He was promoted to president of the Salt Lake City Stars in summer 2017.
Eddie Sefko (B.F.A. Journalism ’81), longtime Mavericks beat writer for The Dallas Morning News and DMN’s SportsDayDFW.com, says it was a favorite faculty member who helped open a door into the sports arena. “Having a professor by the name of David McHam, who is nothing short of a legend in the Texas college teaching world and who has uncovered and polished an incredible number of journalists people are reading today, was at SMU at the time,” recalls Sefko. “His help, teachings and connections in the business were invaluable.”
SMU’s reputation helped Sefko land spots at newspapers prior to graduation. “I worked one summer at The Dallas Morning News and another, before my senior year, at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal,” he says. “Both were very positive experiences that I'm not sure I'd have had the opportunity to do if not for the SMU brand name.”
Sefko was hired straight out of SMU by Tony Pederson, who at the time was sports editor of the Houston Chronicle (and is now The Belo Foundation Endowed Distinguished Chair in Journalism at Meadows). “That was a tremendous break,” says Sekfo. “He got my name from Mr. McHam.” Sefko was a sports writer with the Houston Chronicle for 21 years before joining The Dallas Morning News in 2002.
Brett Daniels, Chief Operating Officer, Atlanta Super Bowl LIII Host Committee, earned his B.A. in Communication Arts/TV and Radio in 1989, plus a Cox M.B.A. in 2000. While a student, he worked in the SMU Athletics department, which Daniels says was instrumental in landing an internship with the Dallas Cowboys upon graduation. Daniels worked for the Cowboys for 25 years, most of them as senior director of corporate communications and brand management.
“Being able to take the concepts and ideas I was being taught in the classroom and apply them to real-world experience by working in the SMU Sports Information Office was the most beneficial part of my career preparations,” says Daniels. “Working in a major media market like Dallas/Fort Worth brought me many great opportunities to gain hands-on experience with local and national media, conference and NCAA executives as well as sports information staff from other major universities.”
Internships: “Complain the least and work the hardest to prove yourself.”
The alums all agree that if a student can shine during an internship, chances of landing a desirable job are higher.
“The first key piece of advice I share with anyone looking to get their foot in the door in sports is to take every opportunity to get an internship and gain work experience while you are in school,” says Daniels. “There are so many different opportunities for internships and volunteer positions around major sporting events that it is important to capitalize on that while you have the chance.
“Too often, I get résumés or calls from graduating seniors looking to get into the sports industry who have done nothing during their time on campus to get real-life experience in their field of interest. Those individuals are starting three to four years behind the graduates who took the time to work football, basketball or baseball games as a student; who got a summer job with a local professional sports team; or who took the time to volunteer around a major event like a bowl game or conference championship.”
The alums advise that a strong work ethic can help open doors. Arriving early and staying late helps an intern stand out, says Eric Sebastian (’94), director of coaching operations for the Washington Wizards. “Whatever it is you’re asked to do, do it better than anyone else,” counsels Sebastian, who as a student interned with the SMU Sports Information Office, Dallas Cowboys and Denver Nuggets. “You want to demonstrate your work ethic, attention to detail and dependability. Those traits will get noticed and make you attractive to keep around.”
Be willing to pay your dues, says Rinehart, and walk the walk with your work ethic. “No one starts at the top of their profession,” he says. “Sports are a team effort and you need to be willing to pitch in and help, regardless of the task. Things like attitude and work ethic are what people notice most about interns. Skills can be taught and acquired, but it all starts with your work ethic and being a team player. At that level, you need to complain the least and work the hardest to prove yourself, and if you do that you’ll ideally continue to be given more work and responsibility, which leads to more experience and more opportunity.”
Volunteer as much as you can, adds Rogers. “It is such a competitive world out there in sports that making a connection with someone ahead of time or volunteering at a conference tournament, game or event could be the thing that puts you over the top.”
Landing and keeping the job: writing, relating and recording
In addition to communication skills, all five alums say great writing chops and digital skills are essential.
“Writing is a critical skill,” says Daniels. “Everyone should be capable of sitting down and writing out a business letter, proposal or response to an executive’s questions. Plus, the ability to speak face-to-face with co-workers and to be able to speak in front of small groups is a must.”
Rinehart says versatility is a plus: “The more varied skills you possess (writing, reporting, shooting, editing, social media, etc.), the more marketable you are.”
Sefko says top journalists must be able to turn copy or edit video in a hurry, and they must keep their eyes on video capabilities and trends. “Be adept with video,” he advises. “That's where the industry is headed. People are still going to have to write the information, but having video capabilities is going to put you ahead of the curve. Learn how to handle a microphone and move it as you move, etc. The experience will serve you well.”
Top skills for succeeding as an employee/executive of a pro sports organization
When asked what traits were indicative of a top sports industry employee or executive, the five alums were ready with their answers:
Rogers: Trust, transparency and doing the little things no one wants to do.
Sebastian: Work ethic, communication and organization. Every job I’ve had in sports has required the ability to communicate and be organized.
Sefko: Communication, communication, communication. The art of being able to convey ideas and information without any level of BS. Be honest, but also be unafraid to be blunt. No sugar-coating. That gets you nowhere. Most owners, executives, etc., don't want a yes man and can see right through those folks.
Dedication – you have to know going into it that this is not a typical Monday-through-Friday, 9-5 type of job. The sports world is there to entertain everyone else after work and on holidays, so your event nights are typically going to be a lot of nights and weekends.
Passion – because of the hours it requires, it has to be something you love and are passionate about. Working in sports can be a grind and involve personal sacrifice for the greater good at times. It is certainly not always glamorous, so it is important to truly enjoy what you do.
Communication – No matter what aspect of sports you want to go into, or really no matter what aspect of life, the ability to effectively communicate is a true key to success.
Loyalty and dependability – you are only as good as your word and actions. Make sure everyone knows they can count on you to get the job done, and done correctly.
Strong people skills – develop positive working relationships with everyone in the organization and find ways to help in other areas when needed. Everyone is looking for good teammates, so make sure you are one of the individuals people want to reach out to, to be involved in what they are doing.
Work hard – any job in the sports and entertainment world comes with long hours and lots of work on nights and weekends. You have to know that going in and accept the fact that you are willing to give up lots of your personal time because you love what you do working in sports. Then always go the extra mile to make sure you are exceeding expectations. There are a lot of people looking to get a job like yours, so make yourself too valuable to replace by working hard.
One last tip: mind your celebrity manners
As heady as it can be working alongside sports greats on the field or court, Sebastian says your primary focus is still your job.
“Don’t be star-struck and think you’re going to be hanging out with the players,” he says. “Everyone has a job to do and those jobs often entail long hours. Those who get into the business for the wrong reasons get weeded out pretty quickly.”
Rogers concurs. During one of his first internships with the Dallas Cowboys, he says, he learned a rough lesson.
“I am a HUGE Cowboys fan. When I was an intern, I worked on the field during games. At one game, Emmitt Smith broke the all-time rushing record – an awesome moment – and I was jumping up and down, celebrating while working.
“On Monday, a video of me celebrating made the rounds around the workplace. Man, it was embarrassing, but it also made me learn right then and there to separate myself from being a fan. Sure, I love the team I work for and want us to win; I just have to keep it bottled up and be professional at all times.”
Journalism and sports curriculum at SMU
Many students at SMU pursue double degrees. Sports-minded journalism students often combine the B.A. in Journalism from Meadows with a B.A. in Applied Physiology and Sport Management from SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development.
Meadows’ journalism program focuses on writing, reporting, ethics, law and critical thinking. Students work across broadcast, print and digital media in a high-definition broadcast studio and control room, multi-media newsroom and computer labs, where they produce regularly scheduled news programs (in English and in Spanish); shows on politics, sports and fashion; a twice-yearly fashion magazine; daily online news; a weekly newspaper; and various blogs and social media content.
Unlike many other college programs, students check out camera packages the very first year. The Division also receives the same raw video feeds as CBS and CNN, which means the students can report on stories happening around the world.
Many alumni appreciate the small class sizes and the outstanding faculty, all of whom have proven professional experience and accolades.
“What I learned in my classes about writing, reporting, journalistic ethics and integrity are things that have stuck with me throughout my career,” says Rinehart. “That and the opportunity to dive behind the scenes and learn how to cover sports as a writer and editor for The Daily Campus really helped start me down the path that has led me to where I am today.
“It’s a little extra special when you meet someone from SMU in the sports world,” he says. “In the NBA, we have a nice group of us – it makes you feel proud.
“And we all would do anything to help a fellow Mustang try and break into this same world.”
Read more about SMU Meadows Division of Journalism, which offers a B.A. in Journalism; B.A. in Fashion Media; the William J. O’Neil Program in Business Journalism; and a minor in Journalism.
Many Meadows sports-world alums also hail from the Division of Corporate Communication and Public Affairs and from the SMU Meadows Temerlin Advertising Institute.