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  Building Connections from Scratch, Zone by Zone

I was offered my first job in the sports industry within a month of college graduation without knowing a soul in the industry, and it was because I had the skills that aligned with the company needs.

I bring that up because if you don’t have a network yet, don’t let it freak you out!

Start building your network from scratch today. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Zone 1: Your Inner Circle

A network is rarely given; it’s something you have to work at. The best way to do that is by being curious, respectful of others time, specific in your requests and questions, and make the connection go both ways – help them too.

The best place to start is within reach.

What I mean by that is, do your relatives have any people they know who work in the industry? If so, start there. Ask them out for coffee and pick their brain, or introduce yourself via email or social channels.

Being family connected means it’s a warm lead, you aren’t reaching out to someone you have no connection with, so there is little chance of rejection.

This is the lowest hanging fruit of networking.

The next level, but still within your inner circle is the professors you have in class and the dean of your department. Many professors aren’t just wildly smart; they also have connections in the industry, or in the case of many adjunct professors, are still active in sports industry roles.

Understand the professor isn’t going to bend over backward for you or any of their other 100+ students unless you prove yourself to be worthy of their time. That’s on you.

If you are curious, ask intelligent questions, pay attention in class and show some drive - they’ll return your interest.

Zone 2: The People You Meet

Zone 1 is your warm leads, either from family, class or some other close connection. This is a smart starting point, and a way to build up your confidence in building relationships with new professionals.

Zone 2 is the people you meet at events, conferences, volunteer opportunities, even peers. You likely chatted with them for a short period, they aren’t family, but they know what you look like, they know you are a real person, and you have some shared experiences you can leverage to connect.

The people you meet are essential, if you don’t foster that relationship from the beginning, the moment gets lost! Don’t let the moment get lost. Follow our relationship building plan (coming up soon)

Zone 3: Creative Connections

Building your network is about finding common ground, which often requires some creativity.

In Zone 3, you’re approaching people who will benefit you, but you have to determine how to make the connection make sense to them. You aren’t related to them, you don’t have them in class, and you’ve never met them. This is a little harder and possibly out of your natural comfort zone, but you have to embrace that discomfort and recognize the payout can be worth it.

These are professionals you have a link to, but it’s a little looser. When you reach out to these targets, there is a higher chance you get rejected.

Rejection is normal and OK!

Fact: You will get rejected by some people. Some won’t respond, or they’ll say they are too busy, or even when you get time with them they’ll be only half way there mentally.  

It isn’t personal, and it is normal. DO NOT let rejection slow you down on your plan. Just move on.

So who are these people in Zone 3? Here are a few examples.

Alumni from your University (or even High School!)

You don’t know them personally, but you have something that connects you. You are hoping they maintain some pride in where they attended school, and see connecting with you as a way to support the program.

Utilize your career center at your college or university and work with their staff to identify alumni who are currently working in a side of the industry that interests you.

If you don’t have a great career center or alumni relations department, get creative! Use LinkedIn to start doing your research and find a list of potential networking targets.  

Leverage your common educational background for a connection!

Make a connection request, add a note that says “Hi I’m currently a student at your alma mater [The University of Awesome], and I’m interested in working in [sports marketing] after I graduate. I would enjoy connecting here and learning more from you in the future.”

After they accept your request, there is a simple relationship building format to follow which we will get into later.       

How about guests of a podcast you have listened to?

You don’t know them personally, but if you connect with them on LinkedIn and include a note like:

“Hi [Awesome Person], I just heard you on the Work in Sports podcast and was blown away by all the advice you shared. Your point about being versatile and able to execute many different tasks in your early career resonated with me. Would love to connect with you here.”

Notice - the outreach is focused on them. You are showing them how much you valued their intellect and referenced something specific they said. Always make your connection request specific and focused, and don’t forget a little flattery goes a long way.

Alternatively, your approach could be  “Hey [awesome person], I just heard you on the Work in Sports podcast and loved your interview – I’m trying to break into the industry, and I had one follow up question if you don’t mind connecting?”

Start a dialogue!

The smarter you are, and less needy, the better your relationship will become. Don’t ask too much, provide value back to your target connection if you can, and let that interaction deepen your connection.

I know someone who made a connection with one of our expert podcast guests, asked some career-related questions and began a dialogue. The advice resulted in a great internship opportunity, and as a sign of appreciation the connection sent a personal thank you note with a T-shirt of the team they earned their internship.

Their note said “I just got an internship with [cool organization]! Thanks so much for the advice you provided. I wanted to show you a little token of appreciation!”

For the cost of a $20-30 t-shirt, they gave back to the person who helped them. Alternatively, it could be a keychain or a bumper sticker, doesn’t matter.

The attempt here is to make it a two-way street, not one-way. An exchange of goods always works, and more important than the gift, it shows a level of appreciation for their time.

These steps make the relationship deeper and stronger! Your network has to be built to last!

Target specific people through LinkedIn

I’m not suggesting you reach out to Theo Epstein, that won’t work, I’ve tried.  

Instead, look for someone in an entry-level role similar on one you are interested. For example, you want to work in Inside Sales for an NBA team, find someone currently in that job and reach out to them.

Simple outreach:

“Hi [nice person], I’m graduating soon and looking to work in inside sales. I notice you work for the Maine Red Claws, could I pick your brain with a few questions about your experience?”

Fast forward a few months - you’ve built up a bit of a relationship with that person with the Maine Red Claws and you see a cool job opening with the Long Island Nets.

It is 100% fair game to say, “Hey, I just saw this opening with the Long Island team, would you happen to know anyone over there you could get me in touch with?”

The reason this works is because you’ve already built trust, rapport, and a relationship. You can’t do this right away! Do not come out and ask for help getting a job from someone you don’t know. That is a major turnoff.

Treat networking like a sport. You have to compete for connections. There is a rhythm to it, in the beginning, you’ll reach out to people, and many won’t respond - who cares!  Don’t take it to heart.

Someone will respond, and you’ll start to dig in to that relationship.

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