Tales from Press Row - Sports Jobs Aren't All Created Equal

September 14, 2011
Sports Jobs Aren’t All Created Equal

When I speak to high school and college students who are interested in working in sports someday, they often wonder about the feasibility of specific jobs. For example, can someone support themselves solely from serving as the mascot for an NBA team? Do the members of an NBA’s dance team have other jobs, or is that what they do full time?

Questions like these come up frequently enough that I thought it might be helpful to list a few NBA-related jobs, along with whether these roles can be pursued as a long-term career. In some cases, the answers may surprise you.

Role No. 1, Team mascot
Since the Hornets’ inception in 1988, they’ve had a kid-friendly, cuddly mascot named Hugo the Hornet. Like the vast majority of his furry brethren, Hugo performs acrobatic stunts and pre-planned skits during timeouts of games; interacts with the many young children who are captivated by mascots; provides comic relief; and encourages fans to make noise for the home team during games.

Can one make a living off this job?
Yes. The Hornets hire a full-time person who handles all of Hugo‘s responsibilities (though the real person’s actual identity is never publicly revealed). I’ve often thought this is one of the most fun jobs one could possibly have in sports, but it actually can be pretty physically demanding due to some of the acrobatics involved. The man who played Hugo prior to retiring in 2007 had undergone several surgeries due to injury or wear and tear, for example. So while mascot is a full-time job, it’s also more suited for someone in their 20s, due to the toll it can take on one’s body. It was also interesting for me to learn that several of the NBA mascots are former elite NCAA Division I gymnasts, experience that comes in handy when you’re jumping off trampolines or attempting a backflip while wearing a heavy costume. To sum it up, yes you can make a career out of being a mascot, but probably for a relatively limited number of years.

Role No. 2, Dance-team member
The Hornets have a dance team (they aren’t called “cheerleaders” in the NBA; they’re referred to as “dancers”) known as the Honeybees, who perform at every home game and also serve as spokesmodels for various advertisements. Over the past decade or so, female dance teams have gradually become a staple of the non-basketball entertainment at NBA games. The old-school Boston Celtics were the final holdout out of the league’s 30 teams, becoming the last NBA franchise to introduce a dance team prior to the 2006-07 season.

Can one make a living off this job?
No. Dancers are paid a modest amount per game and are compensated for making appearances at team-related community events on non-gamedays, but it’s not nearly enough to serve as a sole income. The vast majority of the Honeybees are young women with a full-time job, or college students who attend school somewhere within driving distance of New Orleans, such as LSU in Baton Rouge. The time commitment during the NBA season is significant, with an average of two home games and two night-time practices per week. In essence, you’re sacrificing a lot of your free time for not a lot of financial reward. It’s viewed almost like a fun “hobby” and can be somewhat glamorous (signing autographs for fans, appearing on posters, in TV commercials, etc.), but it’s certainly not a long-term pursuit. Honeybees generally spend a maximum of about five years on the team before “retiring” in order to spend more time focusing on their actual careers.

Role No. 3, Broadcaster
Every NBA team hires a staff of television and radio broadcasters who call games on the airwaves. They are often former players, especially those in analyst roles, though many play-by-play announcers did not play in the NBA or college. A sizeable number of well-known sports broadcasters learned their trade at Syracuse University’s world-renowned communications school, including NBC’s Bob Costas and ESPN’s Mike Tirico. Incidentally, the Hornets’ TV play-by-play broadcaster, Bob Licht, is also a Syracuse graduate.

Can one make a living off this job?
Yes. Aside from playing, broadcaster is one of the most coveted jobs in sports. That’s also why it’s so difficult to break into the elite levels of sports broadcasting – the people who have these jobs do not leave them very often. In general, full-time broadcasting jobs are lucrative and even though broadcasters have a hectic in-season schedule, they also have relatively lengthy offseasons with plenty of down time for vacations. The NBA hasn’t been around long enough to have a large group of legendary broadcasters, but there are several examples from Major League Baseball of men who’ve remained in their broadcast position for many decades. The amazing Vin Scully of the Los Angeles Dodgers has been with that franchise since the 1950s. If you grew up in Southern California wanting to be the next voice of the Dodgers, you’ve figured out some other career choice by now.

Role No. 4, Public-address announcer
I’m sure everyone is familiar with this job, which consists of informing the crowd of which player scored each basket, personal fouls and so forth. The vast majority of NBA PA announcers have extensive background in radio or public speaking, as well as years of experience serving the same role at lesser-attended sporting events such as high school or college games.

Can one make a living off this job?
No. The man who handles PA announcements at every Hornets game, Chuck Edwards, also works full-time in the radio industry and does PA work for the New Orleans Saints, who play right across the street from us at the Louisiana Superdome. People who serve as PA announcers do it because they enjoy the work and because it’s a prestigious gig, as the voice heard by 15,000 to 70,000 fans who attend NBA and NFL games.

Role No. 5, Halftime entertainer
NBA halftime shows include a wide and sometimes bizarre array of acts, such as magicians, dunk teams, jugglers, gymnasts and what you might describe as “unique musicians” (one performer last season was a man who plays popular songs by rhythmically tossing rubber balls at the keys of a piano). Fans of the show “America’s Got Talent” may be familiar with arguably the NBA’s premier halftime act, known as “Quick Change.” Quick Change is a magic act in which the female of the duo rapidly re-appears in various new outfits after briefly being obscured by a curtain.

Can one make a living off this job?
Yes, surprisingly to me. There are people who actually do this job full time, traveling to various events across the country for nice paydays. Since NBA teams must provide halftime entertainment for 40-plus home games every season, there is a fairly large demand for some of the most talented acts. Of course, it requires substantial travel to trek from city to city all season, but that’s not much different than what NBA players and coaches do.

Role No. 6, Statistician/clock operator
There are a handful of game-related jobs that every NBA team must fill for each of its home games. They include an official scorer, a timekeeper, a 24-second shot-clock operator, as well as various stat-keepers who calculate individual rebounds, assists, blocked shots, turnovers and so forth. As a whole, this group of workers is known as the “stat crew.”

Can one make a living off this job?
No. The people who fill these roles generally work full-time jobs in sports for a local college, or are retirees who once worked in sports and have extensive game-duty experience. They are paid a modest amount per game, though they do receive some perks such as occasional free tickets. Interestingly, during the NBA playoffs, the NBA actually pays for the hotel and flights of stat-crew members, in order to send them to games in other cities – intended to eliminate bias toward the home team. In other words, during any given NBA postseason, the Hornets’ game-clock and shot-clock operators might handle those same duties at playoff games hosted by the San Antonio Spurs or Dallas Mavericks.

Role No. 7, Assistant coach
Back in the early days of the league, many NBA teams only employed one or two assistant coaches. Legendary Boston Celtics head coach Red Auerbach actually went without ANY assistant coaches or scouts for a portion of his Celtics tenure. That’s changed drastically now, with many teams hiring at least a handful of assistants. For instance, the Hornets had five assistant coaches under first-year head coach Monty Williams, roughly the average number in the league.

Can one make a living off this job?
Yes. Just as it’s sometimes half-jokingly said that backup quarterback is the best job you can get in the NFL – good money, without the pressure or blame a starting QB faces – assistant NBA coach can viewed similarly. When an NBA team falters, management generally places the blame on its head coach, who is under a microscope to win games and get his players to perform well. There are many assistant coaches in the NBA who’ve served in that role for a decade or two and been able to support their families by working in the sport they love.

Role No. 8, Team writer
Saving the job I know best for last, the explosion in popularity of the Internet in the mid-1990s created demand for professional sports team websites to provide their own news, written articles and video content. In Major League Baseball, all 30 teams have a writer dedicated to comprehensive daily coverage. Team sites on NBA.com and NFL.com are not quite as uniform as MLB.com, but it’s getting increasingly rare for a pro basketball or pro football team to not have someone in a position similar to mine.

Can one make a living off this job?
Yes. In 2005, I left a very good full-time newspaper job to work for the Hornets. It was difficult to leave my native New York because all of my closest family members live there, but from a professional standpoint, it was an easy choice. If you love a specific sport and have a writing background like I do, it’d be difficult to find a more ideal job than this. It wouldn’t shock me if I spend the rest of my career working in the NBA.

So to sum it up, if anyone were to ask me whether they should pursue a job like mine, I’d probably immediately tell them it’s worth considering. But please, don’t come after my job – I’ve got a few more decades to go before I can retire. At least I know it will be fun. And when it comes down to it, that’s easily the best part of working in sports: making a living doing something you’d enjoy even if you weren’t getting paid.

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