Alex Mai is the Manager, Corporate Partnerships at Western Hockey League (WHL). I was excited when I came across Alex. We’ve had few industry professionals on SPMA who have shared their industry experience while pursuing an education. Alex is a hard worker, clearly, who’s previously worked in Business Development and Partnerships with Hockey Canada. Most of Alex’s sport industry work experiences have come while continuing his education. Alex’s background and work ethic made him an ideal candidate for SPMA. It was a great opportunity to interview him and hear about the corporate side of the Western Hockey League.
Tell us about your role as Manager of Corporate Partnerships at Western Hockey League.
My role there is to service all of the league’s corporate partners. That includes partners that are regional in the West Hockey League (WHL). Also our national partners as part of the Canadian Hockey League, which is all three-member leagues; the Western League, the Ontario Hockey League, as well as the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). That involves working with clients, working with our agency and going to our 22 different teams- 17 in Canada, making sure that they understand what they need to do to carry out the program.
What’s your day-to-day roughly look like then?
The neat aspect of sponsorship is you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes you have game nights coming up that you need to organize. Throughout the year we also have really big national events, such as the CIBC Canada Russia Series, and at the end of the year, we have the Kia Memorial cup. You always have something on your calendar to look forward to. It’s nice right now during summer; were in a bit of offseason, so just working on reporting and getting ready for next season.
What would you attribute as the most difficult and fulfilling part of your role as Manager of Corporate Partnerships at Western Hockey League?
Working in sponsorship can be unpredictable. Sometimes you never know what’s going to happen. I think that’s the nature of running events. You make the best-laid plans, but you never know what’s going to happen. There’s a lot of moving pieces so you’re working with a lot of different people. Working with sometimes with multiple events on the same night. It can get hectic, but I think that’s what makes it fun.
For someone like me, I’m a business-minded person, I love sports too. I think it’s the best of both worlds. We can work with these nationally recognized brands, some of the most successful companies in Canada, but also be able to apply that to a sports setting. Being close to the game of hockey, so getting that business and getting the sports at the same time.
When did you realize you wanted to work in sport?
When I was in University I was a fan. I did some volunteering. I had one friend, Nate, who ran a website and he basically asked me, “Hey, do you want to come and write for my website?” When I started doing that I realized “Hey, if I can do a career in this, this would be something I can make money doing but also love.” I started exploring different avenues. The writing thing didn’t work out, but I’m glad to have found a space where I like doing it. I think it’s a great career path.
How has your education in Management and Organizational Studies and beyond helped you in your sport career?
Every industry is competitive, but I think sports might be the most so. Anything you can add in terms of experience or education, your resume- anything you can do to bolster helps. At University, I did four years of business. I did a two-year Master’s Degree in Management and Leadership in Kinesiology (with Specialization in Sports Management). I think those are both great experiences. For anyone who wants to get into sports, I recommend volunteering or further education. You have to do whatever you can to improve yourself but also stand out.
When you’re working sometimes, inevitably you’re going to end up doing some work that isn’t necessarily the most mentally engaging. In school its different because you get these hypothetical situations where you can use your brain to make strategic decisions or make research or analysis. In any job, especially for a young person, you don’t necessarily get a chance to do that in a work environment. To be able to do it in school and challenge yourself mentally is a good experience for me.
It was very valuable because part of it taught me how hard certain aspects are. When I started out I wanted to do hockey ops, which I think most sports fans want to do. Over time, I realized that if I want to be the best at something, maybe this isn’t it, but I still wanted to stay involved in sports. I pivoted from that to a marketing business side. I think that was vastly beneficial in helping me realize what I wanted to do. Every experience taught me something, the good and the bad. I definitely encourage- if anyone else is trying to get in this right now, try to take on as many different experiences as you can. Also, realize that you got to know what’s right for you and if somethings not right to not force it.
What would you say has been your biggest accomplishment in the sport industry so far?
Only being with the WHL now for about six months or so, I just finished up my first season. It was a really good season. I’m looking forward to next season and what I can do to help the organization there. At my last position at Hockey Canada, my main responsibilities were involved with the 2019 World Junior Championships which were in Vancouver, Victoria. It was a successful tournament in terms of sponsorship and attendance. From the business side, it was a world-class tournament. I am really proud to have been involved with that.
How do you plan your work around other social commitments such as family or friends?
Sometimes in the sports world, we have to work outside that regular 9 to 5, that’s just the nature of the industry. A lot of games are going on at the weekends or they are going on at night. I would say that the best way to manage that is to stay organized. One thing I didn’t do a lot in school was using a calendar more properly. Now that I’m working all the time, if I have something like this interview pop up, I’ll add it to my calendar so I know I’m doing it ahead of time. Just staying organized you can definitely have it all. You can spend plenty of time with your family or friends and go to all the things you want to go to. You just need to make sure you know ahead of time, prepare for it, and stay on top of your own schedule.
What would you say are three essential skills someone needs if they are going to succeed in the sport industry?
As I mentioned it is so competitive that it can be really tough to advance in the industry. You need to have that stick-to-itiveness. Really be determined, know what you bring to the table, and don’t give up and keep working. It can be a grind.
In sport, you never know exactly what’s going to happen. To be able to be quick on your feet and quickly react to different changing situations is very important.
You can work hard but it can be tough to work with somebody if they’re not positive or optimistic. If they’re not trying to encourage their teammates and the people they work with. A lot of people, especially when things are stressful or when you have to work long hours, have someone who has a smile on their face still willing to make some jokes and keep the atmosphere light. I think it’s really important and people appreciate it.