Patrick Dicks is the Manager, Sports Business Development at Disney Sports Attractions. He here takes us through his journey of travelling to the United States on his own at the age of 16 to seek out education at Auburn University and a brighter future. He speaks about how his passion for sport has carried him through two University degrees, years of coaching, and bringing him to his current position at Disney! He shares with us what a typical day for him working at Disney Sports attractions entails, as well as giving us insight into some personal challenges he has faced along the way. From this interview, it’s easy to see that when you have an amazing support system, a career you’re passionate about, and a life you love, everything else is a bonus – and can especially help you push through the hardest of times. Enjoy!
Please note: The interview with Patrick Dicks was conducted via a phone conversation and transcribed. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.
Could you describe your role as the manager of sports business development for Disney sports attractions?
It’s been an interesting journey. So 23 years in, and I’m in business development now, but I first came to the company in 1996 as an Event Manager with the preconceived notion that they hired me to create and manage the soccer line of business. So, what a great opportunity to come into a company like Walt Disney World and create a line of business for them. We had four fields. I sat down and started planning everything out based on my previous experience as a general manager of a semi-pro team running a program over in Cocoa Beach, Florida.
As we looked at what the main business focus areas were, which were driving the incremental markets and the all Disney company to drive strategic and direct revenue, strategic meaning driving room nights and park admissions to a population of people who would not come to Disney, had it not been for a sporting event, as well as from a cash flow perspective through registration, gates, food/beverage and merchandise.
What does a typical day look like for you?
In my new role now in business development, as a relationship-building opportunity, we are looking to drive, now that we’re an established business, after 23 years I’ve been in the business, how do we look at up opportunities now to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the sports and entertainment marketplace? For instance, when we built the facility and we were pretty much out there on our own, if you look at the space now, it’s, it’s completely competitive now in terms of the places you can go and spend your sports tourism dollars.
We’re now looking at what can we offer our guests, which is completely different than XYZ complex in Chattanooga or Atlanta or San Diego. So it’s interesting, the meeting I had with the ex-professional soccer player Alan Smith. Alan kindly enough wouldn’t mind me talking about this, but with his pedigree and what he’s done in his career for the teams he’s played for, how do we now offer that experience to our guests? And when we look at our guests, we’re talking the parent, the player, and the coach. How do we offer an experience to each of those segments to make sure when they walk away from Disney they go, wow that was a great experience and something I want to return to and get even more. And then bringing people like Alan Smith in to do an X, Y, Z finishing camp or a goalkeeper and finishing camp, but actually having Alan there to talk to the players, talk to the coaches and parents, not just in name only, but actually there with a physical presence.
To me, it’s very important and then the kids also get that time to talk with him, understand him and get a hopefully a little bit of direction and insight into their journey.
How did your masters in sport management influence your career?
Yes, well I’ll tell you why it’s interesting. I came from England. I’ve got to preface this by saying the United States is the best country in the world, bar none. So believe it or not if you’re a foreign student or an international student studying in this country, the best way to stay in this country legally is to continue your education. I wasn’t the smartest kid around the block and I wasn’t good enough to play professional soccer, as my father told me when I was a kid, even though he was a professional manager. It was important for me to continue with my education that kept me legally here in the United States, but in those days, I hate to say it that way because it ages me terribly, the degree wasn’t the sports management degrees that the students are getting exposure to today, where it’s a lot more rigmarole a lot better by the way.
I pretty much sat with my professors at Auburn and went through what we thought that the program should look like. Then that’s what we ended up putting together and that’s after the two years. That’s what I graduated with, with a mix of business classes, finance classes, but really some more insightful direction into running sports franchises, facility management and things like that. So it was more of a liberal arts study of sports management without any refined targeted focus on any certain area. I went up to the FSU and did the sports management conference up there and I said, look, you’ve got an amazing opportunity based on the information that’s now available to you and everybody in this room is paying money to get this degree.
You should all be successful and you should all have a lot of passion around what you’re doing because if you don’t have passionate at this point in time then you’re definitely in the wrong field. It was a means to an end for me in order to stay in the United States. It wasn’t a clear end directive from a degree perspective, but my Lord was it a great experience to learn, to be around them all the university programs and to have a role in some of those programs and how they ran like for instance, l coached for those two years as the assistant coach on the soccer team but also had to learn the compliance issues with the NCAA, as a player, I never did that. So it was a good time in my life to really add a lot of entry-level experiences into the sports management curriculum unit.
What do you think are a few skills that sport management students or prospective students should know as they look for a career in the industry?
Looking through a career is interesting. I don’t want to be stereotypical when I say this, in our career, first and foremost, I would imagine somebody going into a sports management program would have a passion for sports and have a likelihood to have played sports at a certain level. Having said that, if that’s the case, the passion should absolutely be there and type A personalities and competitive attitudes I would expect. Therefore if you and I are lined up in the hallway and you say why I’m going to beat you to that door, good luck because I’m going to beat you. It’s one of those things.
You’ve got to be open-minded. I think you have to understand the team concept of having to get to a finish line by working as a team and when I’ve met other people who are in the sports industry who played tennis or golf where it’s a much more individualistic sport, there is a different perception out there because they had to do so much stuff on their own to really get them through the competition. Where if I played soccer and I had a bad game, I’ve got 10 other teammates and six on the bench who are rallying around me either telling me what I did to screw up or put their arms around me saying do better.
And that’s where I think a sport, that’s why I stay here at Disney World assigned to the people from the industry is, look, we’re all type A competitive personalities. Keep an open mind, but make sure when you enter the job market, don’t worry about the money. Make sure, worry about these things. Get a job, get a salary, get your benefits.
Don’t worry about your salary because now it’s disliked when you’re a freshman or you’re starting off on a team for that first year, you’ve got to prove yourself. Now you go through yourself in the industry, make sure you’re indispensable, make sure that you do a job that nobody else can do, and then the benefits will come along on the backend. You’ve got to be open-minded.
You’ve got to learn. Because again, coming out from being an athlete to coming into the sports business industry is a completely different culture as you well know. All of a sudden, how do you learn where you have to have experience? How do you get experience, well you got to get somebody to give you an opportunity? So, take the opportunity. I don’t care what level it is, take it.
Could you talk about, Disney’s customer service standards and maybe how it separates itself from other customer service standards around the sports industry for example?
Disney’s very, very astute in terms of how we layout our brand, how our cast members or employees then extenuate that brand through customer relations or guest relations. We’re a heavily focused operations team here in terms of people coming to our parks and resorts. We like to think of ourselves as a company that can deliver that experience no matter what the challenges are. We always feel that we can get to a good solution and then a good end goal. No difference in sports. So the problem with sports or the challenge with sports, sometimes there’s a winner and a loser side. So you’ve got a seven-year-old kid at the complex.
Well, yeah, there’s going to be winners and losers and there’s going to be more losers, unfortunately than winners. So, it’s how do we affect that experience when they’re at the complex, they have an amazing time knowing that their focus area is around the competition, that they’re playing in and that’s where the coach and the parenting come in because everyone wins and losses in sports competition.
It’s that kind of consistency that whether you’re a greeter, or whether you’re working the box office or you’re working the turnstile or you’re working in food and beverage or merchandise, everybody has that same outlook in terms of the pillars of what Disney stands for. Efficiency show, courtesy, respect, all those things. And that’s what we try and deliver on a daily basis out of the sports complex no matter what event you’re playing it.
What would you say is the best part of your position? And following that, what do you think is the most challenging part of your position?
That’s interesting. It’s probably the same answer. I sit here with my name and I work for Disney. I can call anybody in the sports industry and I can get a phone call back. You better have some substance about you and you’ve got to have a focus. You’ve got to be credible. You’ve got to be experienced and have some industry expertise once you’re making those calls and you’re out bounding to get inbound business.
But the great thing is I’d worked for a company that is second to none in terms of the entertainment and media and everything else that this company does, but from a sports perspective where we’re a very small niche business here in Orlando, but we represent a large amount of space and acreage here at Orlando as well.
Prior to the fact that we give our guests the opportunity, and it’s kind of the old set play where the pros play, but really get the experience of pro experiences. And by the way, you better behave like a pro while you’re here as well because we have that higher expectation.
It’s amazing if you go to a park and rec facility and you see how people perform and sometimes react. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen at Disney, but it’s almost when they walked through the gates that it’s their Wembley experienced or their experience where they’re playing for their national team no matter what sport it is. It’s amazing to see that when the kids walk in and we’re trying to change those experiences to make it even more amazing and more fulfilling, not only for the player but for the parent and the coach.
So, how do we do that? It really comes down to how do we utilize our brands, whether it’s the Disney brand, whether it’s a six, seven and eight-year-old kids who still have a love for our characters and want to be wrapped around that IP versus that 18-year-old kid who still loved our characters by the way, but also wants to be known and looked at as the lead athlete and be treated as an elite athlete.
How do we do that? By offering, those different segments of the experience that we want to offer through a sports experience. Right now, the Disney experience is four pillars. Going back to your show courtesy, all of those things that Disney is so astute in terms of generating for the guest experience, we do the exact same thing for our guests in the sports industry.
Let me go back into the challenge sometimes is it’s more internal than it is external if you know what I mean. Because we’ve got to be very careful about how we use our brand, who we talked to, who we extenuate information to.
Sometimes that’s where it gets to be the critical mass is actually dealing with some of the internal processes which are very needed by the way, because we have to have those filters. But then when you go out into the industry and you’re dealing with clients and third parties, that’s where having that Disney name behind you is just an absolute joy because it’s fulfilling and it’s energizing to be quite frank with you.
What would you say are the top three to five biggest accomplishments of your sports management career thus far? Or memorable moments?
One was, my father, played for Chelsea and managed in England at a very high level and was one of the longest-serving managers in England. And coming from that family background is good and bad, right? It’s tough in terms of what you’ve got to do in order to try and achieve somewhat of the family kind of moniker. But my parents never put that focus on me, but the biggest accomplishments for me in this order would be one, getting on a plane at 16 years old on my own, travelling four thousand miles and starting a new life in the United States on my own. Knowing that the situation I was in England was not the most beneficial, which is a much longer story.
But at 16 I had to make a conscious decision now knowing that the ultimate was going to Florida, going to play soccer and getting educated in the American system, which all three things at that point at 16 years old were tremendously exciting, but tremendously challenging and scary as well. To just to jump on that plane and leave my family. And I thank God I did it because I would never be where I am today without doing that.
That was a huge accomplishment. The second was when I got through college probably an accomplishment was getting two college degrees because I’ve never thought I’d get. In England, if you’re an athlete you really weren’t have focused on going to university. But in the United States, it’s a totally different experience and it’s almost a badge of honour to be able to play sports and go to college in this country. In England, it’s more of a focus on your education then everything else. So when I left college and I went into the workspace and I was the general manager of a semi-pro team and back then major league soccer was nowhere near being a formula.
It was getting there, but it was four years away still. So as a general manager of a team, I mean I was literally the general manager’s lawn laundry guy, the ticket taker, paid the referees, paid the players. I mean they were making 50 bucks a game, but the players we had in were some of the best in the country at the time. To have that learning experience, to pass along to any students that get into the sports management arena is don’t ever say no to an opportunity because you never know what you’re going to learn. You never know who you’re going to meet.
The network is more like, I’ve got you and my network now Phil. If I need to call you for whatever reason I will get some advice. I know I can call you and you’re going to talk to me and you’re the one that reached out to me. I mean, but now we’re connected now. So now I’ve got you in my network. And that to me is more important than anything else in this business. Being the GM of that team and going through two years of running a team, it wasn’t because I was a general manager, by the way, I was doing everything, driving the bus, driving the van, setting the schedule. But I learnt so much out of those two years when I took the Disney job and it really set me up for success.
One of the biggest battles in my life has been dealing with cancer. So 25 surgeries later and they found another tumour last week. So, I have to go back in now and get another surgery. Having to deal with that for the last 10 years has been very, very trying and very debilitating from a mental perspective. But also the fact that I keep bouncing back and, and not to put any, what I really worry about, I was telling the FSU students was, look, I don’t want to belittle anybody who, because a lot of people don’t survive. I mean a lot of people, it’s horrible, this disease.
And for some reason, I’m lucky enough and I’m not the biggest religious person either. I just want to live my life and get up every day and enjoy what I do. I’ve got this debilitating disease which is cancer and it spreads. I think I’d had now my pancreas path, half my stomach, my spleen, my gallbladder removed as well as several other things in my neck and thyroids and everything. But you know, I’m still able to respond. I couldn’t respond without one; my wife, who has been an absolute anchor for me and my family and my loved ones who’ve kept me going. To be able to get through that to where I am today has been a massive accomplishment for me.
But again, I don’t want to belittle it for the people who’ve lost loved ones who never had that opportunity to say, “Oh yeah, well good for you, pal.” You have this form of cancer. That’s not what I’m trying to say at all. I’m trying to be very, very respectful of the people who’ve had loved ones who passed.
So, it’s a difficult situation and one I still fight every day and I’m on chemo every other day, a pill and a lot of medications, but it doesn’t slow me down. I have type one diabetes now because I lost my pancreas and dealing with all that to me, still doesn’t stop me from getting out and kicking a ball around with my friends go in and have a pint down the pub. So it’s one of those things that I’m blessed to have been able to get through that, but I still look at it as an accomplishment to have got through that. Creating a multimillion-dollar line of business for Disney isn’t bad either.
I’m proud of the soccer business here because I came to this company when they were back in 96 soccer was just starting with Major League Soccer. But first, my first few events that I was able to contract was the all-star game with major league soccer that came to Orlando. And really creating a soccer line of business that from a measurement standpoint went from four fields to 17. We’d do 40,000 plus kids a year now playing for all of our events. As you look at all the add on to that, I sit here sometimes and again, by the way, not just me, there was a team of us who did it and who’ve worked on it year over year over year to get it where it is today. But that’s what it’s all about. It’s working as a team, working with people with different expertise levels. And then you’ve got a company like Disney behind you. It’s pretty amazing what can happen.
If you could have any superpower to help you in your career or in your life, what would it be and why?
That’s a great question. I’d love to have the ability to look into the very near future. Not to win the lottery, but help people with disabilities to be able to pull a kid out in front of a car or tell someone don’t go out tonight because I’ve seen what may happen, don’t have that extra beer at a bar. Then all of a sudden now you’re changing people’s lives. But if you could do that for the betterment, if you could go in and change something where war doesn’t happen. I’m convinced that the vocal minority rules what happens in this world and the silent majority could stop it tomorrow if they got together because of war and some of the things against humanity that we all see daily more now than anything. If we could just affect that somehow, that’s the superpower I’d love to have and try to affect change.