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Duke University’s Claire M. Smith Gives Tips For Successful Career Change Into Sport Marketing

Claire M. Smith | Assistant Director of Sports Marketing | Duke University

It was a natural transition for me because I had been developing the skills over the years through seeking out different opportunities, but it required an investment in myself and career.

Claire M. Smith

Assistant Director of Sports Marketing

Duke University

× The interview with Claire M. Smith was conducted via a typed conversation. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.

Tell us about your role as the Assistant Director of Sports Marketing of the Duke University.

As an Assistant Director of Sports Marketing for Duke University, I oversee the marketing initiatives for Women’s Soccer, Fencing, Men’s Lacrosse, and Women’s Lacrosse. I am also a secondary for marketing initiatives for Football, Men’s Basketball, and Women’s Basketball. We have a team of 5 full-time marketers who work closely with other members of our creative team to engage our fans, support the mission of the University and Athletic Department, and build our overall fanbase.

The beauty of working in sports marketing is that you do not fully know what your day is going to look like. You may walk into the office with a plan but the actual events can be so different because we both plan and react to things as they arise. Once inboxes have been cleaned up, I dig into my task list. I rely heavily on my calendar and a running list of things to do to help stay organized and on top of things.

If it is a game day, I am double-checking that our pre-event communications have been sent out to both internal and external stakeholders, reviewing and printing scripts, making sure promo items are at the field and any contest props are there as well. I try to head up to the field about 2.5 hours prior to the game to make sure that music is on for the student-athletes when they start their shootaround and warm-up. Once the game is over we clean up marketing materials and the press box, sometimes send out post-game emails, and head home for the night.

On a non-game day, it is all about wrapping up the previous game and preparing for the next game by communicating with groups, following up with vendors, and meeting with our creative team and coaches to recap and look ahead.

When COVID-19 started to change the way we live, we were moved to working from home and my day to day shifted. It still starts with checking emails to catch up on things, but it now focused much more on preparing than recapping. My days centred around researching what other programs were doing and learning about industry trends. I also began doing more networking as a way to stay connected to colleagues across industries and continue learning about what programs were choosing to focus their time on.

Before starting at Duke and beginning your sports marketing career, you worked as a certified athletic trainer. What motivated you to shift into sports marketing?

I was watching a post-season press conference for the Minnesota Twins when I had the thought ‘I could do that and enjoy it’. After watching the press conference, I started to get more curious about the business side of sports. After researching programs I decided that to make the transition I would need a business degree, which led me to pursue an MBA with a concentration in Sport Management.

I am passionate about sports but I am also interested in non-profit management, social justice, and corporations outside of the sports industry so I was intentional about keeping my scope of education as broad as my scope of interests.

A huge help in making the shift was my graduate assistant position. I was the Graduate Assistant of Campus Recreation – Club Sports & Risk Management and it was an incredible experience. My supervisors were awesome about providing me with opportunities to learn every aspect of the industry. I took advantage of that by diving headfirst into the Campus Recreation industry while using my athletic training certification.

I entered my GA position with the mindset that these two years would clarify if working as an athletic trainer was the right path for me. In my second year, I acknowledged that I no longer had the same passion for it that I once did, and without that passion, I would not be the clinician that the athletes deserved. I had also simultaneously found myself more drawn to marketing and dug into that. I love being on the sideline and in the action so I wanted to find a way to have that and be passionate about my role.

My first job out of grad school was as the Coordinator of Member Services in Duke Recreation & Physical Education, which falls under Duke Athletics. Without my GA position and putting in the effort to learn about the industry, I would not have had the experience for this role.

Within my first year, the department experienced several staffing changes that dispersed the marketing responsibilities and I gravitated towards them. At the same time, I took the initiative to start volunteering with the marketing department in Duke Athletics because I needed those skills for the next step in my career and acknowledged that I would not get hired without them.

Volunteering ended up becoming key to my transition into my current role. I developed the skills I needed for it, demonstrated my strong work ethic, and worked side by side with my now supervisor and coworkers in what essentially ended up being a year long interview.

It was a natural transition for me because I had been developing the skills over the years through seeking out different opportunities, but it required investment in myself and my career.

In addition to working my full-time position and additional responsibilities I had taken on in that role, I would then work a full day of football in the fall or three home basketball games some weeks in the winter. It was a lot of fun, and hard work, but 100% worth it because now I get to incorporate community outreach, social justice, and engaging non-profits through the lens of sports marketing. Plus, I get to do it with some really great people.

What are some of the biggest skills you’ve been able to take from your time working on the “player’s side of sport” as an athletic trainer into your day-to-day as an Assistant Director of Sports Marketing at Duke University?

  1. Communication
  2. Creative thinking and problem solving
  3. Situational awareness
  4. Working as a team with a common goal
  5. Asking questions to understand the full picture
  6. Hard work for long hours

You went to the University of New Haven for Sport Management. How did the program prepare you for a career in sports?

The program did a great job of providing me with a foundation of knowledge about business and the sports industry.

One of the unique things about the University of New Haven is that they had not only the Sport Management program but also an MBA with a concentration in Sport Management, which was the avenue I chose so that I could continue to be well-rounded.

In addition, professors from both the business and sport management departments provided more than information by also challenging your way of thinking and approaching industry trends, which I think is probably one of the most impactful things I took away with me.

Another impactful piece was the experiential education I received by holding a graduate assistant position. The University is focused on experiential education, and they did just that in establishing a formal graduate assistantship program, which is what prepared me for my first role out of grad school.

In addition to those, being located between New York City and Boston meant that you had access to organizations in both areas.

What advice would you give to prospective sport management professionals looking to work in sport at a similar level to yourself (particularly in marketing at a top NCAA sports school)?

  1. Volunteer.
  2. Network.
  3. Follow your passions.

I would not be where I am today had I not volunteered in addition to my full-time jobs. Whether it is additional responsibilities within your organization or an external entity, you have to be willing to put in the extra time and effort to get to where you are trying to go, especially if it is a career change. Volunteering or an internship can also be a way to rule out a field you are considering by testing the water first. Either way, make sure to take care of yourself while you do this though.

You never know who will be a recommendation or connection for a job, so when you meet someone it is important to be genuinely you. I attended a virtual talk on networking this Spring that talked about networking beyond the formal events.

They advised that if you keep seeing someone on your LinkedIn who raises your curiosity, follow them and reach out to them about the specific thing that is intriguing you. Use this as your intro and talking point, and it could lead to a great connection.

In addition, attend the social events for your department and get to know people from outside of your specific area. This may help you be successful in a task for your role or help you to make a career shift later down the road.

I love the phrase ‘your passion is showing’. When you are passionate about what you do, you are more engaged, more effective, but most importantly, happier. And the people around you will notice the difference and so will your work output.

Stacey Leawood Stacey's Final Thoughts

Some people know from the very beginning what they want to do as a career but for Claire Smith, it wasn’t so simple. After entering the sports world as an athletic trainer, she realized very quickly that it was no longer her passion and when sports marketing piqued her interest, she decided to undergo a career change. Now that she has become successful in her sports marketing career she is able to give back to the next generation by sharing her experience transitioning from athletic therapy to sports marketing and providing insight on what has helped her reach her Assistant Director position at the prestigious Duke University.

Connect With Claire M. Smith