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Should I Change Sport Jobs For More Freedom & Autonomy? Maria Suriani Did & Now Manages Ops For Pro Team

Maria Suriani | Manager of Operations and Community Engagement | Hamilton Honey Badgers

My role is very diverse, that is what I love most about it.

Maria Suriani

Manager of Operations and Community Engagement

Hamilton Honey Badgers

×This interview was completed before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. The interview with Maria Suriani 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 Manager of Operations and Community Engagement of the Hamilton Honey Badgers.

My role is very diverse, that is what I love most about it. I like to explain it to people as, every part of the business that isn’t direct sales. This includes everything from office administration, to creating and executing social media campaigns, to connecting with the community to schedule player, mascot and team appearances, to purchasing merchandise and managing our retail, to hiring and managing game day staff, team interns and volunteers, and everything in between.

I worked for another professional sports team as well as a provincial sport organization before I took this job. They were both amazing opportunities and I’ve been so lucky to find not one but three jobs in the sports industry.

Many people in my network might have thought it was a risk for me to leave a secure job in a more recognized organization, but I love working for the Honey Badgers and the Canadian Elite Basketball League. My current role is one I really couldn’t even dream up. There is so much autonomy in my everyday tasks and I continue to learn more and get better each day; especially with the support of so many accomplished and respected sport professionals involved in the CEBL.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Every day is a new day, especially in my role. Because I’m responsible for so many aspects of the business there is no typical workday. There’s also a big difference between season and off-season so I’ll describe a typical work week for each.

OFF-SEASON

During the off-season, the most important thing for me is to plan and prioritize. People always ask “so is this a year-round job? What do you do in the off-season, do you still work every day?” The off-season is just as important, if not more, than our season. Ideally, everything should be ready to go as soon as the season starts so that we can shift our focus to the game-day experience. I usually open each day by checking emails. I will make sure to respond to pressing matters that need my immediate attention from my coworkers, fans or partners, and I will leave the rest unopened until I am ready to tackle them.

Next is planning. I like to plan for the week ahead – strategize our social, revisit deadlines and put aside time for long term planning. My president, John Lashway, used to have our staff create a weekly plan on Sundays – Monday to Friday would be broken into morning and afternoon and I would list one to two tasks in each section that needed to be started, worked on or completed. I felt that this really helped me and it’s something that I still do during the off-season to ensure that I stay on task and am ready when the season begins.

IN-SEASON

In-season is, of course, a fun time, but still requires a lot of work. We typically have 1 home game a week. Game days are long but they’ve always been my favourite. I arrive at the arena in-time for shootaround. I usually watch the guys shoot, get some photos or videos to post on our social and work on any last-minute administration tasks that need to be finished.

After the team leaves, the away team will shoot around. At this point, I usually go get something to eat. When both teams are finished, I begin to set-up the arena with the help of some early volunteers. This means putting up signage, filling the locker rooms with water and snacks, pulling out equipment for in-game promotions, setting up court level retail and programs and so on. After all the volunteers and game day staff arrive, it’s gone time. Gates open, the game begins and my main job is to troubleshoot any issues that might come up.

The remainder of the week is a mix of things. Preparing for the next home game is most important including any new promotions that will be running, communicating with groups who will be facilitating entertainment aspects and making sure our game day staff and volunteers are confirmed.

We usually have about 1 or 2 community appearances scheduled throughout a week as well. So it’s my job to pick the players up after practice, bring them to the appearance and help run it. In between are mostly administrative things – responding to donation/appearance requests, scheduling and creating social content, etc. This is why it’s important to have everything planned and ready to go in the off-season so that the season runs as smoothly as possible.

When was the point you realized that you were meant to do this career? Take us through that realization.

I’ve played sports for as long as I can remember, basketball always being my favourite and what I was most passionate about. When I applied to post-secondary I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I went to college for Fitness and Health Promotion, was captain of the Varsity Women’s Basketball team and also worked part-time in athletics. I was going to graduate at the end of the fall semester and I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after that. I realized that I didn’t really love the Fitness and Health program and I still had a year and a half left of eligibility – I didn’t want to leave my team mid-season. I was debating taking some courses to just finish out the year.

I specifically remember I was working in the weight room one afternoon reading Sports Illustrated. The article was about a father who lived in Compton. Since he was a child, he had been in and around gangs. Now as a father, he wanted to shield his son’s from that life and introduced them to football. He worked hard to create a grass-roots football program in his community to keep his sons, as well as other inter-city children, off the streets. I forget how the article ended but it really touched me and that was the moment I realized I wanted to work in sport. It was a no brainer, looking back I don’t know how I didn’t come to this conclusion sooner. Basketball had always been such a positive influence on my life. After reading that article I really wanted to pass my passion as well as all the life lessons it had taught me onto other young people – specifically at-risk communities.

I looked into the possibility of getting a graduate certificate in sport management and I was able to easily transition into the second semester after graduating from F&HP. So I did! While in the sport management program, I realized there were so many different avenues of sport you could work in. Funny enough, I began my career working Retail Operations for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats after telling myself I would never work sports retail while taking a Sporting Goods class. Since beginning my career in sport, I have been on the field for Grey Cup celebrations; been involved in a FIBA World Championship; planned and helped execute the basketball portion of the Ontario Summer Games, a multi-sport game that I participated in 15 years earlier; opened a stadium and been part of a professional league’s Inaugural Season. The sports industry is long days, nights and weekends, but I wouldn’t give any of these experiences up for the world.

What is your favourite part about working within the community of Hamilton?

Born and raised in Hamilton, I love working here. The people of Hamilton are VERY proud of their sports teams. I think my favourite is that I get to touch areas of the city I grew up in, and be able to bring them cool experiences. I obviously loved basketball as a kid, so the fact I can take professional basketball players to school visits and run a basketball clinic for students is amazing, and kind of full circle. It’s something I would have loved to come to my school growing up and it’s great I can provide that to them.

On the other hand, I love showing the people that I work with my city. When the season first began last year, I took one of the coaches and 2 players back to their residences from a practice. On the way, the coach asked me to give them a tour. Hamilton has tons to offer and the people here are great. I showed them a lot of hidden gems and even took them to a mom and pop breakfast spot. I think the guys ended up eating there at least once a week for the next 4 months. It was cool that I could show outsiders more than just the steel factories that they drive by on the QEW and they could appreciate the city as much as it appreciated them.

Is there one goal you plan to achieve, or one big accomplishment you have achieved while working in the sports industry?

I think right now, working in an industry that I love is an accomplishment of its own. Not everyone gets to have casual conversations with professional coaches every day, or design the merchandise a team will sell next season or watch countless sport and entertainment events for free as a perk to their job. I enjoy and have enjoyed going to work every day for the past 6 years and I think that’s really important. Of course, everyone wants to be the big boss one day and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t love to be the person in charge. But on a micro-level, I just want to keep learning.

I got into this field with plans to work with at-risk youth and my first job was sport retail. I then worked for a non-profit sports organization managing their coaching portfolio and now run operations for a professional basketball team. I don’t know where my end goal is, but everything I’ve learned from the beginning has continuously opened new doors for me to be where I am today – in my favourite job thus far. Who knows where I can be and in what sector of sport I will be working 6 years from now. But if I can continue to make a living for myself while doing something I am so passionate about and love, I will have accomplished something.

Has playing/working in basketball always been a passion for you? Why is that?

I picked up a basketball when I was 10 years old and I haven’t really put it down since. When I was younger it was a way for me to make friends and be active. My dad coached me, so it was like a father/daughter thing. As I got older, I realized I was pretty good at it – I became competitive and always wanted to make it to that next level. Play rep, play Team Ontario, play university and so on. Although I didn’t necessarily meet each goal, I worked hard and was committed to them.

Basketball allowed me to learn from more skilled girls on some teams and grow as a leader on others. My playing days are over, so now I coach. Coaching has opened up a whole new world for me and I have a newfound respect for everyone who has ever coached me. I’ve had the same group of girls for three years now, and it’s fun to watch them evolve. Sometimes I need to remind myself that they aren’t at the same level physically or mentally as I was when I finished playing. It’s a continuous learning curve. Everything I’ve learned from the sport has had an impact on my life and career, and I’m grateful for it. I never dreamed of working in basketball, just like I never thought I would work in sport – but it found me.

Do you have a role model or someone you have based your career path on?

I would say, my first boss, Jessica Berry, has been a big mentor for me. She gave me my first opportunity in sport and showed me what it takes to be successful. Jess has worked in NBA, CFL, Minor League baseball. Right now she’s a consultant. And she’s always 100% authentically herself.

We worked together with a group of 3 interns to open Tim Hortons Field and it was probably the most fun year I’ve had in the sport, regardless of the 18-hour game days. The biggest thing with Jess is hard work and innovation. She quickly helped me realize that sport isn’t a 9-5, but she was always there to help after hours to make sure things were finished and finished correctly. She would never let me take short cuts to save time, later in my career I realized that those short cuts would just add time in the long run. The fact that she was always there to help was big for me – she leads by example. She implemented processes and by the end of the season, we were a well-oiled machine. I was able to facilitate a game day start to finish on my own by the end of the year after she concussed herself on a box truck during set-up haha. Operationally, she is who I have to thank for helping me understand the process.

She’s also very innovative. She was always looking for the next big retail idea, from totally changing our online store to creating different merchandise promotions, she always wanted to be ahead of the game. Sometimes it added work but every time it made us better. This keeps me on my toes. I’m always thinking, “What can we do that other teams haven’t done yet?”

We haven’t worked together for about 4 years now but I still talk to her constantly. She is who I go to for career advice, to spin ideas off of or get ideas from and she is always supportive. She’s been a great mentor for me, especially as a woman in the industry.

Do you have any advice for future sports industry professionals?

The biggest piece of advice I can give is don’t say no. Be open and say yes to as many opportunities as possible and bring your “A Game”. Sport is a grind, we know this. It means working early mornings, late nights and weekends. But it is those added things you do, especially at the beginning of your career that are going to make the difference. It’s those extra events where you are going to learn and gain experience in new areas of the industry; where you will make connections and most importantly make impressions.

Sports is huge, but the industry is actually pretty small. Every job I’ve been lucky enough to interview for, was because someone at that company knew someone who I had previously worked or volunteered for/with. Saying yes to opportunities outside of my regular 9-5 was how I was able to build my resume, expand my network and show other industry leaders how hard I work.

Recommendations go a long way. I’ve seen people totally qualified for jobs not even receive an interview because they had a reputation for not working hard. Everyone is going to have off days but a strong work ethic is worth so much, and is as committed to the boring jobs as you are to the exciting ones will set you apart.

Hayley Michie Hayley's Final Thoughts

Maria has proven herself as a hard-working and motivated sports industry professional. She is committed to her role and is constantly creating new opportunities for the Hamilton Honey Badgers. Her love for basketball has definitely played a role in Maria’s career thus far. Being an athlete encouraged new learning both on the court and in the classroom, impacting not only Maria’s life but her career. Sports can provide an array of opportunities, and the sports industry is only growing.

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