To end its Black History Month festivities in the month of February, the Detroit Pistons fittingly convened at Detroit Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School.
Through the Business of Sports Seminar, a first-time event, the Pistons’ goal was to use the game of basketball as a vehicle to inspire students and bring awareness to the numerous sports-related career options available off the court.
Over 150 sports management students who attend King High School had the opportunity to listen to Detroit Pistons front office leadership team members share their career path stories and offer advice to the younger generation. The starting five included Vice President of Business Affairs Awenate Cobbina, Assistant General Manager Sachin Gupta, Vice President of Brand Marketing Alicia Jeffreys, Senior Director of Community and Social Responsibility Erika Swilley, and FOX Sports Detroit Reporter/Host Trevor Thompson.
“We wanted to make sure the students at King had an opportunity to interact with individuals in sports that look like them,” said Lawrence Fitz, assistant principal at King. “The students expressed an interest in actually being able to meet and talk to some of the big-name people that are in sports marketing and it’s a collaboration with our sports marketing program to make sure that we have viable programs in the Detroit Public Schools Community District for students who have a desire to go into the sports field.”
Many of the students in attendance were King football and boys and girls basketball players. The game will end for many of them at some points, whether that is after high school, college, or even pro, and they will need to find another career to venture off into in order to provide for themselves. That is the story of Cobbina, who played basketball at Emory University in Atlanta and put the basketball down to pursue a career with professional sports teams in the front office.
“I knew growing up that I wanted to work in sports,” said Cobbina. “I played basketball and baseball and at some point, I realized that I couldn’t jump high enough to make the NBA. But I played college basketball to keep my education going and when I graduated, I decided I wanted to have a career in sports. I applied for an internship with the NFL, luckily I got it, and I turned that opportunity into other opportunities.”
Brand marketing and social media are two vital components among NBA teams. One of the primary reasons that fans watch the Pistons or buy team gear is because the brand is strong in the city. If you have established credibility, then people easily see the value of your offerings. Social media has played a vital role in building this influence and Jeffreys and Swilley have played a larger part in that process.
Jeffreys has been with the team since 2002, beginning as a market development manager, climbing up the ranks over the years as an African-American woman from Flint, Michigan.
“Twenty years ago, Flint was a basketball city,” said Jeffreys. “I’m not as tall as Awenate, so I knew I wasn’t going to play basketball either. But because the Flint community rallied around basketball, I always wanted to be a part of the sports landscape. I attended Michigan for sports management, stepping out of my comfort zone there, working with hockey and golf, things I was not familiar with growing up in Flint. But that allowed me to be more diverse in my career.”
Detroit Pistons activities throughout the month of February focused on celebrating Black History and culture, while inspiring and providing opportunities for Detroit youth through arts, education, and basketball. The organization also aims to bridge divides while demonstrating the importance of equality, diversity, inclusion, respect, and teamwork.
Equality and inclusion was the main theme for the Pistons’ Black History Month activities and African-Americans breaking in the sports journalism field and be difficult. There is no manual that explains how to break into the world of sports journalism as a minority. The usual route through university and internships is there, but trying to learn the craft and looking for a foothold in the industry, there are very few minorities accessible enough to ask for guidance.
Thompson beat the odds, growing up and receiving his education in Canada and is now an Emmy Award-winning reporter who has covered the Tigers, Red Wings, and Pistons over the years.
“As corny as it sounds, I just followed my dreams,” said Thompson. “A wise man once told me that if you do a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. That sounded good to me. I had a dream to be a sports broadcaster and I followed my dream to where it has brought me today. I’ve been blessed enough to be here in Detroit and it’s been a great run since I came here 19 years ago.”
Representation in sports marketing is essential. Those looking to potentially pursue that career like to feel that they can relate to something or someone currently in those roles. They also like to know that they are not alone or that they, too, can be a high-ranking official in the front office for the Pistons or some other team.
“The five individuals that were here this morning not only represented the African-American community, but they represented female professionals, and people of other ethnicities,” Fitz added. “We hope that our students left here knowing that their goals and dreams are obtainable.”
This article originally appeared in the Michigan Chronicle.