Community Learning Series on careers in sport management advises audience: spot opportunity, grab ‘those baseballs’

Dan Migala
Dan Migala

Success, says Dan Migala, is about the baseballs you choose to pick up.

Considered literally, it’s what launched the career of legendary Major League Baseball skipper Sparky Anderson. In the figurative sense, it’s a mantra that encourages finding and grabbing the opportunities in front of you.

For Migala, who gave the keynote address Oct. 17 at the NIU College of Education’s Fall 2018 Community Learning Series, it’s a philosophy that drove him into the Baseball Hall of Fame at the age of 32 without once taking the field.

“If there’s one person in this world that you should have faith in,” said Migala, co-founder and chief innovation officer of 4FRONT, “it’s you and your dreams.”

Migala shared details of his life during an event devoted to careers in sport management, a strong master’s-level program in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education that will add an undergraduate degree next fall.

A trio of Sport Management alums – Matt Gonzalez, Malcolm Neely and Mike Olejniczak – joined current student Allison Einhouse in the evening’s panel discussion, talking about their current jobs and internships and giving advice to students and even parents in the room.

Their stories scored well, especially one from Neely in response to a question about the importance of experience.

Now a marketing coordinator for the Chicago Bears, Neely previously worked an unpaid internship with the Chicago Sky. To support himself, he drove for Uber morning and night. He knew that he was “hungry for it” – and that “if you really want it, it will come.”

“I could have given up,” he said, “but I wanted that experience.”

Mike Olejniczak and Malcolm Neely
Mike Olejniczak and Malcolm Neely

When he interned with the Windy City Bulls, he invited the president of the organization out to lunch.

Later, as he applied to the Bears, he wrote thank-you cards to everyone he came in contact with while interviewing and later penned “pre-interview” letters to those members of the front office staff with whom he knew he would meet.

Gonzalez, meanwhile, encouraged the students in the audience to make the most of whatever opportunities come their way. The director of Athletic Events and Facilities Operations for NIU Athletics originally interned in the marketing department.

“Take the task they assign you to do, and do it to the best of your ability,” Gonzalez said. “Take pride in what you’re doing, and make it the most important thing you’re doing, because people will notice it.”

Einhouse, who has taken job positions in five states where she knew no one, offered succinct but powerful advice: “Be fearless.” Olejniczak advised students to challenge themselves, raise their hands and say “yes” instead of “no.”

“You have to demonstrate a willingness to grow and learn,” he said.

For the evening’s keynote speaker, the route to the top of the sport industry involved much of these philosophies.

Migala offers advice to an NIU graduate student after the event.

Raised in Schaumburg, Migala loved baseball but “couldn’t hit a curveball to save my life.”

With a degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri earned in 1996, he quickly landed a job with Team Marketing Report, where he wrote about the business and finance side of sport.

That took Migala – fresh out of college, and only 23 – behind the scenes throughout professional and college sports as he covered such events as the Olympics, the World Series, the Baseball Winter Meetings and the NCAA Final Four.

His company also published books, so he approached his boss with an idea. He would write a book on how sports teams could make money on the Internet.

“No one will ever buy tickets from that video game machine,” the boss told him, “but I respect your passion. You could prove me wrong. I’ll publish it.”

And Migala made good on his proposal, interviewing NFL commissioners and team owners for “Interactive Sports Strategies.”

Once published, the book caught the attention of the Chicago Bears, the last team in the NFL to launch a website. Then-Chairman of the Board Mike McCaskey telephoned Migala personally; that call led to Migala creating www.chicagobears.com: “I built it from scratch.”

The kid from the suburbs also got the chance to work with the family of Walter Payton to create a tribute page to the one-and-only “Sweetness,” who died in 1999. Eventually, Migala was given a game ball and found a mentor in Bears President and CEO Ted Phillips.

“I was being paid to learn – paid to relationship-build,” Migala said. “It was one of those moments when those baseballs appear in your life. You can note all these moments that start to change your life.”

Matt Gonzalez and Allison Einhouse
Matt Gonzalez and Allison Einhouse

Those baseballs.

While research his book “Dugout Wisdom,” in which he interviewed dozens of Baseball Hall of Fame members, including Willie Mays, Ryne Sandburg and Kirby Puckett, Migala learned how Sparky Anderson paved his way into the game.

As a young boy, Anderson would find baseballs left behind by the University of Southern California team and then try to sell them back. He didn’t turn a profit – the balls were emblazoned with “Property of USC,” unfortunately – but Anderson did become a bat boy for the squad as he started his Hall of Fame journey at age 8.

“Do you have the time to pick up those baseballs?” Migala asked his NIU audience, encouraging them to “dream big” about “something that you couldn’t ever imagine happening you.”

He also offered five rules for success.

  • Relationship-build vs. Network. Find five people who have the job you want, he said, and write each an “old-school letter.”
  • Focus on Opportunities vs. Income. Migala wasn’t paid any extra money to write “Interactive Sports Strategies,” but he made some pretty powerful friends while doing so.
  • Be a Nice Person. When Mike Veeck, son of the legendary Bill Veeck, first heard Migala talk to an audience, he encouraged him to become a better public speaker. Migala did so by volunteering to read books such as “The Little Engine That Could” and “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” to Mrs. Johnson’s class at Oscar Meyer Magnet School in Chicago.
  • Be Unique. As a journalist and storyteller surrounded by accountants, Migala often was the only person in the room with “a reporter’s mentality.” He could ask questions, such as, “What if 7-Eleven owned the White Sox?” That eventually led to his idea to start White Sox games at 7:11 – brought to you by 7-Eleven.
  • Faith. Kirby Puckett told Migala about his first at-bat in the majors, when he popped out. Back in the dugout, Puckett realized he had tried not to fail rather than trying to do his best. In replacing his fear with faith, he went 4-for-5 the rest of the game.

The NIU College of Education’s Community Learning Series brings together experts from various disciplines and occupations to discuss topics that have ranged from concussions and the amount of time children spend starting at technology to life transitions for young adults with autism and suicide.

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