Melcolm Ruffin is Head of Athlete Content Strategy at Creative Artists Agency. He is also the Co-Founder of Sports & Entertainment Equity Network (SEEN), a non-profit that strives to close the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) gap prevalent in the business of sports & entertainment.
Melcolm holds a Bachelor of Science degree with a concentration in Sports Management from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a Masters of Business Administration from Harvard Business School. He was also recognized as a 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30: Sports recipient.
Simply put, it’s the business of sports. Every sports league, team, league, brand, etc. has many people working in them across multiple business functions. There are lots of jobs like marketing, sales, finance, HR, etc.
I’m from right outside the Westside of Chicago. We played basketball, football, and all the other sports every day. I grew up with people that actually went to the league and played professionally,s and I realized that my hoop dreams probably would not come true on the court. But fortunately, as a teenager, I discovered the business side of the sports industry.
I used to read ESPN the magazine all the time, and one day I stumbled onto an article about the best college sports management programs in the country. I immediately knew I found my dream career, and I researched colleges based on the strength of their alumni networks and the strength of their sports business curricula. That was the inspiration to get me into sports, and once I found the program that I found the one, I was all in.
I went to UMass Amherst for college, and I quickly learned that the sports industry isn’t like finance where the path is linear and you know what steps you need to take. When I got to UMass, my goal was to get as much relevant experience as I could. I was a student manager for the basketball team and I was President of a sports management club. All of these were micro-experiences that helped me get my first internships at a sports agency than with the Philadelphia 76ers. After UMass, I started my full-time career in a rotational program at the NBA League Office.
Early in my career, I continued to gain a wide variety of experience working within the NBA G League, the NBA’s minor league system. I eventually realized that I was passionate about the intersection of content, digital disruption, and athlete storytelling. As I started researching and planning ways to transition my career into that space it became clear that pursuing business school would best prepare me for long-term success. The process of applying to business school was a long grind, but worth it and I was blessed to get into Harvard Business School (HBS) to pursue an MBA.
I identified Twitter as my top target for my internship in business school because they had a rare internship defined in the exact area I was interested in. Before I ever stepped foot on campus I had that internship program listed as my top priority and I was able to invest time following their business, networking with execs, etc. I was fortunate to land the summer internship at Twitter and had a phenomenal experience. I expected to go back full-time but sometimes plans change.
During my second year at HBS I enrolled in a great course called Business of Entertainment, Media & Sports taught by professor Anita Elberse. She always brought in incredible guest speakers to discuss the industry and in one class she invited Mike Levine, Co-Head of CAA Sports. He’s one of the most influential execs in the sports business and I thought this would be an incredible time to try to meet him. showed up early to class in hopes I could introduce myself and he was gracious enough to hear my elevator pitch. He invited me to come into the CAA office the next time I was in New York. I emailed him that day to take him up on that offer and we set a time for the following Friday. Before the meeting, I did a ton of prep by researching CAA’s clients, talking with anyone I knew that had worked at/ with CAA, and formulating my own point of view on the business. I showed up that Friday for what I thought would be a 15-minute courtesy meeting with Mike Levine, but it turned out to be 4-hours of interviews. By the end of the day, he said that he wanted to hire me to lead athlete content strategy. I was shocked. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect opportunity for me after grad school.
I think a major factor early on is that I was disciplined and focused on my goals. Every undergrad college that I visited told me that I had to get experience if I wanted to get into the sports business world. When you get to school, everyone is transitioning, and there are so many opportunities, whether that be professional, social, or extracurricular. I didn’t over-index on the social aspect in the beginning because I knew it would be an uphill battle to gain a career in sports, and I didn’t have a backup plan.
I also had an amazing support system that encouraged me to follow my passions. My whole life my mom has been a flight attendant, and my dad has worked in the jazz industry. They didn’t make a lot of money, but they loved what they did. That taught me that success and happiness could come from work you care about and not just from my salary or position, and that became my model. I went to a math and science high school, so most people around me chose to go into engineering, pre-med, etc. People were surprised when I told them that I wanted to work in sports, but my parents were supportive of the path I was choosing. Without that support, I might not have gotten to UMass; I might have ended up on a different path.
Lastly, I was blessed to have a lot of people that poured into me and mentored me. Throughout my career, I’ve had role models and executives that gave me their time and shared their perspective when they didn’t have to. Especially when you’re a person of color trying to make your way into an industry where there’s a lack of representation. You don’t have the blueprint. Fortunately, I had those people around me that were willing to show me the way.
Everybody is just figuring things out as they go. Regardless of level. When I was earlier in my career, I used to think that my boss would have the answers to anything I was struggling with. However, I quickly realized that my boss didn’t always have the perspective or the nuanced details on the issues that I had as the person working on it. I had to give him the proper information and my recommendations -- I couldn’t expect them to parachute in and save me every time. I had to give him background on what I was going through for him to be able to really help. Your boss isn’t always going to have the right answer right away.
It takes time to gain that confidence in yourself, but once you understand that no one else has it all figured out, it makes it easier for you to be part of the problem-solving process instead of just a bystander.
“You don’t realize that you’re creating the snowball as it’s happening, but you build that momentum, and the doors open from there.”
Sometimes folks know the end goal, but they don’t know how to actually get there. Take advantage of opportunities to gain new experiences. Sports business is so small. The NBA League Office, for example, probably only has 2,000 employees, while Deloitte might have 40,000. It’s very competitive, and there often isn’t much differentiation between candidates. It typically comes down to who you know and what experiences you have, so I tried to create experiences out of the opportunities in front of me. In college, that meant being a manager for the basketball team and working my way to the president of a sports business club. Having those things on my resume helped me get my first internship and then my next. You don’t realize that you’re creating the snowball as it’s happening, but you build that momentum, and the doors open from there. All of your different experiences will add up to make you a better candidate for that dream role.
Network with your peers. There are three ways to network: networking up with people more senior than you; networking laterally with your peers who are at the same place in their careers; and networking with people more junior than you, often called mentoring. When you’re young, try to meet people around you. As you grow, people take different positions at different companies, and your network expands. Some might go work at the NFL, some might go work at Facebook, etc., which means that you’ll have access to them and their companies.
Utilizing LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a great tool for identifying the options to get where you want to be. After working with the NBA G League, I realized that I wanted to work in content acquisition and strategy. LinkedIn was really valuable to me because I was able to find people that were doing content acquisition in sports at companies like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and see what different roles that had up to that point. I identified Twitter as a company that I really wanted to work for because I was bullish on the company’s future and because they were doing a lot of live content acquisition. I found their Director of Live Content Acquisition on LinkedIn, and I saw that he had an MBA from Columbia. That was part of my reasoning for pursuing my MBA. It was clear from my research on LinkedIn that many of the executives in titles I aspired for had gained that experience.
Read Industry Newsletters. There’s Sports Business Journal, Front Office Sports, Sports Pro Media, etc.. In the sports media and entertainment industry, there are so many people that are passionate about the product on the court or field, and a lot of times people conflate that with wanting to work in the business. You can love football and love the Chicago Bears, but that doesn’t mean that you want to work in sports. Newsletters are good because they inform you on business trends, so the next time you have the chance to speak with someone in the industry, you can really stand out by saying something like “I love the NFL’s deal with Amazon because it’s going to allow the league to reach new audiences.” It shows you're not merely a fan. The recruiters and people you’re trying to impress are going to look at you really differently, and they’ll know that you’re someone that knows your stuff.
Sports are very relationship-oriented. In undergrad, being involved in certain clubs or organizations gave me a reason to reach out to certain people. For example, I could email someone and say “Hey, I’m the President of XYZ club, we’re looking for people to _______.” So then, when they come on campus, they remember you, and you can parlay that into a one-on-one or coffee chat or something else.
Hit up the managers and the coordinators. Don’t always go for the VPs or directors. If you’re talking to a manager or someone only 3-4 years older than you, they’ll probably have a more realistic path into the industry than the person that’s been there 20 years and grew up in an era where they could just walk into an office and drop his resume off. It’s about playing the odds. The odds of hitting someone in the executive spot might be 1 in 10, but the odds of hitting a manager or someone less senior level might be 1 in 2.
“You don’t know what connection or what experience will be the one that gets you the job. You just have to do the best you can across the board and try to make it happen.”
Be ready to take advantage of all networking opportunities, and maintain relationships once they are made. You don’t know what connection or what experience will be the one that gets you the job. You just have to do the best you can across the board and try to make it happen. For example, in college, I was invited to speak to high school students interested in working in the sports industry. I saw that the keynote speaker for the event was Dan Reed, who was President of the NBA D-League at the time. Knowing that he’d be there, I wrote down a list of specific questions and topics to bring up to him. We connected at the symposium, and I made sure to keep him updated as I progressed throughout college. For example, I ended up with an internship at a sports agency that summer, and I sent Dan an email to let him know what I was up to, to which he replied to say congratulations. Later that year, I hit him up because I was in New York, and we got coffee. We built a rapport over the years and he became invested in my path. Down the road, when I got into the NBA Associaterogram, my first rotation was in the D-League and I worked with Dan.
One thing that shines through about Melcolm’s story is his readiness. Looking at the story about Melcolm’s interactions with Dan Reed from the D-League and Mike Levine, it’s clear that his preparation is what put him in a position to take advantage of that interaction.
Anyone can take the time to plan for a presentation or an interview, but most people won’t be prepared for the in-between moments. Those opportunities that you have to brush shoulders with someone notable can end up being some of the most impactful of your career. You never know what connection or opportunity will be the one to take your career to the next level, so the best thing you can do is be proactive. Always check the guestlist for a conference beforehand. Do your homework on a speaker, so when the time comes to ask a question, you can initiate the conversation with a specific, anecdotal reference that will grab that person’s attention. In the sports business world, these seemingly small moments are the difference between the star players and the benchwarmers (see what I did there?).
Melcolm was very intentional about the companies and organizations that he associated himself with. From the beginning, he wanted to go to a school with a top-tier sports management program, which is how he ended up at UMass. Later, he realized that the NBA G League, although small at the time, was growing quickly. He focused on working with the G League because it would give him exposure to multiple job functions and more responsibility than he would have had in another department. While pursuing his MBA, Melcolm had his eye on Twitter because the company was leading the content acquisition space, so he found a way to get an internship there.
It’s really easy to think that a company has done you a favor by hiring you. That is not true. Any organization or person that you work with is lucky because they get to work with you, not the other way around. Knowing this, you should be confident in your drive and your skillset, and you should be intentional about what organizations you work with. You are the prize.
If you think about it, it takes guts to send emails to someone you have never met before and ask for a 30-minute networking call.
Or maybe, it only takes ignorance.
As a student with very little social capital in the sports world, Melcolm sent cold emails to people, and many of those people ended up being mentors to him. One of the best parts about being new in a career is that you don’t know how things are supposed to work. So when you hear that a super senior executive will be in the office today, you don’t think to yourself “I’m sure she’s too busy to take 10 minutes to talk to me, I’m not even going to bother reaching out.” Instead, because you’re ignorant to workplace etiquette, maybe you walk right up to that executive and give her your elevator pitch. Maybe you ask her for coffee next time she’s in town.
Note: some examples of Melcolm’s cold emails can be found in the Resources section at the end of this Blueprint.
It’s cliche at this point, but sometimes you really will have to make those tough decisions. It’s easy to say that you would choose to stay in and build your website or take an online course instead of going out for drinks with your friends. For most, when it comes time to actually do those things, their actions don’t match their stated values.
From day 1 at UMass, Melcolm knew that his goal was to break into the sports business world. He made a conscious decision to prioritize his professional development and internship experience, and that sometimes came at the expense of his social life. This is not to say that everyone should focus 100% of their time on furthering their careers, but it’s important to be aware that the things that we want most will (not might) require some sacrifice. It’s up to you to decide how much you’re willing to sacrifice for what you want.
In the Sports Business world, your network is everything. Emails are a great way to expand and maintain your network. Here are some examples of email templates you can use to establish, build upon, and grow your network: