After nearly seven years of working in the corporate offices of the Oakland Athletics, Jessica Smith was presented with a new opportunity in Columbus in May 2015. Like many who work in the corporate offices of professional sports teams, Smith had been in the industry since she graduated from college. But her career had never veered from baseball until then. The current Blue Jackets Director of Corporate Development took a leap of faith into a new city and a new sport, and since then, she has made quite an impact.
Smith graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from SUNY-Oswego, despite realizing halfway through college that she didn’t enjoy writing enough to go into journalism. Knowing she still wanted to pursue a career in sports in some capacity, while she was in college, she interned with the Auburn Doubledays, a minor league baseball team in upstate New York, overseeing group ticket sales.
“With minor league baseball, you have to do everything – you have to pull tarp, serve food sometimes, and clean tables,” Smith said. “I understood what it was like to be part of the organization that people think of so highly, but you’re kind of at the back end making that happen. So I fell in love with being a part of the team, and being able to represent that team in the community.”
Out of college, Smith was hired to work on group tickets and sponsorship for another minor league baseball team, the Inland Empire 66ers in Southern California. She said her time with the 66ers further solidified her desire to work in sports, and after a year and a half, she moved on to the Oakland Athletics, where she worked in group sales and corporate accounts from 2008 to 2015.
The A’s, unlike other teams she was looking at working for, were less “buttoned up,” meaning they had yet to develop a streamlined message to both their fanbase and in terms of selling their product. So she felt she could add more value, and make a bigger impact there. One way she said she achieved this was by cutting back on the team’s number of theme nights (i.e. Hello Kitty Night) at the stadium, striving for a ‘less is more’ approach and adding incentive to come out (in the form of a free souvenir) other than just being part of a particular group watching a game together.
“You have to find ways to get [casual fans] invested into your brand and into the sport,” Smith said. “And by doing something like that, where they might be really invested in that type of community, and they want this item, it then gets them into your stadium and you have the chance to really build a lifetime fan.”
Intrigued by her proven track record in sales with the A’s, the Blue Jackets contacted her about working as Director of Corporate Development, which Smith said was difficult to turn down.
“I would’ve loved to stay in Oakland, but until somebody would’ve left or retired, there was no upward mobility for me,” Smith said. “So in my mind [at the time], why not leave now, get this great NHL experience, be a part of a growing community and a growing team with a wonderful ownership group, and really just learn.”
Since she assumed the role in May 2015, Smith said a large part of her job has involved using the ‘less is more’ approach she utilized earlier in her career in securing advertising, namely the corporate signage which can be seen all around the arena, and selling premium seating -- terrace tables, loge boxes and suites. By making fewer, but more impactful partnerships, she said she is able to protect the team’s larger partners, and with that, retain greater value from those partnerships. Smith said 70 percent of Blue Jackets fans are more likely to buy from the team’s partners if they know who its partners are.
Smith said she has come to appreciate all that Columbus has to offer in her first year here, including one particular aspect of Columbus’ one-of-a-kind business climate.
“What I think is so unique to Columbus that I have never heard about in every other market is that every business owner cares about this city first, and their business second,” Smith said. “That never happens.”
That community-first mentality, which Smith said the Blue Jackets also exemplify, sets the relationship between Columbus and the organization apart from many other partnerships between cities and their respective tenant sports teams.
“The number one priority is bringing this city a winning team,” Smith said. “That was [founder and late owner John McConnell]’s legacy. I never had the chance to get to know him, but coming in and being told about this man, and what he did to bring this team to this city, his family continues to strive to meet that goal.”
A career in sports can be challenging, Smith said. While it’s a dream job for many, all the back end work that goes into it, like staying after hours at the arena to meet with potential sponsors, must be taken into consideration. Smith said taking on an internship in the sports sector is the best way to determine whether or not somebody is truly interested in the field.
“I always like to say people are loyal to very few things – they’re loyal to their family, their friends, their pets, and their sports teams,” Smith said. “Those are things that, every single day, people care about. They want to know about it, they want to talk about it.
“I think to work in an industry where you can represent a product that people care so much about, you can make such an impact with in the community and really be a part of that.”