Even cool sports jobs have peaks and valleys. Well, Mike Bucek and the Kansas City Royals have had a couple “peak” years. It doesn’t get much better than back to back World Series appearances and being the reigning world champions of Major League Baseball. Mike is the Vice President of Marketing and Business Development for the world champions and is going on his 7th year with the Royals. He is responsible for marketing, ticket sales, corporate and premium sales along with in-game entertainment. Every job in sports can be a grind at time, but it sure is a little better when you leave messages for people that end with world champion Kansas City Royals. No bias on my part, but after being a Royals fan for the last 40 years it sure was fun sitting down with my friend Mike Bucek.
Have you always had a passion for sports? Yes, loved playing and being a fan. I played little league baseball, football and hockey through high school.
What did you think were cool jobs during your formative years? I thought being a disc jockey on the radio was cool and that is what I did in college.
Share a brief history about your career path? I got a degree in communications from Illinois State and had a passion for radio. I worked at WZND, the student radio station at Illinois State as well as a 50,000 watt FM rock station in Bloomington, Illinois. It helped get me through college and it also gave me some great experience in the industry. Also during college, I did internships at two Chicago radio stations.
My first real job out of college was for KDKB, a FM rock station in Phoenix in a sales role. I had quickly realized quickly there was more earning potential in sales rather than being on-air. I then joined AC Nielsen, the ratings provider in the Bay Area.
My wife and I decided to return to Phoenix and I had an offer to join another radio station, but by chance I met a person who led me down the different career path. The Phoenix Giants were the Pacific Coast League Triple A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants. The team owner had asked me what I did for a living. We continued the discussions over the next week and I soon met with the club’s new President. He asked if I would be interested in joining the front office. The team didn’t have radio package and ownership felt it was important to build the fan base. After thinking about it, and with my love for sports and baseball, I decided to take the job and the team was rebranded into the Phoenix Firebirds. Using my radio background, we found a radio partner and got the team on air. It was a very entrepreneurial situation with a small staff that allowed me to get a lot of experience beyond the broadcast responsibilities. Soon, I was selling sponsorships, tickets and learning the operations side by doing things like parking cars.
It was invaluable because I was involved in every aspect of the business and learned my way in the baseball world. I felt like I had earned a Masters in Sports Administration after a couple of years because I was doing everything. I had found my way and was promoted after each season. In my final year I was promoted to Vice President, General Manager at 27 years of age, which was unheard of in Triple-A baseball at that time. It was a great experience and taught me so much in the three years I was with the organization.
I then moved from Phoenix to Chicago and took a job with the Chicago White Sox. I was hired to be the Manager of Radio Network affiliates and Spanish Radio in the broadcast department. Yet another opportunity where my radio and media experience was helpful. A year later, I was promoted to Director of Marketing and Broadcasting. At that point, I had marketing, corporate sales and broadcasting responsibilities. It was also when the White Sox planning to move from Old Comiskey Park to New Comiskey Park so it was an exciting time to be with the club. I was with the White Sox for seven years and truly enjoyed every moment of it.
My next stop was with the Milwaukee Brewers. I was hired as the Vice President of Ballpark Development. The Brewers and the Selig Family had a small front office so my background and versatile experience was attractive to them. I focused on the development of the Miller Park, but also was involved with broadcasting, sponsorship sales, suite sales and other aspects of the business. It was an once-in-a-lifetime experience and I was fortunate to be integrally involved in the design and construction of the new ballpark. When I arrived, it was a blank slate with architects, design concepts and a parking lot. Even today when I see Miller Park on television, I can remember the design meetings where it all started. When it opened in 2001, I felt it was time for a new opportunity. Miller Park had been great, but all-encompassing for a long period of time.
At that point I decided to try something new and different, so I took a job with the Indy Racing League leading sales and business development. Ownership decided to set up the race series as a separate business unit from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I had always enjoyed racing and was a bit of a “gear head” as a kid so it seemed like a good challenge. Offices were in Indy, but I spent plenty of time in hotels and planes traveling to attract new business partners for the series and its race teams. It was a great experience and I met a lot of brand managers at the national level which was invaluable. In those days, my kids were younger and the travel was overwhelming so I decided to get back into “stick and ball” sports.
I returned to Phoenix with the Phoenix Coyotes as their Chief Marketing Officer. Having played hockey through high school, I always enjoyed the sport and wanted to be in hockey in some capacity. The franchise had moved to Glendale about six months prior to my arrival and it was also the year of the lockout, so there was no hockey immediately after I arrived. Without hockey, I resorted back to my radio days and started marketing concerts and other events. We did everything we could to keep the building busy with concerts, the circus, family shows and anything that would sell seats. I had an opportunity to learn the arena business when NHL hockey was on hiatus. After a year, NHL hockey returned and we got focused on the hockey business. I learned a lot in my five years there. After that, I was offered the opportunity to get back in baseball and took my current role with the Kansas City Royals.
When I look back on my career, a lot of my opportunities stemmed from those years in minor-league baseball in Phoenix where I was able to learn so much and do such a variety of things. Every job was made possible because of that first position, where I got experience in all areas of the business.
Who inspired or mentored you along the way? It was a lot of people, of course, but I learned early on about work ethic from my father. This business is not 9 to 5 and requires a significant commitment and sacrifices. Of course the Firebirds owner Martin Stone was helpful to my career because he took me under his wing and taught me. He also allowed me to run his franchise at age 27 and trusted me which was invaluable. When I went to the White Sox, Jerry Reinsdorf was the Chairman and very helpful to my career. He was an accountant and a lawyer and just brilliant to be around. I learned so much by being around him and he always helped by pointing out the little things. His influence really helped me develop into the executive I am today.
Career highlight or accomplishment you are most proud of? Probably Miller Park from just a pure highlight. I am so proud of that accomplishment and building a new stadium is just so special and unique that it would have to be what I am most proud of at this point. It has become iconic and will be there for many years, so it’s always something I will be able to see and reflect back on.
Do you have a dream job out there? Most executives like me would strive to be a team President. It’s important to have career goals at every stage of one’s career.
If you took a different career path what would it have been? I always loved cars so maybe I would have drifted into something in the automotive industry.
Advice for a kid going to college today who wants to get into sports? Certainly now there are sports curriculums that are geared to teach students, so a program with a focus on sports would be ideal.
Clearly internships are very important to gain experience and exposure to the industry. It could with a professional team, minor-league team, sports marketing agency or a sports commission. Internships provide students the opportunity to learn the business and understand the commitment it takes to be in the sports world. It may be helpful to learn what you do and don’t want to do while you’re still in school. Many people find out early that it isn’t the lifestyle they want and then can go a different direction. It is better to find out when you’re an intern at 21-22 than once you have taken the job and don’t like it five years later.
Advice for making it in the sports industry? I would say a strong work ethic and a passion for your job is critical. It is also important to do all of the little things and do everything right. Going above and beyond of what is expected is what makes people stand out. It is such a competitive industry that you have to do things to set yourself apart or make a difference. For every job we post, we get literally hundreds of resumes, so you have to do things that make you stand out. It could be internships or jobs where you made an impact and a difference. A lot of it is networking and the importance of your contacts. It always helps to have someone make a phone call or reach out on a candidate’s behalf.
Advice for a good work/life balance and dealing with the grind of sports industry? I have always tried to emphasize a balance and the importance of personal life. Yes, things have to be covered at the games, but at the same time if your responsibilities are done or you are covered, then you can go home. In sales, we need people that are fresh the next morning at work, so everyone has to figure out their own balance. I trust people to use common sense because a balance is critical for long term success in this business.
Any final thought or words of wisdom? The sports industry is hard work but being resourceful and networking makes a difference. You also should strive to be a problem-solver. Creating a good culture and having great camaraderie like we have here at the Royals is critical and part of why we have been successful.
Now for a few quick hitters to get to know Mike better……
Name your dream foursome for dinner? Robert De Niro, John Lennon, Bobby Hull and the Pope
What is your favorite movie of all time? Two answers – The Godfather and Major League II because my name was used in the film.
Favorite book? Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof – even as a youngster I was interested in how a group of ballplayers fell victim to gamblers and threw the World Series.
Top 3 favorite athletes of all time? Bobby Hull, Ernie Banks and Walter Payton
What was your favorite TV show as a kid? Batman, loved that show.
Three items you would take to a deserted island? IPod, cooler full of some adult beverages and a big straw hat.
Favorite game to play as a kid? Loved playing baseball as a kid.
Hobby that would surprise people? Tinkering with cars.
Do you have a favorite charity you volunteer with or support? The Love Fund for Children of which I just joined the board.
Childhood idol? Bobby Hull
Twitter – @michaeljbucek
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