Van Adams' cool sports job: Sports marketing firm owner
While Van Adams has found extraordinary success running her sports marketing firm for the last dozen years, she's quick to say she's still a STEM girl at heart. She fostered this love for all things science, technology, engineering and math while growing up outside of Buffalo, and credits it for her ability to multitask and get to the core of the projects she executes in business.
And when it comes to projects, there are many. Besides her daily duties at VanAdams Sports Group, she's been the NYC chapter president of Women in Sports & Events (WISE) for the past nine years, helms an organization called Gathering on the Greens that gives professional women the tools to hit the links confidently, and also serves as an adjunct professor at NYU. So what does she do in her limited down time? Just a little light reading of The New England Journal of Medicine to keep her STEM side engaged.
A lesson in Thin Mints
Looking back now, I can say that I was driven from a young age. I was always involved in any number of things between community, school and church activities. But even as a Girl Scout, I would be the one who would actually look forward to the cookie season. There were prizes for selling a certain amount, and I always strived to win. I wanted to get to the tier for the free Walkman or whatever it was that year, so I would enlist the help of every friend and family member I could. Any aunt or uncle who worked in an office setting, I would ask to go there after school or have them bring the sheets to sell themselves. Hitting a goal makes you really happy when you're young, and I realized early on that you can't do everything yourself. That's actually a life lesson I still live by today. But by enlisting everyone I knew to assist in selling for me, I guess I was a little entrepreneur before I became an entrepreneur.
Swearing off scrubs
I went to an engineering high school called Hutchinson Central in Buffalo where I was always good in the sciences, so I think it was just expected that I would become a doctor. But after graduating from Grambling with a pre-med degree, I took a year off for some discovery time to talk with professionals in medicine, who weren't only practicing physicians, but were doing research or were in hospital administration. I sought out their opinions and the general theme was that while I may have the brain capacity to do it, I would be better served on the administrative side instead of straight caregiving. So I guess they could see what I couldn't see.
But I was always fascinated by athlete recovery and sports psychology, and a light bulb went off that led to my decision to go back to Grambling for a master's in sports administration (although medicine is still a main interest of mine today). I might be one of only a handful of people who routinely reads medical journals as if I'm preparing for something, but I am just doing it for fun.
Grad school grub
Grambling had renowned baseball and football programs, and I learned a lot about discipline working for a variety of the school's teams. Their focus was education first because that's really what's going to carry you through life. There was an emphasis on commitment and finishing what you start. I was inspired by the athletes because my day would start at 5:30 a.m. and go until sundown between my classes, working in the athletic department and also being a professor's assistant. But the athletes were on a similar schedule, which gave me some perspective. I joke now that I lived off of red beans and rice with sweet tea the entire time. I needed something quick and portable. I don't recommend anyone do that now, but grab and go was essential at the time.
After going to college in Louisiana, I decided warm weather really suited me and began applying to all the teams I could think of in the geographic locales I wanted. But then the Buffalo Bills called with an opening in public/community/athlete relations. Ironic right? Back to the snow. But you have to be receptive to going to places that weren't on your radar. We have plans, but it doesn't mean things work out the way we plan them. So I asked some of my contacts who were coaches or had played professionally for their thoughts, and they unequivocally said it was a golden opportunity that I had to take. And I was also from the area, which meant I could save money on rent by living at home. But my focus was, "Wait, it's so cold up there!" And you know what, it wasn't. It was actually a really mild winter that year. And to think I wasn't going to go.
Ditching the playbook
The job offers started coming in when I was with the Bills because it's true that one thing leads to another. I then spent two years at the USGA in media relations, which also wasn't on my master plan. I could have just thrown out my goal sheet at that point. And then after two years, it led to a job at Sports Illustrated in athlete and team relations and being involved with the Olympic cycles. By then I had made enough contacts to do consulting work on the side and really think about opening my own company.
I might be one of only a handful of people who routinely reads medical journals as if I'm preparing for something, but I am just doing it for fun.Van Adams
Making good on a dream
I always knew that I wanted to own my own business. Even back when I was going to be a doctor, I wanted to have my own practice. But there's always a question of pulling it off in the beginning. Early on, I worked with companies in a consulting mode by leveraging sports in a marketing capacity or garnering a celebrity athlete to promote a brand. One of the things I didn't think about when I was the middle of it was how natural it came for me and that other people could actually benefit from my expertise.
And then athletes started approaching me about assisting with their foundations and needed advice with fundraisers and events. I've always had a knack for being able to put things together and get things done. While I was doing that, I had every intention of taking a full-time job somewhere in the corporate side of sports. But I ended up becoming so busy that I formed VanAdams Sports Group. That was 12 years ago now, and the rest is history.
I assist a lot of athletes going through the transitional phase after they retire from their sport and are looking for what's next. Those conversations take on different aspects -- what they think they would be good at and if there's a marketplace out there for it. A specific example would be Grambling legend Doug Williams, who was involved in a book coming out that chronicled his experience of being the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. So it was logical to integrate publicity around the NFL Legends events for the former greats that I've been running for the past seven years ahead of the Super Bowls. Or someone like Giants MVP Ottis Anderson who is looking to test the waters in fan apparel, so I'm working with him on that now.
But I've also branched out to becoming a contributing writer for the NFL Player Engagement website, which focuses more on the lifestyle of former players and also their health and wellness. Besides that, I've been an adjunct professor for a number of years and I taught a course called Revenue, Pricing and Strategy at NYU this summer.
It does take a lot of time management to juggle it all, but everything I do is interrelated, so it's pretty seamless and interlocking. It's all pulling from the same side of my brain, if you will. And I believe you have to keep changing with the times. Athlete marketing is great, but then you bump it up to the next level where you're integrating those things in a more meaningful way.
I noticed in my own professional network that there were a lot of women who wanted to learn how to play golf but didn't quite know how to start. Or they took lessons but when they went to play on their company outings, the lessons didn't serve them well. No one wants to feel inadequate or embarrassed in front of their colleagues and peers. So I just felt women needed a little bit more of a push. The initial Gathering on the Greens event four years ago began as a networking event, but then I formalized it and we now have events all around the country. It teaches women about the game, but it's also about professional development by using golf as a tool for business. No matter how many lessons a woman will have from a pro or how many times they go to the driving range or read a golf book, there's no replacement for actually getting out there on the course and doing it.
Before I give advice, I like to understand what the woman's endgame is. That usually shapes what I'm going to share with her. Because you can give people blanket advice (work hard, be prepared) but giving advice should be customized to that person. What are you really trying to do? What's your aspiration? And then I weigh in from my experience and background on something that will hopefully benefit her.
But I do tell them that they should only ask what they can't easily find on Google. If you have an opportunity to get 10 minutes with someone over coffee, don't waste those minutes with questions that you could easily find out on your own. Ask something that is going to help you. What do you really want to know? I've had people say, "What is it like being a woman in the sports business?" But how is that going to help you actually get started? Be considerate of other people's time and be prepared. And don't say, "I want to be just like you" because that person is already taken. It's more about what that person does that you find intriguing and then you can have a conversation about that.