When I was 20, I found myself working in an internship at a bank I had never heard of, in a department that had never even been mentioned in my college marketing classes. (Or at least I wasn’t paying attention if it was.) What happened that summer led me down a career path in sponsorship of sports and events, something I had no idea a person could be paid to do.
I spent the 10-week internship managing tickets, setting up activations (and learning what ‘“activating” meant), and even walking in a Stanley Cup championship parade. Who gets to do that?! At the end of the summer I headed back to finish up my senior year at Michigan State University. But I had made plans to come back to Chicago for one of the events I coordinated during the summer - a charity softball game.
It was on this warm early September day that my manager from the internship and her boss pulled me aside (after I had spent that same afternoon in costume as the bank mascot) and offered me a position as a contractor with the team once I finished my degree.
I was ecstatic! Just two weeks into the semester, I had a job lined up after graduation and, as one of the first of my friends to do so, I was ready to enjoy the freedom it would give me.
But something felt off. Something wasn’t right. I knew the team I was going to work with. They were all amazing, smart, talented people. By they didn’t really know me, at least not all of me.
The internship had gone by so quickly, there wasn’t even a need or opportunity for me to tell them I’m gay. My heart sank. I started to worry what might happen. It was only a year-long contract position, so what if they were uncomfortable with me being gay? What if I was told I shouldn’t talk about it? What if I didn’t have my contract renewed?
I toiled with this for the nine months before I would start, psyching myself up, again and again with the idea that if I was going to work somewhere, they were going to know me and get all of me coming to work. I knew it wouldn’t be fair to me or my team if I wasn’t myself.
On day two of the job, I pulled my boss, Amy, aside and asked if we could hop into a conference room so I could talk to her about something. If you’re a manager and on day two your fresh-out-of-college new employee needs to talk already, you’re probably a bit concerned about what would already warrant this conversation.
“If I’m going to work here and we’re going to spend nights and weekends together at events, you need to know the real me,” I told her. “So I wanted to make sure that you know that I’m gay.”
Her smiled changed from one covering any fear and concern that she had to one that felt comforting, kind and understanding.
“That’s amazing,” she said, “and obviously I’m here to support you however I can. But that’s all you wanted to tell me?”
It’s all interesting to recount now, because I’ve come out so many times in life and at work since then. Some were just about being upfront and honest with colleagues and peers I respected and others because someone kindly proposed that “My nice daughter is about your age, and I think you two would really get along.”
More than anything, I just want to be honest, and I learned early on at that first job to just rip the Band-Aid off and be myself. I knew I was hired because I was going to be an asset to the team and work hard to learn the ins and outs of the industry.
Still, I felt like I was the only LGBTQ+ person in any of the work-related scenarios I would find myself in. Sponsorship meetings with our partners would start with “How are your kids?” “What has your wife been up to?”
As a single person, I felt like I didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation. As a gay single person, I thought I was even further removed from the way parenthood and marriage allowed professionals to engage. There was nobody like me within arm’s reach whom I could look to for guidance. I felt like I was on an island.
Then, in 2015, another gay man joined our team at work, and I had another resource sitting right next to me.
I started to make more friends in the LGBTQ+ community, joined an LGBTQ+ flag football league, and started to enjoy a social life as a 20-something in Chicago should. Even with this growing community, when I told people what I did for work, it never seemed like anybody did something similar. Granted, sports and entertainment is a niche field, but even among my friends who played sports, the typical response was surprise that I would have a career in this field.
I had a full-time job living in Chicago. Life was pretty great. But in my career, I struggled to find people in my industry who were out professionals, and whom I could target as mentors and benchmarks.
Fast forward to today, a few years and a couple of job changes later. I have chosen to be a professional working in the sports industry who is out and proud to dozens of colleagues, peers, clients, executives, students, and pretty much anyone else who will listen. I have come across an out LGBTQ+ industry peer here and there, eagerly connecting every chance I could get.
I met Brian Kitts from the You Can Play Project at a conference and got involved with You Can Play on a regional level. At the same conference I met Jim Andrews, who worked for IEG and was running the conference.
A friend introduced me to Outsports and said I should follow what they were doing, so I did. They started sharing more and more stories of industry professionals coming out. I tried to network when I had the courage, but Dale Carnegie never came with a chapter on networking with someone for the sole purpose that you were outliers. Then it hit me – I should join a networking group for LGBTQ+ professionals on the business-side of sports and entertainment. I was fairly confident I would find one, but it turns out none existed.
I came across organizations like You Can Play, Equality Coaching Alliance, Women in Sports and Events (WISE), Painless Networking and even our corporate Pride group at the bank, all of which I greatly admire and respect. But there wasn’t a professional networking and development group dedicated to the industry I was working in. Once again, I felt like I was on an island.
As I continued to network with other LGBTQ+ professionals, I started to wonder why the type of organization I was looking for couldn’t just be started. I approached Jim Andrews to get his feedback, and we began to go down the path, along with David Slade, formerly of the USTA, of creating HomeField Alliance to meet the networking gap that existed.
As of today, HomeField Alliance has officially launched its membership platform across the United States and Canada for sports and entertainment industry professionals looking to network with fellow LGBTQ+ professionals and their allies working within the business of sports and entertainment. From esports to pro sports, teams to leagues, sponsors to equipment, and more, we’re committed to making sure that as an LGBTQ+ employee, a supportive and welcoming work environment isn’t just a hope, but an industry standard.
Most sports and entertainment organizations are not big enough to create the type of employee affinity groups that large businesses and organizations offer. We exist to serve as that resource, providing individuals and their employers with the tools to properly create inclusive environments focused on meeting the unique needs of LGBTQ+ employees.
We also encourage people to become allies to the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace through member networking events and public programs such as forums, discussion groups and lectures focused on career enhancement and education.
I used to think I was able to come out because I had the courage and because I was strong enough to take the leap. What I realize now is that I only had the courage because of the people around me and the strength of the support system beneath me. That’s the core of what HomeField is working toward for every professional in the industry.
Jake Lenz is a Sponsorship Specialist based out of Chicago.
HomeField Alliance is a registered 501(c)3 not-for-profit, HomeField Alliance, Inc. NFP is headquartered in Chicago, with a focus on membership from across the United States and Canada.
HomeField Alliance’s events, career and mentoring tools are designed to foster networking, training and development for professionals at all stages, from students interested in sports and entertainment, to thought leaders and seasoned executives.