Working For Free And Nachos Is Sometimes The Way To Reach Your Dream
What’s more valuable to you? Money? Opportunity? Experience?
Mike Tannenbaum would answer that you make your own opportunities.
Today, Tannenbaum is ESPN’s NFL Front Office Insider. Before ESPN, he was the Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the Miami Dolphins and the Executive Vice President/General Manager for the New York Jets. Tannenbaum’s successful career is almost as interesting as how it all started.
It started with nachos. And cheese.
In the late 1980’s, the Class A Baseball Pittsfield Mets played their home games in Western Massachusetts at Wahconah Park. Tannenbaum was the team’s unpaid intern. He raked the infield. Cleaned up after the games and, yes, put cheese on the nachos. To make ends meet he worked 11 pm – 7 am five-nights-a-week sorting mail at the local post office.
Tannenbaum’s dream to work in sports lead him to Tulane Law School and another unpaid internship – this time with the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints. That lead to getting hired by Coach Bill Belichick (twice), establishing a sports representation business, running two high profile professional sports franchises and an opportunity with ESPN.
Tannenbaum is the subject of this month’s SLA Member Spotlight. Here’s his story . . . and how the Sports Lawyers Association (SLA) has helped.
How’d you get your first big break in sports?
I worked for the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints for a year and a half for free until I graduated from Tulane Law School in 1995. Upon graduation, I put together a book on how to build a team in the salary cap era, which was timely as the Collective Bargaining Agreement was recently agreed upon. I sent a copy to every NFL head coach and general manager, 60 in total. I got 59 rejections and one person, Coach Bill Belichick, hired me in Cleveland.
Your passion for sport has led you to positions where you’ve had the opportunity to work with and represent some very high-profile professional coaches and players such as Bill Parcells, Danny Manning, Bill Belichick and Steve Kerr. Sports is referred to as a business but it seems you think of it as something more?
It's hard to explain. I just don't know anything else. I’ve been working in sports since my first internship with the Pittsfield Mets. It's who I am. And that's why you work for free. That's why you put cheese on the nachos and that's why you drive in an old Ford Escort from Massachusetts to Tulane Law School and go into debt. You want to do something that's greater than yourself. I think what we do as sports lawyers is more than simply business. It’s our passion. I truly believe that if you choose a job you love you’ll never work a day in your life.
Joining ESPN was a little bit of a change for you. What are you doing for ESPN?
I’m on air talent on TV and radio as the NFL Front Office Insider. My space is talking about the front office perspective: team building, rules, the draft, contract signings, coaching changes, anything that touches the front office on a pro football team. Being in the media is markedly different from my previous positions. I’m learning a lot, especially the different ways to approach the various media.
Do you have any advice for readers interested in a sports law career like yours?
Join SLA. I joined as a student and have been a member ever since. Why? First, it makes the world a lot smaller. Second, I remember one of our board members once said that for any of us “it takes a village”. And for me, a lot of times in my career, my network and my contacts have come back to the “village of SLA”. SLA is where I’ve developed my relationships in good times and bad times -- really genuine, meaningful relationships.
You established Tannenbaum Family Scholarships to help people achieve their dreams in sport by providing financial support while working at an unpaid position. Can you tell us about the scholarships?
There are three scholarships, one each at the YMCA in Somerset County, New Jersey, University of Massachusetts and Tulane Law School. What these scholarships do is give money to people that are pursuing their dreams in sports. We all know that getting your foot in the door is hard and sometimes you have to work for free. These scholarships help people pay expenses so they can pursue their dreams. It's a small way that I can give back. I know how hard it can be because I’ve been there. Hopefully, one less person desiring a career in sports has to sit on a stool and sort mail from 11 pm - 7 am. Making their life a little easier would be the greatest pleasure I could have.
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