We Believe In Sports Podcast: Ben May

by | Thursday, June 18, 2020

"Sports is still a place where there's a common shared passion for a team, a player, or an event. It brings back that sense of we do share things in common. Now you could make the argument that 'is that all we share in common?' Well, I hope not, but it's one thing that helps us not forget that we can be a people that share things in common."

Listen in as our host, Michael Eady, sits down with Ben May of ESPN’s SEC Network. Ben has been in and around the sports industry for over 35 years and is currently overseeing the Southeastern Conference’s official corporate sponsorship program for ESPN in conjunction with the SEC Network. Follow along as Ben shares how he has seen the power of sports shape the lives of those around him. 

Michael Eady: Ben, welcome to the show. Tell us a little bit about your upbringing and how you got into the position that you’re in today.

Ben May: Good to be here. It goes back to when I was in elementary school. Both of my parents were University of Georgia graduates, therefore I was born into the tribe of the Georgia Bulldogs and I was going to be that no matter what as most Southeastern Conference children are. And so I’ll never forget early on when there were very, very few college football games on television each Saturday that when Georgia would be on the network, being a native Georgian I would turn the sound down and play or act like I was the announcer and call the game and because I knew the players. And so I don’t know how that happened in terms of that getting in my blood early, but it was there.

From there I finished high school and went to the University of Georgia. My last year there I knew that I wanted to pursue some type of opportunity in sports and naively thought that you just showed up with your diploma and you got a job. So I found out that wasn’t the case, so my senior year I began to volunteer with the media relations department in Georgia and worked for a gentleman who is still in that chair at the University of Georgia today, Claude Felton. When I finished my senior year, I said, “I kinda liked what I did for you as a volunteer. Is there a chance that I can pursue this further?” He said, “I don’t really have any openings except a graduate assistantship.” I had zero interest in continuing school.

I said, well, “Can we make a deal?”. It was a two-year program. I said, “let’s make a deal. I’ll do the first-year work only. And then the second year I’ll start the master’s program.” He probably shouldn’t have done it, but he agreed to that. And so for the whopping sum of $1,300 per quarter, this was back in the quarter system versus most schools now in the semester system, I went to work in the Georgia athletic department and thought that’s all I’d ever need. I didn’t need any more money, I didn’t need any other job. I thought I was perfect right where I was. From there, I did that for two years, I happened to be working when Herschel Walker was in his playing career at Georgia. So it was good days to be there at that time.

And a lot of fun. From there, I did a one-year internship here in Birmingham with the Southeastern Conference, and then went back to Athens, and was there for six more years. Then I went to Auburn, was there for four years before moving to Birmingham in 1993 with host communications, which was the first real intercollegiate sports marketing company that got into the multimedia rights business. Did that for several years, then I went to work for one of the companies that I sold a sponsorship to, and that was Chick-fil-A in Atlanta. And then eventually got back to Birmingham and went to work for what was then Jefferson Pilot Sports. I did that for a number of years before I went back to IMG College. That’s where I got back into the SEC Corporate Sponsorship program. I did that until 2013 when the SEC Network was formed. Fortunately, through the recommendation of former commissioner, Mike Slive, and others, ESPN approached myself and our team to come work for them, as the conference was going to package the rights together with the television cable network. I’ve been here for six-plus years now and can’t believe I get to do this. 

Michael Eady: Were there things that you saw there from Claude (Felton) or other people inside the athletic department that made you say, “Wow, this is something I could really do?”.

Ben May: I think the quality of the people. Now, I think about some of the people that have gone on to be involved in the industry, Greg McGarity, who’s the current Athletic Director of Georgia, he was there on the staff at the time, Kevin Almond, who’s a Senior Associate A.D at Alabama, was there at the time, Jeff Honley was there at the time, who’s now the Executive Director of the Sugar Bowl. There were quality people all around and a lot of those people have come from that Vince Dooley tree that branched out. So I think it was the quality of the people. It was the way they went about their business. They were people who loved what they got to do.

They didn’t feel like they were ever going to work, that it was just a delight to do what they got to do. Growing up a Georgia fan, it was pretty heavy stuff to be around those legends that people talked about at places. The one thing I’ve often learned is that you go to a social gathering, and when you say that you work in sports or you worked for a school or a conference or a professional team, people want to talk about that in a way that if you say I’m an accountant, people don’t really want to talk about the great things you do in accounting, but they’re always interested in the sports angle. In what we really are in, the entertainment business, when there’s somebody who is in that field, there’s usually a lot of conversation that goes around it. So in a way that other professions don’t really elicit.

Michael Eady: What would you tell a young person that says, “Oh, I want to work in sports because I love sports”?

Ben May: Well I have that conversation frequently with students, usually college students, some high school students but mainly college students. And particularly when you are associated with, fortunately for me, with both ESPN and the Southeastern Conference, that’s the double whammy, and you’ll hear people say, “I want to do what you do”, or “I want to do something along those lines”. That statement, “I want to work in sports” is a veiled statement that really says, “I want to work for Alabama, or I want to work for Ole Miss, or I want to work for Texas A&M.” Okay, that’s a fine aspiration, but the question I will come back with is, “Well you go to school at Mississippi State, have you volunteered with the Mississippi state high school athletic association when they host their high school classification football championships?” “Well, no, I want to work for Mississippi State.”

Well, that’s not where you start. That’s the thing that people don’t get. So it’s up to you to find out if your heart is really into working in this industry or is your heart into working for a brand that is very attractive to you at a particular point in time? There’s a big difference there. I have found that if you bring in that second part of the equation, why don’t you go volunteer for the Birmingham Barons this summer? It’s, “Well, no, I want to work for the Braves, you know, or, or the Washington Nationals or whoever it might be.” You really don’t want to work in baseball. You want to work for a marquee name and you want to work for them right out of the gate. That’s somewhere where you can get to the real root of a person’s intentions “yeah, I’ll go out and I’ll volunteer with the Alabama High School Athletic Association, and I’ll do whatever they say.” If it’s carrying hot chocolate that’s how you start. That’s what I’m willing to do. That’s the kind of person I want to talk to and see develop.

Michael Eady: We get a lot of the same conversations in our office all the time. People ask me, “what are we looking for?” And I say the exact same thing. I’m looking for the kid that doesn’t want any money. He doesn’t want a handout. He wants to come and just volunteer and see what’s going on. And look behind the curtain and see what it takes to have something like a high school state championship happen. I mean, you talked earlier about your career and you started out making $1,300 a quarter. There’s not many people that are willing to make that little of money. Everybody wants to go to college and make $50,000 a year. That’s not the reality and that didn’t happen. And I think for somebody that’s had the type of career that you’ve had, you started volunteering and getting paid nothing.

You graduated college, you basically got paid nothing, after that $1,300 a quarter there is barely enough to live on. Of course, at the time you probably thought it was a lot of money. And then, you steadily climb and it’s a slow climb. And I think a lot of our young people have huge aspirations and that’s awesome and they’re super motivated, but a lot of times they lose sight of there’s still a climb to get to the top of that mountain. And sometimes it starts volunteering here or giving 20 hours here and doing that type of work.

Ben May: I find that for the high school students’ career days that I might be at, their questions are always, “what do I need to do to get into this industry?” When I hear that from an 18-year-old high school senior, there’s an answer to that, that’s a pretty good answer. If you’re going to college, you go, you meet people, you volunteer, you get connected, but I often get a 25- or 26-year-old who says, “I got a degree in accounting and now I want to get into sports. What do I do?” It’s a different answer because you’re not on a campus anymore. Are you willing to leave your career? And sometimes they may be married, have children, they’re in a different phase of life and they’re 26 or 27 years old and say, what do I need to do?

I’m going to say, you need to go back to campus and get a master’s. In the meantime, you need to get connected and work and get yourself in a position where you can separate yourself from everybody else. That’s where, particularly for the high school seniors, if they say I’m interested in this career and my oldest son did this very thing. He knew going to college that this was what he wanted to do. So from day one, he started the volunteering process. When he finished after four years, he was able to get a job in the industry and it worked out great. It’s hard to backtrack. It makes it difficult, particularly based on life circumstances and families and those kinds of things.

Michael Eady: What in your career has given you the most fulfillment? Where do you find the most joy in your work?

Ben May: It’s a two-pronged answer. One is very forward-facing which is if I can make my clients, my company and my conference successful, then I feel good about that. And that’s not easy because there’s sort of three juries out there that are all going to render a verdict, right? Your client’s going to render a verdict. Your company is going to render a verdict. The organization that you represent is going to render a verdict and sometimes their objectives are all different. The trick is knowing how to find a solution that works for all three. Sometimes you need a favor from one of those three in order to get the other two pleased. Sometimes it’s the next time it’s you got to go to another one of the three to get the other two pleased.

That’s the nuance of this type of a job where you cannot come in with a lock stock answer for every situation. We’re just coming off of our SEC Football Championship weekend in Atlanta, which is our Super Bowl. That’s the high point of our year. We were, as we are every year, faced with decisions that have to be made on your feet pretty quickly that you have to pull on the experience you have, and you have to know the people well enough, a missing art in business today. You have to know your client well enough to say, okay, if I need something that is not exactly like we discussed from client X in order for client Y to get something that they need because client Y in a different circumstance.

And they were this time last year, all the nuance that goes into that is part of the fun and the magic. It’s an art and a science, right? I mean, there’s a science to it that you can go by where things can be routine and process. Then there’s an art that says because of personalities, because of circumstances, because so-and-so needs this for this occasion and this way. If I give this to client X, then client Y may not be happy and then the sec, and then the ESPN. I mean, there’s, there’s a lot of that that you kind of have to think through. So that’s the one prong is sort of the forward-facing and the three entities that need to be satisfied. The second prong is sort of backward-looking. And that is, what can I do personally, professionally to offer back something to younger people or to organizations or to entities that might have some relevance in their life that might be helping to chart a path.

One of my favorite quotes is from the President of Samford University, Andrew Westmoreland. He was introducing an author whose name was Wendell Berry and Mr. Berry said, “we live in the shadow of trees we did not plant.” I just thought that is, that is my career. I am living in the shadow that other people planted. There were Oak trees in my vocational forest of people like Claude Felton and Jim Host early in my years and Vince Dooley. Those were the Oak trees that provided the shade that I could thrive in. It is both delight and duty for me to provide the same. I enjoy the heck out of it. I have taught some classes on the college level. I have spoken at many high school and college classes.

Some are college intern programs for different marketing companies. That part is a real delight. It’s also a responsibility and it’s one that I enjoy and I take seriously. I think there’s the forward-looking day to day client satisfaction and there’s the backward-looking, how can we prepare the next generation? And that sounds kind of cliche, but how can we leave the person who’s going to sit in my chair to do a better job than I did. And again, the circumstances will be completely different when that happens. The basic skill set of relational connectivity, the things that I think can overcome business mistakes because we all make them. We all make them in this business. We all make a wrong call and we better have made relational deposits with our clients so that we can withdraw some of that capital when we need it because we screwed up. I think those are the two things that give me the most sense of fulfillment.

Michael Eady: David Knight, my business partner, worked with Ben at the SEC for almost a decade. And the impact that Ben had on David ultimately set up Knight Eady to be successful because of the time and the energy that Ben invested in David. And so that responsibility, that is something that we carry at Knight Eady as well. The one hope that when I get to the end of my career, I’m able to look back and say, is that it’s not the events that we ran, it’s not the marketing campaigns that we did, it’s not the sponsorships that we sold. It’s the relationships that we built and the opportunities that we created for either young people or for the clients and the folks that we work with as well. So that’s, that’s ultimately what does matter.

Ben May: And I would just say, just to add to that, and you mentioned David, part of the beauty of that friendship was that when he was in high school volunteering at the SEC office, we had a chance to get to know each other and then watched him go through college and then post-grad, and then get a job back here at the SEC office. And then all of a sudden, he’s sitting in my living room with his fiance and we just got to connect on way more than a professional basis. That is the thing that’s going to last a long time because there’s gonna come a day sooner than later where no one’s going to call me anymore. They’re not going to want my opinion. They’re not going to want anything that I have because those four letters or the word Disney is no longer behind my name. So I’ll just be a guy who worked in the industry, and is retired, you know, or is out of it or is doing something else.

The thing I won’t lose, while I’ll lose those letters or that name, I won’t lose the friendships of the people that are still in the industry or gone to something else. That will be the gifts that I will take with me. Those would be my retirement gifts, will be the people that I’ve had the privilege to know, learn from, grow with, laugh with, those kinds of things.

Michael Eady: We’ve talked a lot about the off the field and the behind the scenes relationships and the career path. Talk a little bit about, do you have a favorite sports moment? 

Ben May: I do, but I have no knowledge or remembrance of the outcome of the event. I remember the event and I remember that it was my, I don’t even know if it was my first trip, but it was one of the trips that I took to the Masters with my father. My father passed away 15 years ago. When I was in high school, I’m guessing 15 or 16, I just remember him taking me over there. My dad had the pleasure to be law partners with Bobby Jones, who founded the tournament, and he was able to go to the tournament pretty much each year and would take clients or take family or whatnot. And then I think when it came full circle is when my sons who grew up and knew their grandfather, mostly pretty well but to carry that on with them and to go back over there and to have been able to participate in that great event. And all due respect to the Southeastern Conference and all their championship events, but it’s still the greatest sports event of all to me. It’s just a fabulous venue. It’s a fabulously run tournament from every aspect. I just love it. And when I walk through those gates, when I do get to go back, I just slow down from the hectic pace because I’ve had to leave my cell phone in my car. I hope they never change that rule along with every other electronic device. So, I’m getting to go in there without a lot of distraction. And if there’s work-related emergencies, I won’t know about them for six or seven or eight hours. I just love what the event is, but I love what it does to me because I’m as hectic and frenetic as all of us and I need those times. When it’s out there two, three, four or five weeks away and I’m going to get to go that year, I remember what it’s like to go inside there. It is honestly just a delight. For me, it’s always going to be connected to relationships. From that backward look with my father and then the forward look with my sons and maybe one day, they’ll get to do it with their kids. And so it’s kind of a neat tradition for our family.

Michael Eady: Whenever I ask this question to people, it always goes back to who they shared the experience with. It’s not necessarily the experience itself. Which kind of leads us into our next question. Why do you think your job matters? Why does doing what you do matter? Why ultimately do you believe in sports and why do you do what you do?

Ben May: I will say again, this is a similar answer to my previous two-pronged answer. One is because if I’ve done well in my job, my clients have become friends to some degree. Now you’re not going to be as close to every one of them as you might be. Sometimes personalities don’t mix and you have to deal with that too. But I think I come to work thinking about what can I do today to help Mr. or Mrs. Smith who might be the COO of a company we work with, or a senior VP for marketing or sponsorships or whatever, how can I make them successful? Because everybody has a boss. And so they have somebody over them who is looking at them going, “why did you invest in the SEC and ESPN?”

And they have to justify that and they have to show proof. Sometimes that’s numerical and very hard evidence. But sometimes it’s not. Once again, it’s that art and science, there’s a science, there’s ratings, there’s numbers that came through the turnstiles, there’s samples given out, et cetera. But then there’s an art of saying we were there and being in that and around that event was really good for our brand. We have to be able to help that person in that role be successful. That is why we don’t worry about renewals, necessarily. If we have made our counterparts at that company successful, we’re going to get our share of what we deserve. If we haven’t, then we may not get it. There’s sometimes when we do all we can and we still don’t get it, or we don’t do as much as we should have and we still get it. It’s not exact, so I think that’s one side of it. That’s why I think sports matter or why it matters in my world is the chance to help the people who also have a boss be successful. Then the second thing is, and this is something I guess I’ve just thought about in the last five or six years.

We all know we live in a nation that is divided on a lot of things. We back up into our corners and we basically paint with a broad brush and make it out to be that if you root for this, then you’re against this. And if you root for that, then you’re against this and whatnot. Sports is still a place where there’s a common shared passion for a team, a player, or an event. It brings back that sense of we do share things in common. Now you could make the argument that “is that all we share in common?” Well, I hope not, but it’s one thing that helps us not forget that we can be a people that share things in common. And I love the conference life in college athletics because there is still, and it’s not as strong as it used to be, but there is still the sense of, LSU just beat my Alma Mater in football, but I’m an LSU fan now because they represent my conference and my league. They are people that I will share a common interest in to see their success. I think that’s the one thing about sports that still can generate this sense of connectedness through mutual passion, mutual interest, mutual love that is a good thing for us as a people, particularly at this time in our national life. 

Michael Eady: And it is a unifier, even the greatest of rivalries, you’ll see times off the field where those two teams come together, those two fan bases come together and they do something for the common good. But it goes back to the field, being on the field and being part of that experience that ultimately brought them together off the field

Ben May: I was talking to some former players of one of the most hated rivalries. And they said that from a player perspective, they never were moved by the rivalry because they knew the people on the other side and what they had done to prepare and how much they wanted to win. And these players said it’s really the fans that engage in the worst parts of the rivalry. The players are very mutually respectful, most of the time and, and care about one another. They’re not as caught up in the rivalry. There’s a segment of the people who, yes, the rivalry can eat at them, but for the people that participate in it, it was not that way.

Michael Eady: Talk a little bit about some of the adversity that you faced in your personal life. 

Ben May: Yeah, it’s a great question. And it’s something that I’m very reminded of as it happened about a year ago. My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer back in August of 2018. We began that process which ended in May for her treatment. She is doing well now. But during that process, I was up on my roof in November and took a little bit of a tumble and fell onto my driveway and broke, I think, nine or 10 bones and was in a wheelchair for three months, non-weight bearing. Very, very fortunate and protected that I was not further injured from a head injury to a spinal injury, to any other types of trauma that could have been a part of the story.

When that happened it began kind of an interesting season because we were already going through one set of health circumstances that had kind of thrown us for a loop. And then, you know I went from being the caregiver to the care recipient from a wife who was already beaten down with treatment. It was an interesting time and were it not for our friendships personally, professionally and our Christian community, we would have never made it- plain and simple. And there are too many stories to tell of how we were cared for ultimately by God, but it came in the form of many different people who were prompted to do things for us, care for us. I remember vividly, we were closing in on Christmas and someone came over and put our tree up and decorated it. Because I couldn’t get out of the wheelchair. And Sally didn’t have the energy to do that kind of stuff, but we wanted to have a tree. I’ll never forget. We went back to the professional side, one of my clients called after hearing in the news and he later called my colleague and said, “I need to know who does the May’s yard work?” And my colleague told him  “Ben does it normally”, and he said, “Well, I want you to find me the name of a reputable yard service because our company is going to pay for that until he gets back on his feet.” So and they did, it was six or seven months worth of monthly yard service.

Every one of our official sponsors and clients did something like that. My colleagues and ESPN were absolutely fantastic. The President of Disney Advertising Sales, who I had not even met yet, as we were transitioning into some new structures, sent down a gift basket and then called me again, I have still never met her face to face. She called me the night of the National Championship game, where she was and said, I’ve just run into some of your colleagues. He spoke of you. And I just want to tell you, we’re thinking about you. And it was the night of the National Championship game, which I would have normally been at and was not there because of my injuries and so just people like that just coming to our aid throughout the whole process.

I can’t say enough about Disney and ESPN and the support from everywhere. They took care of us. I mean, it was just, it was a remarkable year. And so I kind of summarize it by saying, I would never want to go through it again. I hope I don’t ever have to, but I don’t get to write that story. That is a story that is written by someone else. And it’s not me, but I would also say that there are rich things that we learned and that we grew into because of the circumstances. Kind of something you would think is counterintuitive and it’s because it is. But yet, our belief in a God who redeems things, even the hard things, can be used for good.

Michael Eady: I just want to say, thanks for sharing that story. I know it’s deeply personal. But if there’s one thing that I’ve always known about Ben, and I hope that people listening to this will understand and realize, is that relationships matter above all else. And that you can build a career off doing excellent work for people that develop more deep and meaningful relationships, and you can pour your life into people that ultimately will manifest itself at the end of your career. And it will be the things that you’re most proud of. I think for you listening to the personal story outside of work, it was really a manifestation of all the relationships and the work that you had done in your career and in your personal life, that ultimately a bad situation of your wife walking through a trial and you also walking through a trial at the same time was a way for that to be revealed to you and for you to be able to see that story firsthand. I know that you wouldn’t necessarily want to go back through being in a wheelchair and your wife going through the things that she went through, but to be able to look across and say, man, look at these things, these relationships, and this work that I’ve done really does matter because what is generated is these meaningful relationships. I hope that people listening to this realize when it’s all said and done, and when your career is just getting started or you’re at the end of your career, you need to be focused on the relationships and the work that you’re doing and how it affects those relationships because that is when you’re going to look back and realize those are the things that mattered. And those are the things that you’re ultimately most proud of. That’ll be the presence that I take into retirement when I leave this industry.

Ben May: Like I said, the crossing of the T’s and the dotting in the I’s of a contract will be long forgotten, but the people and the relationships and the care that this event, the last 16 months provided, I’ll carry that forever. And it’ll be something that will be, again, another reminder to me that we were never alone and that we were always cared for.

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