Some of the most successful people in the sports and entertainment fields all started at the same place…the bottom; as volunteers, freelancers, and interns trying to get some experience and learn on the job. It was rarely about the money; it was about following your passion and being part of the experience. The value that these volunteers have brought to massive events can’t be quantified, and many times the value of the exposure that volunteers get, or the memories they have or the contacts made, can’t have a dollar value either. It is a business of networking and climbing the ladder and many times some of those best experiences aren’t done for the love of the dollar, they are done for the love of the game or the event.
That’s not to say that there isn’t abuse by organizations who willfully take advantage of passionate volunteers for personal gain, or use hordes of volunteers for menial and mundane tasks without any thought of the person. There are also those volunteers whose expectations may be set too high and don’t have a positive experience, that can happen anywhere, or those who try something and realize it’s not for them. It’s all part of the experience, and that experience both good and bad, is invaluable.
In recent years I have been lucky enough to work with Dr. Harvey Schiller. Dr. Schiller is one of the most accomplished executives in any field, having had careers in the military, as a teacher, as a television executive, as a team owner, even as commissioner of a professional wrestling organization. However his time in sport, started as a volunteer…in his 40’s. It was at the Los Angeles Olympics working with Peter Uberroth that Dr. Schiller actually began moving quickly towards a paid career which has spanned over 30 years and included stints as SEC Commissioner, Chairman of the USOC, President of YankeeNets, President of Turner Sports and on and on. All the while Dr. Schiller continued to volunteer for service to others as well, serving on boards and assisting young people selflessly without asking for a wage. He is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of executives who have positively come up through the system and found ways to pay that spirit forward, or give people a chance as a volunteer at an event…and he always says thank you.
The spirit and success gained through volunteerism is invaluable, especially in the challenging landscape sports and entertainment is in today. This past week there was a story in the press about a volunteer for the MLB Fan Fest in New York who sought wages in a lawsuit against Major League Baseball. The man, and thousands of others, volunteered to work at MLB Fan fest, received tickets and other opportunities, and for sure was one of thousands who were essential to the success of All-Star Week. His suit maintains that because MLB is a for-profit industry he should have been compensated more. While not knowing all the details, it seems to fly in the face of volunteerism for any for-profit event. The experience gained by many working such events, from the Super Bowl to the US Open to the PGA Championships, is not about a few dollars…it is about being part of the collective. There is no doubt that MLB is a money-making organization…no professional sports entity has ever claimed to be not-for-profit…but to not understand that going into a volunteering situation seems silly from the outset. Perhaps the person filing the suit was misled or happened into a job as a volunteer that did not meet his skill set. That happens and he can gladly walk away. However to look for compensation every time one volunteers for the experience is troublesome. It should not always be about the hard dollar, many times it should be about the dollar value one gets from learning, meeting and growing oneself.
Maybe this lawsuit is proved to have merit, and that for-profit events have to compensate their volunteers, or provide more paperwork or value to those who pony up for the thrill of it. Maybe the spirit of volunteerism has died to the point where everyone needs to be paid for everything. Maybe t is just not-for-profit events like the New York City Marathon that should ask for volunteers. If that’s the case than there are many people who may not get the chance going forward to be included in gaining valuable experience firsthand, or building relationships to last a lifetime, because for-profit events cannot afford to pay thousands of volunteers.
There are certainly two sides to every story, and there is certainly some abuse in a system where there are thousands looking for an “in” for only hundreds of spots. But there is a lot to be said about being part of an event experience that is priceless for many, and you can’t put a price on experience gained.
Volunteerism…whether it is Little League coaching or interning at a network or minor league ballpark, or helping drive athletes to and from the US Open…has value and always will. Whether that value now has a price tag will be interesting to watch and see what the courts have to say. It could change the way the business of sport is done, maybe not for the better.