Making it to the playoffs is great, but for two Terry College alumni who make a living rooting on the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta United, working in sports is more about building community than winning games.
Georgia O’Donoghue (BBA ’11), vice president of business operations for Atlanta United, and Jori Palmer (BBA ’10), director of advertising and marketing for the Atlanta Braves, both grew up playing sports and rooting for the Braves, the Hawks and the Falcons. They know what Atlanta’s hometown teams mean to the 6 million residents who root for them in good times and bad.
“When I get to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on a match day and the gates open, and you see all of these happy people coming in, I often find myself saying, ‘I did that. I made that happen.’ All of the work and stress is worth it,” said O’Donoghue. “If that doesn’t energize you, you’re not going to make it in this industry.”
O’Donoghue and Palmer grew up playing sports, but it wasn’t until they came to the University of Georgia and got involved with UGA’s Institute of Leadership Advancement that they thought to get into the game professionally.
Palmer came to UGA with plans to become a doctor but hit a roadblock.
“I had what I call my ‘quarter-life crisis’ my sophomore year and realized, ‘I do not want to be a doctor,’” she said. “So one day in the middle of the semester, I changed my major to finance and thought I would go the business route. It wasn’t until I joined the ILA program that I asked, ‘OK, what do I want to do?’”
Working through the self-reflection and self-assessments she took as a Leonard Leadership Scholar, Palmer, the grade-school travel team softball player and UGA rec league player, realized she was happiest playing team sports and working with people in sports.
Two weeks later, she landed an internship with Loran Smith at the UGA Athletic Association’s marketing and communications arm. She interned with the Minor League Baseball team the Augusta GreenJackets and then with Major League Baseball.
By the time she graduated, she had a finance degree, the ability to work for a ticket-window crowd, tarp a field and could clown around in a mascot’s costume.
“Working for the Braves was a dream, but coming out of college, my goal was to find a job in any of the pro leagues or league offices or the corporate marketing side, like at the sports marketing side,” she said.
After graduation, Palmer interned with Major League Baseball and made her way up the ladder at Turner Broadcasting before landing a dream job with the Braves in 2018. The people skills learned in ILA were indispensable in her ability to progress professionally and stay focused on her goals.
“But what I’ve seen is the people advancing in their careers are the ones that have the emotional intelligence and the diplomacy skills needed to work with others,” Palmer said. “It’s not necessarily the smartest person who gets promoted, but the person who has the best people skills.
“I think ILA teaches you that while your academics and intelligence are important, we’re all people at the end of the day.”
Taking time to get to know herself and how she interacts with others helped her lead teams who got things done, and those successes helped her to the Braves.
That introspection and self-knowledge are vital to being an effective leader and make people more resilient, O’Donoghue added.
O’Donoghue, who wanted to work in sports and had a marketing degree, fell back on her ILA training when her job search didn’t work out as planned. After graduation, she had degrees in marketing and economics but had a hard time finding the right fit.
“I remember the books we read — Good to Great and others — and all these other tangible things we learned that set me apart from other 21-year-olds,” O’Donoghue recalled. “I thought, ‘How can I use this experience? All of the things I learned not just about myself but about great leaders and how do they handle barriers? How do they push a negative into a positive.’”
She landed a one-year internship with Turner Sports and, when they weren’t able to keep her on full time, she made the leap to CNN in ad sales strategy in New York City.
“That was the scariest thing I’d ever done in my entire life,” she said. “I cried the whole way — the whole flight there. It was awful. But it was the best thing I’ve ever done. I could do that because of the things I learned not only about myself, but about how great leaders take risks.”
That role at CNN taught her she was a data person trying to fit into a marketing role, and she embraced her inner number cruncher.
When she returned to Atlanta and became a fan experience manager at AMB Sports and Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2017, she found a place where she could use her comfort with data to help create event day experiences that bring a feeling of community and excitement within the stadium.
That led to her current position as vice president of business operations for Atlanta United, where she relies on the self-awareness learned in ILA to create the atmosphere and tight-knit community that are trademarks of Atlanta United games.
“The best leaders are self-aware leaders,” O’Donoghue said. “If you know what your gaps are and are humble about where those gaps are, then you can be successful in leading large groups of people toward a common goal.”
You have to trust your team and get obstacles out of their way, she said.
That’s an ideal they learned playing sports, but O’Donoghue and Palmer believe they brought that mantra into action in their professional lives because of ILA.