GRAHAM IS THE MARKETING MANAGER AT THE BNP PARIBAS OPEN IN INDIAN WELLS. I FIRST MET AND WORKED WITH HIM AT LAST YEAR’S TOURNAMENT AND THE CREATIVE IDEAS HE SHARED MADE ME VERY EXCITED FOR THE FUTURE OF THE EVENT. I SPENT SOME TIME WITH GRAHAM JUST BEFORE THE 2017 TOURNAMENT AND WE TALKED ABOUT HOW HE GOT STARTED IN THIS ROLE, DIFFERENT ASPECTS OF HIS WORK AND WHAT A FULL-TIMER DOES THE REST OF THE YEAR.
TELL THE STORY ABOUT HOW YOU ENDED UP IN THIS ROLE.
This is a fun one to tell, and I always start it back in college. I was a Public Relations major at Northwestern College in small town Iowa and was required to do an internship as part of my major requirement. Wanting to get a broader experience than interning locally, I signed up for a program called the Chicago Semester, which is a hybrid of coursework and working on-site for a business in Chicago, for the spring semester of my senior year.
Shortly after I sent in my information, I got a call from my internship coordinator who wondered if I’d be interested in working with a sports PR firm called MVT Public Relations. Generally the program consists of a couple weeks of discovery and training before interviewing and accepting an internship, but this sports PR firm had to get the ball rolling faster because they were busy prepping for an upcoming tennis tournament in March (I think you know which one).
This is the part where people often jump to the conclusion that, “Oh, then the rest is history,” but that’s not quite the case. I got the internship, but my primary task was to help cover other clients, like Illinois Swimming or the New Haven Open at Yale (now Connecticut Open). In the end, the semester was a blast, and it was so encouraging to see how all of my coursework manifested in the real world. I was even offered a job to stay onboard the team full time, but had to decline for financial reasons (it’s hard for a broke graduate to live in Chicago!). And this is where people go, “Oh. Wait, how did you end up in Indian Wells?”
Matt Van Tuinen, the Founder and CEO of MVT PR, and I ended on good terms and kept in touch after I graduated college. I moved home to small town Iowa to live with my parents and got a job and started the process of making and saving money. A year later, I married my high school sweetheart, and we ended up moving to Southern California because she’d gotten into graduate school.
After we moved, I spent some time doing various freelance projects, but there really wasn’t steady work. My connections in the Midwest weren’t leading to anything on the West coast, and it was really, really difficult. Then, eight months later, Matt called me on a Saturday afternoon.
It was the middle weekend of the 2015 BNP Paribas Open, and someone on his team had gotten sick—so sick that they had to cancel on their commitment to work for Matt’s team during the tournament. As Matt was racking his brain for options, he scrolled past a tweet of mine and remembered that I was in Southern California and still jobless. Talk about divine providence, right?
I was on site in Indian Wells the next morning at 9am. The next week was the best professional experience of my life. After loving every second of the tournament, it was a difficult thing to say goodbye to both the event and everyone I worked with. I remember wondering whether or not I’d see any of those people ever again.
As it turns out, someone had left the tournament’s full-time staff shortly before the 2015 event, and they were interested in filling that position as soon as possible. Serendipitously, it was a digital marketing role, and I was well-equipped to take over the reins. And finally, here’s where you can say, “The rest is history.” I interviewed and got the position in April 2015 and have been here ever since.
I realize that was the long version of the story, but like I said… It’s a fun story to tell.
PUTTING IT OUT THERE THAT I’VE HEARD THIS STORY BEFORE BUT IT NEVER CEASES TO MAKE ME SMILE. IT’S A GREAT EXAMPLE OF ALWAYS STAYING READY AND OPEN AS YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT OPPORTUNITIES SUDDENLY COME UP. AND TIMING IS EVERYTHING.
DID YOU EVER IMAGINE WORKING IN SPORTS? AND TENNIS, IN PARTICULAR?
Yeah, I played all kinds of sports growing up, and played soccer in college, so there was definitely a predisposition to working in sports. It’s interesting though because I don’t know that I ever thought specifically about it. Perhaps I didn’t dream big enough because I was from a small town in Iowa, but I don’t know that I ever thought it was feasible. Of course I would jump at the chance, but it was a different thing to get to that opportunity.
I’ll be honest, and I never thought I’d end up in tennis. Not because I didn’t want to, but more because it wasn’t on my radar. I just happened into it starting back when I interned with MVT PR. I’m such a sports junkie, though, that it doesn’t take me long to really get into something. It’s been really fun to watch the players from near and far and appreciate the game even more as a result.
WHAT ARE THE MOST CHALLENGING ASPECTS OF YOUR WORK?
Working the event is actually difficult for me in the sense that I crave the action of showtime, and that only happens for two weeks out of the entire year. We spend a long time prepping or reviewing, and only very little time on the product. Think about that: 2 weeks of action, 50 weeks in between.
Also, I’m an insanely social person, so it’s hard when the content team of social, digital, photo, and video people that I work closely with leave at the end of the tournament. I wish I could hang on to that for longer, but it just doesn’t make sense for us as a business.
SAFE TO ASSUME THAT TOURNAMENT TIME IS THE MOST FUN?
I absolutely love tournament time and, even though the hours are insane and I work on so many different teams that sometimes my head spins, I never get tired of it. Ever. And it’s the greatest thing to re-welcome everyone on that team at the start of the event. You could say it’s like a glass of water in the desert.
In addition, it makes a fun job even more exciting when the event is appreciated across the board. We’ve been the ATP and WTA Tournament of the Year for three years running (a player-voted award), so it means the world that the players like being here so much.
AND MOST CRUCIAL PART OF YOUR WORK?
There’s this unique sensation that happens in a combined tennis event, where the entire world of tennis fans are watching our event. There are very few moments like that in sport, where all of the top players, both men and women, funnel into one location to play, you know? So no matter who you are, or where you are in the world, if you have a favorite professional tennis player, you’re watching them in Indian Wells. Some people might not appreciate that kind of pressure, but I feed off of it.
DO YOU HAVE ANY INTERACTIONS WITH THE PROS? IF SO, WHAT’S BEEN YOUR FAVORITE?
It’s infrequent, but I have on a couple of occasions. Last year, I did some Snapchat things with Milos Raonic and Victoria Azarenka on court after their matches. Milos had never used Snapchat before, so I taught him the basics, and I had Vika do some dabbing. Both of them were easy to work with and had fun with it, so I’d say that’s been my favorite thus far.
This year has been a lot less interactive than that, but I got a chance to shake some hands and laugh with players while they fulfilled our zany requests. It’s great to see them behind-the-scenes as regular people.
FOR THE REST OF THE YEAR, DO YOU HAVE A “NORMAL” WORK SCHEDULE? WHAT’S YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LIKE THEN?
I’m the sole person within the year-round team that handles the website, e-mail marketing, digital analytics, digital advertising, social media, and then I’m involved in other various projects as it relates to design and marketing. So, there’s a great deal of variety and, of course, there are ebbs and flows with the calendar year. It’s difficult to say what a normal schedule looks like. (And it’s funny doing this interview close to the tournament, because I barely remember what this job is like during the rest of the year!)
WHOOPS. BUT NO 15-HOUR DAYS ON NON-TOURNAMENT TIME, I HOPE. FINALLY, DO YOU MISS THE DIGITAL CONTENT TEAM WHEN WE LEAVE? CUMMO, ESPECIALLY?
Always. Even Cummo. Come back soon?