The tallest trees in every forest began as saplings and seeds. When the environment was ripe and the opportunity arose, those seeds sprouted, and the saplings prospered and grew into the mighty forests we see today. Similarly, most professionals do not begin their careers as executives, presidents, or administrators – they start from the bottom and work their way up.
Rafael Cabrera, senior manager of communications and content for Inter Miami CF, has always been an avid sports fan. Cabrera’s passion for soccer, basketball and baseball led him to pursue business and sports management for his undergraduate studies and plant the educational seed that has now bloomed into a fruitful career with one of the world’s top soccer clubs.
First, let’s learn about Cabrera’s ascension from volunteer to senior manager, and then we’ll review Cabrera’s specific advice to sports professionals.
Cabrera’s Rise to Leadership
Cabrera’s career began with his undergraduate studies in business and sports. His college encouraged him and his classmates to volunteer, seek internships and explore opportunities for professional development as much as possible. When the Atlanta Braves connected with Cabrera’s college looking for someone to manage equipment, Cabrera leapt at the chance and prepared to take on any task – no matter how laborious – to launch his career in the sports industry.
“It’s one of those things that I did to be introduced to the industry,” said Cabrera. “If you go on my LinkedIn, I think it says equipment manager for Atlanta Braves or something like that, something pretty and nice. I’ll tell you – it wasn’t that pretty. [I was] cleaning the kitchen, cleaning shoes, doing laundry.”
Some may have shied away from hard work, but Cabrera excelled as the Atlanta Braves’ equipment manager for two years. He gained a solid understanding of the behind-the-scenes world of baseball, met industry leaders, and established connections with a wide variety of professionals in the minor leagues.
Cabrera’s next steps involved volunteering on game day for the Orlando City soccer club. For his first game day volunteer experience, Cabrera joined the on-site stretcher crew (but thankfully no one was hurt). Shortly after, Cabrera assisted in game day operations management, and his volunteer work landed him an operations internship from the Orlando City soccer club.
Volunteering on game day led Cabrera to receive and accept an operations internship offer from Orlando City.
Cabrera worked in game day operations for a year until he encountered the Orlando City soccer club’s vice president of communications doing a live translation for non-English speakers at an event. That year happened to be the first that Orlando City would go to the major leagues, and Cabrera knew live translations would be crucial for Spanish-speaking players in their inaugural MLS season. As a fluent Spanish-speaker who grew up in Venezuela, Cabrera volunteered his assistance. The VP reached out, and Cabrera began interning in communications for the club in 2015, making it his second experience working with a team.
As the years passed and he progressed through his studies, Cabrera continued to thrive in school and in his positions with Orlando City. He was promoted from intern to coordinator and then from coordinator to manager. Cabrera’s work gave him a strong foundation and knowledge of the American soccer market, but he eventually decided to expand his expertise by exploring graduate degree opportunities abroad.
“I felt like I had a really good understanding of soccer in the United States,” said Cabrera. “I have Spanish citizenship, so I saw the program for Real Madrid [Graduate School], and I decided to go there. I had a great experience over there. It’s the best city in the world after Miami. It’s where soccer was born. The tradition and the passion there is just unmatched.”
One of Cabrera’s most formative and valuable experiences during his time in Madrid was attending White Week as an MBA student at the Real Madrid Graduate School. During White Week, students take part in the day-to-day operations of Real Madrid CF, visit the headquarters, meet directors of the club and executives of the sports industry, and join masterclasses. White Week, one of the residencies included in FIU’s Professional MBA Online in Sports Management program in collaboration with Real Madrid Graduate School, provides critical real world, hands-on experience for aspiring sports executives and leaders.
“I learned a lot about partnerships [at White Week], but it was not through sitting down and reading a book about partnerships,” said Cabrera. “The partnership managers and speakers from Real Madrid were in our classroom presenting case studies and asking us to come up with proposals based on what they were doing at the club. Later on when I was working, I had similar projects to those I had seen in class. It was really valuable for me to actually hear from people who were doing this.”
While in Madrid, Cabrera prioritized gaining professional experience and expanding his network in addition to completing his graduate studies. He met with professors after class to seek advice and direction, and he eventually started a business development internship with an agency that worked with Real Madrid players.
Toward the end of Cabrera’s program, he was offered his current position at Inter Miami CF - senior manager of communications and content.
Advice for Sports Professionals
Cabrera shared his career insight and guidance for current or aspiring sports professionals (and professionals in general). He emphasized the importance of non-superficial connections, volunteering and interning to start building a network, and demonstrating work ethic.
He also advised everyone to take a genuine interest in what other professionals are doing. For example, don’t just call someone to inquire after a job – call to express curiosity about them, their work, and their organization, and ask what you need to do to succeed. Listen to whatever advice they provide even if it doesn’t come with an immediate job offer, and let them know you’re interested in their experience and needs beyond what they can do for you.
Prioritize forming and nurturing lasting connections with a variety of professionals in the industry (volunteers, interns, professors, managers, executives, and players and coaches). You never know who will be able to help you or who you’ll be able to help one day.
Cabrera also encourages all sports professionals to separate their passion for sports from their career to maximize upward mobility.
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t like sports - I wanted to work in sports because I like it,” said Cabrera. “You just have to be able to separate your fandom from actually being able to work in the sports industry. You have to be passionate about the sport but understand that the clubs aren’t looking to hire just a fan.”
Finally, remember to learn from a variety of markets to foster globalized strategy and skillsets, broaden your perspective, and facilitate growth and expansion.
“Learn from both ends - [American and European] - so that you can bring something different here,” said Cabrera. “Someone who hasn’t lived that experience might not think about [your perspective]. There are things that are done in Europe that are not done in the U.S. When I came back from the [White Week] program, I had that perspective of what they’re doing over there, and I think that was helpful for the team.”