There is nothing quite like the experience of being able to witness defining moments in sporting history up and close, while potentially playing even a small role in it, especially if you have been a sports enthusiast while growing up !

Samiha Dabholkar, our next pathbreaker, works for a sports agency with different types of clients from all over the world (international/olympic federations, event host cities and other sports entities), focused on sports event hosting.

Samiha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her volunteering experience at Euro2012 for the first home game of the host country in Donetsk, Ukraine (Ukraine v France), that firmed up her decision to make a career in sports.

For students, there is always more than one way of achieving something, and if that means being thrown into the deep end of the pool, so be it!

Samiha, what were your early years like?

I grew up in Pune, as an avid sports lover. I played a variety of sports competitively, with football being my main focus. Most of my days as a kid were spent on the field playing cricket, volleyball, football or rugby. I represented Maharashtra at the national level, but was quick to realise that it was unsustainable to pursue a career as a woman sportsperson. 

My mother is a lawyer and I grew up watching her dive deep into the field at the Bombay High Court. The cross functionality in the legal field interested me and I decided to pursue law as my under graduate degree. However, my love for sport never left me and I was committed to being a part of the sporting world in some way or the other. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my BSL LLB (Socio-Legal Sciences plus Bachelor of Law) from ILS Law College, Pune. I also did a Masters in Advanced Studies in Sports Administration and Technology, Sport Management and Law from AISTS (International Academy of Sport Science and Technology)AISTS (International Academy of Sport Science and Technology)

As I mentioned, law was an area of great interest to me. Through my time at law college, I participated in a variety of co-curricular and extra- curricular activities, from international moot court competitions to captaining our sport teams. 

An interest in a very diverse set of things allowed me to explore life beyond the confines of our college curriculum and a conventional job. This led me to foraying into the world of the global sport industry. 

What were the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

My love for sport was the driving force behind joining this field. Growing up, my parents and coaches played a large part in influencing what sort of person and athlete I wanted to be. 

In 2012, I randomly chanced upon the application page for the Euros to be held in Ukraine and Poland. As someone who loved the sport, the thought of being anywhere near this event was fascinating and so I applied. After a few rounds of interviews and other processes, I was chosen to volunteer for the UEFA Euros in Ukraine. 

As the European football confederation, UEFA owns some of the biggest football eventxs in the world, from the annual Champions League and Europa League to the quadrennial Euros. The excitement, scale, and quality of football at the event lived up to its hype. I got to witness some of the best footballers, from Cristiano Ronaldo to Karim Benzema to Steven Gerrard and Andriy Shevchenko! 

This was an event I will never ever forget. Being able to be a part of such a spectacular and grand event was absolutely life-changing. I fell deeper in love with the idea of being a part of this ecosystem as an adult. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

In 2014, I did a sports law internship at the Law Offices of Nandan Kamath. It was an eye-opening experience, understanding how the Indian sport landscape was. Working on the legal matters of different stakeholders was very interesting and it was an invaluable experience. The spectrum of work there covered a wide range, from drafting fundamental sponsorship guidelines, working on sponsor contracts, various sport team contracts and addressing ethics and governance issues. 

To hone my skill in related areas, I also completed 2 diplomas, in Intellectual Property and Cyber Laws, simultaneously through the completion of my under graduation.

Towards the end of my graduation in law school, I was made aware of AISTS, a Sports Masters in Lausanne, through a friend of mine. I started reading more about other sport courses and quickly realised that AISTS would be my main choice, for what it had to offer and for what I wanted out of it. 

From then on, I worked towards meeting the requirements, from grades to professional experience. I had considered going for a pure legal LLM and received multiple scholarships from schools in the US. However, I decided to stick to my decision of making a career for myself in the sport industry and joined AISTS in 2016 for the Masters program.

AISTS is an Olympic sports centric Masters which touched upon various aspects of the sport world, viz. marketing, law, sociology, technology and medicine. The intention of this professional course is to expose students to the sporting world through industry veterans and experts from across the Olympic sports world. For me, it made more sense to pursue a course like this rather than a pure LLM as I was looking at a more cross functional career, without a pure focus on law. After a few years, I have realized that a legal background has given me an advantage considering the fact that all commercial deals in sport rest on the foundation of law. 

How did you get your first break?

My first break in the sports industry was through an internship that I received while completing my Masters program. What began as a 3 month internship at Sportfive (previously Lagardere Sports) evolved into a very interesting opportunity. I spent 4 exciting years understanding the world of Olympic sports and Asian football. I had the opportunity to experience living and travelling in Singapore and Asia. It allowed me to broaden my perspective and understanding of things.

As a sports agency with a global presence, Sportfive has its hands in a lot of sport verticals, from talent management to bidding for major events, to event delivery etc. My transition here from being an intern to a full time employee resulted in an increase in my responsibilities and autonomy in functioning. I was able to broaden the scope of my work and experienced working on a wide range of projects including working on events like bidding on behalf of host cities for major events, working as a Venue Manager for football games, creating a customized tournament management system, etc. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

I think the biggest challenge when you come to study abroad, is to ensure you get a job as well in the country of choice. With job permits being few, as a non EU citizen, landing a full time role in Switzerland was always going to be a challenge. I think it is a matter of hard work and being persistent, as well as being at the right place at the right time. Once I got my foot in the door with the internship, it was important for me to prove my mettle and convince my colleagues that I was worth being hired. 

Switzerland being a country with 4 official languages, wanting to enter the job market without a mastery of any of those languages is a potential challenge. As most of the international sport work is carried out in English, one is not completely at a loss. However, losing out on some opportunities for not knowing specific foreign languages is an existing challenge. With time, I have gotten fairly comfortable with the language, it is also a great way of feeling more included in the country! 

Where do you work now? 

As part of the sports industry, my work profile is very diverse. Currently as part of a sports agency, I have the opportunity to work with different types of clients from all over the world, from international federations to event host cities and other sports entities. The focus of my work revolves around event hosting and international relations for various host cities. We are also closely involved with Olympic sport federations.

 A lot of these are long drawn projects and it is important to not lose sight of the final goal. Sport is an evolving field and it is best to have an open mind and have a willingness to learn. It helped me solve problems effectively and contribute in areas where I did not have expertise in the beginning. 

Each day is quite different – different projects requiring different skill sets. If you are working on an event, you are closest to the sport – being able to watch everything from right there. There are days when there are meetings with various clients in their offices across the world, and you get to experience the country’s hospitality and understand how things work there. 

I love the fact that I am able to contribute to the sport industry, in whatever little way I can. I still get excited by the smallest of wins and that helps to keep me going. I truly enjoy coming up with solutions and tackling big as well as not so big issues that we face leading up to the finale. 

How does your work benefit society?

Well, sport is something that is an exciting field on its own. For people who enjoy watching sports, it is always a matter of intrigue as to how things run behind the scenes. 

I personally, genuinely very strongly believe in sport being a very powerful tool in uplifting society. It can bridge borders and move mountains. At some stage of my career, I am committed to harnessing this power towards social benefit.

Ofcourse though in the business of sport, there is a commercial approach as well. Either way, working in sport can be quite a fulfilling role. Being able to witness defining moments in sporting history and potentially playing even a small role in it is a big driving factor for me. I would like to eventually bring back my learnings from outside and contribute to the Indian sport ecosystem in a meaningful way/

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

This would go back to my volunteering experience in 2012. I think the thrill as an 18 year old, thrown in an unknown country, into an unfamiliar area, completely mesmerized by football was unparalleled. The work, so to say, was miniscule, but it was the atmosphere that gives me goosebumps till date!

It was Ukraine v France at Euro2012, the first home game of the host country in Donetsk, Ukraine. The stadium was packed and electric. As pitch media operation volunteers, we had to be part of the rope ceremony, which is basically creating a boundary between the photographers and the players during the national anthem. We were literally 30 metres away from the biggest footballing stars in the world! It was an overcast day and the clouds had started making their way over the stadium. Just as the Ukrainian national anthem began, there was a loud crack, a huge bolt of lightning unfolded before us, and it started pouring. The crowds went absolutely wild and it was one of the most dramatic moments I have witnessed. Once that got done, as in-charge of all the media on the pitch, I had to ensure all the photographers and their cameras were taken care of in the storm. I spent the next hour running around giving them ponchos, plastic covers, and anything else they needed. 

I remember being dead tired by the end but with a huge smile by the end.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

It is important to explore options which are of interest to you. I agree that there are a ton of obstacles, especially while choosing a less popular path. However, the cross-functionality in fields with respect to one’s abilities and job profiles is only growing. For example, even in sport, there are multiple opportunities for students with tech, legal, finance, hospitality, marketing backgrounds.  There is always more than one way of achieving something and if that means being thrown into the deep end of the pool, so be it!

Future Plans?

It’s important for me to create a niche for myself in the industry that we are a part of. The next few years would be focusing on doing better and learning more. I think professional parameters change every 4-5 years and at this stage, for me, it’s all about assimilating as much as possible about how this tiny sport world works!