Dennis Bickmeier has spent more than two decades working in sports management. He has held positions with the Anaheim Angels, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the Los Angeles Rams, and the Los Angeles Dodgers. After successful stints at Auto Club Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, he was named the President of Richmond International Raceway in 2011.
Dennis recently met with Kevin Spence from CareerThoughts.com to discuss the challenges and rewards of his profession, as well as his advice for young people facing career decisions today.
Richmond International Raceway will host NASCAR races on September 6th and 7th. Tickets are available online and by phone at 866-455-RACE.
Kevin Spence: Can you tell me a little bit about what your responsibilities are as the president of Richmond International Raceway?
Dennis Bickmeier: It’s a little bit of everything. It’s the oversight of the entire facility and everything that we do here. This is a busy facility, it’s not just our two NASCAR races. We have a thriving consumer tradeshow business, and we have a lot of shows on our property. We have about 280 days of activity, so it’s a little bit of everything. Running the business, setting the strategy, management of people. We have about 37 full time staff. So everything that you would think of to run a business – that’s the job that I have. It’s about working with our staff to deliver a quality event for our fans. Our focus all the time is, ‘what can we do to make the fan experience better here and deliver a quality event?’
KS: Before you got into racing you worked for baseball teams, hockey teams, football teams. What makes racing different?
DB: They’re similar on a lot of fronts, in that they’re live sporting events. Now, there are a lot of differences between, say, racing and baseball. In baseball we do 81 home games, and we may have a seven day home stand or a thirteen day home stand, so you get very routine about how you go about your day to day in a scenario like that.
In what we do now with two massive events on the scale of putting on a Super Bowl, I think it allows for a lot of creativity. We change things. A lot of things we keep the same from year to year, but we change up a lot of things too. That’s what really keeps it a lot of fun. It’s not just the same thing every race. Whether it’s a capital improvement project like we’ve been doing here, changing a parking lot, or adding a new fan amenity, it always seems like we have something different. In fact, your timing is good – we just did our all staff pre-race meeting this morning, and when you go through the list of all the new things and all the other events on top of the event we’ve added, it’s pretty overwhelming sometimes when you look at it on paper.
KS: There are a lot of logistics there
DB: Yeah, and that’s a big part of it. You look at all the moving pieces to make these events come together. And we can’t do it just us. We rely on volunteer groups who come in, and they work on race weekend, but they’re here raising money for their non-profit. So they’re a volunteer for their non-profit, but they’re getting paid for their group as a fundraiser. We get about 1,500 people who do that, and we can’t do it without those folks. Then you think of Henrico County where we sit, and everything we have to do with the county – traffic management, security, all that is a big undertaking.
KS: You mentioned that in baseball you have about 80 home games, in hockey you have about 40 home games, and you have 2. Two chances to get it right. Does that increase the pressure?
DB: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I think so. You’re always trying to do better than the year before. You always want to try to outpace yourself, and you always want to sell more tickets, and you always want to get better survey scores, and you want better feedback than you did the year before. That’s what drives us. So you get two chances to get it right.
KS: You earned your master’s degree in sports administration. That isn’t the most common degree, and a lot of people probably aren’t familiar with it. What kinds of things do you learn in that type program?
DB: The story on universities focusing on sports management actually dates back to like 1966. The first was Ohio University, which is the school that I graduated from. There’s so much that’s focused on the business of sports.
The mentality in sports used to be that you take former coaches or managers and put them into front office jobs. There are some people, including Walter O’Malley who owned the Dodgers, who helped get this sports management program started. He had the vision and the foresight that the business of sports is going to be really big, and we need to professional train individuals to manage this business, just like we would any other business. You have to give those guys a lot of credit, because where are we today? This is big business.
Look at the TV deals that are out there. Look at the sponsorship deals. Look at the value of franchises today. So for us, it was all focused on business. Finance principles, marketing principles, ticketing, sales, public relations, communications, operations – all specific to sports.
KS: Do you think that having that degree is necessary to do what you do?
DB: If you look at our alumni directory, it’s kind of like a who’s who in sports. Then you look at some of the other schools who have also grown, and their alumni numbers are increasing every year, and there are a lot of universities adding sports management curriculums at their schools, because so many people want to get in to the industry.
I don’t think it’s a requirement, no. What I do think is important – and I tell this to young people a lot – if this business of sports is of interest to you, then you need to start when you’re in college. Work in an athletic department, or work with a local team. Maybe it’s the Squirrels, maybe it’s here – we take interns. That will really give you a feel for what it’s like working in this business.
Take a job in baseball. You get into an 81 day home schedule, 162 game total schedule, and it’s a grind. People are like, ‘oh, man, working in sports, that’s the greatest thing.’ Well, it’s a business too. And it’s long hours, and there are some people who don’t make it past the first couple years in this business. Then there are others, obviously, who go on to long careers in it. It is fun. We’re in a fun business. But it’s work. It’s tough. You know, that’s what work is supposed to be. It’s not all fun and games.
But there are people who have a variety of different degrees, where it’s journalism and they get in to the PR side of sports, or maybe it’s marketing and they get into the sales side. I’ve seen a lot of those stories as well. I think that’s great too. Something’s happened along the line for people who are in sports – everyone’s story is a little different. How I did it may not work for you, may not work for somebody else.
KS: From what you’ve seen of people who have been successful in this industry, are there any qualities that you think a lot of people share?
DB: There are a few. I think that the time it takes – the daily amount of time it takes – to work in this business. There’s no such thing as nine to five. Given today’s phone technology and everything, you’re never really out of the office. So I think the dedication and passion for sports is really what comes out of a lot people that work in this industry.
Organization, obviously, is a key. Being able to manage people, manage events, and manage changes that occur as you’re putting on events is key. And communication obviously. You can probably list those for any job, right? But when you start thinking of the different levels of people that you have to deal with. Your fans, the government, and corporate relationships. Being able to communicate across a lot of different channels I think is key as well.
I don’t know that the people I know in the business are really much different from people who work for major corporations. I think we’re probably all driven by the same things. To work hard, do our best, and move our business forward. One of the things I really like to do is develop strategy and work with the group to execute that strategy. We see that every day, no matter what business we’re in.
KS: What does it take to be advance your career in this field?
DB: When I was working for the Angels and had a full time job, I went to help a friend who was the first PR director at California Raceway. I worked his events, just as a volunteer. And I used to do that all the time. I used to go work USC football games and do other things at other sporting events around town just to gain the experience. So I think that’s key. You always have to keep learning. I had my full time job, I could have not done anything else, but I saw these as opportunities to learn more and try to advance and make myself better by working these other events. Just becoming more well-rounded in the business. Ultimately it lead to getting a job at California Raceway.
KS: Since you got your job there, did you continue to follow that same path? You’ve come a long way with the company since your first job. Is it just a matter of, do I want to expose myself to as many things as I can?
DB: I think that’s exactly it. I think you’re exactly right. To be able to expose yourself to things that are going on. As we got into the ISC family, the opportunity to go to a lot of other racetracks and help out on race weekends just expanded by seven or whatever the number was at the time. So yeah, I was able to go to other markets, learn other media, see how they do things. What ideas can we steal, implement, or refine at our place? So there was a lot of idea sharing that would go on as well. So I think that was just all part of it, to be able to just continue to grow and grow.
KS: As someone who lives in this area, I’ve seen you around town at different things – throwing out the first pitch at the Squirrels game, or doing QAs with drivers at the track and things like that. What other cool experiences do you get to have as a result of your profession?
DB: Being involved with the media, I think is great. That helps me to go back on my public relations skills that I learned early on in my career, and it’s certainly what I studied in college as well. So I always enjoy that part of it. I enjoy being with the media.
For other events, we took Carl Edwards out of Norfolk with the Navy, since we work so closely with the military. We landed on an aircraft carrier and took off from the aircraft carrier, and that was pretty cool. Actually, it was the second time I’ve done that. I’ve done it in the Pacific and the Atlantic now, and that’s pretty cool for not being enlisted in the Navy. That’s pretty amazing. We did the same thing when I worked for the Angels. We took some players out, kind of on a good will ambassador type of mission. We let the players sign some autographs, and that’s what Carl did. So to do that, that was pretty cool.
I scaled down the side of the SunTrust building to raise money for Special Olympics. It was a 400 foot rappel, and I’d never rappelled before in my life. I’d never gone ziplining before, and did that just before the April race with Kyle Busch just north of DC on a PR opportunity. I’ve driven a racecar, and I have no racing blood in my body at all. So I’ve gone through a couple driving schools. If you had asked me fifteen years ago before I got into this business, ‘hey, you ever thought about driving racecar?’ I’d say no. But that’s been fun as well.
KS: What advice would you offer to someone who hoped to have a career in this industry?
DB: In this industry, there are a lot of people who will help you get to where you want to go. That’s some of the advice that I always give young people. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to go out and network. Don’t be afraid to go out and meet people. If this industry is something that interests you, there are enough things in town between us, and the Squirrels, and the colleges and universities to get a good introduction to what this business is all about.
Dennis Bickmeier has a very successful career story to tell. He has spent more than twenty years in sports management field and in 2011, he reached a new height in his career when he was named the president of Richmond International Raceway (RIR.) He received his bachelor’s degree from The E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and his masters from Ohio University Center for Sports Administration.
Dennis Bickmeier did not reach the top of the ladder in one day; he spent decades in the field of sports before he was rewarded with the highest position, the president, at RIR. His career took a turn for good when he joined NFL Los Angeles Rams, first as Public Relations Director and then as Sales and Promotions Director. He worked there for almost five years. This was his first major job in the field of sports. Later in 1993, he joined Big West Conference as the Director of Information. He then went on to work with big sports companies one of which was Disney Sports Enterprises, Inc. [which later became Anaheim Sports, Inc.]
Dennis Bickmeier started his career with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) in 1999. The first role he had was Community Relations Director at Auto Club Speedway (ACSW,) a superspeedway owned and operated by ISC. Everyone could see the hidden potential in him; he has good people skills. His good public relations skills helped him noticed by his superiors and that is why he got the much-desired promotion; he was promoted in 2004 to Senior Communication Director.
Not many people are studying to receive a degree in Sports-Administration; this isn’t a career that many choose. This certainly is an unusual career path but look what Dennis Bickmeier was able to achieve with his educational credentials. He is now the acting president of Richmond International Raceway, a track that holds two major NASCAR events. Additionally, it hosts a lot of different tradeshows and events; the track is busy with such activities for almost 300 days each year. So this track is running successfully and Dennis Bickmeier is doing his best to make things even more attractive for the public, organizers, and all the participants.
When he chose this career, most people would have been skeptical about this choice. Back in the old days, sports team management was primarily compromised of retired athletes. Everyone was doing that; retired athletes were getting all sports management related jobs. Playing a game, or sports, is one thing, managing a whole team or organization is a whole different ballgame. It requires a special set of skills and knowledge to successfully manage an organizations; something Dennis Bickmeier learned to do in college and from his experience, he gained working for different sports organizations.