Interview with Cookie Rojas
John Cody of SportsDegreesOnline.org interviewed Cookie Rojas. They touched on his career, his time in the military, law school, and he shared some tips on how to stay positive, and things to keep in mind when leading a team.
About Cookie Rojas
Cookie Rojas works for Major League Baseball as the Regional Supervisor in the Minor League Operations & Development department responsible for the day-to-day management of local issues in the Minor Leagues as well as player development initiatives. In the past, he has been the Director of Sales at Golden Grape Entertainment, managing partnerships for the H-E-B Park, RGV FC Toros of the USL, Bert Ogden Arena, RGV Vipers of the NBA G League, DHR Health Wellness Center/Sports Complex. He has worked in various professional sports organizations in Pawtucket, RI, Kansas City, New Orleans. Cookie has also taught Sport Marketing and other sports related subjects at Tulane University, Johnson & Wales University, Loyola University, and Newman University.
John: Can you tell us a bit about your past and the trajectory that has brought you to this point in your career?
Cookie: Yes sure. I was fortunate enough to make the transition from a legal career, and I worked in banking and non-profit. When I was about twenty nine or thirty years old I transitioned into pro sports. For me it was one of things where I was pursuing an education and a career that really wasn’t my passion. When I finally realized I wanted to work in sports, I was fortunate enough to meet this guy Lou Schwechheimer, the GM of the Pawtucket Red Sox, my hometown team.
He gave me a job working as an usher. I proved myself working part time. I slowly made my way up the ranks working in the box office, becoming the general sales manager of the club, helping to run the internship program, running and creating events. What happened with that was I got an opportunity to work for a national company called Airfield Sports based out of Texas. They oversee all the different sports marketing and promotions for a majority of the division one schools in the country. I did that until I got a phone call from Lou who offered me an opportunity to be a GM for a AAA team in the Pacific Coast league down in New Orleans. So I relocated down there and worked trying to resurrect a dying franchise all the while the organization as a whole, the ownership, was looking to get a new stadium built. We weren’t able to do that and the team was relocated to Wichita, Kansas that built us a brand new stadium as part of the redevelopment riverfront project. Riverfront Stadium now sits along the Arkansas river in downtown Wichita. Sadly because of Covid no one was able to play a game there and even more tragic was the loss of my mentor Lou who I mentioned previously.
I lost my position up there as the senior VP of sports and entertainment and was unemployed for the first time in about thirty years. Luckily for me, utilizing Linkedin, I was able to connect with some folks here in Texas and some folks I knew in the USL. They connected the dots. There’s a group down here called Golden Grape Entertainment which runs, owns and operates two arenas. A basketball arena called Bert Ogden Arena and a soccer stadium called HEB Park which are spectacular. [The stadium is home to…] an NBA D-League, the RGV Vipers, and the RGV TC Toros which play in the USL Championship Division. They needed a director of corporate sales so I had an opportunity to interview with them and that’s how I landed in Texas with my new role.
John: How did your experience in the armed forces influence the path you took in your sports career? Any lessons learned from the Marines that you find helpful in your work now?
Cookie: Certainly. Being in the Marine Corps was always something I did want to do ever since I was a child. I am fortunate enough that I had the opportunity to serve our country in the Marine Corps. What combat taught me was that I don’t want to be in the Marine Corps anymore. I thought I was going to be a twenty year, career lifer. But serving in the Gulf War, I realized that with real bullets and real bombs, I don’t think I want to do this, to put myself in a situation where something would happen to me or anyone by my side. When I got out, that’s when I realized I should go to college and use the GI Bill to figure out what I wanted to do. That’s when I started getting those thoughts in my head from my mom, that I should be a lawyer.
One of the things I learned from the Marine Corps is to always keep pushing forward.
I went to college, pursued a political science degree, then got accepted to law school. One of the things I learned from the Marine Corps is to always keep pushing forward. Through all the tough and muck, just keep putting your head down and go forward. I always have the thing I tell anyone I work with or my employees or people I supervise, you can do just about anything. Nothing is impossible. If we can put a man on the moon then we can figure this out. That’s one of the lessons I got from the Marine Corps. I had a company commander that told us that all the time, “If we can put a man on the moon then we can figure this out.” In my whole professional career there is only one person who’s challenged me on that, Rick Medieros who was our director of security. He said, “The one thing that’s impossible is dribbling a football.” I set out to correct him, went out and got a football and dribbled it. I showed him.
John: That’s awesome! Do you think the sports industry is a good choice for veterans? If so, why?
Cookie: Yes I do. One thing I look for when hiring a candidate in any type of position that I’ve been in with sports is, were they a student athlete or were they in the military? The reason why is because both of those roles require significant discipline. I believe you get tremendous amount of discipline, time management and expect a lot of yourself as a veteran and member of the US Armed Services. I also believe that student athletes are given the ability to work within the confines of schedule. “I have to do this, this and this.” As well, they are driving to succeed. These are the things I look for, anyone that has been in the service or been an athlete. If you have both then you have an added bonus.
John: What sorts of skills have you learned in past careers and training (law school, military) and applied to positions you have held in the sports industry?
Cookie: I think for me. The skill set that I really learned in the Marine Corps is very simple contracts. Offer, acceptance and consideration, and then counter offers. When it comes to the business I know which is sports marketing, I’m pretty good at negotiating with folks and understanding the value of a particular asset. A thing that I learned from Lou regarding partnerships, was to under promise and then over deliver. That was the big thing. Take for example, I had a negotiation yesterday with a QSR national brand, prevalent here in the valley. I presented the two options to their corporate office via a Zoom call. They came back and asked for something that wasn’t in the agreement and I knew that the asset they were asking for has a value to the organization and should not be a deal breaker. And that’s how you are effectively able to negotiate. Conversely, in the afternoon I had a conversation over the phone with another national brand company located in the valley who wanted exclusivity, yet for example they weren’t willing to pay the premium for exclusivity. I had to explain to them, which in the past no one had the courage to explain. You can’t exclusively own a category on a five figure partnership that is significantly lower than what that category should have for exclusivity. So the ability to negotiate, I got through the law school, coupled with my ability to work under Lou and learning how he did deals. The most important thing is to bring them in, under promise and then over deliver.
John: Specifically relating to sales and marketing, even in the best of times (pre-Covid) it takes hard work, dedication, and persistence to be successful. How did you maintain positivity and remain encouraged when pursuing deals and when managing other salespeople?
Cookie: It’s great that you ask that question now because I am in the longest drought in sales I’ve ever had in my professional career. It’s been over a year since I closed a deal. I was talking to my team president yesterday. We were having our weekly one on one meeting. I told him that it has been psychologically difficult to maintain, for lack of a better word, your mojo, when you haven’t sold anyone or partnered anyone. We were on a role in Kansas with a brand new stadium. I would never say it’s easy, but it’s relatively easier to sell corporate partnerships in a brand new venue because we are able to paint the picture of what this place is going to look like. Coming here to a basketball team that has been consistent winners through championships and the NBA G-League, the most of any team in that league, but then working with them in a bubble and you’re not able to sell any assets this year for them. Then taking a soccer team that started off well about seven or eight years ago getting into the playoffs but haven’t made the playoffs since, it’s difficult.
So to answer your question on how to stay positive, it literally is listening to the daily “Quote of the Day” podcast, every day. Sean Croxton, I listen to him every morning, it’s either the first or second thing I do just to get my positivity. Taking long walks with my wife, who has been my rock has also helps. For me going into work and listening to podcasts and reading has helped. More so now with Covid, but reading a lot of different books on sales techniques and the psychology of selling just to continue sharpening the tools in the toolbox. That’s the only way I think you can stay positive in all this, knowing there is going to be a need and a want when the gates open up again and we are able to go to events again.
Hopefully you’ve laid the foundation. Because of my role as a manager, I still try to do about twenty phone calls and prospecting on Linkedin. I’ve got a process that I’ve used for years on Linkedin to be able to connect with people. I’ve invested in Linkedin Navigator for myself just to build my own book of business. Just to stay positive I think people need to remind themselves, especially if they are in sales, to look at their portfolio as their business. How successful do you want to be? Especially if you earn commission. That’s one of the beautiful things about sales is that you have unlimited income potential unless you have a cap. And if you have a cap then get out of that business because you should be able to sell and be rewarded for your efforts and that’s why I really enjoy sales.
John: Any books you’d recommend that you’ve read over the last year?
Cookie: Right now I’m reading “The Tipping Point”. It’s a good book on understanding stickiness and the laws of few. Another good book I’m reading on leadership is Jim Mattis’ book, “Call Sign Chaos”. Another great book you want to read is “Good to Great” by Jim Collins.
John: I read that. It is a really good book.
Cookie: Yeah, recognizing what companies need to do to get where they need to get to. There is also a book by Jessie Cole. He runs the Savannah Bananas down in Georgia. He is an amazing marketer. I read his book and he has been able to take an independent baseball team and take it to new highs. He’s definitely someone you’d want to read. Another good book is “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne and “Ice to Eskimos” by Spoelstra.
John: I remember you said, “If you can put a man on the moon, there isn’t anything you can’t do.” Is there anything else you always tell new hires no matter what organization you are at?
Cookie: Yes. One of the big things I like to tell people is, “Think about other people because a rising tide raises all ships.” It took me a long time to learn that lesson. What that lesson means is that although we are all competitive and we all want to succeed, at the same time we have to encourage those on our team to succeed, because when they succeed, we will all succeed. Our bonuses all get bigger if they succeed. I do look at it as a sport. Sales is a competition. If your place of work has a sales board that is listed, people pay attention. It doesn’t matter what generation you are from, people are competitive. What I usually tell people is, “A rising tide raises all ships. It’s your business. Run it like your business. Try to make the most but at the same time being encouraging of others and being respectful of others.”
John: That’s good advice. Covid certainly has had a huge impact on the industry, but we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. What kind of advice would you give to job seekers who are looking at the post-Covid job environment?
Cookie: That’s a tough one because as I said earlier it’s been difficult losing your job because of Covid in the sports and entertainment industry. There are some teams fortunate enough to keep their positions throughout. I’ve spoken to a couple of folks throughout the industry. I have a friend of mine who works for the Miami Heat. When I took this position here, I wanted to get his feedback on it. I thought I had taken a step backwards by going here but he told me, “Absolutely not, you are still gainfully employed. You’re still in sports. It’s just a learning experience.” For folks who are currently in the business now, this is a learning experience. I really should take my own advice because I’m telling you it has been tough to get through these days when there is nothing going on at the venues or stadiums. I’m lucky enough that I work at the USL as well. We just announced that our season will start in May. They concluded last season with fans in Texas and it felt good to be able to have a stadium filled even though it was at one third capacity. In a nine thousand seat stadium it was still nice to see about a thousand five hundred physical bodies. So to give advice to people who are in it, it’s going to happen I think by Q4. We will have a semblance of normalcy in the industry. We’re projecting our NBA G-League team which is playing in the bubble in Orlando to be playing once again in our arena for the 21-22 season. So we’re contacting partners and explaining that we are going to roll over and not invoice them. My advice to those who want to get into the industry and want to get internships, is to definitely go for it. Contact them and adhere to the rules of the organization. Mask up regardless of your background or your perspective on the virus. My advice is basically to work hard, work smart, ask question and ask for experience and opportunities. I am fortunate enough that I still teach. I’ve taught at Johnson and Wales University for about ten years. I taught at Tulane University, Loyola University New Orleans and Newman University in Kansas. I teach sports marketing and promotion. One of the things I tell them is there are so many contingencies in our industry that we can’t control. So if you want to break into this business, even before Covid, there are things like rain, snow, hurricanes, you name it, that you need to be prepared for. You need to recognize it and be flexible. My advice would be to work hard, work smart, ask for experiences, be flexible and be patient because it is going to come. We will have our industry back.