Working in sports is not an easy feat. Being successful in the industry takes time, effort and can be hard.
But Ben Aken and Mike Cummings have worked their way up from being interns in college to high-ranking executives with Major League Baseball’s Kansas City Royals.
Aken, the vice president of community relations, and Cummings, the assistant director for media relations, have worked with the Royals for a combined 25 years.
With their vast experience, they know what goes into working in the professional sports world, how to be successful and what it takes to get to the top level.
Getting to the Royals
Aken grew up in Papillion, Nebraska, a suburb of Omaha that is about three hours away from Kauffman Stadium. As a child, he and his family would make the trip to Kansas City during the summer to go to a Royals game.
The Omaha Storm Chasers, a Triple-A affiliate of the Royals, is now located in Papillion and the ballpark is a mile and a half from his parents’ house, Aken said. It seems only fitting that when he graduated from the University of Nebraska he started working for the Royals.
Aken first joined the organization as a seasonal intern in the community relations department. During that time, he helped with office functions such as emails, donation requests, events and traveled with the team’s mascot, Slugger.
After working in various roles in the department, he was promoted to the senior director in 2009. Six years later, Aken continued his climb up the ladder and was named vice president of community relations.
After spending 20 years with the organization, Aken said it’s fun having a connection to the team deeper than just working for it.
“I was thinking of one picture when I met Jim Sundberg who was a catcher for the Royals. I have a picture of me getting an autograph from his as a little kid,” Aken said. “Now, especially those first few years of my job working for the Royals, I was asking players to go sign autographs for kids. It’s fun to see both ends. I benefitted from it as a kid and now trying to get players to give that same experience for other kids.”
Cummings had a different path to the Midwest. While attending college in North Dakota, he interned with the University of North Dakota’s media relations office. He continued his career as an intern at the Virginia Tech in the sports information office.
It was after being at the Virginia Tech that he made his way to Kansas, getting a job as an assistant director of communications in the University of Kansas athletic department.
While in Lawrence, Cummings worked with baseball and football. Because Kansas is known predominately as a basketball school, he said it was sometimes a harder sell to get people, both media and fans, to come to baseball games, especially early on when basketball was still in season and the weather outside was not the best.
“You can get frustrated when you don’t get as much coverage as maybe you think you deserve,” Cummings said. “I think you just gotta keep knocking at the door and hoping someone answers.”
Working with the baseball team at Kansas is where Cummings got to know Michael Swanson, vice president of communications and broadcasting for the Royals. While Cummings was at Kansas – Swanson’s alma mater – the Jayhawks played Missouri at Kauffman Stadium so they worked together some during those years.
In 2012, when the Royals hosted the All Star Game, Swanson needed volunteers to help in the press box and with media. Cummings said he jumped at the chance and proved himself capable of thriving in the big leagues. The next season, Swanson’s top assistant left and Cummings was asked to interview for the job.
“I just kind of happened to be at the right place at the right time,” Cummings said.
Working in the Majors
Today, both men have spent multiple years in their positions and are fully aware of the best, and most challenging, parts of working for a professional sports organization.
Despite being the vice president of the community relations department, Aken still is involved in most of the day-to-day operations. He works on long-term planning for Royals Charities, the large-scale projects, and individual player’s interests in various nonprofits and foundations.
In 2017, Royals Charities worked with more than 4,200 nonprofits in a six-state area and donated more than $2 million, according to the Royals’ website.
“We do nice things on behalf of the ballclub,” Aken said. “It’s fulfilling work.”
While occasionally athletes will start their own organizations or foundations, Aken encourages them to go through his department. The power of the Royals helps players’ causes garner more attention. On the other hand, when nonprofits want a specific spokesperson or athlete representative, he tries to make individual players a minor element in case of scandals, trades or scheduling conflicts.
“I would rather them start partnerships with the Royals and Royals Charities and then we integrate players like as almost a last thing,” Aken said.
The community and media relations departments work well together when players get involved because they can help get messages from one department to the players or vice versa. Cummings said his department also tries to give Aken and his staff as much notice as possible when a player is traded or moved down the system.
“The earlier we can let them know,” Cummings said, “the easier it for them to go to a plan B.”
While Aken and his staff are working more in the community, Cummings is more focused on what’s happening on the field.
He works home games, trades off road trips with Swanson, is at most of Spring Training and is on call 24/7. As assistant director he also produces the game notes, works on all Royals publications, helps manage media requests and sends out press releases throughout the year.
"I think sometimes it gets lost in the daily work but when you’re able to step back and take a look at the big picture and say this is actually pretty cool what I get to do and what I get to be a part of on a daily basis."
After five years with the organization, including multiple World Series seasons, Cumming said he still enjoys doing the game notes throughout the season.
“I think sometimes it gets lost in the daily work but when you’re able to step back and take a look at the big picture and say this is actually pretty cool what I get to do and what I get to be a part of on a daily basis,” Cummings said.
Working in a city with an NFL team can be challenging, especially when seasons start to overlap, but Aken said the two teams work to maintain a good relationship.
Most of the overlap comes from trying to plan events around each team’s schedule and getting the same requests from organizations, but Aken said that’s when he works with his counterpart with the Kansas City Chiefs to arrange plans.
“There’s times, say a fireman gets injured or something, I’ll shoot him a note like ‘Hey, how do you plan to respond to this?’ just so we can kind of coordinate our efforts a little bit,” Aken said. “Like, ‘OK, we’re sending a jersey,’ ‘OK, we’ll send a jersey as well,’ or something like that just so we aren’t one upping each other in things that effect the entire city.”
From a media relations perspective, Cummings said it can be difficult to get more media coverage during rough seasons when there is another sport down the street having success.
“(The media) kind of moved on to the Chiefs by July or August,” Cummings said. “We didn’t see nearly as many people at the daily events.”
For both men, the schedule is the most difficult part of the job.
Working in collegiate baseball was cramming a lot of games into three or four months, Cummings said. But at the major-league level, it is working close to 200 games over a seven- or eight-month span. And that’s just the games.
Trades and news can break at any time, like when the Royals traded Mike Moustakas to the Milwaukee Brewers. Cummings said he found out at around 10:30 p.m. on a Friday and, just like that, any plans he had were out the window. But that’s part of working in sports – you’re on-call 24/7.
“As much as I’d love to turn my phone off sometimes and relax or whatever, that isn’t really possible most of the year,” Cummings said.
It’s easy to feel like the job entails doing the same thing over and over again throughout the season, Aken said, which is part of the struggle. But seeing the excitement on the faces of the kids, and even adults, who are getting the Royals experience for the first time makes it worth it.
“Even though we may be hosting a group for our 70th game of the year, that’s the first time that that group is there,” Aken said. “So just reminding ourselves that this is new for them and just trying to keep everything fresh.”
"As much as I’d love to turn my phone off sometimes and relax or whatever, that isn’t really possible most of the year."
Everyone Starts Somewhere
Both men started their careers in sports as an intern while in college and they recommend anyone who wants to end up where they are do the same.
Something employers do look at is also volunteer experience, Aken said. It’s important to get out in the community, be involved and exposed to different types of people and environments.
Aken also said not to be afraid to do multiple internships before moving on to a full-time position if it will help get the experience needed for the right job.
“The earlier you can get involved, I think the better,” Cummings said. “Both Ben and I have obviously been through internships and been different positions and stuff like that. Without going through those experiences, I don’t think either of us would be where we are today.”
Working in sports, whether it be in a fun challenge in media relation or planning strategic smiles for the community, can be difficult. But both Aken and Cummings said the work is worth it.
“At the end of the day, it tests you,” Cummings said. “When you can do something well or something goes the way you planned it or whatever, it definitely teaches you a lot about yourself. There are a lot of satisfying parts of it.”