By Ryan Coppinger ’20 / Sports Information Office
WILLIMANTIC, Conn.- Professionals in the sport industry are in unanimous agreement about one thing: it is never easy to achieve that break-through moment and obtain a first full-time position.
For Eastern Connecticut State University alumnus Lee Walter, Jr. ’99, it took nearly 20 years after graduation before landing his first full-time job in sport. A Communication major, Walter’s ambition was always to work in sport, but was never given that opportunity in the years following graduation. While facing denials from jobs in the industry, the Waterbury native was also managing three part-time jobs, pursuing a master’s degree, while, at the same time, was resolving some difficult family situations. Walter, however, persevered, not only keeping his dream alive, but also creating more time as a husband and a father to two young boys.
Feeling frustrated but refusing to give in, Walter finally struck pay dirt last November when was hired as the business development manager by the Connecticut Tigers, the Detroit Tigers’ Class A Short Season New York-Penn League baseball affiliate located in Norwich -- a 25-minute drive from his home. His extensive background in sales – nearly a decade as a sales representative and supervisor in the beverage industry – played a large role in being selected for the position in Norwich.
Coincidentally, baseball had always been a sport of particular interest to Walter, and manifest itself early on in his college days. During his time at Eastern, Lee served as a student-assistant coach under Hall of Fame head coach Bill Holowaty and was part of the staff of the 1998 NCAA Division III national championship team.
From there, Walter interned with the New Britain Rock Cats, former Double-A Eastern League Affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. It was there where Walter began to develop a business acumen that established a foundation from which he continues to build upon today.
With New Britain, Walter learned the art of ‘cold-calling’ to get ticket sales out to local businesses that were affiliated with the Chamber of Commerce, while also accepting additional media relations responsibilities. This internship went well and proved to be an eye-opener to the minor league baseball setting. Although, at the time, Walter wasn’t completely sure if a career in sales was his ultimate goal.
At right: As an undergraduate, Walter served as a student assistant with the baseball program and was part of the 1998 NCAA Division III national championship team.
Upon graduation, Walter was hired for a position in team sales at Nassiff’s for Sports, located at that time on Main Street in Willimantic. That position lasted for less than one year. Soon after, he was hired at a local package store, where he moved into a management position that he held for the next seven years.
At that point -- almost ten years after graduating and with only limited experience in the sport industry – Walter was finding it difficult find fulltime employment in the field.
Changing jobs yet again, Walter was hired as a territory sales representative for Northeast Beverage of Connecticut. There, it could not only be seen how much a salesperson Walter was becoming, but also the type of diligent worker he was. As a sales representative there was at least a ten percent sales increase each year. Then, being promoted to supervisor, he guided five sales representatives to sales increases each year. In each of his jobs, Walter was proving that he could sell a product and that he had the capabilities to lead an organized team, both of which are important qualities to have in minor league baseball. Yet, no opportunities presented themselves for him to combine his passion in marketing a product and baseball.
While at Northeast Beverage, Walter made a conscious decision to remain involved in sport, never losing site of his ultimate goal. In those years, he served as the public address announcer at his alma mater for a variety of sports, and also accepted a volunteer position on the board of directors with Windham Youth Baseball organization, where his two boys were actively involved.
Walter was somewhat satisfied at this point, but, as is often the case in the business world, he found himself unemployed in January of 2015, due to a re-organization movement within Northeast Beverage. After 15 years working in sales and in the liquor industry, Walter was back at Square One, his future unclear.
Fortunately, his alma mater was there to help him out.
Just prior to being laid off by Northeast Beverage, Walter had received a phone call from his former Eastern baseball coaching colleague and current equipment room manager, Scott Smith, providing him with a golden opportunity. In a perfect bit of timing, a part-time position as a university assistant in athletics presented itself. It instilled in Walter new-found hope.
Walter accepted the position and took off with it, bringing his considerable management experience with him. In his new role, Walter assisted in every aspect of the department, deftly handling a variety of duties as the assistant sports information director and as event staff manager, with additional responsibilities assisting in facility operations and in the equipment room.
Looking back, Smith describes Walter as “an extremely devoted, hard-working individual who puts a tremendous amount of effort into everything he does.” Smith also cites his former student- worker as being “a leader who always has a very positive influence on whatever organization he represents.”
Sports Information Director Bob Molta, who has known Walter since Walter’s undergraduate days and became his colleague in the Sports Information Office, characterized him as “an individual who could adapt to any role in which he was asked to fulfill. His organizational skills, dedication to excellence, intelligence, determination, and professionalism are unmatched by any person that I have ever been associated with. To deftly handle three part-time jobs while raising two boys and pursuing a Master’s Degree, while also struggling to survive financially, is an absolutely astonishing accomplishment. He went weeks on end with only a few hours sleep a night, but never, ever complained or called out when we needed him at Eastern. And all the while, he was never truly certain whether his big break would ever come.”
Without question, Walter was enjoying his time back at Eastern, but at the same time, he continued to look ahead. To him, something else had to be done.
At left: In addition to his official duties in a part-time role in the athletic department, Walter volunteered to emcee the annual spring athletic awards banquet.
Supporting a family is not an easy task, and sometimes a difficult decision needs to be made where family time needs to be sacrificed in order to provide for your children. Walter made that decision and could easily be one of the hardest he’s ever made. Lee was willing to work at Eastern, while also picking up regular part-time overnight shifts with FedEx, and even working with Timing is Everything, where he was a timing specialist handling timekeeping equipment for a variety of sports at a number of colleges located throughout New England.
While juggling three part-time positions in an effort to eke out a living while waiting for his first big break, he was only seeing his two boys on a limited basis. Although his dream of ultimately working fulltime in sport appeared to him to be only a remote possibility at times, Walter wanted to ensure that he reached his goal and took the initiative to begin taking online courses in order to earn his M.S. in Sport Management from Southern New Hampshire University, further limiting the time he had with his children.
Over the years, being rejected for numerous fulltime positions which he felt he was qualified for was extremely frustrating to Walter. “I really only applied for jobs that I would be a great fit for,” he recalls, “but it’s a strong competitive market for these types of jobs right now, which is certainly something that makes it hard.” Being as proactive as he is, it was frustrating to Walter, knowing that as qualified as he was, nothing seemed to be working.
Already with more than enough to keep busy – but intent on further bolstering his resume -- Walter decided in June of 2016 to serve as the Connecticut Tigers’ data stringer, which generates live stats for fans. Walter retained this role for three years, accepting more responsibilities with the Tigers each season. Other duties with the Tigers included working as an assistant to the groundskeeper, and coming in on off days to assist during the high school season.
Building up trust, networking, and getting to know some of the personnel at the stadium worked in Walter’s favor.
On one typical gameday evening while they were next to each other on a tarp pull during a rain delay, Tigers Senior Vice President, CJ Knudsen, casually asked Walter about his sales background. This natural conversation for Walter, not thinking too much about where this conversation could lead, had actually benefited him without realizing it. As it turned out during the next off-season, the Tigers’ front office found itself in need of an additional sales associate, which fit well with Lee’s extensive background.
Soon after wrapping up a perfect 4.0 GPA in his graduate work, Walter sent in one last application. There was, he felt, a glimmer of hope with this application, where he believed this could be an end to that dreaded overnight shift with FedEx.. Before he knew it, Walter was welcomed as the business development manager for the Tigers, proving that all of those long, hard days had eventually presented him with an opportunity to take the next step in his life.
Walter Excelling in His Position With The Connecticut Tigers