This Bronx native with the baddest braids is paving a smoother path than his own for aspiring premium seating professionals. He knows that to stand out, you need to look no further than the mirror. He knows the power of a platform and how to stand upon it for change. He is helping to lead sales, service, marketing, and analytics for one of the most iconic venues on the planet. He’s Manny Jacobo, Vice President, Premium Business, Crypto.com Arena.
What was your path to premium seating and was it unique?
I was born and raised in the South Bronx to an immigrant mother, single parent, where it was more likely for me to either go to jail, end up selling drugs, or, quite frankly, be dead. Thankfully I fell in love with sports, and that really helped save my life, along with my mother and my brother, huge influences on me. My brother wasn't as lucky as I was to fall in love with sports. He was the oldest, so he had to do some things in the street. But what he did do was make sure that he shielded me from the street. And once he found that I fell in love with sports, basketball specifically, his message was always, “As much as you work on your body and your game, you gotta work on your mind.”
When my body and my game did not give me the product to play D1 Basketball, I ended up taking academic scholarships to Canisius College and that's when I started my collegiate career, which then kicked off my professional career in sports.
Once I got to college, I ended up approaching the basketball teams. The men's team didn't have a position. The women's team did. I started my career at the low level of manager, and I was washing underwear, washing uniforms, doing the scoreboard, doing ticketing, which was my first experience in ticketing, doing will-call for folks.
I grew during my time in college to Director of Operations. Through those relationships I ended up finding a job with the Buffalo Bills which was my first job in pro sports, where I was driving a shuttle picking folks up from the ADA lots and taking them to their gate. From there I ended up working my way into the office for customer service.
I was running two tracks. I was doing the basketball ops side and business ops for the pro side. I didn't know what I wanted to do. After I graduated, I ended up coaching basketball for a year. Absolutely hated it. I went back to school to get my master’s and through my relationship with the Buffalo Bills, I was able to get a grad assistantship.
From there, I ended up in ticket sales. I wasn't in premium yet, but I knew that I wanted to understand the side of the ticketing business before I went into premium because, ultimately, I did want to become Vice President, CRO, President, eventually (knock on wood).
I ended up going home because my mother fell ill, and I found a job with the New York Jets which would be that frame and where I helped open MetLife Stadium as a Sales Specialist, then Manager of Consumer Sales and Service. Then the time came to look at premium. I felt I knew the ticket sales side of the business well enough. I sold it, I managed it, and I wanted to now sell premium. I was able to get a job with Barclays Center, Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment to open Barclays Center in 2012.
It was a fantastic experience. I got my chops there. I learned a lot from a lot of people. That started my journey.
I did pause the journey in premium to help relocate the New York Islanders from Nassau Coliseum over to Brooklyn. So, I have the distinction of being able to say I opened an NFL stadium, NBA Arena, and relocated an NHL team. That I was able to do everything from ticket sales to premium, which took everything I knew how to do and put it in one project.
Then in 2019 I was ironically out on a bachelor party when one of my good friends sent me a link for (at the time STAPLES Center) now Crypto.com Arena’s Premium Vice President. Obviously, everyone knows what that building is and everyone knows Michelle Kajiwara. So as soon as I got that link, I stopped everything – mid-drink – and I applied for the position to become Vice President here, and I've been doing it ever since. I'm currently overseeing our sales, our service, our marketing, and our business analytics.
What makes a premium seating executive stand out?
It’s really within its word, right? Within the question, right? Premium. For you to sell this product, you have to reflect what you sell. That comes from your appearance, to how you speak, to how you present things, to how you sell. Always putting the client, first which nine times out of ten tends to be business. You have to be able to speak to businesses, though I'm not saying that you have to speak any differently than you would, you know, talking to your friends.
Story for me… when I first got into premium over at Barclays Center, I was in a training with Lance Tyson and I thought I had to speak a certain way and you just use big words. Lance stopped me in my tracks and literally said, “Stop. You will never succeed in this business if you're not yourself.” And you know, that's something that I always tell the people that I work with or anyone who asks for advice.
Speaking of being yourself, you had a LinkedIn post recently that went viral. Tell me about it.
I posted on LinkedIn something from the heart. When I was starting my career in sports, I had braids, and someone told me that I would never make it in this industry with “those ghetto braids”.
You know without pushing me, this suggested that I cut those braids off. It hurt at the time, you know it's part of the culture I grew up in right? I'm from the South Bronx, I grew up in the hip hop culture, black also Latino, and it's something that that my culture is proud of right?
When I was a kid, you know, I’d go back and forth on how long it was. When I was in college, I grew my hair all the way down to my back and it was a sense of pride. My hair, my braids. And you keep it clean, you keep it looking nice. But it was something that you know I was made to feel ashamed of and that I couldn't work in a professional setting with my hair that way.
As you know, this is my 20th season in sports, from collegiate to professional. I'm now Vice President at one of the most iconic venues, and I'm supported by my boss, Michelle Kajiwara, and also my company and my colleagues. I felt like it was an appropriate time for me to put the braids back in and share that story because I know that it still happens and there are still kids coming up in this industry and other industries that may not feel comfortable with their hair and do all these other things to fit into some sort of mold that has been made up to determine what professional is, when the reality is that professional is what you do, not what you look like.
How can you, AEG, our industry collectively empower young, aspiring sports business professionals?
I think the best way we can inspire and make sure that our industry has folks once I'm long gone is to start educating at the ground level.
As I mentioned, I come from the South Bronx where the only ways out that were told to me was picking up a ball or a microphone entertaining to get out. The reality though is that you can make six figures selling, servicing. So it's huge for us to get out to the schools in the community and start at the high school level and start teaching these kids that there are other avenues. You can work within your love, sports or entertainment, but you don't have to be the actual sports or entertainment, right? You don't have to be the athlete or the artist.
It's huge for us to educate. At AEG, we're doing that through a few channels. We have a Global Partnership Inclusion Council which includes everyone on the global partnership side and we come together to ask, “how can we help the community?” That's one of the things that we focus on. In addition to diversity, equity, and hiring it’s also important for us to think about how we pitch our partners.
We also have our employee network groups. I'm part of the Black Equity Group on the leadership team there. I'm also executive sponsor for the Somos at AEG, which is the Latinx Group. We try to educate folks in high school, show them what we do, how we do it. It’s career development for ourselves also.
Whenever I walk into any room, I understand that I have two things on my shoulder: I'm black. I'm Latino. And everything that I do is going to reflect on those who walk in behind me a few years later. That might be a little bit of pressure to some, but to me it's a sense of pride. I get to pave a way. The road I had to take was a little bit bumpy. My goal and my responsibility is to make it smoother for the generation that comes behind me.
What else is Manny passionate about?
We work extremely hard in this industry and these jobs. Lots of stress, you know. Obviously in sports and entertainment, there's a lot of fun involved, but these things don't happen, the game doesn't happen, the show doesn't happen without hours of blood, sweat, and tears on our part.
So, my piece of advice is to make sure that you also take care of you. I'm a big runner. I've done 10 marathons and I run as much as I can. I work out every morning. If it’s theater, whatever it is that you're passionate about and you love, make sure you carve out time for that. You are just as important as what you do.
New York! It's always been my favorite marathon, will always be New York. Going through those five boroughs and being able to have millions of people cheering you on. It’s always going to be special, and you know for me being able to run through the Bronx and seeing my old neighborhood, it’s always special.