By Bridgett Harris
Kassidi Gilgenast is passionate about establishing volleyball as the next big sport in the United States.
At the beginning of this year, she took on the role of chief marketing officer at USA Volleyball and got to work building out the organization’s marketing team and supporting all areas of its operations.
“I love marketing and building brands,” Gilgenast said, “and that was the focus of my professional background and my education before I came to USA Volleyball.”
Gilgenast played volleyball at Liberty High School in Colorado Springs, and while pursuing a degree in business administration at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. That experience, coupled with her work in advertising and brand consulting after graduation, equipped her with the insights and skills she brings to USA Volleyball.
While Gilgenast is new to the role of CMO, she has been a part of the organization for several years. Her first job at USA Volleyball was as an assistant in the high performance department, where she worked closely with athletes to help them develop and advance in the sport. She had been working as a barista when she applied for the position soon after returning to the Springs with her husband, who had deployed overseas with the Army.
When USA Volleyball started seeking a new direction for its marketing and branding initiatives two years ago, Gilgenast was given the opportunity to lead. She’d been promoted from her original position, but the new direction was her chance to use the skills closest to her heart. Her role later shifted to director of marketing, where she began establishing a marketing department and set of operations for the organization.
“I placed a high emphasis on building out our team and building our brand equity,” she said.
After a year in that role, Gilgenast was promoted to CMO. She spoke with the Business Journal about the future of USA Volleyball, the impact of technology on sports marketing and the need for leadership and flexibility to overcome challenges.
Describe the work you do at USA Volleyball.
I oversee three core functional areas: marketing, communications and creative services. I determine the strategic direction for the brand overall and spearhead business development from a sponsorship and corporate partnership standpoint. I also work with companies that might have interest in partnering with us, as well as with our athletes and intellectual property.
How do you think technology has impacted the business of sports?
I think it has impacted it tremendously. Now more than ever, people are able to get closer to athletes in real time than they ever have before. While it is beneficial, it has presented some major challenges for the professional athletes that we work with on our national team. Their every move is more and more visible and they’re more accessible to their fans. They are very much in the spotlight almost 24/7 which is a really challenging thing to handle on an ongoing basis. We spend a lot of time trying to support them and how they portray themselves on social media, to the press and to their fans and the world in general.
How has technology impacted sports marketing?
As an organization it has really empowered us to create content that is so much more dynamic. We have a huge focus on rich media. Our ability to be more impactful in our storytelling, particularly in telling the stories of our athletes through video, has been extremely powerful for our team. For sports, technology has created a monumental shift in the way that people consume information.
What does that mean for USA Volleyball?
In this new era, technology is critical for us as we try to build a volleyball up as the next big sport domestically — we already see a lot of popularity overseas. In the United States, the sports conversation is typically dominated by football, basketball, baseball and hockey. Volleyball is the largest girls’ participatory sport in the country in both high school and college. Volleyball is the next big mainstream sport and we’re working on building out plans for a professional league. It’s an exciting time for the sport.
What digital tool would you recommend to an up-and-coming sports organization or small business with a sport focus?
I would say that social media probably has the highest impact and return on investment. Many small businesses can benefit from the amazing potential reach that they can take advantage of if they can do it well. It has been one of the most impactful pieces of digital media for us. As a national governing body, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of being very formal and official in the way that we communicate with people. We’ve tried to take a different approach so that we can really reach people and they can relate to what we’re doing. They can relate to our athletes and they can really see themselves in their shoes. It’s a way to make an athlete’s path on the Olympic or Paralympic journey really resonate with our audience.
What advice would you give to athletes planning ahead for a post-sport career?
My biggest piece of advice is to seek out mentors and to build your network even while you’re still in school. That can be as simple as finding somebody who’s doing a job that you think you want to do and offering to take them to lunch or buy them a coffee and pick their brain. That was one of the areas where I was most successful early on in my career. I wanted to learn about what it was that the people were doing that I wanted to do. I picked up so many great tips and so much good information that helped me shape my career early on in a way that was really productive.
It’s easy for us as athletes when it comes to planning, particularly in Division One. We have our decisions made by our staff for four years; they plan out all of our activities. They tell you where you need to go, they take care of your travel and everything. It’s a major shift as a young professional to have ownership over those things. The ownership of building your network is a critical part of achieving your goal. Treat your professional skillset the same way that you treat your athletic skillset. It’s a muscle that you have to continue to grow and to flex over time. You have to be adaptable and you have to be ready for change. You also have to be flexible to the extent that you can mold yourself to move where the opportunities come up.
What are your thoughts on the current advancements the Springs sports scene?
It’s been a really incredible trajectory of growth for all the national governing bodies in the Springs with the development of the Olympic City USA concept. I think that has really given the space for them, and other sports across the city, to unify their efforts and feel like we’re all a part of the greater Olympic movement — which is really exciting.
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound impact on the sports industry. What’s your advice for athletes, teams and sports-oriented businesses concerned about the future?
One of the biggest pieces of advice that I have comes from one of my favorite authors, Simon Sinek — [and that] is to have existential flexibility. Be prepared that the landscape after the fact is not going to look the same as the landscape before. Right now, we still have no idea how this type of event is going to impact us locally or globally. If we maintain our existential flexibility as organizations, our operations can continue, and we can work to develop a vision for life after this crisis. We can provide people with a positive mindset so they can continue to look to the industry for hope and for empowerment.