Keri Lockett applies the lessons of sports to her life

When Keri Lockett was growing up, she says that "sports were always an integral part of who I was." Keri was recruited to play Division 1 softball, and found out she could combine her love of athletics with a real career prospects in sports marketing. After working at ESPN and the Big Ten Network, Keri now works for Pepsi, running their Player of the Year program for high school. She tells us that the keys to her success are applying her drive and work ethic to academics and work, building relationships, and finding a way to do work she really cares about.

Keri played softball and basketball in high school, and for a travel softball team as well. She credits her travel team coach for getting recruited to play softball in college..


Where she’s from: Suburban Chicago, Illinois
Grew up with: mom and dad, older brother
Education: B.S. in sports management and M.S. in sports marketing from the University of Illinois and an MBA from University of Notre Dame
Where she lives now: Chicago, Illinois
Growing up she wanted to be: she wasn't thinking past college
Now she’s: running Gatorade's Athlete of the Year / Player of the Year program at Pepsi

Tell us about yourself growing up!

I was definitely very athletic, sports focused, and competitive. I remember in seventh grade, [an eighth grader] won this athlete of the year award at [her elementary school] Sears. It was not just for athletics, but it was also for her character. I remember thinking I had a bad attitude, and there’s no way I was going to win that award.

I went to [the gym teacher], and I said, I don’t think I could win this award today. What do I need to do to get there? I started working with her directly, and I think that was a turning point in my life. That award made me really focus on being less aggressive, and nice to others, and more respectful. That became more of my overall identity. Sports were always an integral part of who I was, but I had the sportsmanship side of it. I put that into other areas of my life, trying to be a leader, and helpful, and a team player, and nice, and respectful, and just genuinely caring about other people.

Can you talk a little bit about the sports you played?

I played football. When I was actually playing, I remember one of the moms saying to me, “what, are you trying to make a statement?” At the time, I barely even knew what that meant. It was just because I wanted to play, and I had fun playing it. In high school, basketball and softball, and then I started to focus on softball, and part of the reason was because I got hurt in football.

I hurt my back in one of the last games of eighth grade season. I couldn't really play basketball at a high level because of it, and so I focused in on softball. I grew up playing soccer. In high school, I only played two sports, and I wish I would've played volleyball also, or field hockey, or soccer, and been more involved in a variety of sports. I also sometimes get the feeling that I should've just focused in on softball and worked a lot harder at it.

Who were your support networks when you were growing up?

My parents were, but neither of them were really athletes. It was, “we’ll help you get to practice.” Coaches were super influential. Coaches are always the biggest source of support. Bud Beard took me under his wing and wanted to be a mentor, and I’d go over there once a month and just sit with him or sit with him and his wife. He was always trying to instill these life lessons.

He wanted to be very inspirational to a lot of kids, and he’d always come around. He’d come around my softball games or throw an apple or gum over the fence. He’d mentor a lot of Northwestern athletes. It was his passion.

[Ed. Note: Bud Beard was a resident of our small town who dedicated his retirement to local kids, particularly athletes, before passing away at age 96 in 2014. He was a tireless booster of all our local teams and forged lasting friendships with many people that continued into their adulthood.]

How did you feel about school?

I’d say junior high or maybe in high school, I wasn’t the smartest kid in the class. Being a pretty competitive person, I don’t like being in situations where I’m not winning. It wasn’t my biggest strength. Then one of my best friends in high school pushed me a little bit and was like, “you know, you’re smarter than you’re showing. You’re just not trying hard enough.” I started pushing myself a little bit more. Maybe it didn't come naturally to me, but the harder I worked, I started getting really good grades. Eventually, that helped me get into Illinois, and then at Illinois, graduating with high honors, and then at Notre Dame, I graduated with high honors.

For me, it all became about work ethic. Athletics came so naturally to me, but I think school is a key to open up so many doors of opportunity, which is why I went and got my master’s and my MBA. Knowledge is so incredibly important.

I could leverage softball to help me get a great education.

Ker (right) playing softball at the University of Illinois. A teammate connected Keri to her first job at ESPN.

Did you get recruited to play softball at Illinois?

I got recruited. This is probably the one area where I had the foresight to think about my future. I always knew that I wasn’t going to go on to play professional softball, but I could leverage softball to help me get a great education.

I was recruited by UIC, University of Illinois-Chicago. Illinois [University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign] didn't have a program yet when I was in high school, and then they actually launched their program. My senior year of high school was University of Illinois’ first year of having a softball team. The assistant coach at UIC got the head coach job at Illinois. She then recruited me to Illinois, and I was like, oh, no-brainer.

What did you do to get recruited? Who helped you with that?

I did have a tape, and I sent it out and got a lot of letters. They’d come in the mail, and it was really exciting. I played competitively on a travel team during the summer, and my club team softball coach was phenomenal. He knew the process. He had relationships with coaches. He helped me send out my tapes. We played in a lot of exposure tournaments, where college coaches specifically signed up to go watch players.

I could combine my passion and love of athletics with what I do in the business world and actually make money off of it.

How did you decide to study sports management?

In high school, I had no idea what to pick. A girl on my floor was in a sports management program. She said, “Keri, this makes such perfect sense for you. Go talk to my academic advisor.” I did, and we talked about potential careers that could come out of it. I could combine my passion and love of athletics with what I do in the business world and actually make money off of it.

What did you do after undergrad?

When it was coming time to graduate undergrad, I had been looking on the agency side, on the team side, on the client side, and nothing was really coming to fruition, and I thought, well, “Why don’t I just go straight through and get my master’s in sports management?” I did, and I was able to accelerate through that program and get it done in one year.

One of my teammates at Illinois had been talking to ESPN about a production assistant position there. She had gotten word through a friend of ours, who was already working for ESPN. My friend, Sarah, turned it down because she took a different opportunity. She said, “Keri, this is a dream job for you. Why don’t I reach out to Carol and tell her you’re interested?”

It was really right place, right time. ESPN was coming to Illinois to do a recruiting trip that next week. I met with the recruiter, and we set up an interview in Bristol, Connecticut. I ended up going out there, and he said, “This isn’t really an interview. The job is yours if you want it.” It was a no-brainer. I started out as a production assistant for ESPN. Not only is ESPN huge, it’s a part of Disney and ABC, and once you’re in, it’s a lot easier to move around

Did you move around within ESPN?

I had gotten word that the Big Ten Conference was launching a joint venture with Fox Sports to form the Big Ten Network, and for me, it was absolutely perfect because, one, it was a marketing position. Two, it was back in Chicago, home for me, and three, it was the Big Ten. I had played softball and had two degrees from Illinois.

I ended up working my way through the Big Ten Network consumer marketing division for about seven years. I was there from the time the Big Ten Network launched and was consumer marketing manager. I oversaw all of our media buying, our creative, all of the creative output from the network, and then the majority of all our events. It was a small team and a lot of responsibility. Seven years in one place, you kind of master your role, and you look for more challenging and new opportunities.

How did you transition from the Big Ten Network to Pepsi?

I was thinking long term about my career and thinking that going into consumer-packaged goods was probably the smartest long-term decision from a traditional marketing perspective. I started talking to people and finding out what the gaps were in my experiences and my skillsets and what I needed to do to get there. One of the things I found out quickly was that you need an MBA to even be considered in a consumer packaged goods marketing role. I started working on my MBA at Notre Dame about five years in at the Big Ten Network. I was doing a part-time program. The end goal was to transition my career.

Why did you decide to do your MBA part time versus full time?

It didn't make sense for me to take two years off and acquire that debt while not having any income. The structure of Notre Dame’s program fit perfectly with the opportunity to continue working and tackle my MBA at the same time. I don’t know how I got through it, but I’m happy I did both at the same time.

How did you get your job at Gatorade?

My program wrapped up in 2014, and I had been networking at Gatorade for quite a while. I was starting to get to know a lot of senior-level leadership and people on the inside who were looking to find ways to get me in. I ended up being considered for two different roles at Gatorade. The one that panned out is the A plus dream job. I’m on our Youth Pipeline team. It’s only a team of four. Half of our team works on camps, and tournaments, and leveraging relationships with NCAA partners. I have the high school side of the responsibilities.

Keri gets to present Gatorade Players of the Year with their awards. She's here with Erin Boley, this year's winner for girls basketball. (Image courtesy of the Courier-Journal)

Can you tell us about the Athlete of the Year program?

80 to 90 percent of everything I do is the Gatorade Athlete of the Year / Player of the Year program, which is one of the most prestigious awards in all of high school athletics. We’re selecting our athletes not just because of what they’re able to do on the field or on the court, but also what they’re doing in the community and in the classroom.

We recognize the state winner in each of the 12 sports, six girls and six boys. Once you’re a state winner, you’re eligible for the national award. To award our national Player of the Year, I go out to the kid’s high school with a professional athlete in that sport, and we surprise them with the news and the trophy. It’s really cool.

At the end of the year, we take all 12 of our winners to Los Angeles for the Athlete of the Year awards ceremony. It’s this big, blowout event where we recognize our two Gatorade Athletes of the Year. The next day, we take them to the ESPYs. They get to walk the red carpet, and they’re announced as the Gatorade Players of the Year. It’s great to see these kids, who they are as people, and their families, and then see them go on to do amazing things. My Athlete of the Year winner this year, Sydney McLaughlin, was competing in the Olympics this year, and it’s just mind-blowing.

I always think that if you align your career with your passion, you don’t feel like you’re working. I love my job. It’s an extension of who I am.

How did you get such a cool job?

I had been willing to take something outside of athletics, and that was hard for me. I was willing to sacrifice in order to get that foot in the door with the end goal of figuring out how I could get back into a brand that is based on sports science, or nutrition. I got lucky because I think that it was a combination of right time, and my background, and experiences that made this a perfect fit.

I always think that if you align your career with your passion, you don’t feel like you’re working. People say that, but for me right now, I don’t work. I love my job. It’s an extension of who I am.

Keri, front and center, runs Gatorade's softball team, in addition to playing on two flag football teams, a basketball team, and a dodgeball team.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I absolutely have a competitive edge that definitely needs to be filled. I play a lot of intermural sports. I run the Gatorade softball team. I have a co-ed flag football team, and it’s an awesome group of people. We have so much fun playing together. I play on an all-girls flag football team. I play on a basketball team, and then dodgeball.

At least four or five times a week, I have a game, and then there’s a crossfit gym that I belong to, which I think is super inspirational. Then the usual stuff, like hanging out with friends, and trying new restaurants, and concerts, and all of the other fun things to do that are a little bit less competitive.

What advice would you give to somebody who was a kid like you, somebody who’s really into sports, maybe hadn’t found their niche academically yet?

Your window of athleticism is small in the scheme of life. It’s really hard to conceptualize when you’re in high school, that, at a certain point, you can’t play at a high level of competition anymore. The advice that I would give to someone who is truly passionate about sports is to just keep playing, and train hard, and work as hard as you can, and not to give up, because one day you’re not going to be able to be involved in athletics at a high level.

It’s really important to build that network and maintain that network, and not in an “I-need-something-from-you” sort of way. Authentically engage in developing relationships. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to work with sports professionally like you have?

If you really are truly passionate about it, there are great careers in sports. Stay focused on evolving your career in your passion, because you can. You have to be dedicated, and you have to be persistent. My number-one piece of advice is networking, and as much as great grades, and advanced degrees, and all of that are the baseline minimum requirements, I have found across the board that the people who end up with the job are the ones who know people.

It’s really important to build that network and maintain that network, and not in an “I-need-something-from-you” sort of way. Authentically engage in developing relationships. If you see an article that reminds you of someone in your network, send it over to them, and say, “Hey, I saw this. Was thinking about you.” Or ask to go get coffee, or breakfast. Constantly maintain that network, because, ultimately, people want to hire people that they know and trust or that people can personally vouch for.

I always knew that sports would be ingrained in my life, and it was just a matter of making it happen. 

How does your life now compare to what you thought your adult life would be like as a teenager?

I don’t know what my long-term vision was when I was younger. When I was in high school, I saw into college, and I don’t know if I had an imagination beyond that. I always knew that sports would be ingrained in my life because it was a huge part of my identity, and it was just a matter of making it happen. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Check out some of Keri's favorite books!