Pro basketball team makes big investment in 5-foot-2 South Alabama grad

Pro basketball team makes big investment in 5-foot-2 South Alabama grad
Karli Sanford's highly successful student experience with University of South Alabama Athletics has prepared her for a job with the Phoenix Suns that she begins next month. (University of South Alabama)

Karli Sanford loves sports, in an unusual way. That passion got her a student job in promotions at University of South Alabama Athletics. Now she’s preparing to go directly from graduation to a full-time job with a big-league professional team in a city she has never even visited.

Sanford is a candidate to receive a Bachelor of Science in business administration with a concentration in marketing management. On June 4, she joins the Phoenix Suns of the National Basketball Association.

She won’t be playing basketball; she’s 5 feet, 2½ inches tall and joked that when she does meet the actual players, she’ll be “looking up at them with my head straight back.” She’ll be a sales consultant on the New Business Team.

Karli Sanford is excited about heading to Phoenix for her first post-college job with the Suns. (University of South Alabama)

The Suns are making a big investment in her. She will receive eight to 12 months of intensive sales and career development training. The program “acts as a training/feeder system toward senior-level positions,” according to Sanford’s job description. “They’ll train us to sell the whole menu — anything from courtside seats to group nights and experiences memberships,” she said. The training prepares her to become an account executive, doing sales for not only the Suns but also the Phoenix Mercury of the Women’s National Basketball Association and the Arizona Rattlers of the Indoor Football League.

“What I really loved about talking with the people out there with the Phoenix Suns is that they preach on family,” Sanford said. “They say, ‘Welcome to the family.’ At South, we’re all a big family, too. So that was something that really meant a lot to me.”

She made her first contact with the Suns in December as part of her general job search. After two phone interviews in February and a Skype video interview in March with the director of the sales program, Sanford got the position — without ever traveling to Phoenix or physically meeting anyone with the team.

“I’m totally excited about it, but it’s going to be a completely new adventure,” she said. “My dad is having to take a week off work to move me out there because it’s a 24-hour drive.”

After her busy college years with South Alabama Athletics, Karli Sanford is ready for a new adventure. (University of South Alabama)

Sanford came to South Alabama intending to study nursing. She thought she had ruled out a sports career years before. Back home in Oakman, 40 miles northwest of Birmingham, she had quit playing softball at age 8 and switched to cheerleading and competing in beauty pageants. “I’ve gotten pretty good at throwing a T-shirt or a foam football or a foam basketball,” she said. “But me throwing a softball? No way.”

While everyone else was following the game, she watched the crowd. To a sports fan, that may seem weird. To a marketer, it makes total sense. And she’s still associated with pageants “on the other side of the makeup brush.” Sanford helps contestants as a freelance  makeup artist and hair stylist.

“You will find this very hard to believe,” said Travis Toth, senior associate athletic director/external affairs at South Alabama, “but I think that in all of our years together, which is over three years now, Karli and I never talked sports. She’s very much like I have been. I’ve spent 23 years in sports, and I don’t really ever remember watching too many games while I’m working. It’s always about the atmosphere and the crowd and the reaction.”

Toth has worked in radio and computer sales and was vice president and general manager of the Mobile BayBears minor league baseball team from 2004 until 2008. “He really invested in me,” Sanford said. “He saw a student that really wanted to do something, so he made time to make sure that I grew.”

Her mentor refused to take credit for her accomplishments. “She was so animated and engaging that she was a can’t miss,” Toth said. “She’s on the fast track because she has it. There’s an ‘it’ factor when it comes to marketing. She has it.”

USA student Karli Sanford’s improvements to the JagPride student sports app were a big hit. (University of South Alabama)

In a way, Sanford continued her cheerleading career at South Alabama. “I love being in the arena or being on the field and just taking it all in,” she said. “Taking in those emotions. Watching people waving their hands for a T-shirt, getting them excited about it. Getting them to enjoy it, to laugh, to have fun and to create memories with their friends and their families.”

She started in February 2015 as a student assistant for Promotions. “She made a phenomenal impression,” Toth said. The department had launched a program called Jag Swag to reward students for attending Jaguars athletic events. “Karli took this Jag Swag app and brought me an entire marketing plan to rename it, rebrand it and relaunch it,” Toth said. “At the time I was pretty hesitant because we had gotten it off the ground. It seemed to be successful and working. She told me it could be much more successful.”

She was right. With the help of Cortney Moore, Toth’s graduate assistant at the time and now an account executive for the department, she revved it up into the JagPride Student Rewards Program. Via a geolocation app on their phones, students get points for attending Jaguars sporting events — which the app conveniently lists. Students redeem the points for Jaguars-branded merchandise (phone wallets, backpacks, foam fingers, etc.) and sponsor-provided prizes, such as food, supermarket gift cards and car washes. Since the rebranding, app usage has increased by 135 percent and student check-in via the app has increased by 296 percent.

In addition to being JagPride coordinator, Sanford is the corporate sales student assistant. She has taken none of her advancement at South Alabama for granted. “My dad always told me growing up, ‘Show me. Don’t tell me. Show me.’ So that’s the motto that I go by.”

Her education will continue even after she walks up to accept her diploma.

“I think part of life is, you’re supposed to grow throughout life,” Sanford said. “You’re not supposed to just grow into the person you’re supposed to be when you’re an adult and then you’re that person for the rest of your life. I think that you can constantly make yourself a better person professionally and personally.”

South Alabama strengthened that determination in her. “It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire life,” she said. “I’ve made connections. I’ve made family here. And so South will always be home.

“I’m looking forward to seeing South grow in the future as I grow in my future. I look forward to coming back for homecoming games. I’m going to be a very proud alumna. I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for South.”

This story originally appeared on the University of South Alabama’s website.

Related Stories