ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — Nic Barlage is a long ways away from working nearly 18-hour days in the Northwoods Baseball League as an intern for the Alexandria Beetles, but he hasn’t forgotten the lessons he learned from that time in west-central Minnesota.
“I did everything from the players’ laundry to on-field host for the games,” Barlage said. “The promotional stuff. Then you’re responsible for setting up the ballpark, hanging fence signs, rolling the infield... I think I got a $2,000 stipend for the summer. Over the three-and-a-half months or whatever it was, I think it was about 8 cents an hour is what I got paid. But it was a gateway to get into a career that I really wanted. It was worth it.”
Barlage is still thankful for the opportunity Beetles owners Jill and Jim Wagner gave him that summer as a college student at St. John’s University in Collegeville. Barlage parlayed that internship into a role as the Beetles’ assistant general manager under then general manager Ryan Vos the summer after his senior year.
Now 35-years-old, Barlage is working what he called his dream job in the NBA with the Cleveland Cavaliers. As the president of business operations for the Cavs, he oversees a staff of roughly 460 full-time employees and 1,800 part-time workers.
“From my perspective, every day is great.” Barlage said. “I don’t look at anything as a challenge. I look at it as an opportunity for us to get better. That allows you to maintain a positive baseline no matter what comes your way, whether it’s a player trade, a tough loss, a coaching change. I feel like if you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you never really feel like you’re working.”
From no calls back to the Cavs
Barlage graduated from Eagan High School before his mother and father, Jeanne and Mark, and his siblings, Ben and Dee, moved to Alexandria the summer after his senior year.
Nic started his college career at St. John’s University where he spent his first two years as a pre-med major and played three seasons of basketball. He admittedly struggled through his first couple years of college before meeting with a career counselor to seek advice.
“I just said, ‘Look, I’m struggling with this and I need to change it up.’" Barlage said. “He said, ‘Well, what are you passionate about?’ I said I’m passionate about sports. He said, ‘Why don’t you get a job in sports?’ I didn’t even know that existed.”
Barlage was hooked on the idea of working in professional sports from there. He spent hours in the library at the College of Saint Benedict where he applied for 172 jobs his senior year. Not one application earned a call back.
“I had been well-versed in my research and knew that getting entry into professional sports was extremely difficult,” Barlage said. “For me, it really just motivated me.”
Barlage waited for a few more months before Vos called with an opportunity. Barlage could work as the assistant general manager for the Beetles that summer as he continued to look for an opening in the NBA. That was a chance to sell to area businesses, while managing a staff on game days.
“What I learned very early on was the importance of selling and how to sell the right way and the importance of relationships,” Barlage said. “The importance of exceeding a client’s expectations, no matter what it was. It taught me the value of generating revenue and doing it through sustainable relationships, and I had a great mentor in Ryan Vos.”
At the end of that summer, Barlage got his foot in the door through an entry-level sales job with the Phoenix Suns. His time in the NBA has included two stints with the Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers. He worked for the Timberwolves in Minnesota for a few months before moving on to sell suites and premium seating with the Charlotte Bobcats. During his final year in Charlotte, he led the organization in new-business development.
Barlage came back to Cleveland in 2017 under his current role. He was recently named one of Sports Business Journal’s 40 under 40 honorees for 2020 after leading the business side of a nearly $250 million renovation project for the Cavaliers’ home arena.
“I’m extremely proud of how our team came together and made a great product for our city and our region,” he said. “It’s a defining moment in a lot of people’s careers because of how big it was. I’m proud to be a part of a team that knocked it out of the ballpark. It’s not my success. It takes a strong village of people to accomplish something like this.”
No silver bullet
Barlage is adamant that there is no silver bullet in getting a top position in professional sports.
“I was willing to work extremely hard,” he said. “My first seven years of my career, I probably worked about 16-18 hours a day. I was willing to take on difficult situations... I think you have those moments in time when some people look at things as adversity. I’ve always viewed them as opportunities.”
Barlage also understands that none of this has happened alone. His family encouraged him. His bosses and staff members have been integral parts in helping him grow in his profession.
“I’ve had great mentors who have helped me every step of the way,” he said.
Barlage also tries to live by the characteristics he looks for in people in every hire he makes that center around hard work, a positive attitude, a passion for their work and understanding the importance of relationship building.
“You combine those things, and it allows you to maybe achieve things you never thought you could achieve,” he said. “When I took that job in Phoenix, I wrote down 13 goals, and this was one of them. I’ve had this as a goal for a very long time, but you don’t achieve it on your own.”