SBJ/October 24 - 30, 2005/SBJ In Depth

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  • Behrens gets players involved in community

    Kathy Behrens is an NBA executive who doesn’t negotiate media deals, peddle sponsorships or handle labor relations, but as senior vice president of community and player programs, she wields considerable influence among the league’s top dealmakers.

    She is responsible for fulfilling NBA Commissioner David Stern’s edict of social responsibility. Her job indirectly also speaks to the league’s image by getting players involved in charitable efforts while raising the players’ social awareness.

    Behrens travels the globe overseeing and coordinating the league’s community programs that send players all over the world while spreading the NBA gospel along the way. The league recently announced a major new caused-related marketing program called NBA Cares. Other major initiatives include programs such as the Read to Achieve and Basketball Without Borders efforts that were created in 2001.

    It takes a combination of political savvy, salesmanship and a deep sense of community to do her job and to get NBA players to buy into the league’s social responsibility. Behrens has to work with all factions of the league, from its teams to the National Basketball Players Association, and there is a large corporate component to link the league’s outreach efforts with companies.

    “Nothing is more important to us than our social responsibility efforts, and she is our ace there,” Stern said. “She brings a hard-nosed, get-it-done approach to charitable work and social responsibility, and she has a keen understanding of how to use athletes to get that done.”

    And after last season’s Indiana Pacers/Detroit Pistons brawl that marred the NBA season, the league and its players need all the good will they can get.

    “You can’t be around this league and not know how important the community outreach is,” Behrens said. “But the internal frustration is that people, the media and the general public want to pay attention to bad things instead of the good things. It is not the full picture of the NBA and its players.”

    As executive director at New York Cares, Behrens, a Bronx native, was introduced to the NBA’s social responsibility efforts when she teamed with the league for charitable events during the 1998 All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden. Before joining New York Cares in 1995, Behrens worked for former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in a variety of jobs, including executive director of the Friends of Cuomo Campaign Committee during Cuomo’s unsuccessful 1994 re-election campaign.

    In 2000 the NBA, drawing on Behrens’ political and community experience, offered her the job of vice president of community programs. This past spring, she was promoted to senior vice president, a top-level role that she could hardly have predicted when she graduated in 1985 from the University of Hartford with a degree in special education. “I was a special education major, but I was also president of student government and got involved in politics, and when I left Hartford I knew I didn’t want to teach,” she said.

    Behrens is vigilant about exposing NBA players to community service. Before every draft, players are lined up with local community events as part of their introduction to the league. The players may be newly minted millionaires, but Behrens makes sure they understand there are obligations that come with their newfound wealth.

    NBA and WNBA players have drawn praise for their “Operation Rebound” program that raised $2.5 million for victims of Hurricane Katrina. On the same day of the hurricane relief effort announcement, the players also announced a “Feed the Children” campaign in South Africa.

    “The players embrace it more and more,” Behrens said. “Even the younger players know about what we do. Our commitment is to do more, both in our team and non-team markets. We want to try to have a presence that just doesn’t promote the game of basketball.”

    Staff writer Terry Lefton contributed to this report.

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  • Can Maverick Carter prove critics wrong?

    When LeBron James decided to fire his agent and hire three close friends to manage his business deals, some people scoffed, especially knowing that the man James hired to lead the effort was a mere 23 years old.

    “James’ switcheroo a youthful mistake,” the Chicago Sun-Times said.

    Some have questioned how well Carter, at age 24, can lead LeBron James’ new management team.
    “Team LeBron might have taken a turn for the worse,” said the Columbus Dispatch.

    Jim Corbett, a former NFL player who now runs a money management firm, told the Akron Beacon Journal, “I will promise you really ugly things will happen. This is a big mistake, a bad decision that is going to cost LeBron.”

    At the center of the debate is Maverick Carter, a childhood friend of James who took over the management of his career in May after James fired veteran NBA player agent Aaron Goodwin.

    In his first interview about his role in James’ management, Carter, now 24, offered few details about the inner workings of the new organization. But several people in the industry say they have confidence in Carter’s ability, that he’s asking the right questions and building a team that makes up for his lack of experience.

    ‘4 Horsemen’

    James’ endorsement deals are the envy of pro sports. They include relationships with Upper Deck trading cards, Bubblicious chewing gum, Coca-Cola brands Sprite and Powerade and shoe and apparel giant Nike, which agreed to pay him $90 million over seven years about a month before James became the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft.

    All of those endorsements were negotiated by Goodwin, who signed James just before he went pro. Goodwin was fired in early May.

    Carter leads a team that also includes James’ friends Randy Mims and Richard Paul.
    Since then, if you ask anyone in James’ outer circle about what is going on with the Cavaliers forward, they refer all questions to Carter. Time and again you hear, “You have to talk to Maverick.”

    If you ask Carter about his role as the leader of the team, however, he bristles. “I want people to know this management group,” he said. “We work together as a team. Everything we do is a team effort and we run it as a business.”

    The team includes James, Carter and James’ other two closest friends, Randy Mims and Richard Paul. The four have called themselves “The Four Horsemen,” and have reserved the names “4 Horsemen Development Co.” and “4 Horsemen Management Co.” with the Ohio Secretary of State’s office.

    Mims handles James’ complicated logistics and travel schedules. Carter, who is based in Cleveland, handles James’ marketing, public relations and overall brand. And Paul works closely with Carter on image issues, Carter said.

    Despite rumors and some press reports, Carter said he is not James’ first cousin, though he acknowledged that they are “somehow related.” Growing up in the same neighborhood in north Akron, Ohio, “I have known him all my life,” Carter said of James. “We are like brothers.”

    Carter will not talk about why Goodwin was fired or even why he doesn’t want to talk about it. But he makes it clear the real leader of the new management group is James, with whom he talks four or five times a day.

    “LeBron decided … the way he wanted to do it is to set up himself as if he was a brand or business,” Carter said. “We have helped him put this together. It’s not that I have done this.”

    Carter can be a bit wary when discussing his role. His reticence is not surprising, considering how media outlets met the news of his hiring.

    But plenty of people in the industry say that although James and Carter are young, they have made smart moves right off the bat.

    For starters, James recently hired his first financial adviser, Kurt Schoeppler, senior vice president of McCormack Advisors International. Carter would not comment on that hiring, saying that James’ finances are a private matter. Schoeppler also would not comment.

    Goodwin did not return a phone call for this story, but he told SportsBusiness Journal in 2004, almost a year after James signed the Nike deal, that James had yet to choose a financial adviser, a revelation that raised a lot of eyebrows in the sports financial adviser community.

    Also part of the new team is seasoned public relations executive Keith Estabrook, who formerly held corporate communications positions at Sony Music Entertainment and Hachette Filipacchi Magazines and was involved in the re-launch of Elle magazine and the launch of George magazine.

    Additionally, Fred Nance, a respected lawyer with the Cleveland firm Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP, has taken a bigger role in the new management group. Under Goodwin’s leadership, Nance was relegated to local litigation work for James, but now he is involved in reviewing and negotiating contracts, as well as general business planning. It was Nance who successfully defended against eligibility questions regarding James’ purchase of a Hummer while James was in high school.

    Carter could have applied to become a National Basketball Players Association-certified agent and represented James in his NBA player contract negotiations. But he chose, instead, to hire Leon Rose, a Philadelphia lawyer who counts Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson among his clients.

    “First and foremost, I think LeBron himself has become heavily involved in his affairs and decision making,” Rose said. “What has been put in place is a team that has within it checks and balances, which I believe is beneficial to a client.

    “Rather than one person handling all of the different aspects of his business affairs, you have different people and different entities involved.”

    Right-hand man

    Nance said of the criticism that James and Carter endured when Goodwin was fired, “I say the proof will be in the pudding. Give it the better part of the year and compare where he will be at that point, compared to where he was.”

    LeBron’s next deal

    LeBron James has already amassed a reported $135 million in endorsement deals, so what’s next?

    Expect deals with a fast-food company and an automaker, said Maverick Carter, the head of his new management team. “Those are two big silos or categories that he doesn’t have [filled].”
    Carter would not name the companies James is talking to, or give any indication when agreements may be completed. But he said, “We are always reviewing proposals. … The number changes all the time. There could be three this week, none next week, 10 the week after that.”
    Rose, Carter and Nance said that the team, meaning “The Four Horsemen,” and the outside consultants chat regularly.

    “LeBron selected this team,” Nance said. “LeBron is the ultimate decision-maker. We give him advice. We make sure he is fully informed before he makes a decision, but it is his decision.

    “I would say that Maverick is functioning as LeBron’s right hand. While he is not authorized to make deals without LeBron’s approval, he does engage in discussions with potential partners and explores opportunities and brings them back to the team.”

    Carter couldn’t say how the new management team around James functions differently than the old one under Goodwin. “I wasn’t involved enough in his old management to know the difference,” he said.

    One of the biggest decisions James and his new team will have to make in the next two years, and that may determine how big the LeBron brand becomes, isn’t any single endorsement deal. It is whether James will stay in Cleveland or move to New York or Los Angeles when he can become an unrestricted free agent in two years.

    “I’ll tell you this,” Carter said, “LeBron at this time is very, very happy with Cleveland. Whether he can say that tomorrow or the next day, I don’t know.”

    Sonny Vaccaro, who signed Michael Jordan to his historic Nike shoe deal and is now a consultant to Reebok, predicted that James will move to New York or Los Angeles if Cleveland doesn’t win a championship before his contract expires.

    “He has to do it because of who he is,” Vaccaro said. And, he added, when and if James becomes a free agent, “It is going to be a frenzy.”

    Vaccaro is among those who believe Carter can handle the pressure of leading James’ team. Like some others interviewed for this article, Vaccaro said that one of Carter’s best qualities is that he is constantly asking for advice from people with more experience, and that he listens to their answers.

    “Maverick is not afraid to call other people,” Vaccaro said. “He is without ego, where others [in the sports industry] are constrained by ego and vanity.”

    Basketball agent Bill Duffy, whose NBA client list includes Yao Ming, Carmelo Anthony and Steve Nash, said, “Maverick is a good guy. I think he is humble. When I have ever met him he is eager to get advice and input from people who are established. I am sure he is studying the icons, the Tiger Woodses and people like that.”

    Tom Shine, Reebok’s senior vice president of sports and entertainment worldwide, said he also is impressed with Carter. “He asks if he doesn’t know,” said Shine. “The thing about him is he is constantly learning and adding [to his knowledge.] He isn’t enamored with the position he is in. He is enamored with the opportunity.”

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  • NBA smoothing things out

    It’s been nearly a year since Ron Artest jumped off a scorer’s table in Detroit and waded into the Palace at Auburn Hills crowd with his fists flying. But the melee still represents a critical issue facing the league as it tips off its 2005-06 season Nov. 1: Improving the perceived image of its players.

    The league has reason for optimism as it prepares for the upcoming season. Last year brought an increase in average attendance, a new collective-bargaining agreement and a jump in playoff television ratings. But the signs of success get clouded by the player-image issue.

    One team executive put it this way: “Business is good. Just think of how much better our business would be if we had a good player image.”

    Team and league officials now publicly are addressing questions surrounding negative player-image issues that crested with the brawl last November between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons.

    January 1997
    The Chicago Bulls’ Dennis Rodman, during a game in Minnesota, kicks a cameraman in the groin. Rodman agrees to a $200,000 settlement six days after the game. He draws a $25,000 fine and 11-game suspension from the league.

    December 1997
    Latrell Sprewell of the Golden State Warriors physically attacks his coach, P.J. Carlesimo. Sprewell’s contract is terminated and the NBA suspends him for 68 games. The incident costs Sprewell $6.4 million and his shoe deal with Converse.

    February 1998
    George Shinn, then owner of the Charlotte Hornets, is accused of sexual assault. A jury later clears him, but fan disenchantment heightens, leading to the team’s eventual move to New Orleans.

    May 1998
    Sports Illustrated publishes an article titled “Where’s Daddy?” focusing on children fathered out of wedlock by NBA players.

    July 1998
    The league and the players association fail to agree on a new labor agreement. Owners lock players out, canceling 464 games and cutting each club’s 1998-99 regular-season schedule from 82 games to 50.

    October 2000
    Allen Iverson’s rap album titled “Non-Fiction” is criticized by NBA Commissioner David Stern as having lyrics that “are coarse, offensive and anti-social.” The album’s planned release is scrapped.

    February 2001
    The Toronto Raptors’ Charles Oakley tells the New York Post that the league’s drug-testing policy is “a joke” and says that more than half of the league’s players are regular marijuana smokers.

    July 2003
    The Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant is charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman he met at a spa in Colorado. The case is eventually dropped by prosecutors after the accuser refuses to testify. Bryant loses sponsors Coca-Cola, Nutella and McDonald’s and does not appear in a Nike ad for two years.

    April 2004
    Former New Jersey Nets star Jayson Williams is convicted on charges related to tampering with evidence and trying to cover up the death of Costas “Gus” Christofi, who was shot to death at Williams’ home in 2002.

    November 2004
    Sprewell, now playing for Minnesota, is quoted as saying: “I told you I needed to feed my family. They offered me three years at $21 million. That’s not going to cut it.”
    Ron Artest of the Indiana Pacers reveals that the reason he has been benched for the previous two games is that he had requested a month off because he was exhausted from the heavy offseason promotion of his upcoming rap album.
    The now-infamous Pistons-Pacers brawl sees players going into the stands after fans. Artest is suspended for the rest of the season, while eight other players receive shorter suspensions.
    Source: SportsBusiness Journal research

    “We have all recognized that we have a [player-image] problem,” said Tom Wilson, president of the Detroit Pistons. “We have brought in more younger players right out of high school, and this is a hip-hop generation. The brawl was a wake-up call with the worst possible exposure and it has had a lingering impact.”

    The player-image problem may paint the NBA with a broad brush, but it’s one the league executives are working to change.

    “Perception is sometimes reality and that’s why this is such an important year for the NBA,” said Sacramento Kings owner Joe Maloof. “Coming off last year with all the negativity, we have to reach out.”

    It’s not just the owners who are addressing the problem. National Basketball Players Association President Antonio Davis said the players are battling image issues.

    “I think people say we are too hip-hop, but if something bad happens, you know about it,” Davis said. “If something good happens, it’s barely noticed. That hurts us and the league.”

    The reality is that the NBA’s demographic fan base hasn’t changed much in the past five years, with 46 percent of white males making up the NBA’s fan base, the same percentage as in 2000, according to Scarborough Research. The demographics don’t mesh with the players’ perceived image, a source of frustration for teams.

    “It is [NBA Commissioner David Stern’s] No. 1 priority in dealing with teams, and we have been putting programs in action,” said Bernie Mullin, chief executive officer of Atlanta Spirit LLC, which owns the Atlanta Hawks. Before joining the Hawks, Mullin was senior vice president of team marketing services and business operations for the NBA, putting him on the front lines of dealing with the league’s player-image issues.

    The NBA is not alone in battling image problems. The NFL has had its share of player-image incidents, the latest involving allegations that a number of Minnesota Vikings players participated in illegal sexual activities aboard a chartered cruise. Major League Baseball has its own crisis over steroids, while the NHL is trying to reinvent itself after its labor wars wiped out last season.

    But NBA players are the most exposed of any professional athletes, playing in front of crowds close enough to see them sweat. More than any among the big four professional leagues, NBA players are marketed as individuals rather than as teams. Kobe, Shaq, LeBron; these are players on a first-name basis to the public, unlike the NFL where the Dallas Cowboys are America’s team, its players distant in their armor.

    The closeness can be a marketing bonanza; fans feel they can almost touch LeBron James when he soars to the basket. But the fan intimacy can also be a disaster — look no further than last year’s brawl.

    “What makes us good can also make us bad,” Wilson said. “There has been a slow awakening by everybody, and how we look and how we interact when we ask people to spend money on tickets, parking and concessions means we have to make sure we appear as mainstream as we can.”

    Call for action

    The “slow awakening” by the league began about five years ago.

    Michael Jordan was on his way out of the NBA and a new crop of stars had yet to establish themselves. Meanwhile, the league had been plagued by high-profile player-image incidents, including when Latrell Sprewell, who as a member of the Golden State Warriors in 1997, physically attacked then-head coach P.J. Carlesimo.

    The NBA lockout in 1998 also had hurt the league, and then in 2000 Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson recorded a rap album that contained violent, anti-homosexual and vulgar lyrics. Under threat of penalty by Stern, the album was never released (see time line, this page).

    “You can look at Iverson as the lightning rod four or five years ago,” Wilson said. “He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with his tattoos and cornrows, and people weren’t used to it.”

    It was in early 2000, according to league insiders, that Stern turned to pollster Stan Greenberg to gauge the league’s image. The results showed a poor perception of NBA players who were not appealing to white males in the middle of the country.

    But with the collective-bargaining agreement already in place, the NBA was restricted in making major demands to the players union. Instead, the league began to work more closely with its teams in marketing and installed a player appearance tracking system that helped make certain the teams were using all 10 of their allotted mandatory player appearances spelled out in the old CBA.

    The league also broadened its marketing efforts and, as a separate community affairs effort, built an aggressive community outreach platform anchored by its Read to Achieve and Basketball Without Borders programs in 2001.

    Last year’s Pistons-Pacers brawl brought
    heightened scrutiny of player image.

    But player-image problems continued. In 2002, former New Jersey Nets star Jayson Williams was accused of manslaughter after his limousine driver was shot and killed. Williams was found not guilty of the charge, but was convicted on four lesser charges. Then came the 2003 sexual assault arrest of Kobe Bryant. The case was dropped and Bryant later settled a civil suit filed by his accuser. In the process, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Nutella all dropped Bryant from lucrative endorsement deals.

    However, the brawl in Detroit last November did the most damage.

    “The real connotation from that fight to me was that our image was changed almost overnight,” Maloof said. “And so we have to rebuild and stop alienating our fans.”

    Image building

    That process is well under way. During league meetings last season, Stern continually stressed the importance of player image. This past spring the league did more research, hiring Bush strategist Matthew Dowd to conduct focus groups addressing the issue. More significantly, the league and the union agreed to tie player-image issues within the new collective-bargaining agreement.

    “You would have to be living someplace else not to realize our players are better than their reputations were described during this past season,” Stern said.

    The major CBA image measure is an age limit requiring players to be at least 19 years old before entering the league, designed to bring better-skilled and more mature players. The CBA also increased drug testing for NBA veterans.

    “We wanted to improve our basketball and improve our image,” Stern said. “Having 18-year-olds was bad for our image. We got a lot of heat for drafting players too young and for players being too young for the NBA. For the most part, not every 18-year-old was a LeBron James.”

    There are also smaller image-related measures tucked into the CBA, including increased player appearances, mandatory media training and front-office business seminars for players.

    “We realize that it is more the perception than the reality and that makes it harder, but David has taken an outstanding stance by putting teeth into the CBA,” Mullin said.

    Outside the scope of the CBA is the league’s mandated player dress code, which has drawn criticism from some players, including Iverson.

    “We have a business where the average salary is $5 million, and the players and we agree that it requires certain professionalism and certain standards and that’s what you will see us spending more attention on this coming season,” Stern said. “We were also talking about issues of player reputation and really reconnecting with fans. Out of collective bargaining, we came to the conclusion we had to increase interaction with fans, autograph signings, season-ticket-holder gatherings.”

    That message was hammered home this past offseason to team owners.

    “We need to get closer with our fans in every available way possible,” Maloof said. “That’s what made us successful. Unfortunately, some certain bad incidents have put too much emphasis on the negative. However, we have to get back to getting more involved in the community. If we want to continue to be a successful league, we have to cater to the fans. They are the ones who pay our salaries.”

    Fan demographics have changed little over the past five years, Scarborough Research shows.

    Partners respond

    The league’s television and corporate partners also pay those salaries.

    David Levy, president of Turner Sports, which has been an NBA broadcast partner for two decades, said he is satisfied with how Stern is handling the league’s player-image issues.

    Last year, regular-season ratings on Turner fell 7.1 percent to a 2.3 rating. Turner is entering its fourth year of a six-year deal that pays the NBA $365 million annually for exclusive rights to Thursday night NBA broadcasts.

    “Stars like LeBron and Dwyane Wade are helping the league, and I think players are starting to understand that there is an image that is beyond what they want to portray,” Levy said.

    “If I were David Stern, [player image] would be my No. 1 priority, and I think David understands the challenges and is not shying away from it. But there are players who have their own images they want to portray, and I can’t stop that. It’s not in my domain to change images, and we just try to portray the players like LeBron that drive our ratings.”

    Executives at Southwest Airlines, which in July signed a four-year sponsorship renewal deal with the NBA that annually pays the league a low seven-figure fee, said they too are satisfied that player-image problems are being addressed.

    “It would have been a bigger issue if we included sponsorship relationships with individual players, but we don’t,” said Tena Griffith, sports marketing manager for Southwest Airlines. “We look at the NBA brand, and overall I think the league has handled it.”

    Staff writer Terry Lefton contributed to this report.

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