SBJ/20100308/Opinion

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  • Bobcats owner offered promise, never delivered

    In December 2002, the NBA named Bob Johnson the owner of Charlotte’s expansion franchise, choosing him over a group led by Steve Belkin, Larry Bird and M.L. Carr. The selection was a surprise, because the Belkin-Bird group had plenty of local support, but Johnson’s deep pockets, media sophistication and so-called branding expertise won over the league.

    Commissioner David Stern called him “one of the most successful entrepreneurs in America.” The first minority owner in the NBA coming to a city with a publicly financed new arena and strong basketball roots seemed like a perfect opportunity.

    Call it opportunity lost.

    Johnson proved to be one of the most ill-prepared team owners in recent memory. Now, he is selling the club to his partner, Michael Jordan, and the deal couldn’t happen soon enough — for Charlotte, for the NBA and probably for Johnson himself.

    In the early days Johnson talked about the Bobcats being a business “acquired for the passion for the sport and one that was a partnership, with the people of Charlotte building the arena, and me buying the team.” Though he was a Washington, D.C., resident, he spoke of his goal to be “part of the fabric of the community.”

    The words sounded good. They just were hollow. 

    Johnson’s business moves as an owner were almost bizarre considering his success founding and running Black Entertainment Television. The media strategy of establishing the local RSN C-SET with ridiculously little market distribution was stubborn and insulting; consistent management overhaul resulted in a revolving door of personalities and messages; and ticket-pricing missteps were strategic misfires.

    It was clear that Johnson never understood the Charlotte market. He didn’t comprehend the wide gulf of bad feelings from a fan base that got burned once by the NBA and now was footing the bill for an arena that was built only after a nonbinding public referendum on a funding package failed. Johnson also continually alienated the local business community both publicly and privately. These were shortcomings unbefitting the owner of a local trust.

    In the end, Johnson’s primary shortcoming was his approach to NBA ownership: Regardless of what he may have said, many Charlotte observers will consider Johnson’s apparent lack of passion as the defining characteristic of his tenure. The Bobcats always seemed just an investment piece that was part of his post-BET portfolio. One rarely saw the fire for basketball or the NBA that’s seen in other owners, and his general absenteeism did little to dispel the impression that Johnson had little interest in Charlotte other than feeling the market was ripe for growth. The foundation of his involvement with the team appeared to be blatantly self-serving, so much so that the community never embraced the team.

    Stern and others praised Johnson’s adroitness as a business executive, but he showed none of that during his ownership tenure. He never connected the creation of a strong ownership brand to the financial success of the franchise brand. Let’s hope the NBA and other markets can learn from this.

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  • Manage Twitter like any business tool

    Is Twitter a time suck or a time saver? And is it really a useful tool for business?

    We’ve bandied those questions about the office lately, and while we haven’t come up with definitive answers, we have noticed a few things that interest us.

    One is that, for regular users, Twitter has changed the way that we consume information. I used to have a long list of Web sites to visit every day. Now I’m more likely to follow the Twitter feeds of those sites and go to them only when they tweet a link to an interesting story.

    Our media writer, John Ourand, who was one of our magazine’s earliest tweeters, says these days he expects stories to find him. “If a story is big enough and good enough,” he said, “it will come up on Twitter.”

    And in a recent interview with mediaite.com, CNBC sports business reporter and frequent tweeter Darren Rovell said, “I used to have RSS feeds, but now Twitter has destroyed those. I used to have about 200 blogs that I read off Bloglines, and since I started on Twitter I have actually not gone to that page once.”

    So, time saver? Absolutely. Time suck? It can be, but there’s an interesting pattern among people I talk to about Twitter. When they first sign up, most start following people almost willy-nilly and quickly build to such numbers that it’s impossible to find the good tweets among the bad. After a short time, though, they become brutal in paring the list of people they pay attention to.

    That gets back to one of the most frequent criticisms that non-users level at Twitter: “I don’t need to know when someone is eating a sandwich.” It is true that on Twitter, as on television, most of what’s there is garbage. But, also as with television, you get to choose what you look at. If someone you follow bores you, the solution is simple: Unfollow.

    And what applies to individuals applies to businesses. Few have figured it out, and some do it better than others.

    I was at a conference last summer and sent out this tweet: “At Marriott World Center in Orlando, looking for something to write on. When did hotels stop supplying stationery?”

    A few hours later, there was knock at my door, and a room service waiter handed me a tray on which there was a cheese plate, a bottle of wine and half a dozen sheets of Marriott stationery. The hotel had picked up on my complaint through its Twitter feed, @TheFrontDesk.

    For every example of great customer interaction, though, there’s probably an opposite example. Sports teams and leagues have had frequent issues with Twitter.

    Just last week, Cablevision and ABC took their fight over retransmission fees to Twitter and Facebook, and you could almost feel them getting the social media cold shoulder. Fans and followers will only let you go so far. Give them good information and they’ll stick with you, even if you do promote yourself a little bit. Be too self-serving and you’ll soon be talking to an empty room.

    By the time you read this, our main Twitter feed (@sbjsbd) will have surpassed 5,500 followers, and the number of followers for our reporters on Twitter continues to grow, as well. (You can find a list of SBJ tweeters at twitter.com/sbjsbd.) Those followers more and more click on our Web pages and engage us in conversation.

    Does all of that mean that Twitter is worth the time we put into it? We think so, though we haven’t yet found a great way to measure the return on investment.

    On the other hand, in this day of explosive social media growth, how can we not be there?

    Twitter isn’t complicated, and it isn’t magic. It’s just another tool. But like most tools, with a little thought and a little effort, it might help you build something worthwhile.

    Ross Nethery is managing editor of SportsBusiness Journal. Follow him on Twitter @rnethery.

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  • This Week's Cartoon

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