SBJ/Nov. 8-14, 2010/SBJ In-Depth
‘The least-known, most powerful person in basketball’
Published November 8, 2010
On Sunday mornings as a 5-year-old, Greg Shaheen would wake up, eat a quick breakfast and run to his room to get dressed. He’d put on khaki pants, a button-down shirt and loafers, and go to work with his dad.
There, Shaheen began to learn the ins and outs of his father’s electrical contractor business. He saw his father, Riad, negotiate tough deals, read blueprints and write offers. While his father held Sunday morning meetings, a young Greg filled out purchase orders and wrote checks for fun. Then they’d go to lunch together.
By the time he was 11, Greg had written his first business plan. If his father bought him a computer, Greg wrote, he’d work part-time at a local computer store and make the money to repay him.
The standard was set at an early age by Shaheen’s parents. Running a business is a seven-day-a-week job. Life is work and work is life.
Today, Shaheen, 43, carries on the family’s relentless work ethic as the NCAA’s hard-charging executive vice president and, as chief of the NCAA tournament, one of the most powerful figures in college basketball.
Anyone who’s worked closely with Shaheen has received the e-mails in the middle of the night and understands that his mind seldom slows down enough for him to sleep. Like his mother, Yvonne, he gets by with about three to four hours a night.
It might be 2:30 in the morning, but on Shaheen’s night stand, his BlackBerry vibrates. A new e-mail has popped in his inbox. It’s from his mom. He replies, chiding her for being up so late. She replies, chiding him for being up to receive it.
Learning the business
Greg Shaheen’s background as an electrical contractor isn’t what prepared him to select sites for an NCAA tournament, develop new fan events or learn how to meet the needs of corporate sponsors, all things he now does with the NCAA.
It certainly didn’t make him a media expert capable of negotiating a new 14-year, $10.8 billion contract with Turner Sports and CBS, as he did earlier this year, or to serve on the board of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, all the behind-the-scenes things he does to promote the game.
“Greg is the least-known, most-powerful person in basketball,” said Adam Silver, the NBA’s deputy commissioner who has worked with Shaheen on the development of iHoops and other joint initiatives. “He just goes about it in a very understated way.”
Shaheen had to learn the landscape to become one of the game’s most influential figures, just as his mother had to learn how to run an electrical contractor business.
Riad Shaheen was just 50 years old when he died in 1987. A family history of heart troubles had preceded Riad and he was not immune. Riad’s father, who brought him as a teenager to the U.S. from Lebanon, was also an electrical contractor and also a heart attack victim.
Riad had bought Long Electric in the early 1970s, just after he had completed wiring the Polynesian and Contemporary hotels at Disney World. Long was a business of five employees and $100,000 in annual revenue when Riad acquired it and the company grew to more than 600 employees and $15 million in revenue on his watch.
Upon Riad’s death, many assumed that Yvonne would sell the business. She was trained as a schoolteacher and didn’t know how to read blueprints or financial statements. But she worked long hours to learn the industry and showed a toughness in negotiating jobs that continued the company’s growth, despite the departure of some key employees who didn’t want to work for a woman.
Greg, a student at Indiana University when his father died, was by his mother’s side for most of those years after his death and worked with her to keep the company going. Even when he was in school, he would drive back and forth from Bloomington to Indianapolis to work part time.
“Greg came back every night to make sure I was OK,” Yvonne said. “He understood the business and he was really good with the financials.”
Once out of college, Shaheen went to work full time with his mother, with the exception of one very brief detour that he calls his “half-day at law school.”
Shaheen was enrolled at Notre Dame’s law school literally for half a day. The school’s bookstore was out of the books Shaheen needed for his first day of class and the professor scolded him for being unprepared. Shaheen returned to Indianapolis that day.
That — and a short stint as a disc jockey on a small station in Indy — were the only detours from the family’s electrical business. But after more than a decade, Shaheen, then in his 30s, was drawn to other ventures.
“The electrical business was my father’s love, but it just wasn’t my passion,” Shaheen said. “I stayed with it to try to help carry it on and along the way I started volunteering for events — preliminary tournament rounds, Final Fours — and I got to know a number of NCAA staffers.”
A trusted confidant and family attorney, David Frick, helped introduce Shaheen to the Final Four. Frick, who worked with Yvonne Shaheen to guide the business after Riad’s death, was chairman of the local organizing committee for the 1997 Final Four and appointed Greg to be the transportation committee chair.
Shaheen was eventually hired by the Indiana Sports Corp. to coordinate the move of the NCAA’s headquarters from Overland Park, Kan., to Indianapolis between 1998 and 2000, even though he was still a young executive in his early 30s.
Later that year, the NCAA had an opening on its basketball staff and former executive vice president Tom Jernstedt brought Shaheen on board, ending his days with Long Electric.
“Greg had an incredible passion for college basketball and that was something that always came through,” Jernstedt said.
Shaheen merely dabbled in sports as a kid and his mother admits “Greg wasn’t an athlete — at all,” but the NCAA tournament captured his attention unlike any other event.
Greg has often told the story of going to the 1980 Final Four with his father when he was 12 and upon witnessing the spectacle in person, saying that he’s going to run the event one day. With his hiring at the NCAA in 2000, he was a step closer to realizing that dream.
Leaving his family business wasn’t difficult because it was on solid footing and his mother had a firm grasp on the company’s direction.
“He said, ‘There can only be one boss and, Mom, you’re the boss,’” Yvonne Shaheen said of Greg’s departure from Long Electric. “I knew something was brewing because he really didn’t like the construction arena. He was never a screamer or yeller and I don’t think he enjoyed all of the confrontations you have in construction competing for jobs.”
At the NCAA, Shaheen found himself in the same position his mother found herself in 1987 — taking over a job without any institutional knowledge of it.
Greg went to work in the NCAA’s basketball division without a background in athletic administration, but he had sound business sense and, as a volunteer at previous tournaments, had seen the operation from the perspective of the local organizing committee.
For Shaheen, no job related to the tournament was too small. Co-workers recall a time when a team ran out of paper cups by their bench and Shaheen scampered to the supply area to grab stacks of new cups. They’ve seen him drop to a knee and wipe up water that spilled from a courtside cooler.
Shaheen’s level of responsibility grew and in just a few years at the NCAA, he touched every aspect of the tournament. Because of his background in the private sector, Shaheen took on many of the NCAA’s most important business endeavors. His fingerprints are all over the growth of the Final Four’s ancillary events, the new media contract with Turner/CBS, which provides almost all of the NCAA’s revenue, and the corporate partner program.
“The more Greg grew, the more he was empowered,” said Jernstedt, the original guiding hand on the tournament since 1972. “He’s such a tireless worker and he’s so creative that he became very instrumental in the whole process. He really thrives on being task-oriented and handling multiple tasks at a time.”
It was 2004 when Shaheen first talked to Myles Brand, the NCAA president at the time, about how the next media contract should be structured. What made that unusual is that the NCAA was in just the second year of an 11-year, $6 billion deal at the time, but Brand and Shaheen foresaw a day when the severely backloaded structure of the CBS contract would weigh heavily on the network and the governing body.
That previous deal had been negotiated before Shaheen and Brand had come into office. Instead of the 3 percent annual increases typical with media deals, CBS’s rights fees to the NCAA jumped by 8 percent a year in the latter years. A third of the value of the old 11-year contract was disproportionately harbored in the final three years, which would have cost CBS more than $2 billion.
While those backloaded numbers were good for the NCAA, Shaheen knew there was a strong chance the rights fee would drop in the first few years of the next contract if the NCAA didn’t opt out when it had the chance this year, three years before the deal ended.
So Shaheen worked with hired media consultants Kevin O’Malley and Chuck Gerber to exit the old deal this year and put a new one in place that would keep the rights fee on a steady climb.
CBS’s average rights fee to the NCAA in the previous deal was $478.6 million, a figure that will grow to $771.4 million from this year through 2024.
Shaheen also opened the door for CBS to bring in cable partner Turner Sports by including a two-partner model in the Request for Proposal that the NCAA sent to broadcasters. That RFP also included a model for a 96-team tournament field, although the NCAA later settled for a more modest expansion from 65 to 68 teams.
“Greg wanted the curve to continue upward, rather than hitting the edge of a cliff and seeing a reduction in rights fees,” O’Malley said. “It would have been very difficult to keep these numbers as high as they were in the old deal beyond 2013.”
Just as his mother learned the electrical business by asking countless questions and just doing it, Shaheen made himself into the NCAA’s lead media executive through his powers of curiosity and observation.
Much of the recent media education came in the most unlikely of places: a small private room in the back of the Palm restaurant in Tampa, Fla. To the restaurant staff, it’s known as the Shaheen Room.
That’s where Shaheen began meeting with O’Malley in 2007 to talk about the next media contract. O’Malley lives just outside of Tampa.
“I’d say, ‘Greg, you’re the client, I’m the guy who is supposed to get on the plane and go see you,’” O’Malley said. “But this is what he preferred. He’s constantly in motion.
“What you began to understand is that this issue never left his mind. The decisions made in 2009 and 2010 weren’t spur of the moment. There was a great deal of modeling that went into those decisions and every alternative was considered, which is important because of how quickly the media landscape changes. He really went to school on the TV industry and also the advertising business.”
Uniting the players
Steve Newmark was one of the NCAA’s attorneys at Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson who closed the new deal with Turner Sports and CBS.
What struck him about Shaheen was the way he sat back and absorbed all of the opinions around him during the final stages of negotiations with the two media giants.
“You didn’t see Greg step in and take control of a meeting,” said Newmark, who now runs the business side of Roush Fenway Racing. “You could just see him listening and processing the different opinions. In that room, you had attorneys, media consultants, the NCAA team, and Greg facilitated an environment where everybody could share their opinion. Not all leaders do that.”
Pat Battle, whose father Bill founded the Collegiate Licensing Co., witnessed Shaheen’s combination of curiosity and intelligence years ago. Even though Shaheen was not in charge of the NCAA’s licensing in the early 2000s, he called Pat Battle and requested a breakfast meeting in CLC’s home of Atlanta. They met at the OK Cafe for two hours, with Shaheen asking questions about licensing and Battle providing insight.
Shaheen took the same approach to learning the media business. Among his friends and closest allies are O’Malley, a former Turner and CBS executive, Gerber, a former ESPN executive, and Tony Petitti, a former CBS executive who now is CEO of MLB Network.
Shaheen also reached out to the National Association of Basketball Coaches to form the kind of deep relationship that had never existed between the NCAA and the coaches. He worked with the NBA to establish the iHoops program, understanding that the NCAA couldn’t work on troublesome youth basketball issues in a vacuum.
While Brand set the strategic vision at the NCAA — as new President Mark Emmert now will — Shaheen was the one forming those new bonds.
Through Shaheen’s evolving relationship with the NBA’s Silver, the NCAA and the league collaborate on several fronts, including arena operations, game operations, digital rights and referees.
“What we discovered is that we have so many common issues to talk about it’s really expanded our relationship,” Silver said.
“I think Greg’s experience from the private sector actually has helped him bring a different perspective,” said Battle, now chairman of IMG College, which acquired CLC in 2007. “In the past, the NCAA had always been this conservative organization that was known for saying, ‘No, we can’t do that.’ Greg came in and said, ‘Why can’t we do that?’”
Rick Jones, whose FishBait Marketing represents the NABC and other coaches organizations, said the college coaches have a give-and-take with the NCAA that wasn’t open to them before Shaheen came along.
“Greg has really been instrumental in reaching out to the coaches,” Jones said. “Before Greg got involved, there was almost this antagonistic relationship between the coaches and the NCAA. Now the coaches have a voice and that’s good for the game.
“When you look at all of the things Greg has accomplished, on the basketball side and on the commercial side to grow the tournament … I mean, years ago it was a nice little tournament and now he’s turned it into an economic juggernaut. It’s not the Super Bowl, but it rivals the Super Bowl for the ways it promotes products and gives the fans things to do.
“Maybe it took an outsider to come in and make all of that happen.”
Dealing with challenges
The last two years have been both satisfying and challenging for Shaheen. He accomplished his mission with the NCAA’s new media contract, but he took his share of arrows through the process.
The media sharply criticized Shaheen for exploring tournament expansion to 96 teams. (The NCAA settled on an increase from 65 to 68 teams).
Others, like Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, weren’t happy that they were excluded from the decision-making process on expansion and the new TV contract, and said so publicly back in the spring.
One of the anomalies with Shaheen is that he receives 500 to 1,000 e-mails a day and 25 to 40 calls per day. But the most commonly cited criticism is that Shaheen didn’t keep the movers and shakers of college athletics abreast as the media negotiations unfolded. That was hard for those like Delany to stomach, given the NCAA’s position as a member organization.
Perhaps the toughest challenge for Shaheen, though, was keeping his focus on the job as Brand was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which eventually took his life in September 2009. Brand, the former Indiana University president, had become a father figure to Shaheen, who struggled watching the disease take the life from his boss.
It was January 2009, just weeks after Brand learned that he had the terminal condition, that Shaheen interviewed for the commissioner’s job at the Pac-10 Conference.
“Myles told Greg that he needed him,” Yvonne Shaheen said. That was all he needed to hear and Greg withdrew from the Pac-10 search that week.
Shaheen also lost a mentor at the NCAA when Emmert decided in August not to retain Jernstedt, and in the process, elevate Shaheen from senior VP to executive VP.
Jernstedt shepherded the tournament through much of its growth from the early 1970s through the 1980s when it exploded in popularity. It was Jernstedt’s tournament that Shaheen fell in love with as a teen.
When Jernstedt’s release was reported, Shaheen cringed as he read news reports that identified him as the big winner in the executive reshuffling. Shaheen and Jernstedt haven’t stayed in touch and the sensitivity of Jernstedt’s departure has clearly worn on both men.
“You won’t hear me say a negative word about Greg,” Jernstedt said. “He’s a guy who came in and recognized areas where we could do better and he’s been a devoted guy.”
Shaheen admits that he’s been so engrossed in his job since he arrived at the NCAA 10 years ago that he hasn’t maintained the kind of healthy life balance he needs. Delegating isn’t his strength.
“It’s been a very difficult few years,” Shaheen concedes, fully aware that he might be moving at a pace that he can’t keep up. Even his mother, who kept that kind of pace for years as CEO at Long Electric, hopes he’ll slow down.
There was a time late in the summer — after the 2010 Final Four had played out in his hometown, the new media contract had been signed and a new NCAA president had been hired — that Shaheen finally seemed to have a moment of peace.
He planned a late summer dinner with a friend at a downtown Indianapolis restaurant, but that afternoon Shaheen’s BlackBerry vibrated. It was an e-mail from the 2011 Final Four organizers in Houston. There was confusion over the responsibilities of the local organizing committee.
Shaheen took the first flight from Indy to Houston and he wouldn’t return until late that night. His dinner plans were shelved. There was work to be done.
“His pace and his travel schedule, I don’t know anybody who does it like he does,” Battle said. “It’s the reason he is the way he is. I think it’s in his DNA.”