SBJ/Feb. 14-20, 2011/Opinion

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  • Don't underplay these facts

    One final thought on a story that got plenty of coverage but whose main point may have been lost: the power of NFL TV programming.

    The ratings success stories were reported week after week, but after a while, it’s easy to gloss over the data. Here are the facts:

    • NFL action was the top-rated prime-time program on broadcast TV through the end of 2010. NFL games account for 18 of the 20 most-viewed broadcast TV programs of the current season, which started Sept. 20 (Fox’s post-Super Bowl “Glee” and the “American Idol” season premiere Jan. 19 hold the other two slots). That’s powerful.

    • NBC’s prime-time “Sunday Night Football” averaged nearly 22 million viewers, Fox averaged 20 million and CBS nearly 19 million. A top show outside of “Idol” or “Dancing With The Stars” may average anywhere from 10 million to 14 million viewers. That’s quite a spread.

    • ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” registered 15 of the top 20 most-viewed cable programs since the start of the TV season. Consistent, top-performing programs.

    • Top all that off with the astounding record of 111 million viewers who watched Super Bowl XLV on Fox.

    No more ho-hum reaction! Think back to the theme of sports ratings in the early to mid-2000s, when the sky was falling, viewers were flocking away, sports were losing cachet, rights fees were overinflated and reality television was clearly the genre for the next generation.

    Still think that’s the case? No way. Live sports programming is strong, and the NFL is far and away the king.

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  • Wilpons' financial morass offers lessons for franchise owners

    ROBERT
    BOLAND

    My career as a professor of sports business has benefited from good timing. I have been fortunate to teach timely courses and even get inside several prospective franchise purchase deals, including serving as a chief adviser to a group bidding for an NFL franchise. But this semester, as I teach two new courses on professional franchises, the timing of the “claw back” lawsuit against the Wilpon family stemming from the Bernard Madoff scandal could not be better. Better, that is, to try to analyze what owning, operating and hanging onto a pro sports franchise means in 2011 and to take some lessons from it.

    It wasn’t so long ago that the future of the New York Mets under the Wilpons’ leadership looked bright. How could one financial mistake produce so many tremors that they would threaten all that the family had built in 30 years of owning a share of the Mets? Surely owning such diverse and valuable assets as an $800 million franchise, a successful regional sports network and a new stadium would provide insulation against all but the most dire of circumstances.

    The first lesson about franchise ownership drawn from the Mets situation: The margin for error for any owner has shrunk to the degree that one big mistake — trusting Madoff — combined with other decisions, made with good intention but without great success, can threaten to cost one of the more stable ownership groups in all of sports its franchise. The most unsettling part is that the Wilpons and the Mets are not alone. They have company, whether it is the seemingly impervious Los Angeles Dodgers or the perpetually challenged New Orleans Hornets, and for the strangest reasons.

    Can some wisdom be gleaned to save other franchises from going down this road, especially now when the value of sports franchises has grown to such a degree that they represent the major piece in the portfolios of all but the most seriously wealthy owners?

    Perhaps the next lesson of franchise ownership is to recognize that teams can no longer be kept at arm’s length from the rest of an owner’s portfolio. They are simply too valuable now.

    This folds into the third lesson: that teams are targets. Given their huge valuations, franchises will be the target of creditors, especially when they overreach trying to jump to a higher foothold. The Wilpons and Mets had seemingly done all the right things in trying to grow their business: starting SportsNet New York, signing expensive free agents and building a stadium. Yet it’s these decisions, coupled with the Madoff thefts, that have left them vulnerable.

    One of the most troubling parts about the Madoff scandal is that it may not have been preventable. Even the Securities and Exchange Commission didn’t uncover his scheme. And the Mets did what any investor would do when an adviser gave a 15 percent annual return: They said “Thank you,” and invested more. But when Madoff’s embezzlement hit the Wilpons’ cash reserves, compromising the operational liquidity of the Mets — which had already been stretched thin by otherwise “good debt” from the new stadium, RSN and a high payroll — the fragile nature of franchise ownership in 2011 was revealed. The perfect storm may have hit the Mets, but that storm is still off the coast waiting for another team pushing the boundaries of fiscal restraint. So the next lesson may be that these crises may simply not be avoidable.

    There is a path for the Wilpons to keep control of the Mets but it is a rocky one. They can raise capital by selling a minority interest in the team and improving liquidity; hope new general manager Sandy Alderson turns a reported loss into a small profit with better management of player costs; and look for a fast start, combined with better ticket pricing and competitiveness, that keeps RSN ad rates high.

    That doesn’t leave much room to maneuver, and it all hinges on selling that minority share. This might have been the first thing the Wilpons may have tried when news of the Madoff scandal broke, but the Wilpons were former minority owners who gained control of the Mets. The team was their legacy, and they sought to weather the storm. Perhaps the next lesson is that in 2011 owning the noncontrolling 49 percent of any franchise is a luxury few owners can still afford.

    Taking a minority stake might still prove to be a way for someone to ultimately get control of the Mets for less than full market value. But those same potential minority shareholders also risk the team (and their investment) being driven into bankruptcy. As a consequence, any minority investor will want some form of a right of first refusal to buy the Wilpons’ controlling interest in the team in the future and assurance that any shares sold in the team also be guaranteed by the Wilpons’ profits from SNY.

    Sports business experts have speculated for some time that any pro franchise is made up of three parts with roughly equal value: team, facility and media deals. Perhaps the final lesson is that these three components are not easily separated, as was so casually thought when the Chicago Cubs went to market in pieces a couple of years ago. Franchises are complex and interlinked businesses, and running one is more challenging than ever in 2011.

    Robert Boland (robert.boland@nyu.edu) is a professor of sports business at New York University’s Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management.

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  • Cartoon: Love at first sight?

  • Interview is like courtship, full of possibility if compatibility exists

    I spent a weekend last month with Dick Irwin, my co-founder in Sport Sales Combine, conducting one of our ticket sales combines in Atlanta with the NBA Hawks and NHL Thrashers. During the course of the combine, we interviewed 56 young men and women searching for their first jobs in ticket sales. While it was a great experience, I came away perplexed regarding what I had heard in my interviews and what I had seen on the résumés I reviewed.

    As this publication is required in many sports business programs, I offer this column for students and faculty to prevent these same mistakes from occurring as the students embark on their respective job searches.

    Relax and be honest


    The response to most of the questions I asked began with the preamble, “Can I be honest with you?” or “Let me tell you the truth.”

    My response? Jokingly, I would say, “No, lie to me,” and the interviewee was so intent in responding, that their next response was, “OK,” followed by their answer. While it might seem like an innocent response, the interpretation is “I have not been telling the truth up to now, but this is something I really want you to know is my honest feeling.” Another popular preamble to a response was “Seriously,” as if we had been joking up to this point.

    This also drives home the need for the interviewee to listen carefully to what the interviewer is saying or asking before commenting or responding. Many interviews are unsuccessful because the interviewee is not listening, because they have something they want to say and are only waiting for the moment when they can respond.

    I also have a “like” meter: I count the number of times an interviewee uses the word “like” in his or her conversation. It would appear that this word has taken on the role of filler much like “um” does. The winner (who unfortunately turned out to be a loser in terms of the job interview) managed to use the word “like” 27 times in a five-minute conversation. I try to point this out to my students and other young people. I often ask them to buy a small recorder, record casual conversations and replay them to hear what their conversation sounds like. Overuse of “like” or a similar word can position the candidate as less intelligent or talented than he or she really is.

    What are you wearing?

    The appropriateness of the dress shirt/tie combination was brought to my attention by a number of the participating team personnel who were attending the combine to help coach and scout for talent. The issue was the color dress shirt worn with the suit. We saw a number of black shirts (nice for “The Sopranos” but not sales), dark purple and dark blue as well as red and one very electric teal. When going to an interview, wear a dark suit, a white or light blue shirt, and a complementary tie. You can change before you go to the club or whatever the final destination might be. The tie should offer some contrast to the shirt while bringing out the color in the suit.

    While the last few decades have become more and more casual in terms of workplace dress, remember that you can always ask to remove your suit jacket or your tie in a very casual situation — but if you don’t have them, you will be at a loss in a more formal business situation.

    What’s on your résumé?

    Read your résumé and understand what it says about you. While it may be impossible for a young graduate to know exactly what they want to pursue in a career upon graduation, it should be very clear what types of experiences and skills they need for the job they are applying for. Applying for a job in marketing without a marketing internship or experience is going to result in an unsuccessful interview. Similarly, having a great deal of experience in a particular area might put you in a box that is difficult to escape unless you have taken the time to prepare an explanation about how those skills apply and translate to the position you are seeking.

    Is the one-page résumé a myth or reality? Unfortunately it is a little of both. As résumé preferences are subjective, you may need to have two versions of it. In any case, the résumé needs to have the level of detail and explanation so that the reader can really comprehend the experiences contained therein. Take time to review and eliminate high school experiences, irrelevant part-time jobs and honors that people probably do not understand. (I once saw a résumé where a student had been selected All Middle Georgia in high school football). Don’t list the courses that you completed, and why list a grade point average unless it positions you as an elite student?

    Make references available

    Given that many people searching for employees are very busy and have significant responsibilities in addition to the search, make it easy on them and yourself and include a sheet of references. From my personal viewpoint, I often look at the references to see if I know anyone who could speak to the abilities and talents of the applicants. If I find a résumé that has references including people I know, I put it aside and always follow up. Why risk being in the other pile of résumés without references? It is up to the reviewer to decide if they want to see them.

    Finally, thank the interviewer for his or her time and the opportunity. And if you want the job, ask for it. Hiring is like courting: a step before marriage, and each party needs to know how the other feels about the possibilities, the compatibility and the opportunity.

    Bill Sutton (wsutton@bus.ucf.edu) is a professor and associate director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_Impact.

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