SBJ/June 20-26, 2011/Opinion

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  • MLS must choose between more markets and quality of play

    The morning after Barcelona’s glorious coronation as the planet’s best soccer team, I was overjoyed to pick up the Los Angeles Times and read no less than six soccer stories in the sports section, including one on the front page. As someone whose résumé includes stints at a Major League Soccer franchise, a team in England, Fox Soccer Channel and the 1994 World Cup, I have long been and remain intensely passionate about growing the sport domestically, even as my full-time career has moved in another direction.

    Perhaps most noteworthy from the collection of stories was the columnist Bill Plaschke writing on his eye-opening experience watching the May 28 UEFA Champions League final in a pub and realizing just how big the sport is here in the United States, thanks in no small part to the “ever-changing America” from a demographic standpoint. Overjoyed at this take over my morning mocha, I then came to the part of the column where a pub owner noted how relatively few MLS fans there were, saying, “People who know soccer laugh at the quality of that league.”

    After working to grow the league for many years myself, that is the type of line that used to infuriate me. But now, years removed from working full time in the game, I know that opinion definitely has merit, and it provides the incredible challenge, but also the monstrous opportunity, facing Major League Soccer.

    MLS has gained buzz in recent years with some moves into new markets that on the surface seem very successful, especially if you have experienced the passion in Seattle or witnessed the support for a terrible team in Toronto.

    GETTY IMAGES
    Have new MLS markets, like Seattle (in green), shown success but diluted the on-field product?
    But with every new market opened up, I believe MLS has actually hurt itself, as it has consistently diluted an on-field product that already wasn’t good enough. And the play on the field is the only thing that matters, period.

    New stadiums and other window dressing only last so long. Witness Minnesota’s Target Field, an urban baseball cathedral that opened to sellout crowds all of last year but this year saw empty seats and dismayed scalpers dumping below-face-value tickets as the team became baseball’s worst before a recent resurgence.

    My career also includes the ultimate lesson in this theory: I handled corporate communications for the short-lived XFL. As you read recently in this publication’s 10th anniversary package on the league (May 16-22 issue), our marketing was incredible, leading to massive tune-in and huge ticket and sponsorship sales before Rod Smart even dreamed up putting “He Hate Me” on his jersey. But the product was so awful that the league was dead on arrival. Even Harvard Business School wrote a case study on the league as the classic example of the import of product quality, no matter how good every other aspect of the business may be.

    That is what I worry MLS is forgetting as it continues to expand. And I am not alone. I have spoken with executives at television partners including ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel who agree, as they struggle this season to drive ratings to a product that withers compared with the competition. Some might think expanding the footprint would drive TV ratings. In this case, not true. With the best players and teams in the world playing on U.S. television almost every day, and many of them playing in America every summer for the star-studded series of exhibitions that take place, the contrast between MLS and the other leagues is there for all to see.

    So MLS is going to have to make some tough decisions regarding the number of teams in the league in coming years. How do you turn down an owner who wants to hand you tens of millions of dollars in expansion fee money when you are not raking in hundreds of millions in TV money like other leagues? Or how do you face the stigma of contraction? The league will have to decide if it really needs teams in markets with small but passionate fan bases, like Columbus and New England, at the expense of a weaker product overall — or is it better served keeping the number of teams static or fewer, concentrating the talent base and hopefully improving the product. I would lean toward relocation over expansion when new markets come calling.

    One thing is certain: The league has no choice but to continue to pour its every last dollar into attracting better talent on the field. Nothing else matters. And the only way to do that is through money.

    As I mentioned, the bar owner’s opinion of MLS is also a massive opportunity for the league. They don’t need to convert mainstream sports fans to soccer. That is a fool’s errand. They have a massive target audience, which is the tens of millions of Americans who eagerly watched Barcelona destroy Manchester United but didn’t go home later to catch a game featuring the Galaxy, Fire or Red Bulls.

    That is huge and enviable upside. A league like the NHL (sometimes compared to MLS in many ways) doesn’t have that luxury. It already has most of the best players in the world, so where the growth comes from is a challenge, though its new TV deal leaves it on solid footing to be sure. But for MLS, the road map is obvious: Get soccer fans of all nationalities that live in the U.S. and love to watch leagues around the world to buy into the domestic league.

    And the only way to do that is to make the product better on the field. More markets won’t accomplish that; in fact, it will do the opposite.

    People who know me have heard me say it wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up working in the “beautiful game” full time again one day. If it is in MLS, I would fight for one strategy and one strategy only: It’s about the product, stupid, and we need to make gutsy decisions to get a better one. n

    Ben Grossman (bgrossman@nbmedia.com) is editor-in-chief of the television trade publication Broadcasting & Cable.

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  • Cartoon: NBA lockout

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  • Can NBA’s momentum withstand a lockout?

    The NBA has not been the focus of such conversation, both in the mainstream and in the sports industry, since MJ hit his game-winning shot over Bryon Russell in the Finals of June 1998. Whether it was the “hate” of the Heat or the appeal of today’s top stars — on and off the court — people are talking and watching NBA basketball. That is supported by economic highs for all league revenue — but, yes, the game could really shut down.

    Virtually no one you talk to believes the league won’t shutter for some of its next season, and as we hear and understand about a broken economic model and system, it still is remarkable to think that such smart men as David Stern, Billy Hunter, Adam Silver and others could see it come to that and stop all the momentum in the game. Villains are good for leagues, and the Heat played the role well. But does the league become the villain if it shuts down? And will the Heat and other strong story lines be forgotten after a nasty NBA lockout?

    We all remember the fallout from the 1998 lockout and the years (and good fortune) it has taken for the league to hit all-time economic highs. Does the NBA really want to return to that and force itself to dig out of that deep hole once again?

    HBO’s newest documentary, “McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice” shows why HBO Sports was one of the nominees for Best in Sports Television at last month’s Sports Business Awards. It still puzzles me why people questioned HBO as a finalist. I heard all the arguments about why it shouldn’t be: “They don’t do enough sports,” or “How can they be compared to the big networks that produce so much more?” To me, the honor was a nod to the quality of the group’s work. From “Hard Knocks” to its “24/7” effort around the NHL Winter Classic, HBO Sports delivers at a high level, and its programming crosses over to the mainstream.

    If you’re interested in tennis or in the two riveting personalities of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, you must check out this latest offering. From telling the story of how their friendship formed to showing images I’ve never seen before and relating details of Borg’s fascinating yet mysterious “final” walk off the court before the awards ceremony at the 1981 U.S. Open (a day I’ll never forget), it is captivating programming.

    On the opposite page, you’ll find a solid read about the state of MLS from a friend and former colleague, Ben Grossman. Many of you know Ben as the astute editor-in-chief of the media trade Broadcasting & Cable. Not many of you probably know that Ben started his career as a staff writer for SportsBusiness Daily before moving on to work for an MLS team. He has a strong and deep knowledge of the game and is one of its best advocates.

    Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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  • Recruiters act as talent scouts for top firms, right candidates

    There’s an old baseball axiom that “You can never have enough pitching.” Every year, managers deal with pitchers who underperform, suffer injuries or become fatigued during the long season. As a result, teams invest heavily in scouting, farm system development and/or free agency to upgrade and replenish their pitching staffs.

    Similarly, hiring managers in the sports industry continually seek top talent and pay a premium to acquire it. Many corporations, in fact, use their own version of scouts — that is, executive recruiters — to help with personnel and leadership challenges.

    Recently, I spoke with several top executive recruiters, from both multinational and boutique recruiting firms, to gain insights into their matchmaking role.

    The role and purpose of recruiters

    Often misunderstood in what they do and who they work for, recruiters have direct access to jobs and industry information and shape critical personnel decisions for companies. The best have deep knowledge within specific industry sectors and possess a widespread network that extends far beyond the average bear’s contact list. Recruiters are paid by companies to find personnel solutions, and their results are in plain sight: placed executives who have made a significant contribution over a sustained period of time.

    Simply put, recruiters find people for jobs, not jobs for people. There are a few business models in executive recruiting, and it’s important for job candidates to understand their nuances:

    • Retained agencies focus on mid- to C-suite searches. In general, these firms have long-term relationships and are viewed as trusted confidants. They are paid a fee, or at least a portion of it, whether the search is successful or not.

    • Contingency firms, historically, handle low- to mid-level opportunities and are only paid on success. They identify as many candidates as possible and often have a closer relationship with candidates than with hiring firms.

    • Internal recruiters typically work within an organization’s human resources department. In general, their network is not as deep as a retained or contingency firm.

    Just like professional scouts, top recruiters are typically out of their offices, networking at events and conferences, working the phones, and meeting potential candidates daily to identify the best available talent.

    What recruiters are seeking

    Recruiters tend to pursue passive (employed and not looking) candidates, because clients view employed individuals more favorably than unemployed ones. Connecting with a recruiter happens through phone, email and, preferably, via viral marketing, where recruiters tend to be proactive based on qualified referrals. All of this occurs long before a face-to-face meeting.

    Recruiters are intrigued by a story of progression, where action words (e.g. revenue generator, new business developer, etc.) are supported by tangible accomplishments (i.e. proven facts and figures) and corroborated with shared network connections.

    Appealing to a recruiter is no different than creating a bond with any other professional colleague. It’s about cultivating a genuine two-way relationship based not just on need, but also on respect.

    Here are a few tips that “scouts” have offered to help facilitate a positive, symbiotic partnership:

    • Develop an enthusiastic phone presence, which is typically your first impression for recruiters.

    • Spend 95 percent of your career management time on industry networking. Leave the other 5 percent for building recruiter rapport.

    • Don’t take anything personally. Maintain your recruiter relationship, whether you’ve landed a job or were passed over.

    • Be proactive, prepared and patient. Don’t stalk recruiters, but check in every four to eight weeks and offer fresh market information when possible.

    • Prepare personal references carefully, as they add context to your résumé. Tell your references to expect calls. They should know why one’s interested, be aware of any issues with the opportunity, and be prepared for behavioral questions on how you deal with successes and challenges.

    Communications and questions

    One of the common complaints heard about recruiters is that many don’t return calls or emails. For recruiters, time is money, and money is made by matches. Some just don’t see the value proposition to invest in a response.

    That said, the vast majority of recruiters to whom I talked indicate that it’s critical to return all outreaches, even if it’s short or delayed. They emphasized that they’re in the people business and never know when a diamond in the rough might sparkle.

    There are key questions you should ask a recruiter early on about any potential position.

    • What is the history of the position and turnover at the company?

    • What is the salary range and career path?

    • Does the hiring manager have a positive track record in developing and promoting talent?

    • How would you characterize the employer’s culture?

    • What’s the greatest risk with this opportunity?

    If a recruiter struggles to answer any one of the questions, you should proceed with caution. It could be a sign of potential problems down the road. At the very least, it’s a true indicator of the strength of the client/recruiter relationship.

    It’s important not to view a recruiter as your friend or social therapist. You should share information with the recruiter as you would with a potential boss. As candidates age, they will build rapport with a few trusted recruiters and will likely disclose closely held career and life management thoughts as the relationship evolves.

    Recruiters can be valuable resources for advancing your career, but they work for the hiring company, not for you. Invest time and effort in exploring how they can be your personal talent scout at the right time and place in your career.
     
    Glenn Horine (ghorine@handhconsulting.net) is the executive director of Iona College’s Center for Sports and Entertainment Studies, a business development consultant and an industry career counselor/lecturer.


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  • Traditional media still has role in marketing

    If you are reading this article, you still obtain at least some of your news from traditional media outlets. You are going against the predictions of the experts who thought that traditional media would be eclipsed by digital media by now. True, the proliferation of digital media is going strong, but humans don’t change that quickly. Just ask Red Bull, which launched The Red Bulletin in May.

    That’s why it’s still important to allocate dollars to both traditional print and electronic media outlets in a marketing campaign. Sports fans of all ages still enjoy reading and viewing photos in Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, USA Today and The New York Times, to name a few. And TV and radio still have a unique ability to draw an audience, especially when it comes to major sporting events. Face it, you and your friends don’t gather around the computer to watch the Super Bowl.

    Newspapers: Two years ago, there were 1,400 dailies. Since then, around 12 of those dailies have become defunct (most notably the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer). Some of the larger dailies, such as The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald, were in trouble, but they have since rebounded. Today, more than 110 million people read Sunday newspapers and, according to the Newspaper Association of America, $27 billion was spent on newspaper advertising (print and online) last year alone, even as Craigslist and eBay eviscerated classified advertising sections. Print continues to reach a mass market, and ads continue to make a strong statement. Newspapers remain a cogent way to relay a targeted message, especially now that they are supported by the paper’s social media outlets. It is still in-depth and compelling reporting that drives a majority of the news disseminated on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Furthermore, according to recent studies, the URL-shortening service bit.ly generates approximately 400 million referrals of news and information on a monthly basis, and newspapers remain the original source for a majority of this content.

    Magazines: According to the Association of Magazine Media, magazine subscriptions and sales on newsstands are up. In 2000, there were 17,815 magazines in circulation. In 2010, 20,707 were counted. This proves that magazines are a powerful and a viable medium.

    Local TV: In 2010, according to the Pew Research Center, revenue was up at all cable, local and network news stations. The Pew Research Center found that local TV is still more popular than online, as 50 percent of people get their information from their local TV newscasters.

    Radio: In 2010, traditional radio saw a revenue increase of 6 percent. Chiefly, 93 percent of Americans listened to AM/FM radio at least once a week in 2010. However, HD radio continued to have a difficult time. After a rough start, satellite radio is finally gaining ground, as it saw a 12 percent growth in 2010.

    At least two sports still require traditional media attention:

    • Tennis: According to the Tennis Industry Association, 14 percent of the 28 million people who participated last year fell into the 40-year-old-plus category. Where do you think they read about a new type of racket or obtain the latest tennis techniques? You better believe these players still read magazines, newspapers and watch TV. A print campaign coupled with a robust online program could include technique webisodes to highlight product features, a Facebook fan page and Twitter integration, where a spokesperson can tweet tips.

    • Golf: A recent National Golf Foundation study revealed that the 60- to 69-year-old age group has the highest participation. This demographic includes inveterate newspaper and magazine readers who also gain their news from local TV and from radio. Again, a traditional campaign needs a strong, creative online program as tech-savvy baby boomers age.

    The bottom line for marketers: Although audiences are turning to digital platforms for their news, don’t eliminate traditional media outlets. You could use them as a fulcrum of your program. Promote and support your efforts on Twitter, Facebook, and on video-sharing sites such as YouTube and Vimeo.

    Wayne Catan (wcatan@coynepr.com) is a vice president at Coyne Public Relations where he leads the agency’s sports practice.

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