SBJ/April 2-8, 2012/Opinion

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  • Iconic boxing historian was generous with his time, stories

    He showed up for our first all-staff editorial meetings sporting the requisite fedora, an unlit cigar dangling from his lips.

    Bert Sugar required no introduction. SportsBusiness Journal most certainly did.
    And so it was ever so comforting for those who were here in the magazine’s early days to have Bert on our pages, and even better to have him at our side. Whether it was at a Major League Baseball All-Star Game, where he showed up wearing patchwork, plaid pants; at the Kentucky Derby, where he eschewed the traditional mint julep for his favored scotch; or at a big fight, where he was as indigenous as the ring posts and the bell, Bert let us draft in his substantial wake.

    Bert Sugar died on March 25 in Mount Kisco, N.Y. He was 75. Best known as a boxing historian, he wrote or edited more than 80 books. He also wrote a weekly column for this magazine for nearly five years, from its launch in early 1998 through 2002.

    A fedora and unlit cigar were Bert Sugar’s signature elements, as were the 80-plus books he wrote.
    Photo by: NEWSCOM
    If you spent even a little time with Bert, you have a story about him. You will never tell it as well as he could, but you have one.

    Like many others you may have read in the days following his death, mine is set in a bar; in this case, the bar at the House of Blues in Chicago, on the weekend before the 2003 MLB All-Star Game. I no longer recall why we were there, of all places, because it was loud and not at all conducive to Bert’s telling of tales, but there we were, waiting impatiently for the band to finish its set.

    And then it happened, the sort of thing that could happen when you were with Bert, and especially if you were with Bert at a marquee sporting event. The band’s front man, a bluesy guitarist with a gravelly voice, spotted Bert at the bar, all the way at the back of the room, and stopped singing. He pointed, eyes wide. “Sugar!” the bluesman yelled, jumping up and down. “Sugar!” he yelled again. “You’re Bert Sugar!” When Bert waved and nodded, the band beckoned him to the stage.

    While Bert made his way, the bluesman went behind a stack of speakers. When he returned, it was with another guitar. This one was covered with autographs. He handed Bert a Sharpie, asking him to sign.

    “Who is he?” someone asked me back at the bar, as Bert basked on stage.

    “If you don’t know,” I said, “I can’t explain it.”

    About six years ago, Bert visited Charlotte in connection with a charity boxing event. The morning after the fights, he phoned from a hotel down the street.

    “I have something for you,” he said. “My flight’s not until later this afternoon. Come have a drink.”

    It wasn’t yet noon, and I had a story to finish, but when Bert Sugar invites you for a drink, you find a way to get there.

    “Think you’ll still be there in an hour or so?” I asked him.

    “Where else would I go?” he said.

    When I got there at 1:30, Bert was where he said he’d be. As always, he’d made a couple of new friends. He reached beneath his stool and came up with what was then his latest book, an argument-starter that ranked the great fighters of all time, something Bert did frequently. “I usually sign them,” he said, “but you don’t care about that.”

    I told him that, actually, I’d like it if he would inscribe it. I’m glad I asked.

    In the days following his death, lots of writers shared their Bert Sugar stories. They described him similarly. He was a character. A storyteller. A throwback to a time that was not only before ours, but before his own. All true.

    Bert also was generous. Generous with his time. Generous with his stories. Generous with a smile that spread nearly as wide as the brim of his hat.

    The cigar between his teeth was his signature. But I’ll always remember the smile, and the smiles that surrounded him. n

    Bill King (bking@sportsbusinessjournal.com) is a senior writer and founding SportsBusiness Journal staff member. He works on special projects and features, and also covers boxing.


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  • Cartoon: Mastering high hopes

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  • Best of World Congress, and sports’ role in an election year

    Final thoughts and comments from the 2012 World Congress of Sports, which took place in late March at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, one of the most spectacular settings in America.

    MOST POWERFUL MOMENT: Don Ohlmeyer can certainly tell a story. During the “Champions” panel, he had the entire ballroom in his hands when he told a few tales of working with Howard Cosell. But it was his incredibly moving memory of those fateful, tragic days at the Munich Games in 1972 that blew away the audience. I’ve never been in a room where the air was so heavy; it was so silent, you could have heard a pin drop, as everyone was on the edge of their seats listening to Ohlmeyer’s emotional memory.

    BEST RETURN: After a seven-year absence from speaking at World Congress, the return of former ESPN executive Mark Shapiro to the discussion reaffirmed to me how much the sports industry has missed his personality, charisma and candor.

    MOST POLARIZING TOPIC: The role of the NCAA was a theme throughout many of the panels, with Jeremy Schaap and Scott Boras among those criticizing the association and its rule structure during the Congress’ opening panel. It reminded me of some of the views that Joe Nocera of The New York Times has written about in his frequent criticism of the NCAA in his Saturday columns. The prospects for congressional intervention into the NCAA seem mixed, with Schaap saying, “There’s congressional interest right now, there are state legislatures and there are aggrieved athletes.” But Proskauer Chair Joe Leccese countered, “The beauty of college sports is that every congressman roots for a different team or has a different constituency, so the notion of any of them coming to enough consensus to actually pass a piece of legislation seems unlikely to me.”

    “I think we actually blew it as an industry. We make the experience so good, so clean, that we shot ourselves in the foot.”
    STEVE BORNSTEIN,
    president and ceo, NFL Network, about cable operators and
    networks giving away the
    high-def experience to viewers
    Photo by: TONY FLOREZ PHOTOGRAPHY
    STRONGEST STATEMENTS: NFL Network President and CEO Steve Bornstein criticized cable operators and networks for giving away the high-definition experience for free rather than forcing subscribers to pay for a new and better level of service. He feels that has actually hurt the sports industry and the live-event experience. “I think we actually blew it as an industry,” Bornstein said. “We make the experience so good, so clean, that we shot ourselves in the foot.”… MLB’s Tim Brosnan stressed how ticketing in baseball is at a tipping point, saying, “We as an industry are at a kind of revolution in how we deal with ticketing and how we bring our customers into the ballparks.”

    AUDIENCE RESPONSE: In one of the most talked-about sessions of the two days, a panel of team presidents featured strong opinions, different views and forceful personalities. From Larry Baer strongly defending the San Francisco Giants’ territorial claim against relocation of the A’s to San Jose; to Scott O’Neil and Mark Murphy offering differing viewpoints on ticket prices; to O’Neil and Fred Whitfield talking about the challenges of selling jersey sponsorship in the NBA, this panel had something for everyone.

    ■ ■ ■

    THE COMMANDER IN CHIEF’S LOVE OF ESPN: I won’t get in the habit of mixing sports and politics, but I continue to be struck at the way the Barack Obama camp is putting the president on ESPN and in the sports conversation. From Obama’s recent appearance on Bill Simmons’ “B.S. Report,” to coverage of his NCAA selections, which is treated with rightful respect but surprising seriousness, one can easily see a political strategy here. But is it smart, and what are the perils of such a move — for the president and for the network?

    President Obama discussed Jeremy Lin and college football with Bill Simmons last month for Simmons’ “B.S. Report” podcast.
    To get a better feel for this, I caught up with NBC News’ political director and chief White House correspondent, Chuck Todd. When we launched SportsBusiness Daily in 1994, Chuck was the managing editor before he returned to our sister publication at the time, The American Political Hotline, and followed his love of politics. Chuck took some time to answer the following:

    Smart campaign strategy to target the ESPN audience?: The Obama team has always believed that in this niche-media environment that they have to flood the zone; no niche outlet is too small or too insignificant.

    Is this a demo play?: I don’t think this is totally a demographic play, though younger men are clearly a group of potential voters the president needs to do well with, especially since overall, he does not do as well with men as he does with women. But these ESPN interviews, I believe, are less about a demo and more about selling the president as an “average guy.” All politicians when running for office want to be seen as relatable. Sometimes, “relating” can mean being a sports fan, and so that’s what I believe these interviews are about. Also, in the polling I’ve examined, Mitt Romney has some problems relating to the average American. But even if Romney were not his likely foe, the president would have been in Dayton and would have been filling out brackets.

    Risk to Obama?: The risk is looking ham-handed or trying too hard. And the real risk in any of these “regular guy” situations is somehow botching an easy sports question and being exposed as a phony or a wannabe.

    Does ESPN run any risks in this coverage during an election year?: It’s a risk. You don’t want to alienate viewers if it gets too polarizing, but I also think as long as it doesn’t look like an actual presidential campaign ad, the viewer that doesn’t agree probably wouldn’t be offended. It also helps if ESPN reached out to the other side; make sure they look balanced. Mitt Romney, though, decided not to fill out a bracket. Of course, there is no issue on “equal time” on cable. It only applies, legally, to the broadcast networks.

    Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusiness journal.com.

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  • Beware the alienated customer: His resentment carries a price

    I was unpacking in my hotel room in Phoenix a few weeks ago and noticed a bottle of Fiji water on the desk. There was a hangtag on the bottle. I picked it up — and experienced sticker shock. The price was $8, and I knew I had a topic for my next column.

    We all know there is an up-charge for certain products or services based on specific criteria. Location and opponent/star power, day of the week, time of the year, and demand itself are the most prominent pricing considerations in the sports industry. In fact, these are some of the key criteria that are used in variable and dynamic pricing models. There are other criteria, such as convenience, which also figure into the pricing formulas. Unfortunately, convenience is something that is being leveraged heavily, and without regard for the consumer and the potential lifetime value of that customer.

    Let’s go back to the water for the moment. If I were to drive about a mile from the hotel where I was staying, I could purchase that same bottle of water for about $2.50. The provider, in this case the hotel, understands that I have the ability to do that, but it also understands that the likelihood of me doing that isn’t very high. It might also consider that I am a business traveler, and there is a good chance I will merely pass that cost on to my client. (Personally, I would not want to answer to my client about why I needed an $8 bottle of water). It could also consider that perhaps this is my only trip to the market and thus it wishes to maximize the opportunity to profit on my visit. While this is shortsighted, it does occur much more frequently that we would like to believe.

    Example No. 2: Gasoline prices. Gas prices are significantly higher at
    Pricing for convenience can create a backlash if the consumer feels exploited.
    Photos by: BILL SUTTON (2)
    the service station closest to the rental car return at the Orlando International Airport than at any other service station a mile away. While the prices are much higher, it is less expensive than having the rental car company fill the tank, which might be $2 to $3 per gallon higher than this exorbitant price.

    Speaking of rental cars, I just returned from a trip to Portland to attend the NCAA tournament games. Cost for a pick-up on Wednesday afternoon and a return on Sunday morning: $538 from a discount provider, because Portland, like many other cities, has elected to tack on fees and taxes (in my case, almost $200) for the out-of-town “guests” who may or may not return.

    What these providers are failing to realize is the emotional alienation they are creating for the consumer who resents that he or she has been taken advantage of and resolves not only to not patronize that provider again, but also to blog, tweet, share pictures and tell stories to warn other potential customers about this exploitative business practice.

    Sports providers and their vendors are no less exploitative, often creating and forcing purchases in what can only be viewed as an almost hostage-type situation because there is limited choice or, in some cases, no alternative — given that you cannot leave and re-enter the venue to make a purchase elsewhere.

    Some examples for you to ponder:

    Service charges per ticket rather than per order. Do teams really expect consumers to believe that for an order of six tickets the convenience and service charges are six times the cost of purchasing one ticket?

    That it is acceptable to not allow consumers to enter a venue with a bottle of water, and then use the PA system to make announcements regarding the danger of dehydration and urging everyone to stay properly hydrated while selling water for $4 per bottle.

    Only selling soft drinks in cups that are 16 ounces or larger, forcing customers to buy much more than they need at a higher price.

    Selling a beer for $9. Really? Is it that much more to pour beer at a stadium than it is at a tavern?

    This takes a toll on the “emotional bank account” that fans associate with their teams and preferred entertainment outlets. An emotional bank account receives deposits for great fan experiences, team performance, player/fan interaction and gestures that demonstrate the consumer is appreciated. A withdrawal occurs when the consumer is upset with team performance, feels there is no direction for the team, and feels taken advantage of and dictated to. When the account balance hits zero, the consumer finds a new option to invest in.

    So the argument is, Why do we behave this way when, in the world of choices and alternatives in which we live, the consumer has countless other options to seek out entertainment and value? The easiest way to explain the growth of the secondary ticket market and the value ticket market is that the primary providers were not offering the products at the price the consumers wanted to pay or were forcing the consumers to buy more than they wanted to buy. These suppliers have learned to embrace customization because they have learned that consumers will pay more for customization that fits their needs.

    Homework assignment for teams: Try to disprove my point of view. Review all of your variable or variable-dynamic hybrid prices for the top two tiers of your games (A and B games). How is the secondary ticket market pricing these games? What percentage of your season-ticket holders are selling/attempting to sell these games, and how successful are they?

    I think you will find that while you charged what you could, it probably is better to find a price where you should. That is why I am a proponent of true dynamic pricing. A steady, long-term profit results in higher retention of your customers than an exploitative, short-term grab.

    Bill Sutton (wsutton@bus.ucf.edu), effective May 6, will be the founding director of the Sport and Entertainment Management MBA/MS Program at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_Impact.

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