SBJ/April 2-8, 2012/Opinion

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

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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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