SBJ/November 5-11, 2012/Opinion

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  • Cartoon: Help wanted

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  • Management insights from McManus

    There is a reason Sean McManus is one of the most well-liked executives in sports: He’s intelligent, kind, and humble — qualities not always seen among today’s top CEOs. As you’ll read in The Sit-Down (Page 34), he also has great perspective. There were so many interesting ideas and anecdotes he offered during my recent interview with him in his office on 52nd Street in New York City that I wanted to share additional outtakes with you.

    McManus Unplugged:
    “I try to have an informal but professional atmosphere here. And I really try to find the right mix between collaboration and accountability. The two are not mutually exclusive.”

    “I like to be challenged by staff in a pretty respectful way. I made it very clear that if someone disagrees with me, even in a large group, they’re certainly free to express that and they usually do. But they do it in a very respectful way, as they should. If I were challenged in a way that I thought was not appropriate in that meeting, I wouldn’t appreciate that, because I think there’s a certain decorum that you show your boss. I show my boss a certain decorum, and if there’s something that I really disagreed with him on, I’m unlikely to do that in one of his staff meetings.”

    “The most difficult element of managing people is when you have someone who is not doing the job: the delicate balance between informing them that they’re not doing the job and, if it doesn’t get better, informing them that they are no longer an employee. Once you get into anything that’s emotional or even too personal, then it’s problematic. So you have to be, unfortunately, relatively cold and calculated. But it’s never easy. I’ve been very, very lucky that it’s happened to me very, very few times in my sports career. ”

    “I try to inject humor into our staff meeting. Any staff meeting gets very dry after a while when people are just giving a report. So I try to mix things up, and I know certain people who I have a good rapport with who I know that if I engage them in a humorous way, it’s going to result in some pretty good humor. If staff meetings aren’t something people are looking forward to attending, then you’re doing something wrong at your staff meeting.”

    > TAKEAWAY FROM THE WORLD SERIES: There was a lot of talk last week about the World Series’ final four-game rating of a 7.6, which marks the smallest audience for any World Series on record. There were a few factors that contributed to the number: a four-game sweep was the biggest, as well as the lack of the major “national” teams. But this shows that baseball needs help with its national — and younger — viewers. The game is a much stronger local TV property. Just look at the trend of the national numbers on Fox, ESPN and TBS and compare them to some of the strong local numbers. Like other sports, baseball has trouble keeping local fans engaged if their team is not playing in the playoffs. The positives are that Fox won all four nights it showed the Series, and it’s further proof of the strong work that Tim Brosnan did in more than doubling MLB’s national rights fee.

    > THE LAZARUS STRATEGY: Mark Lazarus has talked often about a slow, methodical plan to build NBC Sports Network, and it’s now clear that he is counting on that growth to come, in part, from soccer — first aligning with MLS and then last week’s surprise deal for the EPL. Since the Comcast acquisition, NBC Sports Network has struggled to find an audience, and it’s obvious that the channel needs more live sports programming on its schedule.  The only way it can take programming like the EPL from incumbents is to, according to some, overpay for it. NBC tripled the current rights fee to EPL, a move that is a gamble by Lazarus but fits into his strategy of betting on soccer and international sports, with EPL now joining Formula One and, of course, the network’s Olympic coverage. The EPL provides a smattering of weekend games early in the morning, but the property is on a solid upward trend in the U.S. in terms of interest and coverage (note the 4,000-word piece on Chelsea’s John Terry in a recent issue of the Sunday New York Times). If you believe the talking points coming out of MLS and soccer advocates about this developing “soccer nation” in the U.S., then NBC Sports Network wants to aggressively exploit that niche.

    It was also notable that Lazarus took a shot at Major League Baseball in saying that the EPL is “a younger skewing sport than some others out there, like some that are in a championship series right now.”

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

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  • NFL falls short in protecting its Bountygate whistleblower

    It is all about player safety and protecting the integrity of the game. That was the central message coming out of the NFL’s punishment of the four players implicated in the now infamous bounty scandal: Scott Fujita, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma. Safety, integrity, fair play — it was like a mantra that ran repeatedly through the nine-page memo the NFL circulated to team owners and the media last month.

    Does the NFL really mean what it says about keeping the game so safe and pure? One has to wonder based on one of the latest chapters in the ongoing saga.

    It is not so much about the relatively light sentencing the NFL imposed on three of the four alleged ruffians: Fujita with a one-game suspension, Hargrove with two games and Smith with four games; Vilma got a full year suspension for what is seen as his more flagrant involvement. Nor is it about how empty the NFL’s strong words on player safety seem when juxtaposed with the league’s stubborn resistance to the mounting concerns over player head trauma. That is a whole different story.

       
    From left: Smith, Vilma and Hargrove, and Fujita (below) were suspended by the NFL.
    Photos by: GETTY IMAGES
    What casts serious doubt on the NFL’s true intentions here is how it treated the individual player who may have been singly responsible for bringing this spectacle to light in the first place. Plain and simple, the league hung him out to dry.

    There it is for the whole world to see right smack in the center of the NFL’s broadly released memo: former Vikings player Jimmy Kennedy squealed on his buddy (perhaps former chum now) Anthony Hargrove, who apparently confided in him about the bounty program. Of course, Kennedy is denying all of this now. Shortly after the NFL released its memo, he went on a Twitter rampage, vehemently refuting any role as a whistleblower. “THIS DID NOT HAPPEN,” he tweeted emphatically. He
    Fujita
    went even further, impugning the character of anyone who would ever rat out a friend like that: “I have always been a loyal Friend and Teammate,” and “It bothers me that the respect of my Peers and Coaches is in jeopardy because of this.”  

    And that is really the problem with what the NFL did in exposing Kennedy. They marked him with the scarlet “W” to which a serious stigma still attaches. Despite all the progress that has been made in encouraging whistleblowers to come forward, that old schoolyard sentiment remains that nobody likes a snitch. Just look at the desperate lengths Kennedy has gone to distance himself from any role in exposing this scandal. Better to have been one of the purported bounty hunters seeking the knockouts and cart-offs than to be the one who uncovered it all.  

    Kennedy
    That is precisely why Congress has gone to such great lengths to provide strong incentives and protections for whistleblowers. There are rules against firing them or otherwise retaliating against them. They are permitted to maintain some measure of anonymity, in some cases forever keeping their identity a secret. And most striking of all, when reporting on government fraud (and certain other types), they can share in up to 30 percent of any government recovery. This can bring in quite the mighty prize. These enticements have only gotten stronger and more widely applied over the past few years. The reason is obvious: Without them, very few are willing to risk the backlash and isolation of blowing the whistle.

    Which brings us back to the NFL’s treatment of Kennedy. It was not necessary to identify him by name. The evidence of the bounty program went well beyond anything that might have come out of his or someone else’s initial tip-off. It was a purely gratuitous reference in the background portion of the memo on the NFL’s initial investigation. The strong message this sends to future whistleblowers is that the NFL does not care about your anonymity nor any retribution you may suffer from coming forward. Perhaps the league does not care about or even want to encourage whistleblowers at all. Intentional or not, that is certainly a reasonable takeaway from the NFL’s treatment of Kennedy here. And it will definitely have consequences down the road the next time a player or coach thinks about stepping up to report misconduct within the league. 

    If the NFL is truly that concerned about player safety and maintaining the integrity of the game, it needs to do a total about-face here. It needs to apologize to Kennedy. It needs to create a formal whistleblower program that will prevent retaliation against, and protect the identity of, those with the fortitude to step forward. And most importantly, it needs to foster an environment where “saying something if you see something” is a badge of honor, not something to run from for fear of losing the respect of your fellow players and coaches. Only then can the NFL truly succeed in reaching its purported goal of protecting the safety and purity of this most hallowed tradition.

    Gordon Schnell (gschnell@constantinecannon.com) is a partner in the New York office of the law firm Constantine Cannon, specializing in antitrust, consumer protection and whistleblower law.

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  • Reporting on NFL labor agreement misleading

    An article in the Oct. 22 issue of SportsBusiness Journal claims that the NFL “got what it wanted from the newly enacted collective-bargaining agreement,” that the owners won “steep financial concessions” from the players in the new CBA, and that the owners are “keeping a greater percentage of overall revenue beginning in 2011,” with the players’ share of all revenue being reduced to the “mid 40 percent range.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

    As we have previously and publicly explained, the most accurate way to compare the players’ share of revenues between the new CBA and the old CBA is on a cash basis — i.e., what percentage of real dollars, as opposed to “salary cap” dollars, did the players get to take home in 2011 in comparison to prior years. On a cash basis, under the old CBA, the players’ share of All Revenue averaged to around 50 percent, and the percentage decreased each year from 2006. Under the new CBA, the players’ cash share in 2011 enjoyed healthy growth to about 55 percent of All Revenues. This is a major increase over the prior CBA and nearly 10 points higher than the “mid 40 percent range.”

    How could SportsBusiness Journal be so wrong? The answer is that NFL teams have been able to use various CBA provisions to spend very large amounts of cash on players above the cap, and have even greater flexibility to do so under the new rules in the 2011 CBA. As a result, even though the new CBA sets the salary cap plus benefits at between 47 percent and 48.5 percent of “All Revenue,” teams can and do spend much more than that on players so that there were no “steep financial concessions.”

    Team cash spending on players increased substantially in 2011, with players being paid about $160 million per team in cash plus benefits. This was well above the $142.4 million in salary cap dollars plus benefits for 2011, i.e., a lot of cash over cap. The players’ cash share of AR in 2011 of about 55 percent was actually higher than the players’ cash share in any year under the prior CBA.

    In short, contrary to the SportsBusiness Journal article, so far the new CBA has delivered a higher, not lower, percentage of revenues to NFL players. An easy fact check by an editor or a simple web search could have avoided such an egregious error in reporting.

    Tom DePaso
    General Counsel,
    NFL Players Association

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  • Using pop culture, improv to build connections, confidence

    What does Abbott and Costello’s classic comic bit “Who’s on first?” have to do with teaching sales? How about Will Ferrell’s bonding with his sibling in the film “Step Brothers”? And how does that relate to studying the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon televised debates? Ask any trainee at the MLS National Sales Center in Blaine, Minn., and they will tell you it’s all in a day’s work or, in their case, class.

    The MLS National Sales Center model — small classes, dorm living, reading, education and a good dose of pop culture — is almost like attending a small liberal arts college where the goal is broadening one’s world view, learning how to think, and then learning how to express those thoughts and communicate them to a variety of audiences. Only after that has occurred does a trainee learn to apply those techniques to ticket sales and begin calling prospective buyers for the various MLS clubs.

    “When you think about it, sales requires great communication and problem-solving skills. Our fundamental approach is to transfer this knowledge through a repeatable, ‘express, model and reinforce’ system and build confidence along the way,” said Sean Ream, director of sales for the National Sales Center.

    Managers Jeff Berryhill (left) and Sean Ream share some laughs with trainees during an exercise.
    Photo by: MLS NATIONAL SALES CENTER
    Rather than just teaching sales techniques, the center begins by teaching the importance and philosophy of communication and applying it to sales. There is a solid foundation in communication and fertile ground for the concepts of sales to grow once they have been introduced. The trainer/managers use teaching aids that engage the candidates and help them learn, envision and embrace the importance of being a great communicator while also beginning to better understand themselves and what each of them has to offer.

    During my visit, there were two sessions, or classes in residence. One group had been there for six to eight weeks while the other session had recently arrived and were at the early stages of training. The more advanced session had been making calls for several weeks and generating sales for two MLS clubs. The sales manager has the technology to listen in on any call and tape those calls for later playback and analysis with the candidates. The managers also can integrate themselves into the call through instant messaging and offer online tips and suggestions to the candidate during the sales call.

    Where possible, the center attempts to inject historical and pop culture video content and references into the lessons and throughout the curriculum. This approach not only keeps the learning environment fun and fresh but provides a familiar context necessary for retaining core teachings for the young trainees. A great example observed on my visit was around the topic of building rapport. A hilarious scene from the movie “Step Brothers” was highlighted. In this case, the scene characterized by Ferrell and John C. Reilly as they identify shared interests nicely reinforced the importance of building connections at the start of a relationship.

    A hilarious scene from “Step Brothers” nicely reinforced the importance of building connections at the beginning of a relationship.
    I also observed “Ben” and his sales manager Jeff Berryhill replaying and grading a call that Ben had made the previous week. They analyzed the call and the approach to determine what Ben did well and what he could improve upon. This provided a great opportunity to understand the path of questions and how to build upon those questions and their responses. The goal is to ask better questions and in the proper sequence, and thereby achieve better outcomes.

    That afternoon we left the center and took a class trip to the Brave New Workshop in downtown Minneapolis where John Sweeney and his cast taught the trainees about improvisation and how it can help improve their sales techniques. Improvisation is used to break down inhibitions, essential in developing confidence in listening and speaking to strangers. “It’s about practicing how to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation,” said Sweeney, who has consulted with a number of NBA clubs and a variety of businesses. Trainees learned improv techniques through games such as “What’s in the box?” which prepares them to hear objections and try to turn negatives into positives, and “Newsstand,” which focuses on listening and up-selling.

    While the MLS National Sales Center generates revenue for the league and its clubs, that isn’t the primary intent nor the only desired outcome of the process. The emphasis here is thorough training and development while learning how to communicate and sell. The primary focus is on preparing the candidate for long-term success rather than generating revenue with a great ROI because of the low cost of sale. While that opportunity exists, developing and supplying talent to the teams is the desired outcome.

    A well-trained ticket sales staff that enjoys what it does should result in a longer-tenured sales staff, and longevity and experience is the key to increased productivity. As these candidates begin to populate the various MLS teams, there will be a systemic sales process throughout the league that in my opinion would be one of the best that I have seen.

    “The NSC is not only a national talent development initiative but it is a laboratory for all aspects of the sales process including exploring new sales management techniques and fresh ways to enhance a sales culture,” said Bryant Pfeiffer, vice president of club services for MLS and who sold the league’s leadership on this sales laboratory. “It is a great example of the innovative approach MLS is taking as a league to continue to grow the sport of soccer in this country.”

    I entered the center to the sounds of the Oklahoma State fight song, which was played in my honor. I left with the memories of seeing a comfortable and confident group of future sellers poised to become revenue difference-makers for whatever club was lucky enough to employ them. n

    Bill Sutton (wsutton1@usf.edu) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida, and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_Impact.


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