SBJ/March 4-10, 2013/Media

Relationships, timing help Perlman build firm

Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

Doug Perlman recalls taking an early morning train from his Connecticut home to New York City in September 2008. It started as a regular day commuting to work, but he vividly remembers how it ended up having a dramatic impact on his future.

Doug Perlman’s understanding of the convergence of digital and TV have helped his consultancy stand out. “Doug was a guy who tied it all together,” NASCAR’s Steve Herbst says.
J.P. VERNI
A little more than nine months earlier, Perlman and three other sports executives launched an institutional fund, Accrue Sports and Entertainment Ventures. Perlman headed up the company’s consulting business, but advisory was secondary at Accrue to raising capital for sports industry investments.

That morning on the train, Perlman was focused on headlines about the collapse of the venerable Lehman Brothers. He realized the effect the largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history would have on his new company. Sitting on the train, he thought of the impossible task of raising a first-time fund just as the country’s financial markets were drying up.

“The timing was comically bad,” Perlman said. “I was thinking, ‘This is not good.’”

He paused for a moment, and then he added, “Timing in life is everything.”

That timing pushed the then-39-year-old executive to figure out what was next. About a year after that September morning, he and his longtime mentor, Steve Solomon, left Accrue, and Perlman put his years in the sports industry to the test. He opened his own consultancy business, called Sports Media Advisors. Rather than trying to raise money for investments, the SportsBusiness Journal/Daily Forty Under 40 “Hall of Famer” decided that his new company would rely on the expertise and relationships he developed during his two decades in the business.

“As we went through the process, we saw that it was going to be difficult to raise that fund,” he said. “The premise was to flip that model on its ear and focus on the advisory side and look to take equity stakes in emerging companies opportunistically, as opposed to through raising a fund, which was a lot of time and administration.”

Perlman set up shop in his hometown of New Canaan, Conn., in August 2009. He leaned on Solomon, speaking to him daily for counsel, and began networking like any startup executive. Soon, his phone started ringing. HBO Sports called asking for ideas on expanding its “24/7” series. Goldman Sachs was looking for advice on making strategic sports investments. Omnigon Communications and Atomic Moguls needed help and hired Sports Media Advisors within the company’s first three months.

For Perlman, the early flow of business brought in enough revenue that he could start hiring staff. “It’s not that hard to spread the word,” he said. “It’s a very small industry. Word got out, and calls started coming in.”

Now, more than three years later, Perlman’s firm has grown to a team of six, complete with 401(k) plans and health care benefits. It has consulted with roughly 25 clients over its three years, with eight to 10 active, Perlman said. Clients generally are kept on a retainer basis and include the likes of NASCAR and the U.S. Tennis Association.

“It’s not a small business,” he said. “We’re competing with the big boys. We’re getting engaged with clients that any of the biggest players would want to get.”

Part of the firm’s success, according to both Perlman, 44, and the executives he’s done business with, comes from the strength of his Rolodex. After graduating from Virginia’s law school in 1993, Perlman started doing sports law at Proskauer, where he developed contacts at most of the big sports leagues. From there, it was nearly 11 years at the NHL, where he focused on the league’s digital and traditional media businesses. He left the NHL for a stint at IMG that lasted about a year.

The connections he made in each of those places are serving him well in launching his own business.

IMG Sports & Entertainment President George Pyne hired Sports Media Advisors three years ago to find digital opportunities for IMG’s college properties and its IMG College group. “When I think about Doug Perlman, two things come to mind for me. One is that he’s a really good person. He’s also a very bright guy,” Pyne said. “When you get a good guy who’s a bright guy, you have a winning combination.”

At the NHL, Commissioner Gary Bettman said he noticed the executive’s entrepreneurial spirit early in his career and he wasn’t surprised to see Perlman start his own company.

“I gave him pretty wide berth — so wide that he decided to leave,” Bettman joked. “Talented people, and I’ve been fortunate to have had many that I’ve worked with, rise very quickly. Part of Doug’s entrepreneurial spirit is the reason that he decided to go out on his own.”

“We’re getting engaged with clients that any of the biggest players would want to get,” Perlman says.
J.P. VERNI
It may be Perlman’s Rolodex that gets Sports Media Advisors’ foot in the door, but it’s his understanding of the business issues around the convergence of digital and television that has helped retain the clients.

“It is a nice point of difference for us,” Perlman said. “In a lot of the matters that we work on, we can speak to our clients’ needs from both a TV and a digital perspective. It’s critically important to understand both. That’s helped drive our success.”

As the industry figures out how to make real money in digital and from second screens, Perlman has been able to build a business. NASCAR officials credit his understanding of the intersection between TV and digital for helping it close a deal with Fox Sports last year for $2.4 billion over eight years. That deal included TV Everywhere rights for the first time, which will allow Fox to stream races live.

Steve Herbst, NASCAR’s vice president of broadcasting and production, said Perlman was instrumental in bringing the TV rights and the TV Everywhere rights together.

“Deals these days are very complex. They have many different layers to them,” Herbst said. “Doug was a guy who tied it all together.”

Herbst also cited a more than decade-long relationship that helped the two navigate a difficult deal.

It is those kind of long-standing industry relationships that helped Sports Media Advisors land one of its first clients. Ross Greenburg, who was president of HBO Sports at the time, is a longtime friend of Perlman’s. When he looked into expanding HBO’s “24/7” franchise beyond boxing, he said Perlman was one of his first calls. The result was a “24/7” series around NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson and another “24/7” series around the NHL’s Winter Classic.

“I knew that Doug would have a unique perspective, having been in the leagues and having dealt with networks,” Greenburg said. “It’s all the Rolodex. You work with people you like and people that you trust and people that trust you. He’s built those relationships over all those years.”

It was Perlman’s background that also led the NFL to tab him as an expert witness during a media-related dispute with the NFL Players Association. The union in 2010 had brought a grievance against the league upon discovering that the NFL’s broadcast partners would pay the league a rights fee even if no games were played in the event of a lockout.

“We were looking for someone with strong experience in the media space and came to Doug because of the depth of his media background, his incredible knowledge of the industry and his well-known commitment to producing strong, analytical work,” said Brian Rolapp, chief operating officer of NFL Media. “In addition, we were looking for someone who would work hard and has a high level of integrity. Doug fit the bill.”

Perlman advised Major League Baseball on media matters related to the McCourt sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers, as well.

Beyond the advisory work, the other part of the business Perlman is developing is having Sports Media Advisors take equity stakes in companies. It has an equity stake in the digital production shop Omnigon. Omnigon executives called Perlman three years ago to find a way to expand their sports practice. Now, 90 percent of their business comes from sports, thanks to deals that Sports Media Advisors helped establish with the PGA Tour, Fox Sports, NASCAR and the U.S. Tennis Association.

“That’s a good example of where we have an equity stake in the business by virtue of our relationship with them,” Perlman said. He refused to disclose the size of the stake.
Perlman said his goal is not to sell out. He wants to build his business and expand his staff. He said he wants to run Sports Media Advisors for as long as he’s in the business.

He likes where he’s at, more than four years after that fateful ride on Metro North.

“Everything we’re doing is rooted in our business of TV and digital media and in our ability to help folks navigate the sports landscape,” he said. “We think we’ve been creative in how we’ve deployed the two.”

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