SBJ/April 15-21, 2013/Opinion

Executives warn: Don’t disappoint fans today

There were a number of thoughts and comments that stood out during the opening session at our recent IMG World Congress of Sports in Naples, Fla. Here’s a sampling that I found of interest.

The fan experience at live events was a significant part of the discussion, with NFL Executive Vice President Eric Grubman continually stressing that fans can’t be disappointed. “If connectivity is important to that fan, we better provide it,” he said. “If the RedZone and what’s happening with a rival team is important to that fan, it better be on [the video board]. For that matter … if the Ryder Cup on Sunday is coming down to that finish of last year, and 10 or 15 percent of the fans in an NFL stadium really care about that, why is that not up there at those key moments that are so interesting to sports fans? We have to do that.” Anheuser-Busch’s Blaise D’Sylva agreed. “There are some very simple, basic things about not disappointing the fan that need to take place,” he said, “and I still wonder why today, in 2013, we’re talking about some of them. For example, I think in baseball, the replay rule and what they’ll show on the board in baseball to me is very, very draconian. You go to a game and you don’t get to see a lot of replays. I know that in the NFL this past year they made it a rule to show every call that was being challenged and that was being shown to the audience at home — that you would get to see it in the stadium. That’s the step in the right direction.” Golden State Warriors President and COO Rick Welts said finding the right content mix isn’t easy. “What is that combination of things that people want?” he said. “As leagues, we really struggle with our game and what can we share and what can’t we share. When the NBA went to an actual replay situation, we now show the exact same feeds at the exact same times that the officials are looking at that monitor on the scorer’s table, making that decision about whether that call was right or wrong. How great is that? We’ve let you under the tent.”

One speaker who drew a buzz was Grubman, who opened eyes with thoughtful, straightforward answers. I can’t say I feel the NFL’s return to Los Angeles is close, based on his comments on the situation — especially referring to the current AEG proposal to lure a team for Farmers Field. “No owner, and certainly not the NFL, is going to go in and create something that has tremendous value for someone who’s taking the capital and leaving,” Grubman said. He added, “We don’t have to go to L.A., and L.A. doesn’t have to have an NFL franchise. We’ll both survive just fine. The different parties are going to have to compromise.” When asked to respond to criticism that the NFL hasn’t seriously engaged the city or potential partners in Los Angeles, he responded that anyone who felt that way “should look at my files. … My only regret is that we keep working on it without significant progress.” AEG Chairman Phil Anschutz said recently there was a deal to be made to bring the NFL to Farmers Field, and in looking closely at his words, perhaps the two most important ones are, “We’re flexible.” It’s obvious he’s going to need to be much more “flexible” in his deal parameters if he wants an NFL team playing in Farmers Field.

Another deal I won’t hold my breath on is jersey advertising in the NBA. Welts has always been one of my favorite executives in sports, and he is among the most progressive and innovative minds in the business. Hearing him talk about possible jersey advertising in the NBA left me less optimistic that a deal is close to being completed. “Money is holding this up,” he said. “We are creating a disparity in revenue from big markets to small markets, and teams look at this as magnifying that [disparity] even more. So should we share that money? That’s a hard discussion to have with a brand-new source of revenue.” Welts said team presidents think there’s a “middle ground” where 25 percent of each team’s jersey sponsorship revenue goes into a shared pool. But he’s not optimistic that a deal is close. “Everyone knows there’s a big pot there,” he said. “It’s not uncomplicated, but the idea that we have hundreds of millions of dollars sitting out there and we can’t figure out a solution to bring it into the league, shame on us.” Meanwhile, based on Grubman’s remarks, don’t look for the NFL to go beyond ads on practice jerseys. “I don’t necessarily see that the value difference compared to the current model would make that much of a difference,” he said. “We’ll watch what other people are doing, but it’s not on the top of my list right now.”

D’Sylva, A-B vice president of media, sports and entertainment marketing, kept hitting on an interesting theme of whether there were just too many sports options, specifically from the brand perspective. “I don’t know if there are too many sports as much as just too much of sports,” he said. He noted the NBA being praised for its 66-game schedule following the 2011 lockout, which brought up the idea that fewer games in a season would be a benefit for fans and sponsors. He added, “We have the permission to play in any sport. The challenge for us is we don’t have a bottomless bottom line.” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott added, “In certain cases, less is more. I think it’s been proven in a lot of different places.” WTA Chief Executive Stacey Allaster, noting the tour has 54 tournaments scheduled for this year, said, “It’s too much. … I do think less is more in our sport in order to be relevant.” Allaster added, “Do we need Monday through Sunday? Do we need an afternoon session and an evening session?” However, D’Sylva acknowledged that the “genie is out of the bottle” and there will likely not be fewer sports or events, but he did argue that some sports could take a chance of being innovative in shortening seasons or changing the formats of their seasons. D’Sylva raises interesting points and it’s not surprising coming from someone writing the checks, but I don’t see any major catalysts to change the current models in sports.

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

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