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Over a frittata and coffee, the gracious Khan talked about coming over to the U.S. from Pakistan at the age of 16, building his auto parts company Flex-N-Gate, and life lessons — most of which can be read in The Sit-Down. But he also shared what he learned in his first year owning the Jaguars.
“The way I look at the Jaguars’ structure is two parts: business and football. Business I understand. But when I got there, we were buying tickets to fill the stadium, our sponsorships were headed south, ticket prices hadn’t been adjusted. And if you asked people, ‘Why can’t we sell tickets?’ you would hear, ‘We didn’t draft a certain player’ or ‘We haven’t won in a number of years,’ etc., etc. That would be like me saying, ‘How come I’m not selling this auto part? Well, I don’t have the lowest price; I don’t have the best quality. Right there tells you that something is wrong. You have to start change from the top.
“I did that for a number of reasons. One, they need to work together, but one can’t compromise the other. For example, you can’t have the business side saying, ‘I could be selling more tickets if we were winning.’ We aren’t selling victories; we are selling a great game-day experience. On the flip side, the football side needs to work with the business side, and they can’t be saying, ‘Look, we can’t sell tickets so we need to draft this guy.’ They need to be focused on long-term viability and success on the football field. The day-to-day money issues shouldn’t be involved.
Owner Shad Khan is energized about the Jaguars’ new hires.
Khan was clearly energized when talking about his new hires on the football side, feeling he now had key pieces to build on. He was very active in the search for a coach, and we talked a lot about the process.
“In looking for a coach, I was looking for two things,” he said. “Cultural fit and competency. Competency: Are they a good coach? Are they able to get the most out of the talent they have? Football has changed. Players have changed. They are smarter, they are harder working and they are richer. Would the style of the Vince Lombardis and other iconic coaches work today? My sense is probably not, for a lot of reasons. You have to have a coach who understands that, but can motivate the modern football player to put out the best. You can’t just go out and say, ‘Go and do it because I told you to.’ It’s a very, very tough job.”
As breakfast winds down, we spend a lot of time talking about takeaways from his 20 months in ownership. I figured it would have something to do with his newfound celebrity — magazine covers, a “60 Minutes” profile and just the overall attention he has received.
But what’s been the biggest surprise to him is the power of the NFL. “The biggest learning curve for me is how big football is,” he said. “It’s huge. Football is an iconic institution for a number of people, and the impact it has on the media is amazing. I’ve spent a lifetime in automotives, but only a year in football, and I can’t be hardly anywhere on Earth without people knowing who you are and having questions. You can be walking down the street and they just start talking to you and they’ll know about our draft. I had no clue about the size and the scope of football. The amount of scrutiny, this insatiable need, the amount of curiosity, I had no idea. I was not prepared for it. But you have to come around the curve quickly.”
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
> COME TOGETHER: Player health and safety remains the most important story, and it will continue to be a common thread through the season. I’ll also be watching the live game experience, enhancements, fan reaction to both of those, and overall attendance. If you want to see just how focused the league is on getting people to games and touting the euphoric, communal stadium experience, look no further than one of the league’s latest ads from Grey, N.Y., that is a direct shoutout to fans to get off the couch. In one version of its “Back to Football” campaign, dramatic scenes of fans and families watching the live game are accompanied by the voice-over of actor Forest Whitaker, who states, “Together, we make hearts pound. Together, we make hope eternal. Together, we make time stand still. But you have to be there … to be there. Together, we make football.” It’s an overt call that staying at home shouldn’t be an option. I’ll continue to watch what the league explores in terms of improving the experience, as its fan experience club working group is filled with smart, progressive minds charged with studying one of the league’s most important initiatives.
> IN-STADIUM ENHANCEMENTS: Very little is known about teams’ plans, process and end result for showing exclusive highlights and footage in-stadium. Much was made of the league saying it would require teams to install cameras in home locker rooms this season, with teams having the option to use the video in the stadium during halftime and other breaks in play. I’ll be watching to see how concerted an effort this is, what content is shown when and how often, and which teams are most aggressive. I’ll go back to NFL Executive Vice President Eric Grubman continually stressing at our World Congress of Sports 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]. ... We have to do that.”
In addition, I’ll continue to look for anecdotal evidence on improved connectivity in venues, especially at ones with recent upgrades, including Ford Field, CenturyLink Field, AT&T Stadium and MetLife Stadium.
> CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’: Keep an eye out for any movement on the league’s building issues in the nation’s most populous state. Traction, and especially news, around the Los Angeles market has publicly slowed since Tim Leiweke left AEG. The Raiders are entering the final year on their most recent lease at Oakland with little beyond a feasibility study for a new stadium in hand. And, in case you missed it, SI.com’s Jim Trotter had an excellent piece recently on how the Chargers’ pursuit of a new stadium is at a standstill while the city government is in chaos and leadership is lacking. This comes while The New York Times recently had a glowing piece on California Gov. Jerry Brown and how he had returned the state to some form of financial stability. So could there be deals made? These are important markets and projects to the future of the league. It also proves again how impressive Jed York and company’s achievement for the state’s first new football stadium in four decades, the 49ers’ new $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, was. Yes, it was with a massive private commitment of $850 million, but they have backed it up through strong sales.
> TV TIME: I learned long ago how futile it is to try to predict ratings. But a few things I’ll look for. Outside of the NFL Network, all the league’s TV partners last year saw a slight drop in viewership. I anticipate that some will rebound. An easy prediction is this: The NFL will have TV’s biggest audiences. Once again, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” will be the highest-rated TV series this fall. It has a few odd games that may not draw in September — 49ers-Seahawks; Bears-Steelers; Patriots-Falcons; Texans-49ers — but the rest of the season is very strong. And once again, ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” will be cable’s most watched series. Fox should see strong numbers thanks to a schedule that has the NFC East play the NFC North. Fox also has 10 Dallas Cowboys games (it had eight last year), and it is well-positioned. CBS has some strong national games, but I’m not sure how deep its AFC schedule is.
As an aside, look for MLB to benefit from the NFL’s schedule. Fox has two strong lead-ins into Sunday night playoff games. In Week 6, Fox will have a Drew Brees vs. Tom Brady matchup to lead into Game 2 of the ALCS. And it will have an RGIII vs. Peyton Manning game leading into Game 4 of the World Series. MLB could hardly ask for stronger lead-ins to its marquee programming.
> WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT?: The two NFL jobs I get asked about the most: Who will be tabbed as CEO of the Dolphins? Will the Raiders bring in someone to run the business side? Tough jobs, with big personalities at the top. But both also have great potential, with major projects on the boards and fan bases that care deeply. In Miami, owner Stephen Ross seems to be looking for a sharp business manager who can not only handle the external issues like pending stadium issues and community relations, but also focus on declining ticket sales and sponsorships and eroding brand perception. I’m hearing that Ross, Dolphins Vice Chairman Matt Higgins, and Turnkey Search have conducted a broad search, speaking with more than 50 candidates from the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Could be a decision soon. On the Raiders front, I have no idea what team owner Mark Davis will do, and no one I talk to seems to have a sense of whether he’ll bring in someone to lead the business side now that Amy Trask is gone.
> SPEAKING OF TRASK: One of the TV personalities I’m most interested in watching is Trask, as the former Raiders CEO joins CBS Sports Network’s early Sunday morning pregame show. I’ll be looking to see what kind of business-side perspective she can provide. Granted, these issues don’t come up often, but she could offer valuable perspective about the pressures of blackouts and ticket sales, marketing and messaging, challenges of playing in an outdated stadium and ways to improve the game-day experience. I’m not sure the majority of NFL fans care about these subjects in their pregame shows, but readers of this magazine would. There aren’t many pure-play business-side talking heads, so let’s see what she delivers.
> QUICK HITS: I am getting the sense because of the concerted push by some owners — the Glazers, Stan Kroenke, Shad Khan (see related story) and Robert Kraft, among others — that the league is starting to be a bit more serious about its international strategy, obviously with a clear focus on London. My sense is with two games this year, three likely in the future, an early Sunday morning “Breakfast With The NFL In London” live TV window in the future, league officials are beginning to see real revenue from the NFL International Series, and frankly, like most businesses, revenue is what it boils down to. . … Continue to watch preparations around Super Bowl XLVIII. From the league’s Broadway Boulevard, to corporate hospitality, organization and transportation, to working with two states and trying to stand out amid the hub of New York City, this will be a historic event. … I’ll continue to monitor the issues surrounding Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and Vikings owners, the Wilfs. In Minnesota, the promise and excitment of a long-planned new stadium will likely be mired in negativity based on the ruling against the Wilfs in a New Jersey court. Needless to say, the league must avoid another issue of ownership ethics. … We’ve been keeping our eyes on the new security checks and bag policy and its effect on fans. All one had to do was see up to 45-minute waits to enter last week’s U.S. Open to further crystalize how the Boston Marathon tragedy has changed sports. Keep an eye on this, especially during the first few weeks as fans are not up to speed, as the bag policy affects the first fan touch point at games, and this could impede all the work teams have done to improve and quicken the entrance access.
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.
Forty-five years ago last week, Rod Laver graced the cover of Sports Illustrated before the first U.S. Open Tennis Championship in the Open Era. The article’s headline: “Open Season for a Test of Time” was followed by the story teaser, “He so excels the field that he soon may not have any competition but the memory of past immortals.”
While he didn’t even make it to the finals of that year’s event (when did the SI cover jinx begin?), Laver is still the only tennis player to win the Grand Slam twice in his career and is the only male player to have achieved this feat since the best amateurs and pros began competing together. As I retraced Laver’s early professional career, the question gnawing within me was why so many of today’s superstars seem to be failing the test of time.
I’ve been fortunate to witness the world of professional sports from the inside out, watching talent being managed in conference rooms rather than cheering for my sports idols from the stands. Recently, two experiences made me pause and consider the stark contrast between the superstars of yesterday and today and what it means to be a great champion, an icon on the path to immortality.
The first was reading David Brooks’ New York Times commentary “The A-Rod Problem,” in which he grapples with Alex Rodriguez’s suspension from baseball through the 2014 season. The second instance was stumbling across the above-mentioned Laver article, found among my father’s letters and memos, documenting the birth of IMG’s tennis division and signing Laver as its first tennis client.
Brooks concludes that A-Rod’s fatal flaw was not one bad decision but rather being caught in a vicious cycle of the “perils of self-preoccupation.” A-Rod was “always observing himself, and measuring to see if he lives up to the image of a superstar.” An entourage of publicists and agents bolstered and aided the construction of “the marketing facade of A-Rod Inc.”
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“I can see with the rapid growth of professional tennis … I would like to turn over the business portion to a qualified manager.”
If he was trying to convince my father to take him on personally and expand IMG beyond its roots in golf, he didn’t ask directly:
“I am hoping you will know of someone that would perhaps be interested.”
My father’s reply to Laver on Sept. 14, 1966, didn’t sound like someone eager to build a global, multisports agency, which is even more surprising given that Laver had already won his first grand slam in 1962 and many of the initial, albeit modest, pro events. His response to Laver began:
“Although I am not particularly sure that I would be able to do very much for you in light of the very difficult time professional tennis is presently having getting off the ground, I would very much like to meet you and sit down and talk about it at some time in the not too distant future.”
It was almost two years later, on June 18, 1968, before my father wrote again, sounding a bit more eager:
“As I said to you on the telephone prior to leaving for Europe some weeks ago, I would very much like to sit down with you and talk about the overall situation with a view towards working out something that would be mutually satisfactory.”
After Laver’s Wimbledon victory in 1968, activity throughout IMG’s ranks increased. Laver was signed as IMG’s first tennis client on Sept. 19, 1968.
I was astonished by how much has changed in player recruiting over the past four decades, but what struck me most was the civility of Laver’s letter. Can you imagine any successful celebrity from sports, politics or business, at the pinnacle of their achievement, penning such a note today? You can learn a lot about a person by how they ask for help and share their shortcomings. As Kim Chapin wrote in that SI cover story 45 years ago, when Laver was “away from the tennis court … the ingrained nervous viciousness that distinguishes him so in action dissipates rapidly, and Laver becomes more like something out of a Boy Scout manual — shy, modest, honest, clean, thrifty, neat, kind.”
Image isn’t everything when one loses any semblance of authenticity and self. Winning isn’t the only thing when one wins by cheating. The person with the most toys (or Twitter followers) surely doesn’t win the most important game.
We will see how the A-Rod story plays out, but as we learned from the Lance Armstrong affair, it seems like we’ve seen this show before. It is clear Laver fought for victory and riches as hard as any other athlete of this current generation of superstars. But he also must have read and understood the wisdom of the Kipling couplet etched on the wall of the All England Club as he walked onto Centre Court for one of his four Wimbledon singles titles:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and
Treat those two impostors just the same …
Surely one’s path to immortality is defined not by wins and losses alone but also by remembering that gifts and talents don’t exempt superstars from meeting what I have to feel is an easier challenge: being a decent, kind human being, who keeps perspective on one’s life when showered with media attention and public adulation.
I’m glad to know a Rod who has done both.
Todd McCormack works with IMG and other early stage technology companies on digital media strategy. He also coordinates the McCormack family’s partnership with the University of Massachusetts to preserve the early history of the sports marketing industry his father pioneered.