SBJ/Jan. 13-19, 2014/Opinion

‘The Professor’ reflects on sports career

David Downs is on the soccer field nearly every day of the week, teaching players on one of the three soccer teams he coaches in Westchester County. So when we made plans to meet in New York City, the Netherlands-born lifelong soccer player had to be back for his 2 p.m. practice. For him, coaching combines passion for a sport with a love of teaching. 

“I’m passionate about soccer and being able to share my passion,” he tells me as he sits along a window in the Royalton Hotel lobby. “My father was a teacher, my daughter is a teacher, and I’m teaching here. Over the years, a lot of people would say to my face or behind my back, that I was too academic for the business I was in. And nicknamed me ‘The Professor.’ But I’ve always had teaching in my blood.”

The business Downs was in for more than 35 years was the sports media and soccer business, and the 58-year-old looks relaxed, in a blue dress shirt, as we share a pot of coffee and talk about his days in sports.

The New Englander (grew up in New Hampshire, school in Massachusetts) enjoyed history, literature and sports when he was at Amherst College. “I was studying American history and wanted to be a print journalist,” he said. But with no job lined up, he landed a fellowship and served as the SID for Amherst. “I not only got to realize small office life in a really small, wonderful office with a great boss,” Downs remembers, “but actually met the woman who would become my wife for the last 35 years. She was the graphic designer, so when I was doing the school’s football program, she was doing the layouts and we were collaborating and working together. It was fantastic.”

Soon a notice came that ABC Sports was asking SIDs for recommendations for Olympic researchers before the Lake Placid Winter Games in 1980. Downs instantly had someone in mind. “I recommended myself. I was turning 23, I went down to New York and interviewed with producer Chuck Howard.” He recalled a life lesson from the interview. “I thought it went very well, except for one thing,” he said. “Most job applicants do a lot of research on whatever position they are applying for. I was a little on the naïve side, so I went down there not knowing too much about the history of ABC Sports or who was who. Toward the end of my interview, Chuck asked, ‘OK, David, on a typical Saturday afternoon in the winter or spring, what do you like to turn on at 5 p.m.?’ I should have said, ‘ABC’s Wide World of Sports! I devour it!’ And indeed I liked it, but without pausing for a second, I answered as honestly as I could and said, ‘College basketball. I love college basketball.’ Chuck, little to my knowledge, was a Duke graduate, and while he was producing the ski race for ‘Wide World,’ he apparently also had the Duke game on. So I got one point for honesty and one point for good taste. And even though it was absolutely the wrong answer, I think it actually improved my candidacy because he realized, ‘This is a guy I can trust.’” 

Downs was hired in June of 1978 as ABC Sports’ lone Olympic researcher. At 23, he moved to New York and embarked on a dream job. “They handed me a credit card and showed me the volumes that longtime Olympic researcher Peter Diamond had put together for [the 1976 Winter and Summer Games in] Innsbruck and Montreal and said, ‘See you in about two years.’ I was expected to get on a plane and go to West Germany, and watch speed skaters train from around the world and get to know them and learn about them. At that time, if you needed to know the height and weight of the Norwegian ski jumper, you flew to Oslo and asked. It was pad-and-pencil journalism.” The result was about 1,500 pages of material that was the bible for on-air talent. “It was information Keith Jackson would use during the event, and in some cases, the information I learned would end up being the basis for the ‘Up Close and Personal’ portraits that were being done.” The job took him all over the world. “I spent about 150 days on the road. I got to Moscow and Norway probably half a dozen times. I went cross-country skiing in Yellowstone National Park with the U.S. cross-country ski team.” 

                                       

After the Lake Placid Olympics, Downs became an associate producer, but found life on the road more challenging. “I was married and I was starting to sense the production life could be a pretty hard life. It’s particularly hard if you are thinking of a family.” It was then that a mentor had a suggestion. Bob Iger was ABC’s director of programming for “Wide World of Sports.” He wanted Downs to switch to the programming side of the house. “I immediately said yes,” Downs said. “It would be a more stable lifestyle, and I realized the rights acquisition and scheduling of network television is an important area.”

Iger experienced a quick rise through the ranks at ABC and is now CEO of Disney. “Bob was a wonderful boss and great mentor,” Downs said. “He was very bright and capable, but I think even he was shocked when he started rising up the ranks as fast as he did. He really did deserve it. He has a very good way with people, very good leadership style. You sensed he had some special qualities there. So when he got promoted within ABC Sports, I got promoted. Everything was good. Then, all of sudden, he got called to be president of ABC Entertainment and headed off to L.A. And while I lost immediate contact with an outstanding boss and great mentor, he had actually put me in the position of being a senior person in programming for ABC Sports. So it was not a bad thing at the age of 33.”

                                       

It was then that Downs cut his teeth on rights deals, negotiating deals for events all around the world. “It was a fascinating education process in terms of negotiations, especially of just what matters and what doesn’t,” he recalled. “What rights did we need to have? What rights didn’t we need? It was also a very eye-opening period for me, personally, because it taught me a lot about shades of gray and not just black and white. There were times where I felt absolutely I was being wronged and the person across the table from me was being a complete jerk, but if I allowed myself to take that personally, or not do what was right for the company, or not be willing to compromise or be diplomatic because I felt that something was just flat-out wrong, it could cost me. I came to grips of how I had to control my emotions and see things from a broader perspective. I had to remember, first and foremost, that I was sent out to make a deal, not blow one up on principle.”

                                       

Dennis Swanson took over as ABC Sports president in January 1986 as part of the Capital Cities takeover of ABC. There was massive executive turnover, but Downs took the lead on negotiations from college football to golf to boxing and the deal he was most proud of, which “fit into my current passion and current life,” the 1994 World Cup.

“The 1990 rights were held by Turner, who ran 60-second commercial breaks three times a half, even though the game didn’t stop. We were watching games in my office and Dennis Swanson was saying, ‘We’ve got to figure out a way for us to do this.’ While we were watching one game, the only goal was scored while they were in a commercial break. We just thought it was wrong. So we started wondering how we could make a deal work. We knew we had to come up with a way to televise this World Cup commercial free during play. But how could we raise the money?” Downs and his group decided to tap into FIFA’s commercial partners, asking them to pay a premium to be part of a clutter-free environment. The big idea was featuring the match clock and the score continually with the sponsor logo next to it. The logo would be seen on screen the entire match. Downs remembers, “We went to FIFA and said, ‘Your biggest sponsors have pledged us $11 million for just these commercial positions in each game. That is all we have, but it will be commercial free. It won’t have any ambush marketers and you have to let us put a clock up on the screen with your sponsors, who are up on the field boards anyway.’ FIFA was blown away. Our biggest competitor was NBC. They went in with a more traditional deal, but possibly more money. But FIFA liked what they were getting from us and signed a contract with us. It honestly changed the way soccer’s broadcast in the United States; now everybody does that formula. It was a magnificent event.”

                                       

But while Downs recalls the euphoria of that event, he also remembers the angst of the sports TV market. “In 1994, it was terrifying to be in the marketplace, because you always felt that there was with every major package some network on the outs that was willing to do anything at all costs to get in. I didn’t enjoy being at ABC Sports and having a major contribution to the bottom line of ABC Sports and waking up every morning looking at that bottom line and realizing that we were going to lose money. There was no way around it. If we wanted to keep our properties, we were going to lose even more money. I still think a business ought to be run like business. You should be able to make money doing sports. You had to make difficult choices. We lost the rights to the U.S. Open golf because the USGA felt that they needed to bid it out to get the maximum amount of money. And NBC, which didn’t have the rights at the time, bid a higher number. Sometimes the incumbent is punished for too much knowledge. If you televise an event for 10 years, you know precisely what it’s worth. You know to the penny what it costs to produce the event, you know everything about those deals. And if you’re on the outside, you can sometimes convince yourself that there is more to it than there is.” He lamented that it became “too hard trying to convince” properties not to go for the money. “It would be rare to find an organization that left money on the table in order to display some long-range tradition or loyalty to a broadcaster.”

                                       

In 1996, things changed when Disney purchased Capital Cities. “The day Disney took over ABC, they made the determination it made no sense in having two different sports brands. Why have ABC Sports when you have a much more lucrative ESPN brand with frankly a much bigger market image than its average prime-time and daytime ratings would justify? It was tough to wake up as an ABC Sports employee knowing that you could barely break even on your rights versus revenue and then get asked by the network for affiliate compensation, the sales department overhead, and then end up losing $25 [million] to $50 million as a network division. Then ESPN would do the opposite, they would lose $25 [million] to $50 million on rights and production versus ad revenue, and then they go, ‘Oh, we have $3 billion in subscriber sub-fees, so we made a profit.’ You’re sitting there going, ‘God, how am I ever going to win that battle?’ ABC Sports was so vibrant in the ’70s and ’80s when I was there. It was a marvelous operation. ABC Sports has just gone away, and that’s sad and sort of amazing to me, still.”

                                       

From Olympic researcher for ABC Sports to NASL comissioner, David Downs’ career spanned the world of sports.
Photo by: PATRICK E. MCCARTHY
In the late ’90s, Downs needed a new challenge, and was recruited by Jerry Perenchio to lead Univision Sports. “It created a whole new learning curve for me, literally energized my career. I was having a great time at Univision, really enjoying myself, but I’m also starting to think, ‘OK, is there something I can do beyond television?’”

In 2009, he was able to align work with his love of soccer when his friend, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, asked him to run the U.S. bid for the 2018 or 2022 World Cup. “He told me, ‘It’s only a two-year project, so one way or another, you’ll be able to leave and can retire and become a youth soccer coach if that’s what you want to do.’ I said, ‘What’s the catch?’ He said, ‘Well, 50 percent pay cut, a lot of hard work, all or nothing riding on your shoulders.’ It didn’t seem like a bad idea. My kids had just graduated from college; the mortgage was paid off on the house, and I thought, ‘Let’s do this.’”

He spent from Feb. 1, 2009, through December 2010 working on the bid. “It was utterly fantastic,” he said. “I got to do some amazing things: meeting people at the White House, meet wonderful mayors in wonderful cities, the board was extraordinary: Henry Kissinger, Bob Kraft, Drew Carey and Spike Lee. We put together a wonderful bid. It ended horribly, much to all of our amazement. Up until this day, I can’t believe that people in good conscience would pick Qatar over the United States.” It’s clear this is Downs’ biggest disappointment. “You worked two years of your life to get something done that you think has historic implications for the United States. That was not an acceptable outcome. I took the job to win. It was crushing. It was crushing personally. It was crushing professionally. It makes it worse by having the news continue to resonate. And I don’t see it stopping until 2022, whether it’s held there or not. In my gut, I think it will be held in Qatar in some fashion.”

                                       

Downs was at a loss for what was next. “I was gutted. I was wondering what the heck I was going to do next. I was cross-country skiing in the woods or taking yoga classes with my wife, and then I got a call and it was the North American Soccer League. They wanted a commissioner. Being soccer and the chance to be commissioner is pretty cool.” He found a commute to Miami was only part of the challenge. “The focus was survival, and it was pretty evident that we were being graded on that. Was it a survivable economic proposition? After a couple of years, I finally said, ‘There is some unfinished business, but there will be unfinished business five or 10 years from now.’ I had an out in my contract that I exercised.”

                                       

I have plenty more to ask David but know he’s short on time. So I wrap up our conversation with quick hitters. The toughest negotiators he dealt with over the years were Don King and Bob Arum. “I don’t think they ever reneged on a deal once we closed it,” he recalled.  On those within sports media: “I always respected my colleagues. Dick Ebersol is an incredibly bright guy. He’s a different guy than me; we approached things in different ways. He was always gracious, regardless if they were beating us or losing to us. There is camaraderie there among networks. And I was as competitive as the next person. I loved the competitive nature of the business. But it had rules.”

I asked about the leaders he admired and, in addition to Iger’s friendship, it’s clear that Swanson left an impact. “Dennis exemplified loyalty toward his troops. Dennis was not the easiest guy to work for. He was very demanding. He believed you should be constantly culling out the bottom 5 or 10 percent of your staff. They can’t all be good. I found it hard to do some of those things because that, to me, is tough on an individual. Sometimes you don’t want to let go of people even if they are on the bottom of your staff. But the one thing I was most impressed with is that when you were on Dennis’ team, you were part of Dennis’ team. He would die for you.”

He admits his leadership style is different. Downs is so friendly that I can see where some felt he may have been too kind for the gritty world of media. “I believe very strongly in leading by example and openness and mentoring the staff,” he told me. “I don’t believe an executive’s decision should be a really tight circle of key executives with a cloud of secrecy over it and people just blindly follow orders. I like to have staff meetings where everybody attends, regardless of pay grade or title. I’m not too proud to take ideas from anybody, no matter how high or how low, how senior or not senior. I’m certainly not big on manipulating people.” 

                                       

His advice to young people looking to get into sports? “Get your foot in the door somehow. … For the most part, good people rise to the top. You don’t hear many stories about people who were brilliant executives who were held back because they were in a funny job or not the right career track. It’s a very democratic business where people who are capable rise quickly and often at very young ages.”

Downs needs to catch a train if he’s going to be on the practice field at 2. It’s easy to admire his balanced life. And he acknowledges he’s got it good, working on a few consulting projects. “It’s a great lifestyle and I don’t have the weight of the world on me. I’m really fortunate that I’ve had a long enough career and did everything — from investments to pension, to starting a family early, to paying off the house early and other things — that I can afford to live a little more scaled-back life.” I said I was jealous, and he laughed, “I’m glad I can do it while I can still walk upright and my knees are healthy. I could probably start for my eighth-grade soccer team.”

Few teams have such a passionate teacher leading them.

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

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