SBJ/June 30-July 6, 2014/Opinion

At year’s halfway point, stories we’ll be watching

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Cleaning out the notebook as we head into a midsummer break and the second half of 2014: 

> FULL COOPERATION: The concept of a team’s business and player-personnel operations working in full cooperation is one of the issues I’m most frequently asked about: Who works well together, who doesn’t, and do they have to? Does an organization have to have a strong working relationship between player-personnel and business to be successful? “You don’t have to run it that way,” said Golden State Warriors President and COO Rick Welts. “There are very successful organizations where the two never meet.” But Welts stressed that he’s a proponent of a healthy working relationship between the units and said, “It’s one of the reasons that I’m here [at Golden State], because that’s our ownership philosophy.” He went on to add, “I love trying to have this argument with those teams [where it’s more split], but if you’re really trying to maximize the opportunities for your franchise, that’s not the right way to run the organization. The type of cooperation … comes right from the top, comes from ownership. You can do it without it, but it’s limiting in terms of the opportunities you can create. … You can be successful [keeping the groups separate] if you’re winning. If you have an absolutely superior product you can be successful. I think if you’re middle of the pack or on your way up, it becomes much more difficult.”  

Brian Basloe, senior vice president of suite and ticket sales for Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Nets, said recently that an NBA meeting this year stressed cooperation from team operations. “The buy-in from team ops is very important,” he said. “Pat Riley spoke at an NBA TMBO event recently. When Pat Riley is heading panels on how team ops can help new business, we’ve entered a new frontier.” 

Welts also suggested a new element to the tug between business and player-personnel. “The other subset of competition is the players themselves,” he said. “We’re also competing a little bit with our own players as they become more visible spokespeople in terms of the associations that they create, too. It’s an additional layer that we don’t often talk about. We have to manage that, as well, as your team becomes more successful and your individual players actually are their own brands and can go out and market, sometimes even in competition with the teams.”

> THE FIRST DAYS ARE THE HARDEST DAYS: In speaking with new NHL Coyotes co-owner Anthony LeBlanc, you fully understand that he’s eager to have more time under his belt as he and his partners look to make hockey work in Arizona. I’ve heard good things about the 44-year-old LeBlanc, who I’m told is very engaged and is spending hours and energy to get it right in Glendale. It’s refreshing that he isn’t afraid to say what he has to learn and what he doesn’t know. He concedes the organization is playing catch-up. He’s got his sights set on increasing per game attendance by 1,000 from nearly 14,000 this past season.

“We also have a significant opportunity to increase our overall corporate sponsorships,” he said. “The fact that we closed when we did last year [Aug. 5] meant our ability to impact corporate last season was minimal. We anticipate a substantial increase this season.” 

The team held a town hall meeting June 5 and about 400 fans attended, far more than the organization had expected. With general manager Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett on the same panel, LeBlanc said he didn’t expect many questions to come his way. “In fact, over half of the questions asked were centered on the business side,” he said, and ranged from improvements to food and beverage offerings, to cellphone coverage in the building, to the potential for a Stadium Series game in Arizona. 

Not surprisingly, he said the biggest adjustment of ownership is that he’s a public face who is recognized and sought out for answers and ideas along the concourses and outside the venue. The biggest lessons: Change doesn’t happen overnight and “how much the fan base wants to interact with us and the vested interest they have in seeing the franchise succeed.” 

One of his latest big moves is the rebranding of the team to the “Arizona” Coyotes, a move that was set to take effect with this past weekend’s NHL draft. “We don’t want to be just a Phoenix team,” he said. “We were the Phoenix Coyotes when we’ve played in Glendale. We want to be more than Phoenix and expand our footprint throughout the entire state. The [NFL] Cardinals have done it. The [MLB] Diamondbacks have done it. It just makes sense.”

> STORIES I’M WATCHING FOR THE REST OF 2014: One of the biggest stories for me will be who replaces MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. We’ve heard about the palace intrigue regarding efforts to succeed Selig after his 22-year run atop the game is set to end in January. But MLB team officials now seem to be on the same page publicly on the issue, confidently stating Selig will ride off after his declared departure date early next year. 

Earlier this year, there was plenty of speculation that suggested that owners, with no succession plan in place, would have no choice but to go back to Selig and ask him to stay on and that he’d remain. That tone has shifted since MLB established a search committee, with owners now discussing a path to new leadership and executives publicly confident about a successful succession plan. At a recent conference, Pittsburgh Pirates President Frank Coonelly said the steps are in place to find the game’s next leader and predicted Selig would not be in office at this time next year. Pirates owner Bob Nutting, who serves on the search committee, also believes Selig’s tenure will end in January. “Absolutely,” Nutting said. “He is committed to stepping down on a high note.”

The question remains, Who emerges to lead the game in a new era? And, from what sector? And who plays the role as kingmaker?

> OTHER STORIES TO WATCH: What else is on my watch list? The consolidation in the pay-TV marketplace and what it means for sports … How the Clippers’ transition plays out and Steve Ballmer’s vision for the organization … How the International Olympic Committee handles the stigma that so many cities don’t want anything to do with the 2022 Winter Games: Whether it’s the staggering cost, political opposition or public indifference in democratic markets, this has to be a concern to the IOC and brands connected to the Olympic movement. … The sales, marketing and operations around the inaugural College Football Playoff: How will ESPN manage corporate sales? Which companies are paying up? What is the team selection process? And how much will fans travel in late December and early January to multiple “big” games? …The continued integration of IMG within WME’s corporate culture … Is there a real, positive World Cup bounce affecting soccer in the U.S.? … The launch of the SEC Network … While we’re on college issues: What will the framework for a new governance structure under the Division I umbrella look like if it’s approved in August? And how will that change affect athletic directors? … O’Bannon v. NCAA in addition to the two antitrust suits brought against the NCAA and unionization efforts before the NLRB … Ad support and viewer numbers around the NFL’s new “Thursday Night Football” package: I’m bullish on it, but some people I speak to are far less so. Thursdays do have a competitive prime-time schedule, and homes-using-television levels rank fifth over a seven-day week. But CBS has a pretty favorable schedule and its commitment to top talent and production will put a bigger spotlight on the games. Whether that’s enough to out-rate ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” remains to be seen. … The over-the-top launches of “NFL Now” and 120 Sports: I’ll be watching the programming mix, ad support, and consumer discovery and adoption. … How will NASCAR’s new format for the Chase be received and play out? NASCAR made a bold move to juice up interest in its playoffs. Will it pay off in TV viewership and in fan and sponsor engagement? … The announcement of a World Cup of Hockey for 2016, and the NHL and NHLPA plans for the 2018 Winter Olympics … Finally, will Tiger Woods’ return pump up interest around men’s golf or will this year be a wash?

SportsBusiness Journal is going dark next week. Our next issue will be available Monday, July 14 — but get your fix through our daily updates at SportsBusiness Daily. And enjoy your Fourth of July.

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

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