SBJ/Jan. 30-Feb. 5, 2017/Opinion

Team player Tod Leiweke cultivates positive outlook at league level

Tod Leiweke didn’t think he was the right guy for the job. When recruited by his friend, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, to join the league as chief operating officer in 2015, Leiweke was ambivalent.

“I hadn’t been a league guy. I’d been a team guy and because you are doing one doesn’t preordain you to have success in the other,” he told me recently. At the time, Leiweke was CEO of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he had changed the culture of the franchise, which was seeing solid success while embarking on owner Jeff Vinik’s ambitious Channelside  development. Leiweke was enjoying Tampa after seven successful years as CEO of the Seattle Seahawks. “It was a big decision. Life was good here, and I was moving to work on the real estate.”

But it was his desire to push his personal boundaries as well as his belief in — and admiration of — Goodell that led him to accept the job and relocate to New York. Now, 18 months in, he doesn’t pull punches when asked if the job is what he thought it would be.

“No,” he said with a smile. “It’s harder than I imagined the job would be.”

“The opportunity being at the league is to see issues on a broader scale. That part of the job I find very interesting.”
TOD LEIWEKE
NFL COO
Photo by: TAMPA BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL


It’s hard to find someone so universally respected and well-liked in sports as the 57-year-old Leiweke. His 30-plus-year career has spanned the PGA Tour, the First  Tee, Vancouver’s Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment, helping launch the Minnesota Wild, in addition to Seattle, Tampa and, now, the NFL. His successful stewardships of the Seahawks/MLS Sounders and Lightning firmly put him among the top CEOs in sports. Charismatic and likable, he’s one of the most genuine, empathetic and inspirational leaders in the business, and has a long executive tree that salutes his mentorship, as he was recently inducted into the National Football Foundation’s Leadership Hall of Fame. I’m obviously a big fan, and was happy to lead a one-on-one discussion with him late last year, as he returned to Tampa as part the University of South Florida Speaker Series.

It was a homecoming for the popular Leiweke, as he hugged friends throughout the room. Like every stop along his career, he has a trail of supporters and admirers. With a wide smile, his eyes beam directly at each person he greets, making them feel they are the only one he’s focused on and cares about. He laughs easily with devilish delight. Self-deprecating and humble, he opened our discussion by suggesting his life was so uninteresting that he didn’t think he could fill the 45 minutes slotted for the interview. But as his public comments and media avails are rare, this provided a chance to get insight into his role at the NFL, the progress the game has made and priorities for the future.

Leiweke acknowledged that he had a lot to learn in joining the league, and that he spent his first six months listening and adapting to the corporate culture in New York City. That meant no more jeans and loafers for the casual executive, but instead new suits and remembering names. “Changing up one’s dress, riding the subway to work, meeting lots of people, hoping you remember their names, not remembering everyone’s names, learning a whole new system, adding a few zeroes to budgets. But I think we’re making progress and I’m really starting to get my sea legs,” he said. “I believe I can help on a number of fronts, including building a stronger culture.”

Culture has been a steady drumbeat for Leiweke. Extraordinarily optimistic in nature, watching him in action is a lesson in energetic, motivational leadership, someone adroit at generating loyalty. I distinctly recall following him during a Lightning game years ago, where every security and building staffer received personal accolades from Leiweke before the puck dropped, reminded that what they were doing was the most important task of the night and that they were doing a great job at it. Staff radiated delight and were clearly all in. He believes that camaraderie at the team level can be translated to the league office.

“Being with a team is really fun,” he said. “But I don’t miss the losing. That’s no fun. Being at the league is quite different than being with a team. The opportunity being at the league is to see issues on a broader scale. That part of the job I find very interesting, and I’m learning every day.”

Part of that learning includes building collaboration and team building. “When you work for a team, you truly understand the psyche of a team,” he said. “It’s not to say that [the league office] weren’t connected as a team, but that’s the real opportunity where people make the difference — to get people better connected, better aligned, more focused. It’s not only good for culture but it’s a better use of resources.”

Leiweke was instrumental in landing USC’s Pete Carroll as Seahawks head coach in 2010.
Photo by: USA TODAY
Leiweke, always the cheerful advocate, waved the flag for the NFL at a challenging time for the league this fall. “I’m so proud of the success we’ve had as a league. I’m proud of our ratings. I’m proud of our stadiums playing to the capacity that they do. But all of that is fair game and you’ve got to continue to think about where the world is going and how you can remain relevant.”

That effort to remain relevant was the impetus of a long-term strategic plan on which Leiweke worked extensively and presented to ownership last fall. “We have a pretty good idea of what the world’s going to look like in 2020. The real question is what’s this world going to look like in 2025? The world is changing so unbelievably quickly right now that you’ve got to be nimble.”

When I brought up the challenge the league has in getting any credit for its effort on player wellness, he jumped right in, saying: “The game in 2020 will be far safer than it ever has. We’ve actually made a lot of progress in changing the narrative around safety and beginning to really change the culture around the game and the players.” He praised the efforts of NFL owners committing $100 million toward research over the next five years last spring (“$100 million is real money”), as well as the search for a new chief medical officer. “We’re going to change the culture. We owe it to the players to make it as safe as possible. We owe it to the fans, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re doing it in a very open and transparent way. The lessons we learn with this $100 million investment will be used by other leagues, teams and the military, so we’re excited about that.”

In addition to player safety, Leiweke enjoys “getting exposed in a very in-your-face way to significant issues” at the league, including gender equality. “It’s a significant issue, and I’m hoping the day is going to come when we see more women on the sidelines actually coaching and more women in the front office. I hope we can make more progress at the league office. When I go into our lunchroom, I see a lot of gender diversity. But there are inequities in society and we need to fix those things.”

The NFL has made gender equality a point of emphasis over the last 12 months, as they’ve produced events around women’s sports and leadership at the past two Super Bowls, launched an internal recognition program for female team executives and hired Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier as the league’s head of security. “She’s not in that job because she’s a woman; she’s in that job because she was the best person in the world to lead NFL security,” Leiweke said. “This is also a chance for us to say, ‘This is the right thing to do.’ There needs to be some intent about it. There is something called unintended bias.”

Leiweke acknowledges he wouldn’t have joined the NFL if not for his respect for Goodell, with whom he became close while at the Seahawks and who he convinced to climb Mount Rainier in 2009. He stressed that the Goodell he knows is far different from the public’s perception of the embattled leader.

“He just does the right thing. When you’re the commissioner, and you’re a successful leader in the world, you are a target. He accepts those things. He accepts the criticism. He does the right thing and he’s a guy who I’m honored to be working for and working with. He’s that guy I want to be in the trench with. I really believe in him. I believe in him as a leader. I believe in his character as a man. I know him and I know the true essence of the guy, and he’s an absolutely terrific guy.”

When I ask if there should be an effort to improve Goodell’s public image, he said that’s not the focus of the 57-year-old commissioner. “He doesn’t really think about that. What he thinks about is doing the right thing. And if you think about the decisions he’s made, they weren’t popular, but he’s done what he felt was the right thing. You can question any of those decisions. I think he’s generally gotten it right, and I think he’s one of the most successful commissioners in the history of sports.”

Leiweke at ice level after the Lightning beat the New York Rangers to advance to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015.
Photo by: USA TODAY
While our discussion took place well before the Chargers announced their intention to move to Los Angeles, I did ask how much it bothered a St. Louis native like Leiweke to see the Rams leave Missouri and relocate last year. “You know it does [bother me],” he said. “But at the end of the day, economics do carry the game. There was a stadium there that wasn’t going to work long term. It was not a stadium constructed for the long term in many ways. The lease acknowledged that. I’m from St. Louis and I’m going to say this: The Rams started in Los Angeles, and in many people’s minds, they went home.”

Despite the perception of a rift among ownership with the latest relocation issues, he said owners are on the same page on league issues.

“Everyone is generally aligned. More than anything, owners want to win, and the desire to win is incredible. We have these league meetings and these guys who are battling on Sundays now have dinner on a Monday. It’s really quite extraordinary. At the end of the day, the desire to win is so intense and it is a zero-sum game. Half the teams lose on any given Sunday.   Winning  is the common denominator and it’s shared by, not just the owners, but everyone in the organization. When you work hard and you don’t win, it can be really deflating for the front office. But when you do find that magical combination of working hard and doing the right things and the winning comes, it’s an incredible thing.”

When losing places stress on an organization is when one of Leiweke’s most commonly cited attributes of being “cheerleader in chief” emerges. He’s well-known for walking a sales floor and being visible in a front office, picking people up emotionally during tough times.

“That’s a bit of discipline,” he acknowledged. “Winston Churchill was clinically depressed and yet he kept hope for his society during the darkest of times. That’s leadership. Being optimistic. It’s not a trait — it’s a discipline. So you’ve got to be optimistic in team sports because half the teams lose. You’ve got to find hope. You’ve got to be an optimist. So I would walk through the halls of the Lightning, pissed off that we gave up two goals late in the game, but I would pretend to be happy.”

As we wrap up our conversation, I ask what advice he has to young people looking to get a start in sports. For someone who started in the sales trenches, his answer didn’t surprise me. “I started in ticket sales. It will always, for me, be about filling your stadiums and everything that comes off of that. Empty stadiums lead to lower rights fees, lower concessions and merchandise sales. If you’re thinking about getting involved in sports, thinking about how you can fundamentally help a business is important. For me, ticket sales were always a big piece of that and I’ve never lost that passion.”

The eternal optimist had another message, as when asked where the sports industry needs to improve, he didn’t hesitate. “Being role models. Helping communities achieve their potential. And I would say in these times in the United States, helping unify our nation.”

And with that, Tod Leiweke departed the stage, into a throng of well-wishers, letting each individual know how much they mattered and how important they are. That’s the only way he knows.

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

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