2014 IAS: USOC's Larry Probst on management, meetings and winning an Olympics bid for the U.S.

USOC Chair and EA Executive Chair Larry Probst sat for a “One-on-One” interview with SBJ staff writer Tripp Mickle at the Intersport Activation Summit in San Francisco. Speaking before a full house at the Ritz Carlton, Probst said he would like the see the IOC’s Executive Board select the site finalists to host Olympics Games and outlined the process for a possible U.S. bid for the 2024 Summer Games. He also said cost cutting was key to last year's turnaround at EA and explained what he looks for in a CEO.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

On his difficult transition and the criticism he faced after joining the USOC: “That transition to the USOC was not a lot of fun. ... At first, my friend Peter Ueberroth convinced me to join the USOC board. But it evolved from coming on the board to replacing him as chair. I said, ‘Hey, I don’t know the first thing about the Olympic movement or the Olympic world. This is a crazy idea.’ But Peter is a relentless salesperson and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. … Finally, I agreed, but I quickly learned that I was not ready for it. I didn’t understand the relationship between the IOC and the USOC. I didn’t understand the relationship with the other Olympic constituencies. It was kind of a mess. That first 15 to 18 months was probably the most miserable time of my career.  There were a lot of people saying, ‘Get rid of this guy.’ In that case, one can either run or stick it out. I decided I was going to stick around and make this work. It started with hiring Scott Blackmun (as CEO) and then building a better relationship with the IOC. ... I will tell you, it was not fun. It was really painful. But I am glad I have stuck around. It’s now been a lot of fun.”

Probst oversaw the selection of two new CEOs – Andrew Wilson at EA in 2013 and Scott Blackmun at the USOC in 2010. On what he looks for in a CEO: “People with high integrity, a high-quality value system … [and] really good listening skills. The people that have to prove they are the smartest in the room all the time, I’m not very interested in. I’m looking for people who are collaborative, yet decisive. Someone who is a good team player. And people who will set the right type of example throughout the company and walk the talk."

On USOC CEO Scott Blackmun: “Scott is a fully-formed executive and is really good at what he does. He’s a quiet guy, but he leads by example. He’s really thoughtful and he’s really smart. We have a standing call every Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. He has his list, and I have my list. He’s clearly making the decisions at the USOC, and he’s the guy making the calls. I respect that. … Scott is a terrific communicator. He communicates directly with all the constituencies within the USOC universe. That wasn’t the case with his predecessor.”

On improving the USOC’s relationship with the IOC: “There’s no other way around it. It’s all about the relationships, and the only way to build that is by spending time with these people.”

On the USOC’s thought process behind a bid for the 2024 Games: “We want to bid. We’d like to bid. We are going through a process where we’re meeting with an undetermined number of cities. We have gone through round one, and we’re going through another round now. At a board meeting on June 10 in Boston, we will probably get it down to two or three cities. Those cities won’t be made public. We are going to try to manage this process so no one’s feelings get hurt or no one is spending too much money on a bid. ... We have to believe we have a pretty significant chance of winning that competition. It has to be as close to perfect as possible, but I think there is a feeling that the Games have to come back to the United States.”

On the IOC’s challenges in the cities bidding for the 2022 Olympic Games, which include Lviv, Ukraine; Oslo, Norway; Almaty, Kazhakstan; and Beijing, China: “Early on they thought they had some great cities in the mix, [such as Stockholm and Munich]. Obviously, there is an issue in the Ukraine, so that’s in jeopardy. There’s an issue with Oslo, as well. … So, I am not sure where they are going to end up in terms of finalists.”

On the changes he’d like to see within the Olympics: “Fewer meetings. Less travel. Seriously, the amount of time that people spend traveling to (IOC headquarters in) Lausanne (Switzerland) for three to four hours of meetings is outrageous. Sooner or later we have to embrace modern technology, and do some of these things through video conferencing. The other thing I would change is that I’d like to see the Executive Board decide where the Olympic Games are held (as opposed to being decided by the entire membership). I will probably get in trouble for saying this, but they are supposedly the most sophisticated and knowledgeable people in the membership, so I would like to see the [Executive Board] have more of a say.”

On turning around EA after rejoining the company in March 2013 and seeing the stock price double in seven months: “It was about managing costs and expenses across the company. We had too many people, and we had to make some course adjustments. We had pretty significant employee reductions and cut out expenses that weren’t necessary. … It wasn’t a major overhaul, it was more of a course correction. I needed to change the thinking and culture around spending in the company. People got the joke and the stock started going in the right direction. We have gained more credibility with Wall Street.”

On staying ahead of the competition at EA: “At the end of the day in our business, it’s about product quality. You constantly have to add new features, updates, rule changes and things that players will enjoy and engage with. It’s all about consistent quality and then building out new game-playing options.”
His view on the future of gaming: “Free-to-play is becoming a more significant part of the business, especially in Asia. That’s the business model. More of the business is moving to digital -- smart phone and tablets. More than 50% of our business will be digital compared to packaged goods. People keep talking about the demise of packaged goods, but I don’t see it because the experience is so good. So packaged goods are going to be significant to the business, although declining. Smart phone and tablets will continue to increase.”

On his management style: “I would describe my management style as tough, but fair. I have high expectations for myself and the people I work with. I set tough, but achievable, objectives; ambitious, but achievable objectives. I am very direct with everyone. That’s my style.”

On the best spectator experience he’s ever had: “The 2006 World Cup final in Berlin, [when it was] France-Italy. Those people are crazy. Absolutely crazy.”

On who will buy the Clippers: “Larry Ellison has a way of getting what he wants, and he’s got a lot of money. My money is on Larry.”
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