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Volume 25 No. 196

Game Changers

Rodriguez credited the just-concluded WNBA Finals with helping entice many first-time fans
Photo: MARC BRYAN-BROWN

WNBA COO Ann Rodriguez believes her league is leading the charge in shifting the way fans perceive or conceptualize women’s sports. Rodriguez during the '18 SBJ Game Changers conference said, "We offer fantastic value for the money from an entertainment standpoint. Whenever we go into our markets, we’re always inviting new fans and trying to expose our product to as many people as possible.” Rodriguez attended the first two WNBA Finals games in Seattle and said she met “first-time fans there who lost their mind and can’t wait to go back." Rodriguez: "When people actually get in the building and experience the product, they become really impassioned and excited by it.” ESPN VP/Women's Sports Programming Carol Stiff touched on the network’s relationship with the league and echoed similar positive statements about the state of the WNBA. Stiff: “Regular season ratings were up 35%, the Draft was up 25% and the All-Star Game was up 20%. I just feel like we can’t wait to start talking about next year, getting into it and figuring out how we can drive viewership and grow the game.”

JOINT FINAL FOUR VENTURE? Stiff discussed the possibility of a joint men’s and women’s NCAA Final Four, saying that such talks have not yet been had with the NCAA despite interest in exploring the venture. “I know there are a lot of logistics concerning whether we’ll have enough hotel rooms, whether we need two venues," Stiff said. "CBS owns the men, we own the women, so there’s a lot to work out.” She added because ESPN is committed to growing the game and investing in its success, the net is “all ears” on any suggestions. However, Rodriguez pointed out that despite an “underlying assumption that the women’s Final Four needs the men’s help,” she believes the event “should stand alone because they do a fantastic job and there’s a lot of hunger” to make it successful. Rodriguez: “The event sells out every year, it’s phenomenal. The ratings are fantastic. ... I just don’t want us to play small here.”

POSITIVE TAKEAWAY: Last week’s U.S. Open incident involving Serena Williams was still top of mind for many, and WTA President Micky Lawler gave her assessment from the governing body’s perspective. Lawler said the incident was “extremely unfortunate” and for a moment that big to “go that wrong was terrible.” However, she added, "A silver lining is that we are now talking about fairness and we continue to push that gender equality discussion forward, making it more valid and more of a no-brainer.”

Ogwumike said while salaries and travel conditions are big issues, they are not main concerns of the union
Photo: MARC BRYAN-BROWN

Connecticut Sun F and WNBPA VP Chiney Ogwumike said the league's players "have an opportunity coming up” to try and improve their standing as it pertains to the current CBA. Ogwumike, appearing at the '18 SBJ Game Changers conference said union members have a “decision to make whether to stay the course with our current CBA or do we decide to opt out.” The current CBA is set to expire in ’21, but includes an opt-out for the WNBPA after the ’19 season. While Ogwumike mentioned player salaries and travel conditions are hot button issues, she said those are not the main things the union is concerned about. Ogwumike: “Value, equity and fairness are the ways we are approaching this decision. … All we care about are the real things that we know we deserve right now.” WNBPA Exec Dir Terri Jackson agreed with those sentiments, adding, "The time is now to have the hard conversation with the league.” Jackson: “We’re coming prepared to do business and all these conversations we’re going to have. The hard conversations, the creative conversations, the productive conversations. We’re going to come prepared to do war if necessary.” Ogwumike and her twin sister, Nneka, who serves as WNBA President, also spoke to the Boston Globe about the fight for increased wages as part of a conversation about top issues facing women's sports.

Enright (l) said schools and educators must do a better job emphasizing women's sports coverage
Photo: MARC BRYAN-BROWN

Media coverage of women’s sports has frequently been a source of contention, and Boston-based WBUR-FM & NPR Sports & Society reporter Shira Springer believes the problem is two-fold. During a panel discussion at the ’18 SBJ Game Changers conference, Springer noted one issue is the “systemic part of things, the logistical part that is who’s deciding what coverage is out there, how the newsrooms are structured.” She cited a survey done a couple of years ago in which AP sports editors found that 90% of sports editors across the nation were white males who were less likely to cover women’s sports extensively as men’s sports. Springer said the other issue is cultural. She said, “What we value and how we value women’s sports is not where it should be, which is causing a lot of bad decision making about that coverage.” AP Global Sports Editor Michael Giarrusso agreed with the sentiment, but added during this “time of attrition in the industry, when things are tightening up, it’s even harder to fix.” Giarrusso: “You’re not hiring, people are holding on to their jobs like popes. So you don’t have the chance to insert new blood, new voices, new energy.” UConn Senior Associate AD/Communications Mike Enright said that schools and educators have to do a better job of addressing the issue while journalists are still in school and preach the importance of women’s sports coverage.

JUST ONE PART OF THE STORY: Asked by a member of the audience if panelists thought The Players’ Tribune is the future of storytelling, Giarrusso said that notion “seems a little strong” despite his opinion that it will be an “element of the future of storytelling.” He expressed as someone “committed to truth and balance” in stories, TPT content is “a little bit dangerous because it’s only one side of the story.” Giarrusso gave an example of a recent disagreement in the newsroom around Chipper Jones' recent induction into the Baseball HOF where he forced the writer to insert that Jones wrote a book detailing his infidelity and having kids with multiple women. Giarrusso: “If you let Chipper tell the story, he’s not going to include that. To me, that is context and a side that everyone needs to have.” But Giarrusso added it “doesn’t mean athletes can’t use it to get out a part of their message that is ignored.”

Diversifying MLS' front office was in Garber's view a reflection of the league's overall vision and identity
Photo: MARC BRYAN-BROWN

MLS Commissioner Don Garber said there was a moment about 15 years ago where the league realized that it needed to make diversity within its own exec ranks a business priority. “We were a league that was about representing the hopes and dreams of diverse communities and players, and we had a bunch of white men making all the rules -- it didn’t make sense to me,” Garber said at the '18 SBJ Game Changers conference. “Diversifying our front office meant reflecting our overall vision and would provide us with an opportunity to represent the real identity that was behind our positioning and brand identity, which was a league for a new America.” How MLS has made diversity and inclusion business imperatives was the main focus of a more than 30-minute conversation between Garber and former Soccer United Marketing President Kathy Carter, who recently was the first woman to run for the position of U.S. Soccer President. Garber noted how as a commissioner, as well as a parent of children who relay their own workplace experiences to him, he spends time every day thinking about how the league can embrace diversity, especially in hiring practices. For example, one of the final steps for MLS job applicants is to take part in a work-test environment, seeing how they would react under pressure. MLS Chief Administrative & Social Responsibility Officer JoAnn Neale suggested that those tests should be evaluated anonymously, so that the focus was more on how good the applicant was rather than their gender, their past work experience or even where they went to school.

LONG WAY TO GO GLOBALLY: While MLS has made strides in this department, Garber said the global soccer game "has a long way to go.” He referenced a quote from former FIFA President Sepp Blatter who said if women’s soccer players wore shorter shorts, the game would be more popular. “We as an industry have done a better job, but I think we’re in the third chapter of a 10-chapter book,” Garber said. “When I started at the NFL in 1984, I don’t think there was a single woman working in NFL Properties at the time. There are three women who are members of our MLS board. This is just the beginning.” Asked about equal pay among men and women pro players, Garber said officials "need to find ways to drive revenue to the women’s sports industry.” Garber: “It requires a business that makes sense, and we need to find a way to pay salaries these players deserve, but in a way that is mindful.” He said that he believes women’s sports “can’t just be about cause,” and “have to be able to provide an opportunity for players, coaches and administrators.” Garber said MLS will continue to work towards improvement in these areas, encouraging others in the sports industry to do the same. “When I walk around our office and I see a staff that reflects our diverse fans and players, it gives me as much pride as anything that we’ve been able to accomplish,” he said.

Lanier said the ever-changing nature of technology makes it difficult to predict what threats will come next
Photo: MARC BRYAN-BROWN

NFL Chief Security Officer Cathy Lanier will testify in front of the U.S. Senate today about the greatest threats to the league’s safety. Lanier yesterday provided a glimpse into her testimony at SBJ’s '18 Game Changers conference. Two of the items on her agenda are drones and autonomous vehicles. “Because of technology, things change so much faster now,” said Lanier. “Things are so difficult to predict. People ask what keeps me up at night -- it’s the speed of change.” The safety of the NFL’s players and fans takes precedence, but that is far from all that is on Lanier’s plate. During her 30-minute interview, Lanier discussed the potential impact of Hurricane Florence as it bears down on the coast of the Carolinas, legalized gambling and cyber threats. “The storm is impacting every mode of transportation across the Southeast,” Lanier said. “We have eight or nine stadium locations that could be impacted. And we really have to pay attention to how the local law enforcement is strained and whether they can provide security.” Lanier, a former DC police chief, also said she would like to play a role in changing the perception about athletes. When asked about incidents involving player violence, Lanier reached into her past to respond. “DC used to be known as the murder capital of the world. Even though it’s now one of the safest, most beautiful cities in America, it’s so hard to shed that image,” she said. “I feel the same about what I encountered at the NFL. There’s a perception that players are always in trouble and they’re involved in domestic violence. What I want people to know is that the players are more likely to be the victim of crime than to be involved in a crime.”

Silver since joining VaynerMedia in '14 has placed on emphasis on infusing empathy throughout the agency
Photo: MARC BRYAN-BROWN

VaynerMedia Chief Heart Officer Claude Silver believes empathy in the workplace is a core tenant of success. “The soil of strong teams begins with a connection, which leads to trust, which leads to empathy,” Silver said during the '18 SBJ Game Changers conference. “Once you start to trust someone, you start to feel something, you start to care about them.” Bringing empathy and humanity into the workplace was just one of the topics Silver touched on during her 45-minute featured address. Silver, who joined the digital agency led by Gary Vaynerchuk in ’14 after a career in advertising, spoke to conference attendees on the ways that she and VaynerMedia approach workplace culture, as well as tips that she has picked up in her role on how to foster empathy. “People will never forget how you made them feel,” she said. “I want to infuse empathy throughout the agency, and touch every single employee -- we went on this massive mission to bring humanity to the office, because I think we have forgotten to be human, we’ve truly forgotten to treat each other (in the workplace) like we treat our aunt, and instead treat each other kind of like robots.” 

WORDS TO LIVE BY: Silver offered numerous pieces of advice during her time on stage. The following are some of the highlights from her presentation:

* “It’s real hard to put your finger on culture, but you sure can feel the vibe -- that’s why I say culture exists in the shadows. Great culture has a very positive ROI, so it’s a no brainer, but there’s a lot of money being poured into kombucha and foosball tables trying to solve this issue.”

* “Creating a culture of belonging starts with each person bringing their whole self to work. In order for people to bring themselves, they have to feel safe -- both emotionally and physically.”

* “Culture is not just my responsibility, my team’s responsibility or Gary’s responsibility -- everyone has that responsibility. We all need to model the emotions and action you want to cultivate.”

* “We all want to feel alive in our careers. We all want to belong. We all want to feel emotionally and physically safe. We’re all wired to connect and be in a community together. In my head every day I ask myself, am I making this a place where everyone wants to feel like they belong and have a purpose?”

* “Achievement comes with lower case a acknowledgement. We all have egos, but people don’t want to sleepwalk through work, we all want to achieve something, whether it’s a Tweet that gets 50,000 retweets or ad copy that showed during an NFL game. We want to come to work and feel recognized.”

* “Connection, trust and empathy lead to accountability, longevity and resilience, which I believe teams who are rooted in that core value have a purpose together, making them agile and fast, which is how you win.”

* “You don’t get points for holding back. You have one life. Let’s live it.”

Browning said sports gambling innovation will happen soon as startups merge around data
Photo: MARC BRYAN-BROWN

Questions surround legalized sports gambling as it becomes available in more states, but there seems to be no debate on its potential impact on the industry. Panelists at the ’18 SBJ Game Changers conference discussed the current landscape of sports business, and Wasserman Senior VP/Broadcasting & Coaching Debbie Spander named legal sports betting as something to keep an eye on. She mentioned the NBA’s recent deal with MGM to become the league’s official betting partner and said more leagues and networks will follow suit. Spander: “All the major networks are going to have sports gambling shows, so it’s going to be very interesting how that impacts sports in 5 to 10 years.” Telemundo Deportes President Ray Warren noted sports “typically has always been saved by something, there’s always a savior.” He said that legal sports betting could end up playing that role. NHL Exec VP & CMO Heidi Browning added that she believes innovation is going to happen around gambling sooner rather than later, saying startups are “going to merge out of nowhere quickly around data, around analytics, around media and broadcasting.” Browning: “We’re going to see a lot of things we can’t even dream of yet that may enhance it or detract from it.”

CALCULATING VALUE: Asked where the most active area of deal-making is in the sports business industry right now, PJT Partners’ Don Cornwell said it is a combination of sports betting, and in relation to that, stats. Cornwell believes the “next frontier is the value of sports stats.” Cornwell: “We saw the rise in the value of media rights, and the leagues are now spending time saying, ‘OK, in order to do sports gambling appropriately, for you to have in-game betting, you need real-time stats. Those stats are worth a lot, how are we going to monetize those?’ So we’re seeing a lot of activity around that.” Cornwell also noted most professional leagues already have an official stat provider, so those deals are done, but “they’ve been done in very low money ways” and could potentially be renegotiated for more money.

McMahon said the event was spurred by the #GiveDivasAChance hashtag on social media
Photo: MARC BRYAN-BROWN

WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon during the '18 SBJ Game Changers conference noted the company's first-ever all-women PPV event “Evolution” is a key element in WWE’s continued exposure of its female athletes. The event, which will take place on Oct. 28 at Nassau Coliseum, was spurred by the #GiveDivasAChance hashtag that circulated on social media by WWE fans who wanted to see the brand’s female stars gain increased notoriety. McMahon said, “We are so incredibly proud about what we are able to do about what our audience demanded.”