Champions: Val Ackerman, hoops ambassador
|PATRICK E. MCCARTHY|
The WNBA’s founding president, Ackerman is still very much in the game with USA Basketball and FIBA.
This is where business gets done: High-octane owners, executives, and player agents plotting over $22 bagels and the smell of freshly ground coffee.
No one seems more in her element than Val Ackerman, who moves easily through the room greeting friends and colleagues.
“I remember when I first joined the NBA and my first phone message was from [NBA legend] Jerry West asking me to call him,” Ackerman said with a laugh. “I mean, it was Jerry West! I saved the message and taped it to my refrigerator at home.”
Today, after nearly 25 years in basketball, the highly accomplished Ackerman, 51, can stake her own claim within the industry.
She is among the first wave of women to climb the NBA’s executive ranks, helping lead the way for a generation of women to play key roles in boardrooms throughout sports.
Not only is she the founding president of the WNBA, but she also served as the first female president of USA Basketball and remains a board member of the group. She is the U.S. representative to FIBA, is a member of the board of governors on the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and is a member of the board of directors for the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. On the collegiate level, Ackerman is a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and is on two NCAA committees: the honors committee and the women’s basketball competition committee.
She will be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in June.
“She is an extraordinary protector of the sport and a promoter of its values,” said NBA Commissioner David Stern. “She is involved in every single aspect of her sport, and there is no one who has done more.”
Defining her career is her reputation as a supremely talented business veteran who expertly has carved her own path in a distinctly male-dominated business.
“It’s about having authenticity and being capable,” Ackerman said. “Many women have asked me for advice, and it’s then that you realize the position that you are in.”
Helping pave the way for women in sports was hardly a reality when Ackerman began her standout basketball career at the University of Virginia. The New Jersey native began her freshman year on the
“They were all on scholarship and the differences were glaring,” Ackerman said.
By the time Ackerman graduated in 1981 as a three-time captain and two-time academic All-American, most of the women’s players at Virginia had been given scholarships as colleges increased Title IX compliance.
After playing a year in France, where she earned $800 per month, Ackerman, who had always planned on attending law school, returned to the U.S. and earned her law degree at UCLA. She then took a job in 1986 with a Wall Street law firm.
“It was the furthest I had been away from sports,” she said. “I had applied to the legal departments of the NBA and other leagues, but none of the opportunities were there for me. It was the mid-1980s and Wall Street was red hot.”
But in 1988, Ackerman returned to where she felt most comfortable: basketball. Now armed with some legal experience, she heard about a job opening at the NBA and was hired as a staff attorney, where she began working on salary cap issues and other key contract work. Eighteen months later, NBA Commissioner Stern summoned Ackerman to his office.
“I was terrified,” Ackerman said. “But he asked me to come work directly for him.”
|PATRICK E. MCCARTHY|
Trio of leaders: NBA Commissioner David Stern, Ackerman, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman
“She had a very broad sensitivity to all of the issues that involved the business of the NBA, our internal management issues and our external messaging issues,” Stern said. “She came to really know the way we thought and she shaped the way we thought.”
The work was challenging and fulfilling, but after she became pregnant in 1992, Ackerman began to feel isolated. The biggest problem wasn’t working in a mostly man’s world; it was the added difficulty of working while also being a mother.
“I couldn’t really talk to anyone about it and I felt alone,” she said. “I had to fight through the expectations that I wouldn’t be coming back [after giving birth.]”
While Ackerman struggled with the challenges of balancing her job and her family life, her career took a fortuitous turn when Stern asked her to be part of an internal NBA group in 1995 to study the development of a women’s basketball league. It was during the run-up to the USA Women’s Olympic “Dream Team” at the 1996 Atlanta Games, where the women’s team won gold to cap a perfect 60-0 record since the team was created. The dominating performance raised the profile of women’s basketball, and the NBA was looking to capitalize on the momentum.
“The vision was that we could replicate the Dream Team,” Ackerman said. “Our women’s team became a linchpin for the [WNBA]. The crowds were building and there was increased media attention so it wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ anymore.”
The first major decisions were to establish a schedule and to name the league.
“We knew we were going to play in the summer and that we were going to call it the WNBA,” Ackerman said. “There really was no major discussion on what to call it. We were very much going to capitalize on the NBA.”
The eventual launch of the WNBA was under way, and Ackerman knew she had arrived when Stern named her president in 1996 of the upstart league that launched in 1997 with great expectations and with some public skepticism.
The startup hurdles were huge, as Ackerman and other league executives toiled over issues ranging from the colors of the WNBA basketball to convincing NBA owners to buy into the concept.
“We felt some skepticism, but it wasn’t my job to worry about it,” Ackerman said. “My style was to include everybody. We had weekly staff meetings where I invited every department. We had a room full of people sitting on credenzas, but it was critical to let people know what was happening.”
Through it all, Ackerman made a deep and lasting impression on her fellow executives.
“If you were locked in a room and had to come up with the person who should be president of a new women’s sports league, you have come up with Val,” said Rick Welts, president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns who was a league executive when he worked with Ackerman in creating the WNBA. “We knew we had a real window coming out of the ’96 Games, and it was a fortuitous thing for the league to place her in the position. It was a furious pace and she had to do everything from scratch. She by nature is a leader but also someone who is very inclusive. She was very open to ideas."
Ackerman also had to make the difficult transition from working as an out-of-the spotlight league lawyer to becoming the public face of the new league, which also at the time was competing against another women’s professional basketball league, the ABL.
“She went from having no microphone to having one every single day,” said Gary Stevenson, a former NBA executive who also worked on the WNBA rollout. “Launching a new league is not easy but she was remarkably steady. It was remarkable what she did and the style in which she did it. It was groundbreaking stuff, but yet it was never about her.”
|NBAE / GETTY IMAGES|
“I got asked hard questions, like why didn’t we pay our players more, but I felt it was critical for fans to hear from me,” she said. “As I grew into the job, I felt a sense of responsibility to the various groups in the game.”
The pressure to perform under Stern’s exacting demands were enormous given that the new league was aligned with the NBA’s brand.
“We had to be as close to perfect as it could be,” said Ackerman, who ultimately led the league from that launch in 1997 until February 2005, when she departed to fulfill a burning need to spend more time with her husband, Charlie, and two daughters.
What proved frustrating for Ackerman was keeping the WNBA on its early track of growth. During its first season, the league averaged 9,700 fans per game, followed by a 1998 season when it averaged around 10,000 fans per game. Though buoyed by such early success, the WNBA could not maintain the growth. Average attendance began to fall, and teams in Cleveland and Miami, among others, were shuttered.
“When we launched, we didn’t have any scientific projections for attendance, and our early success was a blessing and a curse,” Ackerman said. “The bar was set so high. The inability to hold onto those early attendance levels and to see teams folding was heartbreaking.”
On a larger scale, while launching the WNBA stands as one of Ackerman’s biggest accomplishments, she also had paid a price.
“Every year was like a dog year,” she said. “Selling a dream was replaced by the harsh realities of the marketplace. But leaving was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. I didn’t want to let David [Stern] down.”
The league struggled for acceptance and prosperity, but Ackerman had made her mark. When she left, the WNBA had grown from its inaugural eight teams to having 13 teams while adopting a new independent ownership model.
Her leadership ability did not go unrecognized. Already a member of the USA Basketball board since 1989, Ackerman was named president of USA Basketball, serving from 2005-08. It was a job that did not require nearly as much travel or time demands as running the WNBA, allowing Ackerman to spend more time with her family while still continuing her career.
She needed all her executive and political skills as she led a major reorganization of USA Basketball, which she viewed as too unwieldy and needed to become more sharply focused to make speedier decisions.
The board was reduced from 25 members to 11 while Ackerman also added new committees to help expand youth and women’s basketball programs.
“One of the major objectives was to reduce the size of the board, and it was not an easy assignment,” said Tom Jernstedt, former longtime NCAA executive vice president who served as USA Basketball president prior to Ackerman. “She handled that undertaking very skillfully. Anyone who came into the room perhaps questioning her background or her knowledge saw that quickly disappear. Val knows the game, and she earned everyone’s respect in an impressive manner.”
Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany, who served on the USA Basketball board with Ackerman, said it was her ability to create consensus that drove USA Basketball to adopt the proposed changes under her term.
“She sees the big picture, whether that is about the WNBA or rules and policies related to USA Basketball,” Delany said. “At USAB, she was very collaborative as we moved to a new model. Relentless is an overused word, but if Val thinks she is right, she won’t roll over. Changing USA Basketball was no walk in the park. There were strong personalities, but she wasn’t afraid to lead and she understood when it was time to fold or play her cards.”
Whether it was cutting the size of the board or adding more youth programs, Ackerman said she felt a greater sense of freedom at USA Basketball.
“It was a growth opportunity for me because I really had the chance to call my own shots,” she said. “But I also felt very responsible that it also be a group effort. I was making presentation after presentation. Leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”
At the same time Ackerman was restructuring USA Basketball, she was working on international basketball issues, serving as the U.S. representative to FIBA’s Central Board, where she was re-elected last year to a second term that runs through 2014.
It’s a global governing body that has mandates for women representation, but the Eurocentric FIBA does not have a reputation for throwing fervent support behind women’s basketball.
“She has a very pragmatic, business-oriented and direct style of providing views or asking questions that are, at times, in an international body with a lot of persons from different corners of the world and cultures, not part of the typical diplomatic exchanges,” said Patrick Baumann, secretary general of FIBA. “But these, together with her own ideas, are addressing issues and opening up debates on items.”
Ackerman is confronting the challenges regarding her leadership role in FIBA but she is making an impact. Consider that last year Ackerman was instrumental in creating FIBA’s first women’s global basketball conference held in the Czech Republic.
“There are some cultural differences,” she said. “But what I am trying to do is help women’s basketball.”
Based on her track record, count on Ackerman to drive more change in international basketball just as she has on the collegiate and professional levels.
“There is no one else in basketball with her set of experience and credentials,” Stern said. “She is spending an enormous amount of time dealing with knotty issues. But Val is smart, talented and she is a good person. That is a winning combination.”
Champions: Deane Beman, PGA Tour's turning point
Beman ran the tour from 1974 to 1994 and helped develop the model for title sponsorships.
The silence is broken only when the club strikes the ball and digs through the turf. Deane Beman strikes a solitary outline in the distance, where only he, Vijay Singh and a few distinguished PGA Tour members are permitted to practice.
It’s a familiar pose for Beman, who in his 20 years as commissioner of the PGA Tour, staked his legacy to myriad positions that were often unpopular and sometimes portrayed him as the antagonist to golfing luminaries Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
But when you’re an elite golfer, as Beman was before he became commissioner, you’ve got one thing that separates you from the rest: conviction. Better to have the wrong club and believe in it than the right club and doubt.
Beman, one of the best amateur golfers of his day and a four-time winner as a pro, ran the PGA Tour the same way he played golf, with a conviction and an iron will to forge ahead with the tour’s business even when he might have been faced with a stiff headwind.
“Before Deane came along, the PGA Tour was a couple of big-name players and a hot dog stand at the turn,” said player and TV analyst Peter Jacobsen. “Under Deane, the purses grew and corporate sponsors came in. A lot of people thought Deane was doing too much to support the tour and not enough to support the players, but history proved that Deane made the right decisions.”
Beman competed on the tour before he ever became its commissioner, and he’s still a scratch golfer who plays nearly every day.
Under Beman, the Nationwide and Champions tours were born, providing the PGA Tour with events that showcased its future, present and past. It was Beman’s initiative to start the Players Championship and end the season with the Tour Championship.
Perhaps the greatest testament to his two decades on the job is that he’s been out of office for 17 years, and the business of the PGA Tour looks very much like the day he exited in 1994.
“Deane had the courage to do things differently,” said Gary Stevenson, who joined the tour as vice president of marketing in 1987 and later founded the agency OnSport. “He had the right vision and he wouldn’t compromise. Even the guys who got sideways with him would agree that he’s just tenacious. Deane simply imposed his will.”
BRINGING CHANGE AS COMMISSIONER
That Beman made himself into a great golfer still stumps many of his contemporaries. He didn’t hit the ball very far and he didn’t cut the most athletic figure striding down the fairway. But thanks to a razor-sharp short game and a deft putting touch, the ball somehow found its way into the cup in fewer strokes than most of his competitors. A distinguished amateur career included a pair of U.S. Amateur victories and a triumph in the British Amateur.
He was doing just fine as a pro, but when Joe Dey resigned as commissioner in 1974, Beman was drawn to the job. He saw potential in a tour that struggled to generate much of a TV audience and whose rights, frankly, weren’t worth very much.
“Golf was pretty small when I came in,” Beman said. “Bowling had more events on TV than golf. We’re talking about a fairly minor sport that had a few big stars.”
When the commissioner’s job became available, Beman began telling some of his friends on the tour that he wanted to be commissioner. Jim Colbert, a player at the time, knew that Beman had been an insurance executive while he played as an amateur and that he had a good business sense, so he decided to back him.
Colbert, a solid player, was popular with his peers and he became an influential supporter of Beman’s through the years during multiple terms on the player advisory board. That relationship paid dividends years later.
Beman’s single interview to become commissioner lasted about an hour. He met with the tour’s board in Atlanta at the headquarters of Coca-Cola, where Paul Austin, the tour’s chairman and Coke’s CEO, led the interviews.
Beman prepared a 10-page soft-cover booklet that explained his business background and the opportunities that existed at the tour.
Essentially, it was time to stop running the tour like a bunch of tournament promoters and start running it like a business. Beman’s pitch worked with the policy board, which was made up of mostly business dignitaries, but it was uncomfortable for several of the tour’s stakeholders, who weren’t sure the tour should be moving into new businesses like real estate and golf course design.
“If you’re any kind of an established entity, change is not welcome,” Beman said. “It’s just not welcome. Risk-taking is not welcome. Innovation is not embraced. It’s just the way it is. But without change and innovation, it’s very difficult to grow.
“I don’t think I fully understood it at first, but I became aware of it pretty quickly. Most people didn’t want change, but it didn’t impede my desire to take the tour forward.”
BIG BEAR CHALLENGE
In the PGA Tour, Beman saw the potential for a major sports property. Developing that potential was why he wanted the job as commissioner in the first place.
But other than a few stars — like Nicklaus, Palmer, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller and Lee Trevino — the tour lacked many of the important elements usually associated with a premier property. TV was a splintered mess in the 1970s, and even in that underperforming condition, it still was responsible for 80 percent of the tour’s revenue. There was little sponsorship money coming in and virtually no diversity of revenue streams.
Even so, as Beman said, change was not always embraced — even as he moved the tour into a better economic position. By the early 1980s, Beman had established a sales and marketing division that was bringing in corporate sponsorships. He also, in 1980, had built the first of the Tournament Players Clubs, at Sawgrass, and he proceeded to establish plans for five more courses in the years that followed, creating a franchise of TPC courses that would become a huge money-making division of the tour.
The game’s elite players, however, sought their own sponsorship revenue and golf course design opportunities. The tour had, in essence, become their competition, or so they believed.
Beman’s efforts to expand the tour ran into its most significant roadblock in 1983, when Palmer and Nicklaus co-signed a letter of complaint to the tour’s policy board. The tour, at the time, was doing quite well, a little too well for some of the players’ tastes. They worried that the tour’s improving business was taking sponsorship and course design money away from the players, who act as independent contractors.
The tour represents the tournaments as well as the golfers, which makes the commissioner the union chief and management all at once.
“It’s a job that’s designed for conflict,” Stevenson said.
The letter of complaint called the tour’s business growth and expansion “unauthorized” and questioned its legitimacy.
“It was a huge point in the evolution of the tour and for Deane,” Colbert said. “The last sentence of the letter said that the tour had 10 days to respond, or else. It was a total threat. Deane would have been out. They were out to take over management of the tour.”
Beman’s TPC courses became a success, but he had to fight to get them built.
The letter of complaint charged Beman with moving the tour into areas where it wasn’t authorized. The tour had overstepped its bounds by jumping into marketing, real estate and club management.
When Colbert heard about the uprising, he went to Jacksonville to meet with Beman and review the tour’s charter, which detailed that the tour could go into any business it wanted as long as it drove revenue back into the tour. In fact, the charter had been signed by Nicklaus.
The next day, Colbert went to see Nicklaus, who was due in Washington, D.C., to check on a design project. Colbert flew in Nicklaus’ private jet with the golfing legend from Florida to D.C., and flatly told him that he was wrong. Colbert said that the tour’s charter gave Beman every right to increase revenue, and he convinced the Golden Bear that this was not the time to show his teeth.
“I knew that if it got out that Jack and Arnie had signed that document, both sides were going to be backed into a corner and it was going to be a big fight,” Colbert said. “The players had it good. We were playing for more money than ever, but this was a real threat. I mean, Jack could have taken 40 or 50 guys and started his own tour. But Jack decided to withdraw the letter and he admitted that he’d made a mistake.”
Requests to speak with Nicklaus for this story were declined.
“Back then, Deane had to simply impose his will to move the tour forward,” Stevenson said. “That had to be a pretty doggone lonely position at times.”
In Beman’s mind, he had been charged with improving the health of the tour and he had done just that, from TV to sponsorships to business development.
BUILDING A BUSINESS MODEL
In Beman’s 20 years as commissioner, he increased purses from $8.2 million a year to $56.4 million. The tour’s total assets leaped from $400,000 to more than $500 million by the time he stepped aside.
Beman saw the future of golf and acted on it. “There was no give-up in the guy.”
Ratings generally were poor and the tournaments were expensive to produce, in part because there wasn’t a fixed venue like there was in other major sports.
“Networks lived and died with ratings and that made it difficult for us to compete because we’re a target-audience sport as opposed to a mass-audience sport,” Beman said. “Our ratings compared to a lot of other sports were low. It was also expensive to telecast. Back in the ’70s, you could do a football game for $25,000 or so, but to do a golf tournament, to lay all the cable, put cameras all over the last four or five holes, and the additional personnel required, it was probably $250,000. You’ve got a real challenge. So we had to build a model that would insulate the tour from TV ratings.”
One of Beman’s most important moves in the 1970s was to hire a TV coordinator, Steve Reid, to consolidate the tour’s broadcast deals. It marked the beginning of the tour’s relationship with CBS as the tour’s primary TV home, and broadcast revenue eventually tripled, Reid said, once the tour began selling the entire package of events.
Along the way, the model for title sponsorships was conceived, calling for half of that lead sponsorship money to go to the broadcaster to cover expenses and part of the advertising, and half to go to the tournament to fund growing purses.
The creation of the title sponsorships started out as a way for the tour to mitigate the cost of its TV partners. When Beman first went to potential sponsors, he was asking them to underwrite the cost to produce a tournament. If networks had their production costs covered, it took a lot of the risk out of broadcasting a tournament.
The problem was that networks wouldn’t recognize the sponsors on the air.
“They wouldn’t allow the announcers or the cameramen to show the corporate involvement,” Beman said. “Over time, we convinced the networks that this was costing everybody.”
Through the 1980s, the tour formalized the title sponsorship model. Half of the seven-figure fee went to cover the production costs of broadcasting the tournament and a significant share of the advertising inventory, while the other half contributed to the purses.
“The balance of the ad inventory was all profit for the networks with none of the risk,” Beman said. “And the corporate sponsors were spending $3 million to $4 million and getting $15 million to $20 million in advertising value. The players were winning because the purses were growing, the networks were winning, and the sponsor was the biggest winner.
“It became the engine that now drives all sports, but we were the ones that put it together. We convinced the networks to embrace the sponsors, and the great thing was that we were able to shift the conversation with the networks away from ratings to talking about profits.”
Neal Pilson, the former CBS Sports president, called the PGA Tour one of the first true partners among the major sports properties.
“A lot of sports tell the networks that you’re on your own for revenue,” Pilson said. “Deane worked hard and committed to getting the sponsorship and advertising revenues to support the rights fees we were paying. Deane was working for both the tour and the networks. This was his model.”
A GROWING PIE
Beman could be a stubborn son of a gun. Remember, he’s an elite golfer by trade, and with that comes conviction. If a golfer isn’t committed to the shot, there’s not much of a chance that he’ll put a good swing on it.
Beman’s routine, even today, is meticulous. At 72 and still a scratch golfer, Beman plays nearly every day. His practice sessions begin with the wedges, and he works his way through every club in the bag. He must hit five quality shots in a row with a club before he moves to the next club.
The Northern Virginia native who grew up in Maryland took that same single-minded focus to his job as commissioner. It was enough to drive some associates nuts.
To this day, talking about Beman sends Reid into a fit of anger and frustration. That conviction, that commitment to the shot, often came across as bullheaded in the board room. Reid and Beman eventually quit speaking over the management of PGA Tour Entertainment.
Reid said nothing typified Beman’s determination like the development of the TPC Sawgrass and other TPC courses. Back then, few men in golf were as respected as Don January, Reid said, and January was dead-set against the tour moving into course building and management.
“Deane didn’t give a shit about anything else,” said Reid, who hasn’t spoken to Beman in close to 20 years. “Deane’s going to do what Deane wants to do. He took some unpopular stances, hell yes. Don January fought Deane on those TPC courses all the way, but in the end Deane was successful because of his persistence and his intelligence. There was no give-up in the guy.
“He focused on his target and never lost sight of it and nothing ever got in the way of his goal. Nothing. Nothing!”
What the players didn’t understand back in the ’80s was that Beman wasn’t robbing them of their chance to make more money; he was enhancing it. The more attractive the tour became to TV and sponsors, the more the purses grew, and the more brands wanted golfers as spokesmen.
Nicklaus’ piece of the pie didn’t shrink. The whole pie grew larger because of Beman’s initiative and drive. The golfers who tried to drive Beman out profited as new sponsors were attracted to the game.
“What Deane did was invent sports marketing without even knowing it,” said Kevin O’Malley, the former CBS Sports and Turner Sports executive. “Using the fact that CEOs liked to play golf and hang around the tour, Deane concocted a formula that broadened the scope of the tour in a very strategic way. Without Deane, the tour as we know it would not exist.”
There remains a tinge of “I was right” in Beman’s voice now.
“Most players were not that interested in the politics until something affected them directly,” he said. “Then they’re all experts.
“One trait every tour veteran has is that they’re quick studies. Before you hit a golf shot, you have to assess all of the information very quickly. You’ve got to make a decision and completely believe in it. Then you live with it and don’t change your mind.”
Champions: Barry Frank, the dealmaker
Barry Frank, in his New York office, never intended to work in sports. He was an actor and saw himself as a creative person.
His love was drama, and he had some early success as an actor. He played a recurring role as a bellhop on the TV show “Robert Montgomery Presents” and the lead in a Sunday morning program called “Frontiers of Faith.” But he gave up acting in the early 1950s after failing to land the lead three different times in an Elia Kazan direction of “Tea and Sympathy” on Broadway. Living in New York, Frank realized a life on the stage was unlikely, but had no other ideas on what he wanted to do at the age of 22. Pressured by his mother to go to school and find a profession, he enrolled at Harvard Business School. The school gave him connections he never imagined, and he tapped its alumni base to land a job in television at CBS. He later caught the eye of ABC Sports President Roone Arledge, who hired Frank as a programmer.
In the decades that followed, he became a powerful figure in sports media, turning IMG into a leader in media rights negotiations, broadcast representation and show creation. He negotiated record-setting Olympic TV rights, he represented broadcasters John Madden, Jim Nantz and Bob Costas, and he helped conceive shows ranging from “Superstars” to “American Gladiators.” To it all, he brought a keen instinct for leverage, an eye for excitement, and, almost always, a flair for the dramatic.
“He likes what we call megillah, but you’d call a production,” said Sandy Montag, IMG corporate vice president. “I always remember being in his office trying to figure our way out of a jam. It was always good for the client, but it was usually dramatic.”
What is remarkable is not simply what Frank’s done, but what he has done in so many different areas of the media business. “He has a spectacular ability to compartmentalize,” said Nantz, of CBS Sports. “He could be working on the ‘World’s Strongest Man’ competition in South Africa, trying to put the final pieces of the puzzle together for an ACC-ESPN deal, and have any number of individual contracts in negotiation or about to expire, and at the same time be trying to sell the final [ad] units at the Skins competition in Maui. He’s juggling all this at the same time … and what he’s working on with you is the most important thing to him. That’s talent.”
Setting. The office. Frank sits in an oversized, black leather chair. As he recalls details of his life, he occasionally stares out the window. It’s January in New York, but the sky is blue. Steam rises from pipes on nearby buildings outside IMG’s office in Hell’s Kitchen.
Frank: As I was looking graduation down the throat, I went through the Harvard Business School graduate directory, and there were nine people who worked in entertainment. One was a guy by the name of Ed Saxe at CBS. ... Saxe decided they had a big problem. When a producer came in to do a show on CBS property, he had 12 different studios to choose from. Each had a different studio manager who each had his own price for hair and makeup, etc. Saxe asked me to create a rate card.
Reporter: Did you like it?
Frank: I hated it. I was an actor. I saw myself as a creative person. I didn’t see myself as [an] accountant, a bean counter. … [But] I got lucky again. [A friend] offered to get me a job at J. Walter Thompson. … I interviewed and got a job on the Ford account. Ford was one of the biggest buyers in sports. Through that job, I became friendly with Roone Arledge and others. … Roone taught me what not to do and what to do. … “Make the other guy in any negotiation feel like he’s the most important thing around” was one of the things I learned.
“Have you hired him to represent you?” Frank asked.
“No, but we probably will,” the director said.
“Don’t do anything yet,” Frank said.
Frank’s office shelves are full of collectibles and awards, including an Emmy.
In previous negotiations, the network negotiated the dollar amount first and then negotiated what rights it received. As a result, the networks had all the leverage in negotiations.
Frank put an end to that. He drafted a single contract that spelled out what rights the networks would receive for the 1988 Olympics. ABC, CBS and NBC signed that contract before negotiations began, making price the only issue left in negotiations. Frank had a novel idea for that, too. He pitched the networks on continuing negotiations until there was more than a 10 percent price differential between the top two bidders. “We don’t want to have someone lose this by a few dollars,” Frank said.
The networks agreed to those terms. Bidding opened at $125 million and rocketed to $300 million. “They all started to bitch that the price was too high,” Frank said, recalling the negotiations recently. “We said, ‘OK. You can take away the 10 percent differential. We’ll have single rounds. The minimum bid was [at least] a million dollars more than the last bid anyone had made.’”CBS fell out of the bidding, but Frank wanted to lure them back to the table. He caught CBS Sports President Neal Pilson in the hallway of the Beau Rivage Palace hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the negotiations were held, and invited him back to the table.
“I know you’re out,” Frank said, “but why don’t you come downstairs and put in an envelope anyway.”
“I can’t do that,” Pilson said.
“There doesn’t have to be anything in the envelope,” Frank said. “Just hand in an envelope.”
Though Pilson and CBS passed on the invitation, Frank still managed to ratchet up the final price. ABC ultimately paid $309 million, an increase of more than four-fold from the previous high paid by a U.S. network. The deal, which was chronicled in a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal, cemented Frank’s reputation as an expert rights negotiator.
“[Olympic rights] probably wouldn’t have gotten as high as they did as fast as they did without Barry,” said Dick Pound, an International Olympic Committee member who was involved in the bidding process for the Calgary Games. “He understood the value of bidding and the huge advantage of exclusive rights.”
In the years that followed that monumental deal, Frank and IMG led negotiations for six more Olympic Games and represented the NBA, NHL, MLB, BCS and the ACC. Frank brought an eye for leverage to each negotiation. Even small properties, like the Professional Bull Riders, benefited from his work.
In 2001, PBR Chief Executive Randy Bernard came to Frank because the property had sold its television rights years earlier to a producer named Allen Reid, who refused to sell them back at what the PBR considered a reasonable price. As far as Bernard could tell, the PBR had no leverage. He asked Frank to read the contract and see if the PBR was missing something.
Said Bernard, “He called me up and quoted some Shakespeare. I asked him what it meant. He said, ‘Basically, we’ve got them by the nuts.’”
Frank, who loves to quote Shakespeare, told Bernard to tell Reid that until he decided to sell at a reasonable price, the PBR would allow no cameras below the highest seat in each arena; it would prevent cowboys from doing on- or off-camera interviews; and it would allow no replays during events. Reid eventually sold the rights back for $6 million, half of what he’d been asking, and Frank negotiated a $5.5 million rights deal for the PBR with OLN (now Versus) and a time buy on NBC. The deal was profitable in its second year, Bernard said.
“It was a very heavy hand Barry played,” Bernard said. “If he hadn’t done it, I would bet today the PBR would still be playing at fairs across the country and 60 percent smaller than it currently is. We put a tremendous amount of faith in Barry that he was right, and he was.”
Setting. A French restaurant on New York City’s restaurant row called Le Rivage. Copper pots and landscape paintings of the countryside hang on its exposed brick walls. French music plays softly. Frank, now wearing his suit jacket, sits at a small circular table. The reporter sits across from him, scribbling notes in a Steno pad.
Frank: Calgary was a good example of something I learned myself, which is just keep after it if it’s something you really want; keep pushing for it. … The number was so totally shocking. No one thought we’d do more than $150 [million].
Reporter: I want to talk to you about something else, and I’m just going to cherry pick from big career things. … How did you get into the agent business?
Frank: It was such a simple story. When you hear it, you will say, “That led to all of this?”
Meet the agent.
In 1978, John Madden retired from coaching football, and Barry Frank called him almost immediately. The two had worked together not long before on an episode of a show IMG produced called “The Superteams,” and Frank thought Madden had potential to become a great TV personality. Frank asked Madden if he’d considered broadcasting.
“No,” Madden said. “Virginia [Madden’s wife] owns a little bar. I’m going to spend a year just watching the people come in and out of the bar. Maybe in a year.”
“OK,” Frank said, “but in a year, no one will remember John Madden.”A few days later, Madden changed his mind, and Frank cut a deal that put Madden in the CBS broadcast booth for four NFL games. After each game, Frank went over a tape of the broadcast with Madden and weighed in on Madden’s strengths and weaknesses.
Madden quickly became the voice of football in America, and when his deal with CBS ended in 1994, every network wanted to sign him. Then-ABC President Bob Iger and ABC Sports President Dennis Swanson wanted Madden to become the lead color commentator on “Monday Night Football” and scheduled a dinner with Madden and Frank at IMG’s Upper East Side office in hopes of persuading the broadcaster to join the network. Toward the end of the evening, Iger offered Madden a deal worth $9 million to $10 million over four years. The size of the offer surprised both Frank and Madden, who shook hands on it almost immediately.
But nothing ends that easily with Frank, and two days later, he took a call from Rupert Murdoch. Fox was preparing to broadcast NFL games for the first time that fall, and Murdoch wanted Madden because the Super Bowl-winning coach would confer credibility to Fox broadcasts.
“I’m sorry,” Frank said. “We’ve already done a deal with ABC.”
“Is it signed?” Murdoch asked.
“No,” Frank said, “but we’ve already shaken hands on it.”
Murdoch persisted and asked what it would take to get Madden. Frank threw out the most absurd number he could think of at the time: $10 million a year.
Fox eventually offered Madden a four-year deal worth more than $30 million.
“I called John,” Frank said, recalling the negotiations. “He said, ‘$8 million? They’ll pay me $8 million? Take it!’”
Frank relayed the news to Iger about the Fox deal. When Iger protested that ABC had a deal first, Frank said, “I know, but this isn’t my money and it’s not your money. It’s John Madden’s money. What do I do? It isn’t me. It’s my client.”
Madden hadn’t been Frank’s first TV client, but this deal was the biggest and most significant broadcaster deal Frank ever did. There were others, too. He identified Bob Costas when the two were working at CBS in the mid-1970s, and he approached the broadcaster a few years later when he was at IMG, telling Costas he needed an agent. He took Costas to NBC in 1980, where he was reportedly paid about $300,000 a year. By 1987, Costas’ salary reportedly topped $1 million, increasing to $2 million by 1993 and $3 million by 2001.
But Frank did more than secure money. He also negotiated a deal that made Costas NBC’s Olympics host.
“We probably have a 75 percent share of the top talent in sports broadcasting: Jim Nantz, Greg Gumbel, Bob Costas, Kirk Herbstreit, Mike Tirico,” IMG’s Montag said. “Barry started that.”Setting. Le Rivage. A waitress clears two bowls of French onion soup and places a plate with a triangular slice of quiche in front of Frank. He picks up a fork and cuts into it.
Reporter: How long did it take to repair the relationship with Iger after that?
Frank: A long time. … We were at Jim McKay’s funeral. He walked over to me and said, ‘How are you?’ I said, ‘I’m OK. How are you?’ He said, ‘I’m OK. Let’s let bygones be bygones.’ I presume that meant what’s done was done.
Reporter: You worked in TV, you went to the agency [IMG], you went back to TV, you went back to the agency. What are you more suited for?
Frank: I prefer a place where I can be creative and making something happen that hasn’t happened before. The wonderful part of IMG was Mark [McCormack] would let me do whatever I wanted. If I wanted to do a canoe race down the Hudson, that would be OK.
Meet the creator.
In the late 1960s, Dick Button first approached Barry Frank at ABC with his idea for a competition and show that would determine the world’s best athlete. The two-time Olympic figure skating champion had never been able to shake his belief that he didn’t deserve to win the 1949 Sullivan Award as the country’s best amateur athlete. “When I got up to bat [in high school], I didn’t get to first base,” Button said recently. “How could I be the best amateur athlete?”
ABC passed on the concept, but Frank never forgot it. After joining IMG in 1970, an oil filter company approached the agency looking for something new to sponsor, and Frank immediately thought of Button’s show. He approached Button about partnering on the show, and Button agreed to provide the idea if IMG provided athlete, sponsor and production support. All Frank had to do was sell a network on it.
Target No. 1 was Frank’s former boss at ABC, Roone Arledge. Knowing that Arledge was often so busy at work that he failed to give some ideas full consideration, Frank invited him for a round of golf. Frank spent nearly five hours pitching Arledge on the idea. Eventually, he bought it. The two-hour special, “Superstars,” debuted in 1973, and some form of it has been on TV ever since.
It wasn’t the only show Frank had a hand in creating. A few years later, when he was president of CBS Sports, a college friend, Jerry Adler, showed him footage of an overgrown, muscle man snapping quarters in half with his fingers. Adler thought the trick could be a halftime clip during a football game. Frank asked what the muscle man planned for his next trick.
“He wants to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge,” Adler said.
“No way,” Frank said.
The image of a muscle man performing superhuman feats stuck in Frank’s mind, and after returning to IMG in 1978, he dreamed up the idea for an annual competition pitting muscle men against each other to determine who would be called the World’s Strongest Man. He sketched out challenges where competitors would run with refrigerators on their back and later lift a platform holding Los Angeles Rams cheerleaders. The first show survived a lawsuit from one injured contestant, but it thrived in the years that followed. Today, 34 years later, it’s still on the air.
Frank’s work on those shows and others ranging from “American Gladiators” to “Survival of the Fittest” earned him and IMG notoriety as the kings of “trashsports,” a phrase Sports Illustrated coined to describe what it considered to be far-fetched, made-for-TV competitions. Collectively, the shows had a cultural impact that continues to this day.
“The real sports people turned their noses up at all of it, but it’s still surviving,” Adler said. “Now you’ve got all these second cousins. You could call ‘Survivor’ ‘trashsports’ if you wanted. It became a genre. And he helped create it.”
Setting. Le Rivage. It’s after 3 o’clock and most other lunch patrons have long since gone. The waitstaff busies itself preparing tables for dinner. Frank has finished lunch, and only his napkin and the remnants of dessert, crème brulée, remain on the table.
Frank: My favorite show is still “Survival of the Fittest.” I developed the idea for it on a drive home from my country club. I love the outdoors. I started thinking about climbing and rappelling and rafting. I started thinking, “Why couldn’t this be a show?” I had more fun doing that show than anything I’ve ever done. I’m trying to bring it back now. I have a sponsor interested. That’s my No. 1 project for this year.
Reporter: At your age, you still set annual goals like that?
Frank: I have to have annual goals. That’s what keeps me going.
Reporter: Do you think you’ll ever retire?
Frank: I still enjoy it. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t do this. Do I wish I could take an extra week off in Hawaii? Yep, I do. But do I still have the best Rolodex at IMG? Yep, I do. The short answer is I’ll retire when I’m not having fun anymore.
The wisdom of Arledge and McCormack
“I don’t use that term lightly,” Frank says. “I mean geniuses.” Frank worked for Arledge, the longtime president of ABC Sports, as vice president of sports programming for six years (1964-70).
He worked for McCormack, the founder of IMG, for more than 30 years (1970-76 and 1978-2003). He was close to both of them and says he learned more about business from them than anyone else he’s ever worked with.
Here are some of the lessons he gleaned, in his own words:
Lessons from Roone:
• Don’t treat people like they’re animals. At the bottom, we’re all the same. People all get up in the morning and put their suit on and go to work and try to make a living to feed their family. To make somebody wait for three days to get a simple answer (to a question), and I know the answer and I can give an answer in 20 seconds on the telephone … Don’t do that. That’s how he was wired, but it’s important to treat people with respect.
• Don’t make quick decisions. You may change your mind tomorrow. One thing about being bright is you tend to want to go quickly because your mind is three steps ahead. You think, “I can do this, easy.” You give quick answers. You agree to things. You don’t agree to things. You make decisions too quickly. You don’t always weigh your answer taking into account all that you do know. Take your time and get it right. There are no medals for finishing it this afternoon.
• Make the other guy in any negotiation feel like he’s the most important thing around. Roone gave people total, abject attention in negotiations.
• There’s no question you don’t need to know the answer to. Roone would make sure I knew them. It was the kind of stuff
Lessons from Mark:
• Think big and think of things that haven’t happened before.Mark would think of ways to do things I would have never thought of. Mark made the single biggest decision of anyone in our industry when he realized that sports were an international business, not just a U.S. business. We were morons thinking football was the be all and end all. For 99 percent of the world, football doesn’t mean shit. He went out and got Wimbledon. He went out and got the British Open. It was Mark’s idea to build marquees at Wimbledon. That’s become a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
• Create a cadre that you can count on.Not an I’ve-got-your-back cadre, but an I’ve-got-a-good-idea cadre. I’ve-got-your-back is important, but after a while, you get smart enough that you have your own back. We had something called “the dinner committee” at IMG. That was a group of people whose average years of service was 27. We met three or four times a year. That’s why we had this incredible company. I’ve never seen a collection of senior executives like Mark McCormack had.
• Relationships are at the heart of business. Mark had a favorite saying that I use time and again: “If I’m doing a deal, all things being equal, I’ll do business with a friend.” I believe that to the bottom of my soul. Sometimes your worst enemy might make the best offer, so it doesn’t always work, but I think relationships are the most important single aspect of business.
• Expand the deal. If you sign someone for their domestic deal, why not ask who handles their foreign rights? Mark would look at all aspects of a deal to make sure we explored every possibility there was with a client. That was particularly true with the Olympics, where we started doing domestic rights.
Champions: Marvin Miller, labor pioneer
Marvin Miller came upon the note a month earlier, while arranging boxes in a hall closet. A sheet torn from a notebook floated down, landing on his foot. On it, he found a brief list. From first glance, he recognized his wife’s handwriting.
Miller, in his New York City apartment, inspired loyalty in the MLB Players Association membership but anger in many fans.
Marvin Miller met Terry Morganstern in 1936, when she was a student at Brooklyn College. They were two months shy of their 70th wedding anniversary when she died in October 2009.
“Her handwriting was so distinct,” said Miller, running fingers across the small sheet of paper.
He turned to look over his left shoulder, out the vast spread of windows of a 32nd-floor Manhattan apartment that has been his home for 35 years. When the Millers moved here, they were taken by the unobstructed views of the Empire State Building and the East River. Development has stolen his clear look at the river, but the wider vista remains breathtaking.
“I’m not superstitious,” Miller said, eyes dropping back down to the note from his wife. “I can’t be sure when she wrote it, or why.
“Maybe it was for me, as a reminder.”
As he explained the significance of each line, Miller cast the words as advice she left behind. But they could just as easily be applied as lessons from an extraordinary life.
Play the point.
Don’t suffer twice for the same problem.
The end game is very important.
“My wife was a remarkable woman,” Miller said. “She really knew everything that was going on.”
PLAY THE POINT
He did not raise his voice at a bargaining table, no matter how tense the discussion turned. When leading a meeting of players, he chose to teach rather than preach.
Throughout his 16 years as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Miller was determined to contain his emotions; to make sure they didn’t get in the way. He knew that they could. He learned it, of all places, on the tennis court, after flubbing several shots during a lesson.
“Your strokes are coming along fine,” the pro told him. “But I have to tell you one thing. If you mess up a shot when you should not have, you lose your concentration. And then you mess up the majority of the next five or six shots. Don’t do that. Play the point. You hit a bad shot, put it behind you. It’s gone. Play the point.”
Years later, while teaching his wife to play tennis, Miller shared that advice. She embraced it and, when necessary, reminded him to do the same — and not just on the tennis court.
Many were angry.
Typical is a short note from Steve Longenecker, a 30-year-old high school social studies teacher from Quarryville,
Miller threw himself into his work, but the love of his life was wife Terry, who died in 2009
“Baseball has been very good to you,” Longenecker wrote in blocky print, “so cut the crap and play ball.”
As the face of the union through two decades of intermittent labor unrest, Miller received reams of similar notes, many of which suggested solutions. On a single day during the ’81 strike, he got proposals from a law firm representing the AFL-CIO, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania and a 14-year-old boy in Illinois, all of whom attached complex, detailed plans.
Miller not only responded to the letters when he had time, he took them home to discuss with his wife. He kept them; hundreds of them.
“They were a reminder,” Miller said after listening to passages from a few. “Not everybody is at the same level of understanding. Not everybody has the same views about anything. It was important to keep that in mind.”
That even held true within the union, especially at its outset. Miller was the association’s first executive director. He came with a traditional trade union pedigree. He had been an economist with the United Steelworkers for 16 years and assistant to the president of the union for the last six. He served on presidential commissions for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Don Fehr (left), with Miller and Richard Moss, says you could gauge Miller’s mood by the drink he ordered at lunch.
Roberts wasn’t sure he could get him through a vote of the rank-and-file, though. Managers, coaches and general managers spoke of Miller as if he were a villain out of “The Untouchables.” Some warned players that he was a Communist. Even after the players voted to hire him, Miller found many were reluctant to embrace his advice.
“They worried about the wrong things,” Miller said. “Worried that the owners don’t like me. And the commissioner doesn’t like me. And the league presidents don’t like me. It came up again and again.”
After three or four meetings with the player representatives, Miller confronted them.
“It’s important to understand that labor-management relations is not a ballgame,” Miller told them. “It’s an adversarial exercise where, with rare exception, what is good for you is bad for the owners. And what is good for the owners is bad for you. There are exceptions, but not many. It’s not in the nature of things for them to be pleased with me.
“You have to understand, we are adversaries. If at any point the owners start singing my praises, there’s only one thing for you to do, and that’s fire me. And I’m not kidding.”
It was a turning point for the young organization, and for the culture of professional sports. It led to the first collective-bargaining agreement, to free agency, to arbitration, to improved pensions and benefits. It changed the way baseball players saw themselves, and their place. As baseball changed, all of sports would change.“Here was this little guy with a soft-spoken voice, but he was such a commanding presence,” said Bob Locker, a relief pitcher who served as a player rep twice while playing from 1965-75. “Marvin Miller is a giant. The impact he’s had on all of professional sports — not just baseball, all sports — is amazing.”
When the players hired Miller in 1966, the minimum annual salary was $6,000 a year and the average was $19,000. They had no power and little voice. When he retired at the end of 1982, the players’ economic lot had turned mightily and the union was the most powerful in sports.
“This man changed my whole life,” said Ted Simmons, the former catcher who went from making $12,000 as a rookie in 1970 to $1 million as a free agent in 1983. “When someone says to you, ‘Who do you have to thank?’ — It’s always about the guys who taught you to hit the slider or block the ball in the dirt. And those people are really important, but no one is close to Marvin.
“Others have been great conservators. But the trailblazer? Nobody is even close.”
DON'T SUFFER TWICE FOR THE SAME PROBLEM
One of the perks of life in the early days of the players association was its location on Park Avenue in the Seagram Building, long home to two of New York’s famed power lunch spots, the Four Seasons and Brasserie. Miller, general counsel Don Fehr and three staff members shared 2 1/2 offices and a conference room on the top floor. Three or four days a week, Fehr and Miller lunched together downstairs.
Miller always ordered a cocktail with lunch. Fehr soon learned that he could gauge his boss’s mood by his drink. If he called for a screwdriver, things were going swimmingly. If he had a martini, he was perplexed by something and intended to spend the hour giving the matter more thought. And if he ordered whiskey ...
“If he had whiskey,” Fehr said, chuckling, “well, there was something weighing on his mind.
“He’d come in and say, ‘Jack Daniel’s.’ And I’d say, “What’s wrong?’”
Miller fretted far more often than his drink choice would indicate. He was a worrier by nature, though Fehr and others say they never saw it. Terry knew. She saw it in his brow when he came home after preparing for a board meeting with player reps, or after a long night of negotiation that felt more like a head-first dive into a brick wall. “Don’t suffer twice for the same problem,” she’d tell him. But it was his nature to worry, and to worry most about that which was most difficult to predict.
It was 1972, and Miller was in his sixth year at the players association. He had expected a quiet winter. The only portions of the CBA open for negotiation were pension and health care. The union asked for cost of living increases. That was it. The two sides negotiated intermittently up until spring training, when the players rejected a management proposal overwhelmingly, only to have the owners come back with an offer of even less. Miller took it as a warning shot, a sign that they intended to test the union’s resolve.
On his tour of spring camps, he asked players to vote on whether to authorize a strike if an agreement wasn’t in place by the end of March. All 24 clubs voted yes, most of them unanimously, delivering a tally of 663-10. Still, the difference between authorizing a strike and striking is like the gap between riding an escalator and jumping out of a plane.
A day before the strike deadline, Cardinals owner Gussie Busch dared the players to try their luck.
“We’re not giving them another … cent,” Busch said. “If they want to strike, let them strike.”
While Miller had secured the authorization to strike, he wasn’t sure it was worth it. The sticking point, pensions, wouldn’t affect the players for years. This didn’t feel like the ground on which they should plant their first flag. Miller made one final proposal: that the two sides submit the dispute for binding arbitration by the White House.
The owners refused. They felt they had given enough. In the five years since the players hired Miller, the minimum salary had increased from $6,000 to $13,500. The average had doubled from $17,000 to $34,000. Benefits and pensions also had escalated rapidly after two decades of stagnation.
On a flight from Scottsdale, Ariz., to Dallas for a meeting with union leadership, Miller sat in front of the Oakland A’s player rep, pitcher Chuck Dobson, and his alternate, Reggie Jackson. He listened as both spoke exuberantly of their resolve.
“They were all gung-ho,” Miller said. “But, you know, I’ve seen gung-ho before. It doesn’t register with me until I realize I’m dealing with people who know exactly what they’re in for.”
At the meeting in Dallas, Miller laid it all out. He told the players they should report for the season while he continued negotiating; that the issue wasn’t worth striking over; that they could always walk out later if the owners wouldn’t move. He was stunned by their response.
“They talked me down,” Miller said. “I never saw such rebellious people in my life. Everybody wanted the floor.”
Miller suggested the players pass a rule that no rep speak twice until they’d all had a chance to be heard. They did it. And then they lined up, one after the next, to speak in impassioned, sometimes angry tones.
Miller calls ‘81 “the most principled strike” he was involved in.
Miller listened, but he held fast. He pointed out that they had asked how long a strike might last, which he took as indication that they weren’t prepared for one. They should picture the longest stretch imaginable, and then add a day. He reminded them that if they voted to strike, they would leave the Dallas meeting and head home to scattered cities, some of them abroad. That was a dynamic that the steelworkers never had to worry about. He pointed out that they didn’t have a strike fund. At the very least, he told them, they should postpone long enough to build one.
They talked for hours. Players came and went from the room, canceling flights, some more than once. When they called for a vote, he stalled, hoping they would lose their steam. They didn’t. They voted 47-1 to strike.
It lasted 13 days, canceled 86 games, cost the owners a reported $5.2 million in gate receipts and the players $600,000 in salary, and ended in a fashion that would predict the outcome of disputes to come. The lost revenue fractured the owners, who settled under terms identical to those the players asked for at the beginning.
The players got their pension and health benefit increases at exactly the rates they demanded from the start.
THE END GAME IS VERY IMPORTANT
For most of his life, he thought about the end game as a stage in a negotiation, that final juncture at which his dogged preparation paid off. Now, at 93, he thinks about it differently. It is more about mortality. About choices. About changes — some of them welcome, but many not.
Miller points out proudly that he played singles tennis past his 91st birthday, but he hasn’t swung a racket in more than a year and concedes — well, almost concedes — that he probably won’t play again. In June, he caught his foot on loose carpet in the elevator and fell, fracturing bones in his spine. When doctors at the hospital told him that the only remedy was rest, he insisted they let him go home. He required a hospital bed and round-the-clock care. After a couple of months, he shed the day nurse. Then the night nurse. Then he got rid of the hospital bed.
“And then,” Miller smiled, “I hung up my cane.”
He and his wife often spoke of how they hoped to handle this late stage of life.
“She long discussed with me people we know who lived exemplary lives but kind of messed things up in the latter part,” Miller said. “It wasn’t like them at all. But they did these things, and now, well …”
He shook his head slowly and his voice trailed off.
He said he is more careful about his affairs now, and particularly about his public life. He still does interviews, but he is not as free with his thoughts. While he can debate a point fiercely and sparks when challenged, he worries that he might be off on a detail. He is less likely to go off with both barrels, even when it involves adversaries who were targets for years.
When he wrote his memoir 20 years ago, he flamed the usual suspects — former Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the owners and executives that he found to be short-sighted — but he also took players such as Carlton Fisk and Catfish Hunter to task for forgetting what the union had done for them. To some, it came off as petty. Miller didn’t much care.
Retelling stories from the book years later, he tries not to mention the names of some who might be cast unfavorably.
He hasn’t gone soft, mind you. Just careful.
Because the end game is very important.
The gains of a decade can be lost in a day.
At 93, Miller still gives interviews but is less likely to tee off on old adversaries.
Rather than arguing to dampen salaries, the owners focused on the threat free agency posed to competitive balance. They wanted a team that lost a free agent to be able to replace him with a player from the major league roster of the club that signed him. Though the owners called it a minor tweaking of the agreement, Miller warned the players that it would wreck the market for all but the upper tier. Clubs wouldn’t sign a midtier free agent if they faced losing a similar, but lower-paid, player of their own.
As early as 1979, he was preparing players for the fight. In what was either a rough draft of a presentation to players or a note to himself while crafting strategy — 30 years later, he isn’t sure which — Miller wrote passionately and presciently.
“The frontal attack I anticipate from the owners will be in the area of reserve rules,” he wrote. “We cannot put players into a position of being ransomed. … Free agency will become meaningless.”
The talks that led up to the ’81 strike were not so much negotiations as stare-downs. The owners demanded. The players refused. The owners implemented new rules. The players went on strike.
From the beginning, Miller warned that the owners’ goal was to break them; that they should brace for a long and ugly fight. It would last 50 days, cancel 713 games, and cost the owners $72 million in revenue and the players $28 million in salaries. As they had in previous tests, the players proved solid in their resolve.
“Marvin had prepared the players over the years, reminding us over and over that in order to get what you want, you’ve got to be willing to stand up and fight,” said Doug DeCinces, the Baltimore Orioles third baseman who was the AL player rep in 1981. “He was always prepared, and he prepared the players. We knew what to expect and what we had to do.”
That year stressed the union as never before.
A lengthy in-season strike not only took money from the players’ pockets, it also scattered them. Eight players who served on the negotiating committee, including DeCinces and NL rep Bob Boone, joined Fehr and Miller in talks with the owners’ negotiators. Some of the talks were held in Washington under the watch of a federal mediator. When the union reps weren’t bargaining, they were on the phone with player reps from the teams, trying to keep them informed. But, mostly, they used press conferences as their conduit.
When the mediator imposed a gag order, Miller was reminded of how badly he needed access to the press. “It’s not like we had Facebook,” DeCinces said. Within days, several players — notably Dodgers second baseman Davey Lopes and Tigers pitcher Dan Schatzeder — told reporters that they were frustrated by what they saw as a stall in the negotiations. Perceiving a crack in the union, management walked out of the talks.
DeCinces and Boone told Miller they wanted to meet with the rank-and-file. Miller worried that open sessions like that would only fracture them further, but when they insisted, he acquiesced. They met with about 100 players in Chicago. There, players voiced worries about lost paychecks, but none of the them said they were willing to give in. The real test would come in Los Angeles, where about 300 players showed up, including Lopes.
Boone, DeCinces and Miller explained their position, then invited players to weigh in. Many spoke, but to this day, DeCinces remembers most clearly the words of Dodgers outfielder Reggie Smith, who took Lopes to task for undermining Miller and the players on the negotiating committee. “This isn’t [the committee’s] strike,” Smith shouted. “It’s our strike.”
“The whole time, Marvin was sitting back, listening,” DeCinces said. “He wasn’t banging on the podium asking for support. Far from it. He turned the room over to the players, and from there it was a steamroll of support for the association’s position and a whole lot of anger for anybody who would threaten that solidarity.
“When we came out of that meeting, Marvin had a spring in his step.”
A day later in New York, with the players united and the owners’ strike insurance a week shy of expiration, the two sides began a marathon session that concluded at 5:30 the following morning, with a settlement that allowed for compensation, but in the format on which the players had insisted.
Thirty years later, Fehr uses Miller’s approach in those meetings of ’81 — facilitating discussions among players rather than directing them; asking questions before ever offering advice; recusing himself from bargaining when owners claimed he was the barrier — as an example of what he sees as a distinguishing factor that enabled Miller to raise the most potent union in sports.
“The tendency would be to look at this and make it personal to him — he did something,” said Fehr, who succeeded Miller as executive director in 1983 and served through 2009. “And he did. But what he did was to get the players to do things for themselves, and that’s a different thing.”
Fehr found it reassuring that Miller “was never obviously rattled or excited by anything.”
“They wanted them to sell out the future players,” Miller said. “There they were, 40 days and 45 days in, taking the losses, taking the beatings, when almost every one of them would be exempt. And they still wouldn’t fold. That’s what I call integrity.”
On the morning they settled, Fehr felt an understandable burst of adrenaline. The union had won on all the points that were important to the players. Management tested them, convinced that they’d crumble after a few lost paychecks. Instead, it was the owners who buckled, coming apart as soon as their strike insurance ran out.
“Well, we got it done,” Miller told Fehr after they struck the deal. “It took longer than I would have liked, but the players were great. You did what you had to do. Everybody was great.”
He asked Fehr if he would sit in for him as a guest on ABC’s “Nightline.” “I’m too tired,” Miller said.
And that was it.
“I would have thought that after that meeting, there would have been, even if only in private to me, some sort of obvious display of satisfaction, of accomplishment,” Fehr said. “Nope. Marvin always had a flat display of personality. I don’t think his emotions were flat, but they were always displayed to be flat. He was never obviously rattled or excited by anything. That, to me, was reassuring. And I’m pretty sure it was really reassuring to the players.”
The import of that night, which would frame negotiations in baseball for years, was such that Fehr remembers minute details, including Miller’s parting words:
“Gonna go home and see Terry.”
"I'd like to develop an identity like the New England Patriots or the Steelers," says Pegula about the Sabres.
• Why did you buy the Sabres?
PEGULA: I only wanted to buy the Sabres because I had no desire to own a team that I didn’t have an emotional tie to. I’m at the point in my life where I don’t need busywork. I don’t need to go to another city and create relationships and pretend that I want the team to win. I am a Sabres fan and I own my favorite team. That is the end of the discussion.
• The Sabres lost substantial sums under the previous ownership group. What are the challenges of operating this team in western New York?
PEGULA: Since it’s a smaller market, although not by NHL standards the smallest market, I think business in Buffalo and western New York has been a little weaker than in other areas. This isn’t New York City or Chicago. Bringing in revenues and sponsorship, as far as I can talk about, can be challenging.
• How do you want to improve business?
PEGULA: I want to win. The first thing I saw with the general reputation of this franchise is that we were a franchise that was not fully committed to winning; we were more committed to the bottom-line philosophy. One of the first things I wanted to do was to let people know we are committed to winning the Stanley Cup and we are going to improve the handling of our players and personnel so that everyone around here has that attitude.
• Do you have any other ideas for how to improve business, other than winning?
PEGULA: I’m not a marketing guy. I have a lot of people here who could give better answers to that. I’d like to increase our sphere of influence. There are areas where various franchises cross over where we could open up markets, like Syracuse, where there are fans of Boston, New York, Montreal. I think one thing we can do is have a team that people can identify with because they play a certain way. I want to give them an identity: “Wow, here are the Sabres. Boy, are they fast and score a lot of goals.” I’d like to develop an identity like the New England Patriots or the [Pittsburgh] Steelers. They are identified by their stability. And good players like to go there. I think that comes with time.
• There are numerous leaguewide topics of discussion in the NHL. As the newest owner in the room, which topic do you want to address?
PEGULA: I think everybody would like to jump on the concussion thing. I’ll make the same comment I made to the NHL: Get rid of it. Guys are hitting each other in the head. I say suspend them for a year.
• The Sabres also attract fans from Canada. Do you have plans to grow that market?
PEGULA: As long as the Canadian wing of our market are Sabres fans, we want them here.
Champions: Bill Rasmussen, ESPN creator
On this night in early February, the nattily attired Rasmussen — the man credited with creating ESPN more than three decades ago — is addressing about 150 members of the Center City Proprietors Association. The afternoon before, Rasmussen gave a similar talk at Villanova University, which followed talks to the Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce, Princeton University and The Center for Sports Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The script is always similar. Speaking without notes, the 78-year-old Rasmussen regales the crowd with familiar stories he’s told hundreds of times over the past three decades.
Rasmussen and his family were in Bristol last September for a ceremony in his honor.
There’s the story of how he signed the NCAA, ESPN’s first big programming coup. That was in 1979.
There’s the story of how ESPN wound up being headquartered in the sleepy little burg of Bristol, Conn. Rasmussen paid $18,000 for the first acre of ESPN’s now-sprawling campus. That was in 1979, too.
There’s the story of a Texas woman who named ESPN in a lawsuit she filed to divorce her husband in 1980.
Dressed in a dark, pinstriped suit, with perfectly knotted red tie and an American flag lapel pin, Rasmussen delivers each of these stories with a flourish and a smile. He knows exactly when the audience will laugh when he speaks of the divorce proceedings from Texas: at the point when he talks about the different reactions of a gloom-and-doom ESPN lawyer and the glee of Rosa Gatti, ESPN’s longtime communications executive, who thought the publicity would help the nascent network.
George Bodenheimer’s interest in ESPN’s history led him to reach out to Rasmussen.
The most interesting part of Rasmussen’s talk comes at the end, when he fields questions from the audience. The audience wants to know the likelihood that ESPN brings NHL games back to its schedule. They ask how ESPN will deal with a potential NFL lockout next season.
Rasmussen virtually beams as he answers. He is in the moment. He doesn’t offer specifics — he doesn’t know the specifics anymore — but he answers smartly, drawing a parallel to the early days.
If ESPN wants the NHL, Rasmussen says, it has enough cash to outbid all other channels. That leads to a discussion of how he negotiated the NCAA contract in 1979.
If the NFL loses games, ESPN has plenty of programming to fill in any holes, Rasmussen tells the audience. As evidence, he tells a story from 1980, when he was pitched a sport called New York Rooftop Platform Tennis as a potential TV sport.
Rasmussen (left) and Bristol Mayor Michael Werner shovel and smile at the 1980 groundbreaking ceremony for ESPN’s campus.
ESPN launched in September of 1979. Rasmussen hasn’t been involved in ESPN’s day-to-day operations since the end of 1980, and he sold his shares in the company in 1984. For the past three decades, Rasmussen has had to watch from the outside while his dream became the biggest profit center for the Walt Disney Co. and an undeniable force on the American media landscape.
It’s a familiar story: An entrepreneur launches an idea, but the entrepreneur leaves before the idea really takes off and misses out on much of the riches that follow.
What makes this story different from others is the genuine affection Rasmussen has for what ESPN has become. His eyes twinkle and his face lights up when he talks about his creation. People that know him well say that he harbors no jealousy or ill will for the company that forced him out three decades ago.
“This is a guy whose idea gave birth to, arguably, the most successful media story of our time,” said Jim Miller, a best-selling author who has been researching ESPN more than 2 1/2 years for his upcoming book on the company. “He was pushed out in 1980, and he basically harbored no resentment. I don’t think there are a lot of people that could have gone through what he went through and emerged like that.”
It wasn’t always that way. Rasmussen was upset when he was pushed out as ESPN president at the end of 1980, a little more than a year after the network launched.It’s understandable. The channel was Rasmussen’s idea. He founded the network. He helped convince NBC Sports President Chet Simmons to leave broadcast television to run a fledgling cable channel. But Rasmussen’s entrepreneurial style clashed almost immediately with the hard-charging Simmons, causing him to fall out of favor with executives from Getty Oil, which provided most of ESPN’s initial funding.
At the end of 1980, Simmons and the Getty Oil executive overseeing ESPN, Stuart Evey, moved Rasmussen into a ceremonial role. He stayed around for about a year before leaving the network. In 1984, he sold his stock in the network, and he stayed away from Bristol for the next 15 years. He didn’t reach out to ESPN, and ESPN didn’t reach out to him.
Rasmussen and ESPN finally made amends in 1999, when ESPN President George Bodenheimer invited him to the company’s 20th anniversary party. Bodenheimer had started at ESPN in January 1981 and never worked directly with Rasmussen, who already had assumed his ceremonial role at ESPN. Bodenheimer has always felt that understanding ESPN’s history was an important piece to the company’s success, and he wanted to establish connections with ESPN’s past. That meant reaching out to Rasmussen.
For the past decade, ESPN’s current management team has embraced Rasmussen’s role as the creator of the world’s biggest sports media entity.
This culminated last year in the formal dedication of the main flagpole on ESPN’s campus in Rasmussen’s name.
“I have always been interested in the early history of the company,” Bodenheimer said. “That would be Bill Rasmussen, if you’re talking about the early days.”
Like just about everyone else who has come into contact with Rasmussen over the years, Bodenheimer marvels at the ESPN founder’s unshakable optimism and entrepreneurial spirit.
“I admire him so much,” Bodenheimer said. “His passion and can-do attitude really sums up the spirit and the culture of the company today. That’s him.”
Many executives that came in contact with Rasmussen during ESPN’s infancy reference that can-do spirit. Paul Maxwell, a cable industry pioneer who founded several industry trade publications, said Rasmussen’s faith in ESPN provided a stark contrast to how others viewed the startup network at the time.
Maxwell recalls sitting in an Anaheim, Calif., bar with cable industry icon Bill Daniels, who helped convince Getty Oil to fund ESPN in the early years. It was right after Getty had invested in ESPN, probably 1980. Evey, the Getty Oil executive responsible for overseeing the network, approached the duo, with a look of worry on his face. He asked, “Are we ever going to make money?”
“It was the first thing he asked Bill,” Maxwell said. “Bill knew it would work. We both thought it was brilliant.”
Bodenheimer welcomed the Rasmussen family to his office in September.
“Some of the Getty folks might have doubted it, because they’re big corporate folks and they have to do everything in a committee meeting or board meeting,” Rasmussen said. “We weren’t constrained by that. We just charged ahead.”
Rasmussen has embraced that entrepreneurial image throughout his career. It is part of every business venture he has undertaken since 1984.
|Rasmussen visits with anchors Robert Flores and Sage Steele.|
His current venture, called Power Grid TV, is one of the reasons he’s been traveling so much recently. It is devoted to streaming college sports games that don’t make it onto a traditional television network. For the past year, Rasmussen has scoured the country, visiting smaller schools and gauging their interest in committing to such a service. From his home in Seattle, Rasmussen travels at least once a month to big and small markets as he tries to pitch people on his next big thing.
“It feels pretty much the same as the early days of ESPN,” he said. “ESPN produces and generates programming that it sends to the cable systems. We’re skipping all of that. Now, we’re going to be a channel that’s going to promote all the schools that participate. They’re the cable systems.”
To open those doors, Rasmussen trades on his legacy as ESPN’s founder. It’s a celebrity that was evidenced at the Center City Proprietors Association event in Philadelphia last month.
Following a 15-minute talk, Rasmussen retreated to a conference room to sign copies of his book, “Sports Junkies Rejoice: The Birth of ESPN.”
He sat at the head of the table in a conference room, with ESPN’s coverage of a St. John’s-Connecticut college basketball game appearing on a flat screen over his shoulder.
Rasmussen diligently signed each book that was handed to him — the line remained 20-deep for at least 30 minutes — and listened to the many stories that the association members had.
Many of the people in line were born well after ESPN launched, but they all identified with his creation and seemed genuinely thrilled to meet its creator.
A woman wanted a signed copy for her boyfriend, “who wants to be a sports agent.” A man picked one up for his son-in-law, who “loves everything about ESPN.” A man who looked to be in his 40s confessed that “he could not go to sleep without ESPN.”
Rasmussen couldn’t have looked prouder. He listened intently to each guest and smiled broadly with each compliment.
“It’s kind of like watching your kids grow up,” Rasmussen said of watching ESPN achieve great heights. “I had no choice in 1984 [when he sold his stock]. But that’s OK. I wouldn’t have been doing all the things that I’ve been doing in 28 years if I hadn’t sold.”
Champions: Alan Rothenberg, catalyst for soccer in U.S.
Rothenberg’s two loves were sports and politics. He eventually built a career that combined them.
“Alan was not about making a whole bunch of friends … for him, it was about doing what was best for soccer in America.”
Former U.S. Soccer Secretary General
Cooke was fashioning an American empire, and he needed an in-house attorney for his effort. Rothenberg jumped at the opportunity, figuring, “If he chews me up and spits me out, I could always go back to law.”
On his first day working directly for the mercurial Cooke, Rothenberg had a bible-sized document plopped on his desk. It was the contract obligating Cooke’s Lakers and Kings to play in the Los Angeles Sports Arena for the entire season, even though Cooke had surprised everyone by building the Forum, one of the first privately financed American sports arenas. If Cooke wanted the Kings and Lakers to play in his new sports palace, he would have to pay heavy damages.
“I figured that job was going to last a day, because Cooke walked into my office the first morning, plunked this agreement on my desk and said, ‘There hasn’t been a contract written yet that can’t be broken. You get me out of this!’”
After considering tears, or a quick return to the law firm, Rothenberg drew up a novel defense. His argument was that the contract Cooke signed with the L.A. Sports Commission to have his teams play at the Los Angeles Sports Arena was signed “under duress.” Rothenberg argued that Cooke had to have suitable venues in which his teams could play. Without that, the leagues could strip him of the teams — therein being the duress, with the possibility of losing his franchises.
The “under duress” argument was never tested because by the time it was ready to go to trial, the issue was such a political liability, Cooke’s foes on the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission walked away. It was an early lesson for Rothenberg that at the top, sports and politics are often indistinguishable.
“Clearly, sports are way more fun,” declared Rothenberg, when asked which was his bigger passion, “and I’ve never been as intimately involved in politics. That’s always been more of a sideline.”Rothenberg is regarded as the godfather of American soccer. But there’s much more to his legacy. In addition to his legal accomplishments, which include being president of the California Bar, his activities within pro sports — at a time when the industry was transforming from being defined by local businesses dominated by ticket sales to a league-oriented, national business driven by TV rights fees — were also significant.
Rothenberg first gained the trust of FIFA, soccer’s worldwide governing body, when he led soccer role’s during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. His success there put him on a track that resulted in him becoming president of the U.S. Soccer Federation from 1990-98; CEO of the 1994 World Cup Organizing Committee; chairman of the 1999 Women’s World Cup; founder of Major League Soccer; and, ultimately, enshrinement in the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Even before Rothenberg had seen his first soccer game, he was building a domestic giant under Cooke that started with the Lakers, Kings (the NHL’s first team west of the Mississippi) and the Forum. Those holdings grew to eventually include the Los Angeles Daily News and Manhattan’s Chrysler Building. Thirteen years before playing a key role in the 1984 Games, he was representing the Lakers on the NBA board of governors, at one point presiding over a team that won a record 33 consecutive regular-season games and the 1973 NBA championship. Long before the 1994 World Cup, he helped engineer trades that brought Wilt Chamberlain and, later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers. More than a decade before the 1999 Women’s World Cup, he was president of the San Diego Clippers, eventually moving the team to Los Angeles, and in doing so, became one of the few sports executives to successfully challenge NBA Commissioner David Stern.
In 1988, Rothenberg represented Great Western Savings & Loan in one of the earliest naming-rights deals in sports, changing the name of the Kings’ and Lakers’ home arena to The Great Western Forum.
Still, Rothenberg is largely known as a soccer administrator. Or, in the words of one World Cup marketer, “The guy who dragged U.S. Soccer, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.”
“Alan just brought this level of professionalism and accomplishments across professional sports into soccer,” said Sunil Gulati, the current president of U.S. Soccer and someone also called a pillar of American soccer. “He caught FIFA’s eye and he rewarded their confidence with Olympics and World Cups that set records.”
The notion that Rothenberg fell into soccer is at least partially true, and in sports, as in life, causality is often complex.
While it’s hard to say that a man who headed the ownership of the NASL Los Angeles Aztecs from 1977 to 1980 found soccer accidentally, two incidents support this version of history. In 1966, shortly after he founded the United Soccer Association and the short-lived Los Angeles Wolves team, Cooke opened the door to his young attorney’s office without knocking and surprised Rothenberg by telling him, “You’re in charge of the soccer team now.”
It was a new experience for Rothenberg, who didn’t see his first soccer game until he was 28.
Part of Peter Ueberroth’s masterful administration of the 1984 Olympics was recruiting time-stretched and otherwise unavailable business and civic leaders by offering them positions as “commissioners” of various Olympic events. Rothenberg was offered his pick of sports, and he selected soccer. “I chose soccer not because of a love for soccer,” he recalls, “but because I knew how well-organized FIFA was and I figured that would be the least amount of work and time away from my law firm.”
Motivation notwithstanding, soccer was the golden child of the Games, the first privately financed Olympics, yielding a surplus of close to $250 million. In the first Olympics that allowed professional soccer players to compete, soccer drew 1.45 million spectators, including 101,799 for the gold medal match at the Rose Bowl in which France beat Brazil, 2-0. The Olympic total attendance is still a record, and the championship gate still stands, almost 27 years later, as the largest crowd to see a soccer match in the United States.
“We had been told by the world that we should put football in smaller venues, because there wouldn’t be any interest here,” recalled Ueberroth, who has known Rothenberg for more than 35 years. “He didn’t listen. I guess that’s because he is either an entrepreneur hidden inside a world-class lawyer, or vice versa.”
Playing in the largest venues was perhaps the first soccer-specific
Among the mementos in Rothenberg’s Los Angeles office: a FIFA World Cup trophy replica and a ball autographed by Pelé.
Similarly, while the original business plan for MLS excluded the New York market because of concerns about the way European “futbol” would look in a stadium built for and still used for American football (the now-demolished Giants Stadium), Rothenberg’s insistence that MLS could not be credible without a New York-area team prevailed.
Todd Parker worked with Rothenberg for more than a decade in various jobs at the 1984 Games, the San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers, the 1994 World Cup and at Premier Partnerships, the marketing firm started by Rothenberg and former 1994 World Cup and MLS corporate marketing chief Randy Bernstein in 2003.
“Alan taught us never to take no for an answer,” said Parker, now vice president of corporate partnerships at the PBR. “FIFA got to know him intimately through the Olympics, and he got to know them, and then you saw a World Cup, a new league and a Women’s World Cup, all in America, a place where a lot of people had said there would never be meaningful soccer played.”
Many suggested that Rothenberg not being a card-carrying soccer purist was an advantage. “Certainly, he couldn’t be characterized by the Frank Defords of the world as being ‘one of those soccer wienies,’ because he wasn’t,” said Doug Logan, the first MLS commissioner. “Given where he came from, people had to pay attention.”
Added Ueberroth, “The soccer experts said he couldn’t do this or that, and he just proved them wrong by doing it better.”
Others, like Mark Abbott, the current MLS president, who wrote the league’s original business plan, maintained that Rothenberg ventured into what was a splintered American soccer landscape, replete with fiefdoms.
“Alan brought a professional sports perspective to soccer that was much needed and critical to the U.S. World Cup [in 1994] and the launch of MLS,” Abbott said.
“The whole process of strategic planning for a sports organization was absent in soccer. Alan brought that and the concept of treating it like a business,” said Hank Steinbrecher, the former U.S. Soccer secretary general who worked with Rothenberg on the 1984 Olympic soccer tournament and the 1994 World Cup. “One of the more difficult things I had to do was explain Alan to the rank-and-file soccer devotees. They looked at him as an interloper, someone who was coming in to steal the World Cup. Their constant refrain was that he was not a soccer guy, but that argument smacked of incest.”
Like many successful men, Rothenberg had good timing.
“It wasn’t all timing,” said Mark Noonan, the former executive vice president of marketing at MLS and CMO at U.S. Soccer who now heads sports consultancy FocalSport. “Alan was a forceful personality with credibility from FIFA, and that credibility was absolutely critical in creating the watershed event that was World Cup ’94.”
After the 1984 Olympics, things changed when it came to the U.S. and soccer, and Rothenberg got the credit. For the first time, FIFA seriously considered the U.S. as a possible World Cup site.
“Until then, they were scared to death of putting it here,” Rothenberg said. While Rothenberg was not involved, FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup to the United States on July 4, 1988. However, a split between FIFA and U.S. Soccer Federation President Werner Fricker caused FIFA to support Rothenberg for the position when it next became available. With FIFA’s support, Rothenberg was elected USSF president in a landslide. He became one of the first, if not the first, president of the national governing body who hadn’t played the game.
For Fricker, a six-year incumbent, to lose the USSF presidency just two years after his administration had secured the long-sought-after World Cup was viewed as stunning by the U.S. soccer community. Two months later, Rothenberg was named chairman of the World Cup 1994 Organizing Committee, another title previously held by Fricker.
“FIFA didn’t have a single vote in that election,” Gulati recalled, “but Alan had this background in sports management and business, and at the time, the federation didn’t have any of that. Soccer here was still a blue-collar sport.”
There continued to be naysayers, and Rothenberg again silenced them during the 1994 event by setting attendance records that still stand, with 3.5 million fans filling nine venues across the United States, breaking the previous record by more than 1 million. A surplus of more than $50 million was given to the U.S. Soccer Federation, and Rothenberg’s bonus was reported as $3 million.
Rothenberg said it became apparent during an early sale of tickets that were limited to soccer fans and players in the United States that the event was going to succeed beyond expectations.
“There was more demand than anyone outside ourselves anticipated, and with all due modesty, we did a good job promoting,” he said. “In that early sale, we announced all those games as sellouts, but there was only X amount at each venue for sale, so that was automatic. The idea was to create a snowball, so everything we did had to have a big splash.”
The 1993 U.S. Cup tournament, held among national teams from Brazil, England, Germany and America, drew crowds of 34,000 to 62,000 to its matches, the high mark coming for the event’s final match, at the Pontiac Silverdome. It proved to Rothenberg that the World Cup the following year would not fail.
“That’s when FIFA put the heat on us that we had to start a pro league,” he said. “I had to fly to Switzerland to convince them we couldn’t do that before the World Cup.”
In formulating MLS with Abbott, Rothenberg suggested a single-entity ownership structure based on his experience with the NASL, where he witnessed how one team could financially outperform the rest of the league. The New York Cosmos achieved significant success based on the strength of the team’s ownership and its market size, but none of that success was shared with the rest of the league, hurting the group’s chances for viability.
Rothenberg can be justifiably proud of the makeup of MLS’s ownership group and its accomplishments in building soccer-specific stadiums. However, he is curious to see if the league will ever be able to compete with top European clubs for the world’s top soccer players. When the Cosmos were signing Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and other top players in the mid- to late-1970s, it was a different economy. Most overseas television was state-owned, and there was almost no cable television, so big-time offers were rare. The Cosmos could compete with or better any offer, based on their Warner Communications ownership.
Now, top European footballers make more than the payroll of some MLS teams.
“MLS has great ownership, but at some point, the question for this group has to be whether they are willing to take the gamble and spend the money not for talent like [David] Beckham and [Thierry] Henry, but for someone like Ronaldo, Kaka or Messi,” Rothenberg said. “How can they get the top TV dollars it will take to get top players without those superstars?”
More than a decade after retiring from Los Angeles law firm Latham & Watkins, Rothenberg describes himself as “chronically over-employed.” In addition to helping out at Premier Partnerships — where “Randy [Bernstein] makes the cold calls, I’m around to lend perspective” for a consultancy that counts the NBA and the Rose Bowl among its clients — Rothenberg is a professional mediator and arbitrator. He serves on the board of California Pizza Kitchen and Zenith National Insurance, and is past president of the Los Angeles Airport Commission and the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau. In 2004, he founded 1st Century Bank, a publicly traded commercial bank specializing in Los Angeles-area, family-owned and closely held small and medium-sized businesses.
When you ask those who worked with him about Rothenberg’s management style, they all describe it the same way. “Alan would lead a discussion and have everyone in the conference room speak, but in the end, he somehow led it to the outcome he wanted, without your knowing how,” laughed Arn Tellem, who heads Wasserman Media Group’s player representation group but started his career under Rothenberg at Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Tunney.
Former MLS Commissioner Logan recalled, “He takes stakeholders and makes them feel like they’ve had their spoon in the soup, when actually, the soup is already on the table.”
Rothenberg is more of a polarizing individual than one might think, given his universal acknowledgement as the man who has done the most for soccer in the United States. Accordingly, the most intriguing thing about Rothenberg is the number of contradictions. Half a dozen people who worked for him over the years refused to be interviewed on the record for this story. Nearly all of them described him in conflicting terms: “conniving” one moment and “brilliant” the next, or “selfish” but “worldly” in the same sentence. Anyone that knows Rothenberg will always speak in flattering terms about the man’s familial devotion.
“Alan Rothenberg has a very forceful personality backed by an immense intellect and an incredible ability to motivate people to do his urging,” Logan said. “He has an extraordinary following of individuals who have worked for and with him and, in my mind, the most loyal are the people who he has abused the most. This is a man I don’t think it is unfair to say who has the label of being ruthless in some circles, but he is a world-class family man and father, so there’s a real enigma there.”
Rothenberg was at the center of a U.S. soccer world that badly needed to be bootstrapped. Beyond the 1984 Olympics and the U.S. World Cups for men and women, his legacy is felt within MLS and his protégés in important positions within soccer, like Gulati, now in Rothenberg’s former spot running U.S. Soccer; Abbott; and even Ivan Gazidis, the former MLS deputy commissioner who is now CEO of English Premier League powerhouse Arsenal FC.
Rothenberg will remain the most important figure in the annals of American soccer unless the U.S. manages to win a World Cup. He will always be known as the man who moved the world’s most popular game up to a level where the U.S. could begin to compete.
If, along the way, some soccer purists got kicked in the shins, perhaps it was worth the occasional yellow card.
“Whenever you have strong views and are determined to get things done quickly, you will always upset some people,” Gulati said.
Added Steinbrecher, “Alan was not about making a whole bunch of friends, and so he wasn’t a popular figure with soccer people. Certainly, we butted heads sometimes, but for him, it was about doing what was best for soccer in America. Look at the attendance records that still stand for Olympic soccer or the World Cup, the impressive ownership and stability of MLS, and I don’t believe it’s hyperbolic to say that Alan Rothenberg had the Midas touch when it came to soccer in America.”
Carol Kruse joined ESPN last October to oversee the sports media company’s marketing strategies. Kruse, who joined ESPN from Coca-Cola, describes herself as a big sports fan, one who has a special connection to the Masters. She has attended the event for the past seven years thanks to a rare pair of lifetime badges. Kruse spoke with staff writer John Ourand about the role social networking is playing on her marketing plans.
• Previous title: Vice president, global interactive marketing, Coca-Cola Co.
• First job: Commercial lender in Los Angeles Garment District
• Education: Pomona College, B.A., international relations; MBA, University of Southern California
• Resides: On the Delta shuttle between Atlanta and LaGuardia
• Grew up: State College, Pa.
• Brand most admired: Patagonia — for never compromising on quality and performance
• Business executive most admired: Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page — for their constant innovation
• Favorite vacation spot: Costa Rica
• First album: My first 45 was “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen
• Last movie: “Rango” with my daughter, Katherine
• Favorite food: Sushi
• Best commercial jingle: Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun — because I still remember it 30 years later
• What’s it like marketing a tournament like the Masters, which seems to eschew all marketing?
You get the approval of Augusta National for everything you market. They’re really excited about airing the Masters in 3-D. It’s one of sports’ traditions embracing the new world with 3-D.
• What challenges does your job present?
My world is really about building brands. When you have a brand that is as iconic as ESPN or Coca-Cola, the challenge always is to continue to make the brand relevant and appeal to the next generation while not doing anything that would alienate your current fans.
• How has social media changed how you do your job?
When you get to the social world, consumers like to participate and own brands. That’s a change. Marketers are used to being able to control the message. Now, it’s really about leading a dialogue. Some of these new communications channels let us play up that personality. But it is a change.
• How did your background prepare you for this job?
I did classic brand management at Clorox. Then I went to Silicon Valley and worked at a bunch of startups. Then, when my company got bought by Coca-Cola, I went back to a major iconic brand. I felt well prepared when I came to ESPN because it touched on all my different work experiences.
• You’re a badge holder at the Masters. What does that mean?
For the rest of my life, I will have a pair of badges. You cannot pass them down. When my father dies, the two badges he has will not be passed down to anyone in the family. That’s why the wait list gets so long. I’m really fortunate to have them because they’re mine for the rest of my life.
Growing up, my father was always a big golf fan. He’s gone to the Masters 55 of the last 57 years. He started going to the Masters when they were begging people to go, which is hard to think about now, when the wait list to get badges exceeds people’s lifetimes.
Sometime in the early 1980s, golf hit a real dip in popularity. For a brief time period, they opened the list for badges. My father put my name down for two badges. Sure enough, 25 years later, I got my own set of Masters badges. While I’m not personally a golfer, I’m a big sports fan. The Masters is right up there with the world’s greatest sporting events every year. This is my eighth year that I’ll be going. For the first several years, I would go with my dad, which is kind of a special time. He’s not going as much now, but it’s an amazing sporting event.
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, chose Donald Oberhelman as athletic director. Oberhelman was chief operating officer and senior associate director of athletics at San Diego State University.
Colonial Athletic Association promoted Cindy Williams to chief operating officer of the conference.
Maryville University Athletic Director Tony Duckworth will resign effective May 31.
The NCAA hired Kathleen McNeely as vice president of administration and chief financial officer. McNeely was associate vice president and executive director of financial management services at Indiana University.
St. John’s University hired Ed Kull as director of development for men’s basketball. Kull was sports marketing manager at Coca-Cola.
AEG Facilities named Rod O’Connor executive vice president in Europe. O’Connor was the chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Energy.
Chicagoland Speedway hired Nicole Meagher as head of public relations and communications. Meagher was manager of communications at Alli Sports.
Churchill Downs hired Alan Tse as executive vice president and general counsel.
Craig Rust was named president of Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and the Mid-Ohio School as well as vice president and general manager of Green Savoree Mid-Ohio.
Mobile International Speedway hired NASCAR driver Rick Crawford as manager and promoter.
VenuWorks promoted Scott Schoenike to executive director of New Evansville Arena. Gene Felling will take over as executive director of U.S. Cellular Center, Paramount Theatre and Cedar Rapids Ice Arena, in addition to his duties as Western regional vice president.
Quicken Loans Arena hired Brian Milner as director of housekeeping. Milner was regional director of facility services for Aramark Sports and Entertainment.
The Roanoke Civic Center hired Joe Dolan as assistant general manager.
Marc Silverman started his own auditing practice called MH Silverman & Associates LLP. Silverman was an audit partner at Ernst & Young LLP.
The Green Bay Packers’ public relations director, Jeff Blumb, resigned.
The Dallas Cowboys promoted David Frey to chief financial officer.
Dave Lockett, communications coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has left the team. Public relations and media manager Burt Lauten will become interim communications coordinator.
St. Louis Rams general counsel Bob Wallace has left the team.
The Canadian Football League Montreal Alouettes hired Ray Lalonde as president and chief executive officer.
The Canandian Football League Hamilton Tiger-Cats promoted Danny McManus to head U.S. scout, Drew Allemang to coordinator of Canadian player development and head Canadian scout, Shawn Burke to director of football operations and Scott McNaughton to director of communications.
The PGA Tour named Gerald Goodman executive director of the Accenture Match Play Championship.
The Columbus Blue Jackets named Greg Kirstein interim executive director of the foundation. Wendy Bradshaw is stepping down.
The American Hockey League’s Charlotte Checkers hired Eric Bridenstine as director of creative services and production.
The Professional Hockey Players’ Association hired Simon Frechette as director of player relations. Frechette was director of business operations for the Montreal Junior Hockey Club.
Major League Lacrosse hired Aly Morrissey as marketing and public relations manager and Amy Saulen as staff accountant.
Home Team Marketing hired Ethan Guine as account executive in the Los Angeles office and Randy Newell as account executive in the Cleveland office.
The Aspire Group promoted Abbey Carter to marketing manager.
Sportsman Channel hired Mary Jeanne Cavanagh as executive vice president of advertising sales. Cavanagh will continue as executive vice president for advertising sales for GMC, a sister network in InterMedia Partners.
NBC Universal promoted Jeff Wachtel and Chris McCumber to co-presidents of USA Network.
English Premier League’s Liverpool promoted Ian Ayre to managing director and Damien Comolli to director of football.
Sporting Goods and Apparel
Tifosi Optics hired Bob Bartlett as operations manager. Bartlett was a senior-level executive for Dunlop Maxfli, Srixon Sports USA, US Kids Golf and PowerBilt Golf.
The Kentucky State Fair Board named Amanda Storment to be vice president of public relations and media.
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