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Volume 20 No. 42


I recently traveled to Atlanta for the day and was able to spend some time with longtime sports business executive Lonnie Cooper and his team at CSE. Many of you know that Lonnie built his business on representation and now, after 27 years, has more than 250 clients, made up of NBA general managers and coaches — Doc Rivers, Kevin McHale and P.J. Carlesimo among them — baseball players, broadcasters, announcers and journalists. And he continues to build. CSE occupies two floors with consulting, event production, advertising, PR and a digital operation. There is an upbeat vibe that fills the office of 130 employees, and much of that is attributed to the culture Lonnie has created. Showing me around his office at the crossroads of Interstates 75 and 285, just north of Atlanta, Lonnie exuded genuine enthusiasm for his work and staff. Afterward, he and I sat in his 19th-floor office, which provides a stunning view south toward the city, and talked about the state of the coaching business, leadership, culture and what he’s looking for in his new hires.

Positioning coaches and a new “breed” of owners

Cooper has represented NBA coaches his entire career, starting with Mike Fratello when he worked at the Atlanta Hawks. He currently has 38 clients, and he’s frank in saying that coaches live “in the moment.”

“It’s my job to look ahead in how we are positioning ourselves if, God forbid, they get fired. Because I know that’s inevitable, and it’s hard to live your life that way. Not everybody gets to retire on their own terms. So you have got to be positioning them for what they are going to do next,” he said. “That is how I got into broadcasting. My guy started getting fired and I had to get him into something else. It couldn’t just be coaching, so I got him into TNT. Mark Lazarus helped me tremendously, and Turner Sports was one of the best places for ex-coaches to go work. And they still are.
“We have always tried to position our coaches, of knowing that there is a time and a place after they get fired. We are constantly coaching our coaches on how to handle themselves, say the right thing. If you get fired, say all the right things, because that could lead to your next job.”

“You never saw owners sitting on the front row cheering and screaming at referees.”
Lonnie Cooper,
on the “different breed” of owners
Photo: CSE
We talked about his years in working with various team owners, and a few family names jump out among his favorites, including the Gund family, which owned the Cavaliers for 22 years, and the DeVos family, which owns the Magic. Today, he sees a changing face of ownership: “It’s a completely different breed. The owners today are more invested. They’re more involved. They are really true, true fans. Years ago, owners knew their place. They were the pillars of the city. They were part of the fabric of the city. But you never saw owners sitting on the front row cheering and screaming at referees. Now, they’re more part of the fan fabric and I think fans are appreciating that. It does put more pressure on coaches. One hundred percent.”

“I won’t run an office that’s full of stress”

When our conversation shifts to culture and people, Lonnie excitedly leans forward, practically standing up in his chair as he outlines his management philosophy. “My management style is communicative, supportive and working toward positive solutions. I don’t use the word, we have a ‘problem.’ We have a ‘challenge.’ We’re always going to figure out a solution. There’s not a lot of stress in this office, and I won’t run an office that’s full of stress.” 

“The biggest gift I give to my colleagues is that I’m involved along the way,” he adds. “I never put them in a position to feel as though they made a mistake. If there is a mistake, we made it together. I never, ever make them feel like they failed. It’s ‘Hey, we tried it. We tried it together.’”

We shared time talking about staff engagement, motivation and morale. I was told about “Lonnie Days.” It was a concept he started seven years ago, where he offers staff one day off a month that doesn’t count against their vacation time. He paused when I pushed him on it, but then leaned forward toward me and said, “These people work five days a week and all their errands and responsibilities have to be done on Saturday and Sunday. They don’t have a day off because they have obligations. So I decided to do something, and I started it in pencil. I said, ‘This isn’t in ink. I’m going to try something. Once a month you can take a day off to take care of errands, doctor appointments, all the rest. The only rules? You have to stay in town, you’ve got to be available just in case.’ In seven years, we haven’t had a single issue and I have received countless thank-you notes. ‘Lonnie, thank you for the Lonnie Day. Because of you I was able to read on Wednesday at my kid’s school.’ ‘Lonnie, I was able to take my mother to the dentist.’ That’s the atmosphere I want here. Family comes first.”

“I’m not a big sports fan”

All leaders focus on hiring the best people, but Lonnie stressed the social makeup of an indvidual is far more important to him than a résumé and grade-point average. “I want my head of legal and my CFO to have a 4.0. Everybody else better have a 2.8 to a 3.2, and they should have had a social life in college and be very active and current. Because that’s what we are. We are a marketing company. The grades never really meant as much to me. It was more about the person and their experience and the way that they handled themselves.”

And how does he handle it when he makes a poor hire? He said the writing is on the wall. “People don’t get fired here. The floor fires you. You can’t hide here. If you’re not doing your job, you’ll get exposed.” And sadly, Lonnie expressed a sentiment I’ve heard more and more, “Young people today aren’t as realistic about what it takes. There’s an entitlement. And that word we use too much, and you hear it at cocktail parties in my age group when we meet the young people. I think they got too much too quickly.”

Finally, as we finish up, the conversation turned back to sports and games and matchups. Lonnie was engaged, but he had less passion than the previous topics. “I’m not a big sports fan,” he said. “I usually don’t say this because it doesn’t come across as well as it should. I’m a business fan that understands and respects the power of sports. That’s who I am.” But who do you root for, I asked again.

And with that, he laughed, and gave an answer any client would love. “I don’t really have a favorite team. I have favorite people I cheer for. And I can switch on a dime if they get fired.”

> A FRIEND LOSES HIS FATHER: I’ve been fortunate to call Terry Lefton a friend and colleague for nearly 20 years, and many readers have known him for far longer. Recently, over a quiet dinner in New Orleans, I was lucky to hear him tell stories about his youth, growing up outside Philadelphia and the influences that steered him to a career writing about marketing, advertising and branding. Terry told me the story of his father, who took over the family advertising business, which was founded by his grandfather, Al Paul Lefton, in 1928. The agency had among its clients brands like Schmidt’s Beer, Brillo, RCA and Michelin. Terry’s father, Al Paul Lefton Jr., then ran the agency for 46 years. It was clear just how much that heritage shaped Terry’s fondness for the subject and expertise in his reporting and writing.

So it was especially sad that Terry’s father died just a few days after our dinner last week, and one day after Terry had also lost his mother-in-law. Everyone within our sports business group has Terry in our thoughts, and I know many of you who know him will want to offer your best wishes and support as he and his family go through this difficult time.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at

First of all, thank you my readers and followers for the thoughts and opinions regarding last month’s column (Jan. 7-13 issue) in which I broached the hunters and farmers concept. Those emails and tweets shaped my thinking regarding the decision to offer a more complete explanation this month.
The hunter/farmer structure is probably not fiscally appropriate for sports organizations at all levels. For example, it would be very difficult to sell this concept to owners of Class A, AA or even some AAA baseball clubs, or minor league hockey, non-BCS collegiate basketball programs and so forth.
But I would state that when recruiting staff and assigning these types of responsibilities, organizations may be better served to look for individuals who have the aggressive skills of the hunter yet possess the patience and empathy of the farmer to nurture and grow accounts. These combinations — the “hunting farmer” or the “farming hunter” — exist, but they are harder to find. Organizations must cast a wider net when they are recruiting to make sure they have the proper fit.

For a sports franchise to truly succeed in sales, it needs both. If a sales team is full of hunters, it may acquire new customers, but it may also experience high attrition in its existing business. If a team is full of farmers, it may have a loyal customer base, but its new business revenue growth will usually be minimal.

Implementing the Hunter/Farmer Model
Thoughts and suggestions to consider:

> The farmer must have a manageable number of accounts so that regular communication and interaction with each account is possible.

> Allocate 1 to 2 percent of the revenue at stake for farmers to use for renewal-related activities and incentives.

> Hunters should have individual and departmental bonus opportunities.

> Farmer bonuses should be multiple and incremental after a floor renewal rate (say 75 to 80 percent) has been reached, perhaps every 2.5 percent increase in renewals.

> Hunters who were not at the top of the leaderboard but had good levels of call duration often become great farmers.

> Don’t let the groups become two silos. Create bonuses and incentives for the groups to work together to generate overall revenue.

> The career path for both hunters and farmers to progress should be clear.

With that said, let us examine the concept as it relates to larger sports organizations with significant revenue at stake among their current season-ticket holders and sponsors. At the same time, these organizations have lofty new business revenue goals to sell sponsorships and new season-ticket plans.

In terms of revenue, it should be fairly apparent that a farming function, whether it be retaining and renewing season-ticket holders or activating sponsorships and renewing and up-selling those accounts, will result in higher levels of retained customers and revenue than would a group charged with not only those functions, but also prospecting, making new sales calls and closing new business. While it has been done and done effectively for years, the revenue areas have not been maximized as they could be with teams of farmers and teams of hunters devoted solely to pursuing the revenue associated with each of these functions.

I have seen this type of success in my work with the Orlando Magic, the only franchise, to my knowledge, in a team sport utilizing the hunter/farmer model in both ticket sales and retention and corporate partnership sales and activation/retention. With this model employed during the 2011-12 season, Magic corporate partnerships had their highest levels of partnership retention and revenue retained (and grown) as well as new partnership revenue.

A hunter is often defined as a seeker. That is accurate in this context as hunters seek out the revenue from new sources. Everyone understands that hunters prospect and generate revenue from new business accounts, and that the singular focus should enable them to make more sales calls. I would make the recommendation that, since new business revenue is harder to generate, the commissions be increased and an achievable bonus system be employed, particularly in the transition year when renewals have been taken away from them.

Farmers then are charged with all aspects of customer relationship management. A sample of typical farmer duties includes:

Manage 300 to 500 accounts and create a communication and interaction strategy for those accounts.

Manage CRM records for each account.

Work with hunters on transition management of accounts.

Plan special events for fan interaction.

Manage client needs and up-sell whenever possible.

Identify fence-sitters (those undecided about renewal) and create an intervention plan.

Planning special events for fan interaction, such as the on-field batting practice offered by the Pittsburgh Pirates, often falls under the duties of a team’s farmers.
Work to create a happy and contented client base regardless of team performance.

Renew accounts.

The New York Mets and the Pittsburgh Pirates both have excellent examples of special events for fan interaction. Both teams feature on-field batting practice as well as a catch on the field for their season-ticket holders, and the Mets offer some unique interaction such as an annual wine tasting event at Citi Field hosted by hall of famer Tom Seaver with wines from his vineyard. Yes, he autographs the bottles.

There also are modifications to the pure hunter/farmer model that can be successful when employed. The first relates to reintroducing sales personnel into the retention process after an amount of time has passed and the account is classified as not renewed and needing to be resold. Another modification is what I would term as a hybrid or blended approach as to how a new business account is transitioned from the hunter to the farmer. A number of sports organizations employ a joint approach for one year with both the hunter who closed the sale and the farmer who will eventually solely manage the account. Compensation is usually shared along with the dual responsibility for that first year.

Bill Sutton ( is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida, and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_Impact.

The NCAA has announced the establishment of a new chief medical officer position, held by Dr. Brian Hainline, who started in January. According to the NCAA, a key component of Hainline’s work will be the creation of a “center of excellence” to serve as a national resource providing safety, health and medical expertise to physicians and athletic trainers.

Although the NCAA has highlighted Hainline’s overall sports medicine background from his most recent position as chief medical officer of the U.S. Tennis Association, it is his technical training that should be noted by every member institution. Hainline is a specialist in the area of neurology and integrative pain medication, professional training that provides expertise in the area of concussions. In fact, Hainline previously served as an investigator under the Retired NFL Players Concussion Study.

Health concerns arising from concussions have been headlined with the NFL in both litigation and labor negotiations. A complex and potentially costly litigation was filed on behalf of former players, and the NFL has enacted several rules changes and monitoring procedures to assess players diagnosed with head injuries. Yet, the NCAA has been in the background of the concussion discussion, even though such injuries are not foreign to the collegiate level.

Dr. Brian Hainline’s background is in neurology and integrative pain medication.
The filing of a large and now consolidated class action in Illinois against the NCAA has highlighted legal vulnerability. A set of initial class actions filed by former student athletes Adrian Arrington and Derek Owens alleged the NCAA was negligent in safeguarding student athletes from the risks of concussions. The plaintiffs claim the NCAA not only failed to educate coaches, trainers and student athletes on concussions, but that it also failed to implement systemwide guidelines to evaluate such injuries and did not establish any guidelines to address when student athletes could return to competition.

The NCAA publishes the Sports Medicine Handbook, which addresses various medical issues, including best practices for a concussion management plan. However, the handbook does not provide a comprehensive standard protocol to be used by every member institution with respect to workouts, practices and athletic competition.

For this reason some conferences, such as the Ivy League and Big Ten, have developed a research partnership to investigate concussions and other head injuries. The Ivy League recently took the affirmative step of reducing contact in football practices as a measure to reduce vulnerability to such injuries.

It would be a mistake to presume the concussion issue rests solely with the sport of football. In fact, the Arrington plaintiffs include a former women’s soccer player. All member institutions have an interest on the issues of assessment of player injuries and risk management in determining when to permit student athletes to return to practice and competition.

A proactive measure would be to view the new chief medical officer position as a global initiative that will not only have immediate effect on injuries involving head trauma in contact sports, but also address the issue of repetitive or chronic injuries arising from any sport. As Hainline’s authority will include oversight of student-athlete health and safety initiatives with the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports, addressing on-field protocols and developing best practices in the evaluation, treatment and management of head trauma during and after games is likely the beginning.

Earlier this year a study by the Journal of Athletic Training noted that up to 30 percent of athletic injuries may be a result of “overuse” — those sustained predominantly in low-contact sports, which entail long training sessions or some physical movement repeated numerous times. These ailments tend to occur at a gradual rate with the initial warning provided by a relatively small injury. Sports such as long-distance running, rowing and swimming have training programs that may cause risk for such injuries. These injuries would, at first appearance, seem easy to correct if awareness of the effects of overuse injuries were better understood and managed.

Hainline recently stated in an interview that “when you have large exposure in big money events, the goal needs to be the same with regard to safety and wellness as in an event where you have just 10 or 20 spectators watching.” While this is an admirable goal, the devil is in the details. For many colleges and universities, the failure to monitor, document and prepare action plans on years of data on injuries related to their student athletes may now be a costly shortcoming. With the NCAA taking a very public step in acknowledging that more needs to done to address safety and health issues, the member institutions should likewise consider vulnerabilities that could arise from failure to educate on safety standards, improper training regimens and lack of appropriate guidance on return to athletic competition.

Tyrone Thomas ( is an associate in Mintz Levin’s Washington, D.C., office, where he practices in the employment, labor and benefits section.