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Volume 20 No. 42


A few insightful and fun comments I picked up while attending the Business of Sports Summit in Atlanta late last month, presented by affiliated publication the Atlanta Business Chronicle and the Atlanta Sports Council:

• Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed opened the event by praising the private/public partnership for a new $1 billion facility for the Atlanta Falcons that will include a public contribution of up to $200 million. The building is scheduled to open in 2017. “This will be a transformational project for this city,” he said. “We want Atlanta to be known as a city that embraces the business of sports. It is really part of our core business.”

• There was a strong opening panel looking at corporate sponsorship in sports. Mark Gambill, Home Depot vice president of integrated media and marketing, had a smart take on building out sponsorship programs to be accessible to broad ranges of the population. He said that too frequently certain demographics are ignored. “I’m a huge sports fan and enthusiast,” he said, “but too often, brands ignore people like me. We were in a meeting recently, and my team was talking in wonkish terms about, ‘Well, we need to reach the 18-to-34 demo.’ I’m like, ‘Wait. I am 45 and I am probably more psychotic about my sports and my teams, and I can actually afford to be more psychotic. So we can’t ignore people like me.’”

In looking at how sponsorship has changed over the years, Gambill pointed directly to social. “You can really extend the experience now, but the companies that don’t get it right in this space are an annoyance,” he said. “The great thing about social is that, as a brand, you can interject a personality, so you can move your personality a bit without the CEO pulling me into his office.”

• The marketing session frequently included use of jargon, like “cross-department functionality.” When someone finally asked Daryl Evans, AT&T’s vice president of consumer advertising and marketing communications, what that meant, he offered his clever, dry delivery and said, “Well, it’s just multiword corporate talk for a bunch of people working together.”

Evans had a few other interesting points. In talking about content creation, he stressed that brands need to stick with what they do best, adding, “When we have tried to produce our own content, we haven’t been happy with ourselves. We are not producers, so that is where we see the value in being with the properties and using their content.”

And who’s got a larger role at the table in today’s sponsorship discussion at the brand level? Evans noted a few groups, including the AT&T U-verse executives, have “added a new element to our sports sponsorship discussion.” But he mentioned a familiar group playing an even larger role. “The lawyers have a bigger and bigger role — more than ever than I can remember,” he said. “Especially as we move into the digital and social worlds and the complicated use of IP.”

Evans echoed a familiar theme we hear, referring to the rapid pace of change, especially with today’s technology. “The iPad has been around only for 39 months, and look at how that’s changed the world. How do we plan for Rio for instance? What will Twitter be like then?” He used that theme to make a familiar plea to properties: “Help us build flexibility into our programs and abilities to revisit our deal terms so we can take advantage of things we don’t even know are coming.”

• Gambill’s advice to properties: “Come to us with ideas. More ideas. We are a big test-and-learn company. Don’t just give us the, ‘Well, it worked well last year; we should probably do it again.’ No. We love new ideas.”

Rich McKay, with Bob Williams, Atlanta Hawks and Philips Arena president, said Falcons owner Arthur Blank emphasizes listening to the customer at all times.
• As many of you know, Atlanta Falcons President and CEO Rich McKay is one of the most well-respected executives in sports. Every time I hear him speak, I pick up something new and admire his forthrightness. On a panel of team executives, each was asked about ownership’s day-to-day role, and McKay discussed how involved Arthur Blank was in the Falcons. He said Blank was very involved in the first five years on changing direction and culture. Now, he’s more strategic. But McKay also noted the consistent emails, asking and probing from Blank. “Arthur is continually questioning, ‘Why are we doing this? Why are we doing that?’,” McKay said. “He also stresses that we must listen to the customer all the time. We may be in a meeting, and he’ll ask a question, and either me or Jim Smith [Falcons vice president and CMO] will say, ‘We think it’s because of … ’ And he’ll always say, ‘I don’t care what you think. What does the customer think?’ And that will drive us back to talking directly to the customers, because you can’t go wrong when you listen directly to them.”
McKay also shared a note from a recent discussion by CBS President and CEO Les Moonves, who talked to the league and teams and offered as much support as possible to them in terms of helping ticket sales — a major challenge to many teams. Said McKay, “He told us, ‘We want your games to be sold out. It doesn’t do any of us any good to broadcast your games that aren’t sold out. We want to help you and will do whatever we can to help you sell out your buildings.’”

Derek Schiller, executive vice president of business operations for the Atlanta Braves, talked about Liberty Media’s ownership of the team. “We have the best of all worlds,” he said. “We have a company with deep resources that allows our people to run the baseball team. There is this perception that they are not as committed to ownership — when it is the exact opposite in that they let people like [Chairman and CEO] Terry McGuirk and [President] John Schuerholz run the team and offer them all the support they need.”

• The topic of signing players came up, and Schiller earned points in my book by being outspoken about the need to raise revenue. “My job is to raise as much revenue as possible so that the baseball side can afford the best players that they need to help our team be successful,” he said.

Good for him. Too often teams are apologizing for focusing on the business side of their efforts. That’s ridiculous, and teams need to be more open about putting emphasis on the business side. That’s why it was refreshing for Boston Red Sox owner John Henry to finally come out strong in an emailed interview with the Boston Herald recently and support his business side, which has been criticized for being the predominant focus of the franchise. “There is this perception that Larry [Lucchino] is focused on revenue — that the three of us are. It’s one perception that is true. And there is good reason for it. Any major league club that doesn’t do everything it can to intelligently generate revenue, isn’t doing everything possible to generate a payroll that can be successful over the long term. … Revenue isn’t the only ingredient in winning championships by far. But if you don’t have very strong revenues you can only compete periodically. It’s common sense.”

More and more teams need to be more effective in getting this type of messaging out in their marketplace.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at

Managing up is at its very essence a communication strategy and practice for keeping your “boss” informed. The challenge is determining the content (what the boss should know) and the frequency (how often you should be communicating).

From my previous experience at the NBA, I can tell you this is a learned behavior. Frequency was easy. After each team visit, I filed a summary of my visit complete with identifying problems, assessing the situation and making recommendations. That report went to the senior vice president of my department (team marketing and business operations), the deputy commissioner and the commissioner. We also operated under a rule that was underscored to each of us on several occasions by Commissioner David Stern: No surprises. That meant, no matter how bad the news was or how it positioned anyone involved in the process, he did not want to be surprised in the future or be at a disadvantage because information had not been shared with him. Thus, the content in my given situation was all-inclusive.

But being all-inclusive and being too frequent is not always the desired practice. The size of the organization, the number of direct reports, seasonality and content are all situational factors that vary. Another issue is remaining informational and not self-promotional. Some employees view this as an opportunity to inform management of what they have been doing and their interpretation of the importance of those activities. Like anything else, a small dose is fine, but continuing to draw attention to yourself (if not supported by other sources) can position you negatively in the eyes of management.

To gather some insight on managing up, I reached out to some industry contacts at various levels in their respective organizations and asked them to share their thoughts. The level of the executive is a key determinant of the process.

Use data, present solutions,
and no surprises

Assess the communication style of your manager. Don’t be afraid to ask what they prefer in terms of communication style and frequency.

When in doubt, over-communicate. Your manager can always tell you to if it’s too much.

Use data to support your communication. We live in a data-driven, decision-making environment.

Rely on the facts and content of your messages to position you favorably with management, but don’t overly self-promote.

Share bad news as well as good news. If you are identifying and presenting problems, identify possible solutions and alternatives. Present yourself as having the ability to be a problem solver and critical thinker.

Understand that time is precious. Therefore, having time to plan, prepare or react can be critical, so communicate in a timely manner at all times.

Your manager should never be surprised if the information to prevent that surprise is available to you.

Eric Woolworth, president of business operations of the Miami Heat, explains that he is in a situation where ownership has hired the best people and is confident in their abilities, so there is a different level of reporting expected. However, he stresses that frequency of communication is not as important as the subject matter. “We always want to be sure we are on the same page with our ownership,” he said.

Leigh Castergine, vice president of ticket sales and service for the New York Mets, said, “The key to managing up is understanding how your manager operates — i.e., when do they open [or] read email; do they like to be ‘dropped in on,’ or do they prefer formal, scheduled meetings. After understanding their style, it is all about being efficient. Have your ducks in a row, present the information in a simple, clearly understood manner, and anticipate any questions that they might have regarding the information you have presented.”

Jeff Ianello, senior vice president of sales and service for the Phoenix Suns, defines managing up as “the art and science of proactively communicating pertinent information and data on a frequent and consistent basis.”

“One must understand what is important to the company as well as initiatives that are important to his or her respective manager, then provide that information — supported by data — before it is asked for,” Ianello said. “My goal is to minimize the amount of times I have to be asked to provide information. Thus, the more I am asked for information is indicative that I am not managing up very well, so I prefer to be proactive in providing information, as I have never been told I am providing too much information.”

Tracie Hitz, a career development consultant who previously worked in athletics at Northwestern University, said, “The idea of managing up is to make that person to whom you are reporting look good. This is accomplished by working closely together, sharing ideas, not being afraid to fail, and sharing both the credit and the fault.”

Jim Popovich, director of season-ticket service and retention for the Pittsburgh Pirates, makes the point that many young managers are afraid to make mistakes in managing up, and some avoid attempting to communicate because of that fear.

As we learn more and more about our work environment and the people who inhabit that environment, we will no doubt learn more and better ways to manage, whether it be up, down or across. Dave Gray, in his book “The Connected Company,” reminds us that a business is not a machine, as it was first viewed by Frederick Taylor, the “father of scientific management,” but rather an organism that grows and is capable of learning.

Let us all continue to grow, learn and improve our communication skills in and out of the workplace.

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.