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Volume 21 No. 2


In my end-of-year NBA awards, I honored the Brooklyn Nets for the league’s biggest turnaround but cautioned about a dip at the gate in year two. I’ll eat those words because what Mikhail Prokhorov has done to spend money around the team is one of the most fun stories in sports.

So you want players? How about Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry. Want to take a chance on a compelling coaching hire? Go get Jason Kidd. Need to spend and increase payroll? Let’s hit a league-high $101 million. Worried about the luxury tax? Get ready for an estimated $82 million tax bill, with half redistributed to other, less fortunate teams.

And how does that affect the gate? Well, since the signings, Brett Yormark’s sales team has sold $3 million in new full-season tickets and will likely go into next year with a season-ticket base capped at 13,000. So any sense of a dropoff of interest in Brooklyn seems foolish.

Meanwhile, competition with the Knicks grows stronger and the top markets in the Eastern Conference figure to be Miami, New York/Brooklyn, Chicago and, OK, Indiana. Not a bad story for the league.

> BUYING THE BUZZ?: Staying on the NBA: In our newsroom headquarters in Charlotte, a lot of buzz about the Bobcats’ plans to return as the Hornets in 2014, a name they held from the team’s inception in 1988 until it relocated in 2002. Local reaction has been positive and the move has received good press. But mixed feelings pervade this newsroom among those who are regulars for games or season-ticket holders.

A lifelong Charlottean in his 30s is excited and feels the buzz is back. Others are not so sure. One told me it reeked of desperation. A short-term solution to a long-term problem — and that’s the failure to win.

Another expressed frustration that he had to explain to his kids why their favorite team isn’t going to be the Bobcats any more. “While the vocal minority that has never spent a dime to support this franchise celebrated, I had to tell two 6-year-olds who have never known any team other than the Bobcats that their favorite team is changing its name,” he told me.

I have written before that I believe Bob Johnson was one of the most ill-suited owners that I could recall in pro sports, and naming the franchise after himself was just one of many mistakes. I sense that Michael Jordan and his top brass felt they needed something significant to change the tone around this team, and believed a $3 million to $5 million rebranding would be not just cosmetic but also cathartic for an indifferent fan base looking for a reason to believe.

But signing more players of the caliber of Al Jefferson, winning more than 40 games — which they have done once in nine years of existence — as well as benefiting from the new CBA in both team building and revenue sharing will boost fan interest and the bottom line far more than a name change.

> STANDING ‘O’ FOR GRANGER: A strong hire by the Sacramento Kings in tabbing longtime NBA TMBO executive Chris Granger as club president. In case you missed it, NBA team presidents met earlier this month at the Wynn Las Vegas and paid tribute to Granger as he prepared to leave the league office.
As our NBA beat writer John Lombardo filed on our newsroom blog, after Granger gave his final presentation, he was given a standing ovation, with Golden State Warriors President Rick Welts delivering a speech praising Granger and the “legacy” of the TMBO division. Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver also praised Granger in front of the team presidents.

> ESPN’S HIRES: While previews around the launch of Fox Sports 1 are all over the trades, this one included, ESPN successfully stole headlines with its well-timed hiring of Keith Olbermann and Nate Silver. The moves by John Skipper stood out to me on a couple of fronts: first, adding two  intelligent analysts of both sports and pop culture; second, adding star power — for however polarizing Olbermann is, he can draw for a network that probably need an  above-the-fold mainstream personality.

With Silver, ESPN gets someone who appeals to a passionate group of analytics disciples, and it keeps the network out front in presenting data-driven debate and graphics.  As FS1 is positioned as “jockularity,” ESPN is taking aim at “smart” sports fan while having fun. We’ll see what sticks.

> KUDOS TO KING: While on media, I credit Peter King for launching the new “The MMQB” site. I also admire his constant push to reinvent himself and his skill set. “I’m 56 years old and I’m trying every way I can to figure out how to not become a dinosaur,” he told us.

The new offering is a dramatic shift in layout and presentation (but please add a print function to your stories!). In addition, now a national audience will get to appreciate the work of King’s new hire, Greg Bedard. I followed Bedard’s work when he was covering the Patriots for the Boston Globe, and his weekly Wednesday game breakdowns and analysis were incredibly insightful and required reading.

> PEARCE’S MOVING STORY: I enjoyed the HBO documentary “The Crash Reel: The Fall and Rise of Snowboarder Kevin Pearce” and suggest you put it on your viewing list. At nearly 1:50, it’s roughly 20 minutes too long and it lost my attention when it drifted into head injuries across sports. In addition, I wonder whether Shaun White, his family and handlers wish he were portrayed in a better light.

But the core story of how Kevin Pearce and his family dealt with his horrific accident before the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games was at times numbing but overall courageous. After watching the film, I talked to colleague Tripp Mickle about it, and I marveled at the various forms of footage that this film had — of the accident, to the family’s heartbreaking first visit of Kevin in a Utah hospital, for example.

Tripp talked to the film’s director, Lucy Walker, and she told him they started on the filming 2 1/2 years ago and got footage from 232 places. “That might be a record in the documentary world. It was an archaeological dig,” she told Tripp.

The family’s openness to showing all the areas of Kevin’s recovery helped viewers understand the difficulties and challenges the family faced — one witnessed surgeries, sensitive family discussions over dinners and even Pearce’s visit with his mother to his psychologist. Nothing was out of bounds, and it painted a complete portrait of the family’s emotional struggles.

“There was nothing they ever didn’t want us to film. Pia [Pearce, Kevin’s mom] certainly has an attitude that with a disability you shouldn’t be quiet about it. You should be courageous enough to share it,” Walker told Tripp.
Pia Pearce’s role in this film can’t be overstated. I marveled at her strength and consistent, loving support of Kevin, while also managing the family dynamic. I hope you get a chance to check it out.

> TWO TO VIEW: Finally, “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey was fantastic as a fugitive hiding in Arkansas who befriends two young boys) and “The Way, Way Back” have been my two favorite films of the summer so far. Still watching “The Newsroom” in season two, but with a bit less enthusiasm over the story lines. If you want something different, check out Showtime’s “Ray Donovan.” Edgy and dark with fantastic acting by Liev Schreiber and a menacing Jon Voight.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at

Every August, 300,000 people come to Williamsport, Pa., to take in the Little League World Series, where admission and parking are free, concessions reasonable, and players and coaches unknown. Of course the players’ families and friends are among the thousands, and many locals make the LLWS an annual weeklong celebration, but the majority of fans are neither local nor players’ relatives. They come from far and wide. Why?

The LLWS shouldn’t be so compelling. It’s a bunch of normal 12- and 13-year-olds, many of whom won’t even make their high school baseball teams, but happened to navigate Little League’s series of district, section, state and regional championships to land in Williamsport and on ESPN. So what’s the draw for these fans? The LLWS has apparently mastered a recipe for delivering an exceptional fan experience — a purely pleasurable event that has fans leaving Williamsport happier than before they arrived.

Both of us have attended the event and even we, as casual fans, could see that there is something the LLWS could teach to college and professional team executives about creating a more consistently exceptional fan experience. The LLWS does things differently. And intentionally. It’s no accident that the people keep coming back for more. Here’s what we found:

1. Fan Hospitality (fans create fans)

What makes a baseball tournament featuring 12- and 13-year-olds so compelling?
You think you don’t have leverage over your pay-per-game ushers? At the LLWS, they’re all volunteers. They work solely for the event T-shirts, a hot dog and a Coke. And yet try to find one of these people not going out of their way to make your experience more enjoyable. Providing an OK experience is not an option. They greet you with a smile, talk to you about the teams, ask you where you’re from, and tell you about the best play they’ve seen so far that week. They are fans of this event. They are thrilled to be there. It’s written on their faces.

The secret: Find people who love the event and want to be part of it. Give them training to reinforce behaviors you want and to help them communicate their fan excitement with ticketed fans. Employ them.

2. Fan Access (real connections create fans)

At the LLWS, when you’re in line for kettle corn and lemonade, you’ll be standing behind the team from Japan or Karl Ravitch from ESPN. You can watch the teams take batting practice like they’re at your neighborhood batting cages. Such access to these 10-day celebrities is part of the charm of the LLWS. It leaves you with memories worth sharing. Top professional and collegiate athletes and coaches are undoubtedly harder to provide access to than 12-year-old ballplayers. But perhaps there are ways to deliver time-sensitive information or exclusive interview content that only attending fans will see.

The secret: Create ways for fans who attend to experience things they wouldn’t experience if they were watching on TV.

3. Fan Mobility (comfort is key to experience)

The LLWS complex is conducive to an exceptional fan experience. It’s expansive. The real appeal is that fans can freely walk the grounds when they get tired of watching baseball, or when rain delays play. There’s room to roam, and plenty to see. The flow is easy, the concessions well-spaced and uncrowded. Getting around the LLWS complex is refreshingly simple.

The secret: Make it easy for fans to stretch their legs, access a restroom and get something to eat. Let them move as freely as they move around their living room, only make the venue more interesting than their living room.

4. Fan Attractions (fan experience is made up of happenings)

The LLWS has a host of activities for fans who need a break. There are bouncy castles and bases to run for time and a cage to see how fast you can pitch. There’s even a LLWS museum to peruse. All of these outlets give fans, especially marginal ones, something enjoyable to do independent of the game. All of these attractions give fans an experience they can’t get from “SportsCenter” highlights. It’s not just about the product on the field. It’s about all that’s occurring around the complex.

The secret: The product isn’t just the game itself. The game isn’t always great, and even if it is, you can see it on TV. Make the venue appealing and interesting beyond what’s occurring on the field.

5. Fan Tradition (fans convert fans through the stories they tell)

If you’ve ever watched a LLWS game, you’ve seen the kids sliding down the steep center-field hill on cardboard boxes. If you’ve ever been to the LLWS, you’ve undoubtedly gotten swept up in the pin collection craze. The LLWS is packed with annual traditions that fans love coming back to. Traditions inspire stories that people love to share, which in turn get others to want to come and see what the buzz is about.

The secret: Give some thought to building traditions, and then let them develop and evolve on their own.

The people of LLWS have nearly perfected the art of creating an exceptional fan experience. They have the advantage of being able to charge no admission and low costs for concessions, an advantage professional and top college sports teams don’t have. But they also have the disadvantage of having a product that many sports fans would deem sub-par. These aren’t world-class athletes. Most aren’t even future world-class athletes. And yet they get fans to come to watch them each year in droves. There has to be some transferable lessons in there somewhere.

Sean O’Neil ( is CEO of One to One Leadership (, and author of “Bare Knuckle People Management.” Maureen Kelly ( is an international customer experience expert and consultant to the automotive industry.