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Volume 23 No. 17
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NBA, NHL champs more similar than you may think

As the Golden State Warriors lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy earlier this month, I remembered remarks made last year by the team’s president, Rick Welts. It was May 2014, when the Warriors had won the award for SportsBusiness Journal/Daily’s Sports Team of the Year — a full year before taking home the NBA’s hardware.

“There’s only one thing that I know for sure after 45 years in this business,” Welts told the crowd of more than 800 that night. “It’s only three things that give a franchise a chance to be successful. Ownership, ownership, and ownership! And the Warriors hit the Powerball of ownership with the group that we have.”

Welts was referring to his bosses, Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, who purchased the Warriors in 2010 for what was then a record NBA price of $450 million. That comment hit me when I thought how much the Warriors and NHL Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks are similar in their organizational mission and structure and how they represent the model for today’s successful sports franchise.

Winning ways: Warriors owners Lacob and Guber with Welts (top); Blackhawks President/CEO McDonough
Photos by: GETTY IMAGES
Both ownership groups have been willing to take bold chances and rely on experienced and successful leaders in Welts and John McDonough, two of the top executives in sports, to develop a vision and implement a strategy. The vision is for a collaborative operation that aligns values and promotes respect for both the business and personnel side — a rarity in team sports. The strategy is for the organization to work together — from ticketing and sponsorship, to player personnel and coaching. The teams have a clear reporting structure and there are no silos
or agendas; all units are expected to work together and understand each other. Many organizations claim to be collaborative; very few truly are — we’ve all heard the stories of dysfunction. But the success of these two organizations offer a blueprint for future franchises.

Here’s what stands out to me with the Warriors and the Blackhawks.

Neither organization has been afraid to change direction or take risks. Remember, it hasn’t always been golden for the Warriors ownership. Lacob was booed off the home court after trading Monta Ellis, and the Warriors faced a PR mess after they surprisingly fired successful coach Mark Jackson and were hammered by Bay Area and basketball media.

But that hasn’t lowered their risk tolerance. Look at the hiring of rookie head coach Steve Kerr after Jackson didn’t “fit” into the organizational structure after his three years. Even before taking a gamble on Kerr, ownership was unafraid in 2011 to take a chance on a rookie personnel executive, bringing in Bob Myers, at that time a 36-year-old agent at Wasserman Media Group, to lead their basketball operation. They think big as it relates to major decisions, which are rooted in fostering an open, collaborative culture across departments. I asked Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins what stood out to him after the Warriors’ success this season, and he specifically noted Lacob, Guber, Welts and Kerr. “All of these men are great communicators. They understand and execute upon the concepts of teamwork, selflessness, and excellence,” he said.

When I looked at the Warriors during the playoffs, I saw Welts’ handiwork, especially in how Kerr, who worked with Welts in Phoenix, fits with his collaborative style. The son of an academic, Kerr is known for his intellect. When you add that intellect to his diverse background — player with five rings, television broadcaster, general manager, and now coach — you see he understands the art to and benefit of communication. Don’t think a coach fitting in with the rest of the organization is vitally important to success? Well, just look at the scorched earth in the wake of Tom Thibodeau’s ugly departure from the Chicago Bulls to understand how that relationship can set the tone for an entire organization and make or break success.

For the Blackhawks, the timing of Rocky Wirtz taking over ownership in 2007 was perfect. He showed an instant willingness to think big in shifting dramatically from the short-sighted vision of his father’s tenure while hiring McDonough from the Cubs and insisting on a culture change.

McDonough told me recently that when Rocky and he met in 2007 to talk about the team’s structure, “there was a common thread that there had to be collaboration, there could only be one language spoken and there couldn’t be an artificial hierarchy. The business side had to be on equal footage.”

McDonough needed his personnel side to respect, understand and work with the business side.

“From a revenue standpoint, they bring so much to the game, they have to be on an equal playing field,” McDonough said. “Your general manager and VP of business operations or your director of ticket operations and your assistant general manager all have to be in the same meetings. I need our general manager or our assistant general manager or hockey operations people to understand what a television rating point is, or understand why ticket prices are being raised, or why we have a 12-month marketing cycle. We have to build a culture of trust so our hockey operations can impart to our business people about trades that are about to be made or players we are going to be drafting — and trust that the information is not going out anywhere else.”

Culture change isn’t easy, but McDonough understands it’s about the right people, and he was helped by his longtime colleague, Jay Blunk, one of the most respected team executives in sports, who helped implement the vision.

“People always talk about changing the culture. It’s a business buzzword that sounds good: ‘We’re going to change the culture.’ But in order to change the culture you need to do some seismic things. You need to really, really understand what that means: Everybody’s on the same page, everybody’s going in the same direction. And if they’re not, you have some difficult decisions that you have to make. There has to be mutual respect.”

Success has enabled Welts and McDonough to implement their vision across departments, as staff has clearly bought in. “Rick and John really care about their people, and it shows. Their staffs always go that extra mile,” longtime sports executive Bernie Mullin told me last week.

Mullin, no stranger to challenging team operations, marveled at the way the two organizations have broken down long-standing, traditional walls, where the two sides rarely interact or there’s downright animosity.

“Ownership has given these teams the resources to succeed and ensure that they ‘win as one’ with the team side and the business side working together to maximize synergy,” he said. “That is clearly not the case at many clubs, where the team side gives the business side the Heisman [stiff-arm].”

“It has to come through ownership,” McDonough said. “A lot of teams say, ‘Our baseball people or football people would never ever interact.’ Well, our culture is the opposite.”

Winning cures all. I get it.

But it’s more than the wins. The Blackhawks and Warriors are routinely cited to me as progressive leaders driving best practices across sports in areas such as ticketing, sponsorships, and social and digital content.

In a day where leaders spend so much time on culture, accountability, transparency and collaboration, it’s good to see examples of where it leads to an organization’s success — and championship rings.

Their system works. The question remains whether more organizations have the ownership support and internal fortitude to follow the script.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.