Paranoia strikes deep, drives Nuchow’s sports journey
Nuchow’s story is a good one, but he has rarely talked much about it, preferring to work behind the scenes and with little fanfare. I’ve known him for nearly 20 years, though, and he recently opened up about a career path that has led him to a place that seems the opposite — both geographically and philosophically — of his childhood home in Rockland County, N.Y., which instilled in him the low-key, blue-collar values that continue to drive him in leading the powerful sports division of the Hollywood agency.
“My father is one of the great influences of my life,” Nuchow tells me as he shows me photos of his family in his office. “My dad was a film editor and started his own business at a young age. I respect that. He did what I never did and took a risk on himself. He had his company for decades but took things slow; he was very careful. He taught me about judging people’s intent. He also taught me perspective about waiting — and appreciating what I have.”
Nuchow’s upbringing remains central to his life — he beams talking of Rockland County — and despite being 2,800 miles away in Los Angeles, he maintains a connection to his hometown.
“I never thought we could have any more than I had growing up,” he says. “It wasn’t like we were wealthy or anything. We grew up in a very blue-collar, Irish-Catholic town where parents were cops and firefighters. A work ethic filled that town.”
He loved sports, and he played soccer, basketball and tennis in high school.
|Howie Nuchow’s CAA Sports office overlooks downtown Los Angeles, but he is still a Rockland County, N.Y., kid at heart.
He landed an internship going into his senior year in 1991 with the New Jersey Nets, where he met one of the most influential figures in his career: longtime executive Jon Spoelstra, who was a team consultant at the time.
“I loved the interaction with Jon, and I learned that sports could be a real profession. I was dropping him off at the airport for the last time before I returned to college and he said, ‘Stay in touch.’ So I did,” he says, laughing at his naïvete. “I’d call him on Sunday nights from college because I thought he was my buddy.”
But the phone calls worked, and the friendship led to a job offer after graduation by then team president Spoelstra to sell tickets for the Nets.
“It was the most important decision that I made in my career,” Nuchow says with conviction. “I learned that at 22, I could learn from a team that wasn’t doing well, and this experience might be better than working for my favorite team, the Knicks, because they were selling out every game and didn’t have to take something that wasn’t working and figure it out.”
Figuring it out took time, but Nuchow got through a rough start.
“I’m 22 years old, living at home and making $17,000,” he remembers. “I had no idea about the business at all. Jon was teaching us how to call on a mortgage company, and I didn’t know what they actually did. I was as green as green can be. But I was incredibly curious, and thankfully that curiosity was appealing to Jon. He taught me two things: Curious people and young people that weren’t afraid to talk to adults were important qualities to look for. Curious people want to get better.”
Nuchow sought direction and support, which was tough to find at times.
“I would ask everyone to teach me,” he recalls, “but I would realize some people didn’t want to share things, and those people would not champion you in your career. But when you found one who would, you could go a long way with a good person. Jon was constantly teaching us, giving us business books to read and giving back.”
Nuchow shared offices with other young turks, including Scott O’Neil, now CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Devils and Prudential Center; and Brett Yormark, president and CEO of Nets Sports & Entertainment and CEO of Barclays Center.
“The first year, there were 21 new salespeople, and I was 21 out of 21,” he says. “I had a territory way out in South Jersey. I would get into the office at 7 a.m. after an hour’s drive to work, make 40 phone calls to get two appointments, drive an hour for the appointments, then drive all the way back and cold call again. I couldn’t sell a thing. But I was doing the right things and asking questions. Jon could have fired me, but he kept me around because of my work ethic. He moved my territory, and the next year, I was the No. 1 salesperson.”
He learned a valuable life lesson that first year.
“You have to look at the qualities of a person and not just the numbers,” Nuchow says.
Spoelstra left the Nets in 1996, but he was instrumental in teeing up Nuchow’s next move.
“Peter Guber was starting a company in minor league sports. Jon told them, ‘This guy is ready to leave and is crazy enough to take a chance.’ Jon told me, ‘I don’t know if this is the right job for you, but you have to make a change or else people will think your innovation is gone and you’ll be stuck.’ I was 26. While I had just been named a vice president of the Nets, I was craving another challenge, so I met Peter and learned his vision.”
Once again, a personality trait — ignorance — benefited Nuchow.
“Ignorance has helped me at different parts of my life,” he says. “I didn’t know much about Peter. I didn’t realize this was one of the great businessmen in the history of Hollywood. I was walking in there at 26, saying, ‘I know everything about sports. I’ll tell him how it works.’ We hit it off and he offered me a job.”
But rooted on the East Coast, he faced his most difficult life decision.
“I had real reservations,” he says. “I had never been to L.A. in my life. I was with my girlfriend, who I had met in college, and we talked a lot about it. We decided to give it a shot, and she agreed to move out with me.
“I liked the aspect of having access to an owner and I’d be closer to the money,” he says. “I’d be building this. I would be the one talking to the mayors, doing the deals and it would move my life forward. That wouldn’t happen at the Nets. I felt we could take major league sales and marketing and change the way people thought about minor league markets.”
Howie and Gina, now his wife of 16 years, would find a home outside Los Angeles, and the business, Mandalay Sports, quickly grew under his watch, with new teams and state-of-the-art ballparks in Dayton, Ohio, and Frisco, Texas.
“We were in a transition of minor league teams becoming real businesses and not just mom-and-pop shops,” Nuchow says. “We brought new approaches. We were doing LED signage. Where typical sponsorships would be for $10,000, we were selling them for $300,000. We limited it to only seven sponsors in the ballpark. Selling that in single-A baseball was tough, so you had to hire the right salespeople and have scoreboards and ballparks that were indicative of that. We made it like a major league organization with group sales and sponsorship teams, with specialists at everything. It really started to work.”
Overseeing an organization of more than 700 people spread across the country taught him key insights into developing a culture.
“I learned a lot about people,” he tells me. “The makeup of different executives you were betting on: which ones would be successful, combinations of people who didn’t work together well, people who are super-talented but just wrong fits, people who don’t need to be micromanaged — all across the board.”
At its peak, Mandalay Sports had seven minor league teams and other businesses, with more than $100 million in assets. And with its success, it took on a higher profile.
“I was naïve enough and convinced that we were at the center of the sports world, that everybody was watching what we were doing,” Nuchow says and laughs.
But many were, and when the venerable Hollywood agency CAA began expanding into sports in 2006, a former intern of Nuchow’s reached out to him and suggested that he meet with CAA President Richard Lovett.
Prominent names were being floated to run the much-talked-about sports division, and while Nuchow was at first just an information source, he quickly became interested in what Lovett was building.
“Maybe four to five meetings in, I could see the plan,” he remembers. “A lot of people just saw a piece of paper. The lack of definitive plan was not interesting to them, where I loved it. I could really see what this could be.”
If he took the next step in his career, he knew he wasn’t doing it alone.
“I had already made calls with my friends David Rone and Mike Levine,” he says. “They thought they were just helping me navigate this, but I knew that if I did this, they had to be a part of this.”
Nuchow envisioned building on talent representation with media, sponsorship and sales divisions, and he recommended a scenario to Lovett where all three executives be brought in at the same level to create a three-member leadership team.
|Nuchow said he, Mike Levine and David Rone got past whispers that they were in over their heads at CAA Sports by getting deals done.
Offered the job, he “really struggled” with the decision.
“I loved what I was doing at Mandalay,” he says. “Peter was great to me. But it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
Much to the surprise of the sports industry, CAA named the three young executives as co-heads of CAA Sports in February 2007: Nuchow (36), Levine (35, from Van Wagner) and Rone (45, leaving Fox Sports). I recalled the industry chatter at the time that the three were strictly going to be “administrators” to the powerful group of agents, as well as whispers that the three were well over their skis. Nuchow laughed; he heard it too.
“There was a period of time where we used to joke saying the fraud police was going to come our way,” he recounts. “But we are way past that.”
How they got past it was by assimilating in a new culture and getting deals done.
“We were just trying to fit in,” he says. “The bar was set so high based on the agency’s success. Fortunately, we had somebody like Tom Condon. Tom was a big win when the agency acquired his practice in 2006 and that was some rocket fuel for us to build on. We just wanted to put points on the board and do the right things.”
“Those solidified us as leaders in property sales,” Nuchow says.
They developed a media representation group, Evolution Media Capital, and were retained by the then Pac-10 Conference in 2010 and formed the Pac-12 Networks.
“That was important,” Nuchow says. “Allen & Co. had been the dominant leader in this space, and we thought there was room for some others.”
They established CAA Consulting, led by Greg Luckman, which has now grown to include more than 200 employees.
It wasn’t just domestic, either, as Nuchow and company won the bid to become the global sales agency representing centralized rights for UEFA’s Euro Championships and formed CAA 11 in Europe.
Over the last eight years, Nuchow and Levine (Rone departed in 2011 to work as president of Time Warner Cable Sports) have built a diversified global sports group that has 17 divisions with more than 400 employees and is as big as CAA’s motion picture, music and TV divisions, which were established decades ago.
But CAA’s growth comes while private equity firm TPG increased its investment in the firm to a majority position in October. Like all companies held by private equity, questions of the exit plan persist, and I tell Nuchow the main question I get is how long before TPG sells CAA.
“We only talk about growth right now. People can speculate on any number of the options, but for right now, it’s truly been nothing but growth talk,” he says. “We have capital to invest and smart strategic thinkers who can help on strategy and can expand our network.”
As CAA Sports has grown, the greatest challenge has been developing an organizational culture. It’s something that Nuchow and Levine have worked closely on, following their gut on the qualities they are seeking in colleagues.
“People who aren’t worried about titles,” Nuchow says. “We have no titles. It’s not about getting credit for things you are paid to do. It is doing things for the greater good. You have to want to work in a team environment and to do it more than just say it. If you don’t want to help your colleague, it won’t work. You have to be willing to serve each other without saying ‘What is in it for me?’ If we take care of each other, good things will happen.”
“People can’t feel entitled,” he adds. “Entitlement shows up when they start worrying about their position, worrying about title, press releases, how they’re going to be positioned. That is usually someone who says they want to be part of a team but don’t mean it.”
Even once they fit the culture, Nuchow says, it remains a work in progress.
“Certain people need different things in the job, and you have to figure out what makes everyone fit,” he says. “You have to understand what people need and want, not just out of business, but in life. We talk about succeeding at CAA, but succeeding and being happy in life and being good parents. It is our job to try to provide an environment that hits on all those things.”
In taking a page from his father, Nuchow looks closely at individual intent.
“People make mistakes all the time, but you have to look at people’s intentions,” he says. “If they are focused on helping us grow and being great colleagues, everything will be fine. When the intention is wrong, that can be dangerous in your company. Given a period of time, people will show you who they are. You just have to give it some time.”
Time is something Nuchow is known to take. Anyone close to him speaks of his deliberate, cautious style, which colleagues note with appreciative frustration.
He doesn’t back down from it.
“I need to make sure I’ve thought through every part of a plan,” he says. “If we are going to buy a company, I need to meet with them seven times to make sure what they say the seventh time matches what they said the first time. If there are inconsistencies, it raises flags, and I have to understand why. It can drive my partners crazy, because there is nothing that I consider a little thing. Everything means something.”
He admits his deliberate style may have worked against him.
“It has cost us sometimes, and that’s why I like to be around big risk takers,” he says. “I’ve only been around risk takers: Jon Spoelstra, Peter Guber, Richard Lovett, Doc O’Connor and the partners here. I love to be around them.”
Nuchow’s office is filled with photos of his family — Gina, his twin 12-year-old daughters, and his 5-year-old son. There’s a classic shot of the U.S. Open, where he and his dad would sit in the second-to-last row and watch tennis. There’s a ball signed by Commissioner Adam Silver and award trophies.
But the Hollywood executive is still a Rockland County kid at heart.
“I really never thought this could be a profession,” he says. “I couldn’t believe what I had when I was 22 with the Nets. I couldn’t believe what I had when I was 28 at Mandalay, and I really can’t believe how lucky I am now. I pinch myself every day, everywhere I’ve been. My dad put that perspective in me.”
“I think I have a good work/family life,” he says slowly, thinking it through. “I miss the extra time with friends because we really have been on an eight-year sprint right now. But I won’t let family life suffer, so the most important thing is to get off the BlackBerry and iPhone. If I want to focus on family, I have to get off that.”
Preparing to leave, he nervously checks his email on his laptop, and the paranoia returns.
“Operating paranoid is about never being satisfied,” he says. “If something looks good, I’m looking for what I’m missing, and the paranoia comes in. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I’ve always had it. I have long tried to stop it. But it drives every bit of what we’re trying to do.”
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.