Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 20 No. 42

Opinion

Going through my notebook as the schedule gets turned up to 11 after Labor Day:

WHY GAME CHANGERS MATTERS: A number of people reached out to me after our Game Changers conference in New York City, and their inquiry was consistent. Outside of asking about the event, they wanted to know the names and faces they should have on their hiring radar when it comes to the top female talent in sports. Around the same time, I read a blog post by PR consultant Joe Favorito, one of the few men in attendance at the conference of more than 400 attendees. He wrote how much he took away from the day, but then added, “Here was the sad part. Where were the guys? The audience — packed audience — was almost all women talking to women, and although that is very important, these were stories that men … of any age and background … should hear, think about and grow with.” I chatted with Favorito after his post, and said we have tried to make Game Changers a broad, multi-dimensional program, relevant to a diverse audience, but we haven’t fully succeeded in our efforts. More men should be at this program. First, because they are generally doing the hiring in an industry that needs far more diversity, and as Favorito alluded to, they would have learned a lot and networked with some of the brightest minds in sports business. There is a lot to like about the event: The consistent energy and networking; the messages of work ethic, self-awareness and independence. But it wasn’t all about self-improvement. There was frank talk about the state of women’s sports, the ad market (NBCUniversal’s Linda Yaccarino calling out Nielsen: “I’m not really sure how relevant Nielsen is today”); and changes in the workforce. It’s a day where people leave with stronger relationships and a greater understanding about issues and trends than perhaps any other conference we do. We need more men to experience Game Changers, and see firsthand who they should be paying attention to.

BIG SPORTS DAY FOR BIG RED: I sat in Cornell University’s first ILR Sports Leadership Summit in New York City last week, and it was interesting to see the large number of the school’s alumni who hold top positions in the sports business. The fact that two of today’s sitting commissioners — Rob Manfred (Class of 1980) and Gary Bettman (Class of ’74) — are from the same school is in itself extraordinary. A couple of notes I jotted down: After talking about how Cornell prepared both commissioners well for their careers, Manfred was asked by moderator Jeremy Schaap (Class of ’91) about what type of training at Cornell would have prepared him even better for the top job. “The most difficult part of the job is the public piece of it,” he said. “It is very difficult to handle questions and try to be responsive without creating controversy.” Manfred, who has been refreshingly open during his tenure, probably recalls casual comments he made — such as on defensive shifts or possible changes to the game — that became enormously amplified. Bettman agreed, but added, “There is no training to being in this seat.” Much of the discussion focused on labor relations and Manfred said: “A good one-third of my time is spent on labor-related matters. Unlike other parts of society, in sports, unions still have considerable strength and power.” One light moment came when Bettman was speaking at great length about parity in the NHL, rattling off stat after stat, and Schaap good-naturedly cut him off with, “OK, I get it, I get it.” Bettman laughed and responded, “That’s the problem with journalists. They only want to hear what they want to hear.” Meanwhile, Disney Consumer Products & Interactive Media Chairman Jimmy Pitaro (Class of ’91) talked about how when he was at Yahoo, he was recruited to meet with Disney CEO Bob Iger. “I spent about four hours talking to Bob,” Pitaro recalled. “And after spending four hours with him, I thought what everyone else in the world would think after spending that amount of time with him: ‘I want to work for this guy.’” Asked what makes Iger so unique, Pitaro added, “Bob is one of the most decisive people I have ever met. We can go through point by point items on my list and make decisions. He’s also incredibly thoughtful and calm, but he will make a decision right in front of you, which as a department head, I appreciate. Also, being so optimistic is key to his leadership and he also talks a lot about the importance of patience.” One other takeaway, the NBA’s fascination with esports is evident by public statements from its leaders. A few days after Commissioner Adam Silver talked about changing the viewing experience of the NBA product to mirror what Twitch does for esports in a ReCode interview, Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum (Class of ’91) echoed the sentiment, saying how much they are learning from the Twitch presentation and envisioning greater viewership interaction with more content and conversation embedded in the production. It’s obvious the NBA is closely watching — and is very impressed by — esports’ production, presentation and engagement.

TELL ME IF YOU SAW THIS COMING: The overwhelming success of Atlanta United FC is one of the strongest team business stories of the year. They’ve been a hit since they drew 55,297 in their season opener in March at the team’s temporary Bobby Dodd Stadium home, and even some logistical and execution problems in that college venue didn’t discourage fans from coming time and again. Drawing an MLS record of more than 70,000 against Orlando City at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium was further validation, as the team is on pace to set the league record for average attendance of more than 44,000 per game set by the Sounders in 2015. Everyone I speak to in Atlanta talks about the energy and diversity of the fan base, and how a United game doesn’t look like a normal Atlanta sports event. Arthur Blank and his executive team have done a lot of things right, especially the smart hire of Darren Eales, who came over from Tottenham Hotspur and has hit all the right buttons.

REMEMBERING A CHAMPION: Recently I drove to Columbia, S.C., where I spoke to a Business Principles in Sport Management class taught by Danny Morrison and Susan O’Malley. The trip had special meeting for me: Morrison is a longtime friend and someone I greatly admire, and O’Malley was president of the Washington Bullets when I got my first break in sports, working for then-General Manager John Nash in 1993. It was great to see them both, but Danny asked me a question toward the end of the discussion that stumped me: Over the years of our many conference interviews, which ones stood out? I stumbled, rattling off some names, but failing to come up with a specific person. Frustrated by my failure, I thought about it on my drive home, when it occurred to me that my favorites have always been the Champions panel at our World Congress of Sports. The legendary executives are open and honest, unencumbered by jobs, contracts or existing partnerships. That night I remembered a panel from several years ago with television executive Don Ohlmeyer, who died this month. During the panel, Ohlmeyer was his commanding best, telling stories about Howard Cosell and those breezy, boozy days of sports television. If you met him, you saw Ohlmeyer’s aura — a cool, confident and strong presence. But I’ll never forget the quiet din of a full ballroom when the rugged Ohlmeyer choked back tears when recalling the tragic terrorist attack during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Fellow panelist and audience members were silent as they locked in on Ohlmeyer as he recalled that fateful event. “We were working very hard covering the Olympics when all of a sudden a terrorist attack broke out,” he said, voice quivering. “Terrorists are murdering some of the best young people from around the world. What future is there for the rest of us? And on Sept. 11, when I saw that plane go into the tower, I flashed back to that day in Munich. So, it has never left.”

I wish I was quicker on my feet to Morrison’s astute question, because that was an interview that will stay with me forever.

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

O n the second day of the 12th annual Friendship Games, dozens of attendees from around the world boarded a yacht and set sail on the Red Sea. Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians rode banana boats together, Russians danced with Ukrainians and Lithuanians; the intermingling was contagious.

For groups of young people who would prefer to keep to their own, the confines of the boat forced an interaction, teaching them the Games’ most vital lesson: It’s difficult to hate an entire group of people once you’ve spent some quality time getting to know a few of them.

Such is the aim of the Friendship Games. Sponsored by former Atlanta Hawks co-owner Ed Peskowitz, the 12th annual installment of the Games in the scenic beach town of Eilat, Israel, brought together basketball players between the ages of 18 and 32 from eight countries.

“It was an opportunity, just by happenstance, to do something with international understanding,” said Peskowitz, who was originally asked to help create a traditional peace summit, but instead proposed an event surrounding sports.

American and Israeli professor Michael Leitner, who surveys participants before and after the tournament to gauge its effectiveness, said: “I believe, through personal observation but also data that we’ve collected, that it really changes Arabs’ and Jews’ attitudes toward each other, making it more positive, increasing trust and decreasing the perception that the other side hates them.”

While traditional “peace summits” may have trouble attracting young participants, the Friendship Games uses basketball to bring together people from conflicting countries, who otherwise would never consider boarding a boat or simply conversing with someone long considered an enemy.

Ukrainian coach Leonid Derbaba, 81, leads his team during a timeout.
Photo by: NADAV COHEN

“This is the power of sport, people from different nationalities, different religions,” games organizer Arie Rosenzweig said at the event’s closing ceremonies, which were held on the shores of the Red Sea. “We have Christians, Muslims and [Jews] in Israel … together.”

With sites sacred to three prominent religions, Israel is oftentimes at the center of international conflict. The challenge the Friendship Games organizers face each year is getting attendees to find common ground.

This year’s participants hailed from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland and Germany. Expecting a shared love of the sport to unify countries with historically rocky relationships may sound too good to be true, but for more than a decade, it has been reality.

The setup revolves around basketball, where players vary in skill level: Some play for their university teams, others play professionally in their respective countries or are looking to go pro in others. However, sport turned out to be perhaps the least important aspect of the Games.

Instead, social events were the focal point. Because while the Games essentially pit two countries at a time against each other, each evening’s social event gave the athletes no choice but to come together. Over the course of the week, participants gradually took to socializing with others instead of just sticking with their compatriots.

In a women’s game between Russia and Lithuania, the Russian head coach disagreed with a call in the game’s final minute, leading to a loud, dramatic forfeit. Still, a party in the evening erased the on-court squabbles.

Ukraine and Lithuania face off in the men’s semifinals.
Photo by: HANNAH YASHAROFF

Games organizer Eden Carmi and social events chair Ronen Tinn coordinated a variety of social activities each night following the day’s competition, all of which Carmi said differed from the previous year to entice participants to return. Dancing and drinks were the center of many of those events, whether taking place at a camel ranch, on the edge of a beach or on the yacht.

“When an Arabic song would come on, the Palestinians or Jordanians or Arabs from Jaffa [Israel] would start to dance to their music and other people would get to learn and see how their culture is,” said Marta Coelho, a member of the Israeli Jewish women’s team. “Same with the Russian songs and other cultural and traditional songs from the other countries. It’s an event that lets people … learn a bit about different cultures.”

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Attendees’ safety was also a primary concern for tournament organizers, who pay particular attention to protecting the identities of Palestinian and Jordanian players and coaches. At best, they risk social backlash at home and losing a spot on their local teams. At worst, word spreading of their involvement in the tournament could lead to others in their communities threatening players’ lives.

For that reason, all photos and videos had to be checked by a Games staff member to ensure no Palestinians or Jordanians could be identified in the background.

Aside from the basketball, the merging of a new community produced fascinating theater. Everyone involved with the tournament stayed together in the same hotel, ate every meal in the hotel restaurant and attended the social events.

A nice testament to the power of the Friendship Games — and one that didn’t exist when the event debuted in 2006 — was the Snapchat adds, Facebook friend requests and Instagram follows that littered the last couple of days. Newfound international friendships didn’t have to end there or wait an entire year for the next tournament. They carry on even now, as the tournament directors, coaches and players continue to upload photos of their fun times online.

Athletes participate in a team building obstacle course during the opening ceremonies.
Photo by: NADAV COHEN

“Basketball athletes from different countries, different religions and different cultures … played together, exchanged thoughts, discovered new perspectives and beliefs, made new friends, and joined together to assemble a worldwide humongous loving family,” Mohamad Mawassi, a member of the Israeli Arab men’s team, wrote in a Facebook post following the tournament’s closing ceremonies. “Shout out for all my European, American, Jordanian, Palestinian, & Israeli brothers and sisters for making this tournament one of the best adventurous journeys in my life which I hope will be ongoing with many years to come.”

The Friendship Games won’t — just as it previously hasn’t — suddenly solve conflict in the Middle East. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t create lasting friendships, or make a small difference in a greater cause.

“The purpose of this tournament is to connect people and to show everybody that we are all humans,” said Amir Kahana, the Israeli Jewish women’s team coach. “We are born, we die, we live a few years on this planet; love. We fight on the court, the game is finished; love. And this is what the tournament is all about.”

The event’s organizers sponsored student coverage of the Friendship Games. Editorial control of the coverage and content remained with the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Alex Flum is scheduled to graduate from Merrill College in 2018 and Hannah Yasharoff in 2019.