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Volume 23 No. 28
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Michigan students put on another top-notch sports biz conference

In what is becoming a comfortable rite of fall, I took in the 6th annual Michigan Sport Business Conference in Ann Arbor earlier this month. It’s one of my most enjoyable days of the year, as the day is packed with a strong list of sports business leaders, many of whom are Michigan alumni, and the students develop an engaging and informative conference. There is also an added fun tradition: a lunch where guests sit around tables and discuss the issues of the morning while scarfing down the famous sandwiches, slaw and potato salad from Zingerman’s Deli, fuel for the afternoon.

The event is co-hosted by the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and School of Kinesiology’s Sport Management Program, and I walk away impressed every year by what the students are able to produce, and this year was no different, with compelling discussions and solid networking all within the plush confines of the Ross School of Business.

It was a gray, rainy Friday, but the theater was filled with positive energy as the event kicked off with an exclusive look at the new Amazon series that follows the University of Michigan football team and coach Jim Harbaugh through the 2017 season. The Montag Group’s Sandy Montag, who pitched the idea and will serve as executive producer along with BTN Originals and Jim Jorden Productions, told students to refrain from recording or shooting images of the trailer, and the four-minute preview had students cheering, laughing and eager to see all of the eight-part series that premieres in January. The docu-series is further proof of Amazon’s interest in sports and will be watched by other properties and brands looking to tell their story.

Overall, here were my takeaways from the day:

Barstool Sports is by far the coolest brand on campuses. My colleague John Ourand told me of seeing the energy around the brand during a speaking engagement earlier this year at Villanova University, and what I witnessed at Michigan confirmed it for me. Barstool President Dave Portnoy (class of 1999) spoke, and not only was he the hit of the day in the students’ eyes, but he fielded the most questions and had the audience laughing time and again with his irreverence. He talked about reports that Barstool would soon have its popular “Pardon My Take” developed into a late night show on ESPN2. “If you told me five years ago that we would have a show on ESPN, I probably would have laughed in your face.” But when talking about the different points of view of the two companies, he said Barstool wouldn’t change its approach: “They know who they are getting in bed with.” After the panel, the line of students waiting to speak to Portnoy was the talk of the day.

Turner President David Levy closed the day with a fun one-on-one interview where he touched on a number of areas, including his desire to push his partner in Major League Baseball to offer more player access and inside the ropes content. With New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon and his son, Jeff, sitting in the front row during his interview, Levy expressed subtle frustration that MLB hasn’t been able to move beyond the stilted in-game manager interviews with any new ways to showcase players and their game-day personalities, adding “the access to players isn’t great. They don’t mic the players. Eighteen to 24-year-olds want access. … You have to change how you show the game.” He also doesn’t anticipate any NBA players kneeling for the national anthem, predicting players will show their advocacy in other ways. Staying on the NBA, he doesn’t see a time when former Laker Kobe Bryant joins his broadcast team at Turner Sports: “He wants to be behind the camera, not in front of it.” He also said “super teams” in the NBA aren’t a bad thing, “they allow strong ratings for me,” and said if the Knicks were ever good, Turner’s NBA ratings could be up 20 percent. Outside of the NBA, Levy is also bullish on the future of soccer, esports and MMA.

Palace Sports & Entertainment Vice Chair Arn Tellem sat for an interview with his longtime friend Steve Greenberg of Allen & Co., and he was frank in expressing concern over talent disparity across the NBA. “The NBA may be the most difficult sport to build a championship-level team because so much is dependent on getting a top-five pick.” He later added, “It would be better for the health of the league if the talent was more equally dispersed. I think that’s an issue.” Tellem also touted the Pistons’ move to Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit, saying, “You can’t save Detroit. You have to be Detroit. That’s what we are doing.” Esports was a dominant theme throughout the day, with Greenberg kicking off the day saying it was the space he is most closely watching in sports business, calling it “really interesting and revolutionary.” Later on a different session, Twitter’s Laura Froelich said, “We’re seeing an esports explosion. The conversation on our platform is larger than some traditional sports.” But there is still an undercurrent of concern with the amount of power and influence the publishers have in the space, and Ryan Nece of Next Play Capital expressed hesitation about the players and personalities, saying, “It’s hard to build the back stories of the men and women in esports. You don’t see a figure like LeBron.” So, esports dominates the conversation on growth and new opportunities, but there are still significant headwinds.

In a session on venture capital, Courtside Ventures Managing Partner Vasu Kulkarni predicted one major growth area: New data companies that will deliver gambling and gaming information in light of the Supreme Court hearing on the New Jersey sports betting case. He also said that his group sees between 400 and 500 pitches in a month, yet might invest in only one.

The positive energy lasted all day, but not the following evening as, while I was long gone, many attendees sat through a rain-soaked upset by archrival Michigan State in the Big House to end the weekend on a downer. But the students still should feel proud of the event they put on, and I look forward to returning next fall.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at