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Volume 21 No. 13

Opinion

A couple of items from the home office as we roll into 2018:

> Get ready for a whole new digital experience across our editorial platforms. It’s our first major upgrade in years, and it will provide a more seamless, visually compelling and mobile-friendly experience. Here’s what you can expect: A clean, elegant layout and presentation, with bolder visuals and graphics. For SportsBusiness Daily and Global, our comprehensive aggregation will be enhanced by easy-to-navigate story and section pages. For SportsBusiness Journal, readers will see more dramatic treatment of stories that allows better use of visual elements, including in-depth research, stunning views of new facilities, and portraits of our profile subjects. It all adds up to a more gripping reader experience. Our conference group will be able to tell the stories of our various events in a far more effective and exciting fashion, and subscribers will be able to easily access our RG Live database and Career Link site. Bottom line: With an upgrade for both desktop and mobile readers, this will result in an enhanced experience for the business professional on the move. Look for more on this relaunch soon.

> The Olympic Winter Games begin on Feb. 9, and while I sense a lack of buzz and anticipation around the event, it’s still one of the biggest shows on earth, and we’re prepared for blanket coverage. We are sending our Olympics reporter, Ben Fischer, to South Korea, where he will be from Feb. 4 through Feb. 23 delivering on-the-ground coverage from the Pyeongchang Games for SBJ/SBD. For Ben, it’s his second Olympics, as he has covered the business side of the Olympics for us since 2015 and spent three weeks in Brazil during the Rio Games. He’ll be covering everything from the legacy of Pyeongchang and the future of the Games to who from our industry is doing what and where. How is Ben feeling about his upcoming voyage? “I don’t think there’s a more interesting place in the world for these Olympics right now,” Ben told me. “It’s a modern economy with political problems at home and abroad, and it’s got the technology infrastructure to help the Olympics take a big leap forward in the viewing experience. I can’t wait to see it in person, even though I still need to buy a better parka.” He’ll be staying at the Orient Resort Hotel near the snowboarding venue and is packing his bags entirely with smart wool, long underwear and heavy gloves — they say it’ll be the coldest Olympics in recent memory. If you’re going to be at the Games and have an interesting story to tell or just want to grab some time with Ben, don’t hesitate to shoot him an email at bfischer@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

> Finally, a little heads-up. SportsBusiness Journal will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in April. We’ll be producing a special issue looking at the stories, people and events that have shaped the last two decades of sports business. We’ll be reaching out to our readers for their memories and their predictions about the next 20 years. I know many of you have been with us for the entire ride and we’d love to hear from you, so feel free to reach out with any questions, thoughts or comments as we celebrate a company milestone.

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

Ihave always loved the NFL — even when my beloved Steelers were a laughingstock in the 1950s and ’60s. In fact, they were so bad that when the Vikings joined the NFL, they became my team and I was such a fan that I was on the fence at the start of Super Bowl IX. However, the Steel Curtain convinced me it was time to assert my hometown allegiance.

I also grew up loving books and movies that depicted groups banded together to solve problems and establish a better way of life. King Arthur, Robin Hood, anything with John Wayne, but my favorite might have been the Three Musketeers. I loved the Three Musketeers because of their central credo: All for one and one for all, a selfless approach for the common good.

As I began my career in sports business in the late 1970s and early ’80s, three people caught my attention by doing things the right way: Bill Veeck, Pete Rozelle and David Stern. All were about the good of the game, fan development and growing the game to benefit all of the teams, regardless of market size. I read “Veeck as in Wreck” and later in my career actually worked for Commissioner Stern, but it was a book about the NFL by David Harris that really shaped my early thoughts about sports business and sports marketing in particular. That book, “The League: The Rise and Decline of the NFL,” published in 1986, brought together a concept born out of the Three Musketeers credo and an intelligent approach to managing and growing a business. That concept was simply called “League Think.”

Three who did things the right way: NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, NBA Commissioner David Stern (below) and MLB team owner and executive Bill Veeck.
Photos by: GETTY IMAGES
League Think was defined in the book as Rozelle’s approach: “One of the key things that a sports league needs is unity of purpose. It needs harmony … when you have unity and harmony and can move basically as one, you can have a successful sports league.” Favorable results are a product of the degree to which each league can stabilize itself through its own competitive balance and leaguewide income potential. According to Rozelle: “When we stay together on something, we’re normally successful and we grow. When we splinter off, we’re not as successful.” The “all for one and one for all” mentality came into play when the owners of the three large-market teams — New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — agreed to share television revenue equally among ALL teams. This ensured the survival of small-market teams like the Green Bay Packers and paved the way for collaboration among all teams regardless of market size and ownership pedigree to grow the NFL into the amazing business that it has become.

Fast forward into this decade and cracks began getting wider and wider in the adherence to the League Think philosophy as individual interests and beliefs began affecting the operation of the league and the perception

of the NFL among its financial supporters, current and former players and, most importantly, the fans.

Anthem protests, player code-of-conduct issues and enforcement, player safety, declining television ratings, franchise movement, criticism by corporate partners and an anticipated decline in the number of participants actually playing football are all direct factors. Indirectly, the popularity of soccer (primarily MLS and EPL), the emergence of esports and the popularity of other professional sports such as the NBA all have had some impact upon the perception and standing of the NFL.

The Turnkey Sports Poll of sports executives taken in September 2017 and published in the Oct. 30 issue of SportsBusiness Journal would seem to bear this out: The NBA was chosen as the “hottest property for sponsors” and the NFL was No. 2, but the NBA was mentioned twice as often.


Also, a nationwide survey by Morning Consult showed that between the opening week of preseason games and Oct. 18, the percentage of fans with a “favorable view of the NFL” declined from more than 80 percent to 55 percent.

Perhaps the most damning perception of the NFL came in the SBJ/SBD Reader Survey published on Nov. 27, 2017. In that survey:

• President Trump vs. the NFL was the year’s biggest sports business story.
• More than two-thirds of the voters indicated that they would be uncomfortable with their child playing tackle football. (I would speculate that the number might be higher given Ryan Shazier’s injury in a prime-time game in December.)
• 57 percent of the voters identified the NFL as the sports property headed in the wrong direction.
• 67 percent of the voters felt that the NFL was the league most likely to miss games because of contentious negotiations in its next CBA.
• Buying a franchise in the NFL in the next five years was seen as the least wise investment among the five major sports leagues in the U.S.
• Roger Goodell was not ranked in the top-four responses when asked who was the most effective commissioner.
• Less than 4 percent of the respondents listed the NFL as offering the most family-friendly game/event experience.

Enough!!! As I wrote the above, I felt I was guilty of piling on and should be penalized. But again — I love the NFL, so here are my suggestions with regard to returning to a League Think approach.

Adopt a fans-first mentality. Ask opinions, keep fans informed — possibly forming a national fan advisory council enabling the commissioner’s office to periodically check the thermostat before making decisions. (I hereby volunteer.)

Adopt a partnership approach in communicating with the players. The NFLPA has team representatives. Why not form the PBNFL — Partnership for a Better NFL, and get player input before creating programs or making decisions.

Continue to improve diversity through hiring practices, especially in terms of decision-making and communication at all levels. Diversity of thought is critical to a healthy organization.

It really is an “all for one and one for all” approach that is needed if the NFL is to stabilize public perception and once again begin moving in the right direction. Battling on the field is one thing, but battling everywhere else usually leads people to seek a more harmonious place to spend their time.

Bill Sutton (wsutton1@usf.edu) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.

Criminals are opportunists. They like money. There’s a ton of money in college basketball. And, as evidenced by the federal criminal charges against 10 people, including four Division I NCAA men’s basketball assistant coaches and a senior executive at a major athletic apparel company, no one seems to keep a particularly close eye on that money — and pots of unsupervised money create attractive opportunities.

Allegations that individuals have corrupted a loosely controlled, highly lucrative industry that competes for and relies on the purportedly free labor of teenagers should surprise no one, least of all the people in charge of major universities. It is their responsibility to ask as an urgent matter: What can we do to prevent corruption?

Universities must make it a priority to deny criminal prosecutors the opportunity to define the answer. Prosecutors expect businesses to implement commensurate compliance controls to stop systemic corruption. That includes universities. When something bad happens, prosecutors often argue that properly designed compliance controls would have prevented the problem. In addition to bringing criminal prosecutions and asking courts to impose massive fines (and potentially jail sentences on individuals), prosecutors can require companies to hire massively expensive third-party compliance monitors to ensure the development and execution of adequate compliance controls.

It will be no surprise if the government follows that playbook here. Universities implicated in the most recent scandal will be required to commit to substantial and expensive compliance reform, on terms defined by prosecutors. All universities are well-advised to play defense: Update your compliance program now, on your own terms, before someone else requires you do it at great risk and cost.

It should be obvious that intelligent controls can mitigate risk and deter and prevent the types of corruption alleged in these cases.

Compliance reform is code for “change the way you do business.” In building an effective compliance program, and changing how business is conducted, “tone-from-the-top” is critical. University presidents not only must affirm that academics are the primary mission of universities, but back up their words with clear and decisive action. It is easy to say that alumni should not bribe students. It’s another thing to return a substantial gift from an overenthusiastic “booster”; bar people from association with the university; keep agents, promoters and other hangers-on out of the athletic complex; and report suspicious activity to law enforcement. It also makes sense to audit athletic department budgets and to oversee any contracts that shoe companies or other suppliers make with teams and their coaches. Those contracts should be subject to competitive bidding, not the whims of coaches. In addition, visits with recruits and their parents need to be chaperoned by university officials outside the athletic department who report directly to the president. It is much harder to offer or accept a bribe or other improper inducement when there is someone else in the room.

The current scandal will raise legitimate questions about whether student athletes should be paid. Those are serious discussions that will take time to play out. There are good reasons why student athletes — many from modest backgrounds and many of whom will predictably never get a college degree — should receive a stipend that allows them to live within a reasonable student budget. The sad background to “Sneakergate” is not how much money these kids received, but how little, given the kind of revenue they generate not just for the university but also for coaches, who are generally the highest paid university and public employee in their states. But, in the meantime, university presidents need to recognize the chaos swirling around their programs, and take decisive action to exercise control and ensure that their institutions are run with the highest integrity. They may win fewer games and collect fewer donations. But what price victory? If they fail to do so, college athletics will face an existential crisis.

Arthur Middlemiss is a partner at Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss.