The Larry Nassar story has been one of the most disturbing, yet important, sports business stories of 2018, and the ramifications from it will affect the business for years to come.
I’ve been thinking about what we could have done differently and better in our coverage of the former Michigan State University doctor and his role at USA Gymnastics. Nassar pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first-degree sexual assault conduct with minors, and was recently sentenced to a maximum of 175 years. While the Indianapolis Star published a lengthy investigation in 2016 into USA Gymnastics’ handling of sexual abuse issues, this story went on for too long without being covered by the mainstream media. I wish we covered it more closely at SportsBusiness Journal and I wish I had better intuition into how big the scandal really was.
When the story first broke in August 2016, around the Rio Games, we covered it in SportsBusiness Daily, but didn’t put resources against it. I had seen instances like this — USA Swimming had similar issues — but it didn’t dramatically impact its business. Even into 2017, the controversy around USA Gymnastics didn’t have business implications — no major sponsors dropped their affiliation and no media partners changed course. I mistakenly thought this was not a business story. We reported former CEO Steve Penny’s resignation in March 2017, and I sensed the story would end there. There was no comment from corporate partners that they were dropping USA Gymnastics or indications of other business fallout. Only Pennsylvania-based International Gymnastics Camp ended its deal with USA Gymnastics a week before Penny’s departure, becoming the first to cut ties amid the scandal.
It wasn’t until late 2017 that I saw the story becoming more prominent. But we still didn’t put enough resources on the story to effect change — we were too far behind. Kudos to the news organizations that did, including the Indy Star, Orange County Register and ESPN’s “Outside The Lines,” among others. Why didn’t it get more media coverage? In a review of the issue on SI.com by the people who did cover it, they said it was seen as a “local” story or because it was about girls and gymnastics. It was also an uncomfortable story.
In retrospect, we should have done far more. We should have done more on Penny’s tenure. We could have even taken a broader look at sexual abuse in youth sports and looked into what the USOC and governing bodies were doing to eliminate it. We could have tried harder to report on the pressure business partners or USA Gymnastic’s membership were putting on the NGB to implement a real change in culture. Certainly the #MeToo movement has amplified any mistreatment of women in such a way that media is putting extra attention on the issue and women are more empowered to talk about what’s happened in the past. But this went on for far too long without being covered; perhaps many assumed it wouldn’t get bigger than the initial reports. I know I missed this, and we didn’t recognize the scale and importance of this story as it developed. I hope I’m smarter never to make the same mistakes again.
HUNT-ING LESSONS: It was really enjoyable to facilitate a discussion with Hunt Sports Group’s Clark and Dan Hunt at the National Sports Forum in Frisco, Texas, earlier this month. The brothers, 11 years apart, deftly played off each other as they talked about lessons from their father, Lamar, their ownership philosophy and stories they are watching in the future. It was a mix of a history lesson and present-day challenges. Among lessons from their father: Be mindful of people and treat them with respect; think about the sports business through the prism of the fan and the business will be successful; take care of your stadium and it will take care of you; sports teams don’t run themselves, you have to be there to run them every day and have to be present. Dan Hunt’s advice for young people looking to get into sports business: Take a job in sales, even if you don’t like sales, because it will pay off. Finally, the best note of all: Their mother Norma, 79, has been to all 52 Super Bowls, the only woman to take in every title game. As you can imagine, it was a fun discussion.
CASE CUP COMPETITION: On a cold Sunday in Frisco, Texas, it was good to be inside and talk about golf. That’s what I did as a judge in the 12th annual National Sports Forum Case Cup Competition, as 12 graduate programs in sports management were tasked to create a marketing campaign focused on increasing millennial engagement with the PGA Tour — from event attendance to social media and viewership. Teams had 24 hours to prepare a 20-minute presentation for a panel of judges. It was a good case focusing on an issue all sports organizations are wrestling with, and the students did a fantastic job offering solutions. It’s encouraging to see the smarts and sophistication of the next generation of sports leaders.
Here’s what I noticed: Segmentation was the biggest challenge for the teams, as the 18-to-34 demo is so broad and made up of so many different lifestyles, that applying one “fix” to the 16-year age range is too simplistic, and teams struggled with varying their offerings.
It was fun to see how bold the students would go: One rebranded the PGA Tour logo, changing to a black and white chromatic look (even when they weren’t tasked with such a brazen makeover). One suggested rebuilding the PGA Tour app, as there are currently three separate apps — PGA Tour, PGA Tour Live and PGA Tour Fantasy — that could be melded into one. One team argued for an easier purchasing experience, and noted it took 11 clicks on the app before a fan could purchase a ticket for a PGA Tour event. Many suggested that the PGA Tour lighten up — from content along the lines of the irreverent European Tour’s The Awkward Reporter, to filmmaker Erik Anders Lang, who looks for offbeat, intriguing stories on Skratch TV. One suggested “Caddie Cams” while another created a gaming series with EA Sports for esports competitions before tour events to drive youth attendance.
One of my favorite ideas was to create a social media challenge, like the Ice Bucket Challenge, around the fantastic Golf Boys video a few years ago. GolfBoyz/GolfGalz could be a PGA Tour-owned viral sensation showing people having fun playing the game. Finally, many touted cross-promotional efforts with Topgolf to boost attendance and interest. The Topgolf connection is an interesting quandary for the PGA Tour. Topgolf is a social hit, and one of the most innovative elements introduced around the game in the past 20 years. Some locations see up to two-hour waits or more. But I’m told that data shows the Topgolf participant is not the traditional PGA Tour fan — serious golfers aren’t Topgolf’s customer base. The challenge will be converting Topgolf attendees — socially driven and less golf avid — to PGA Tour fans when there may be little crossover. Keep an eye on how that relationship develops.
The winner was the University of Oregon, and the four-person team offered a polished presentation that suggested a bold relationship with T-Mobile around PGA Tour Live, a deep integration around endemic golf podcasts like No Laying Up, The Clubhouse with Shane Bacon and Shack House, as well as developing a deep social content series and on-site event strategy.
Overall, all the presentations stressed making golf suitable for everyone, and one line caught my eye: “Golf needs to chill.” I’m not sure “golf needs to chill” — it’s going through a significant overhaul with progressive new leadership and dynamic young players. But it shows the uphill lie the PGA Tour faces in making the game more appealing to young people.
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.