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Volume 22 No. 32
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What do you stand for? Workers want to know

At a group dinner recently in New York City, the topic came up about what young people are looking for in organizations that they are interested in working for. The issue resonated with me, because the more I talk to executive recruiters or young people on college campuses, the more they want to know what an organization’s values are and what the company — and its leadership — stands for. All organizations and individuals must clearly define their ethos, and three recent examples in sports business reminded me of that.

THE WNBA TAKES A STAND: The WNBA’s progressive “Take A Seat, Take A Stand” promotion is the league’s most overt effort to tie itself to social causes around women’s issues. For each ticket purchased, the league will donate $5 to one of six organizations focused on empowering girls and women. A couple of factors stood out to me. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has looked for ways the WNBA can differentiate itself from a crowded environment. In addition, he realizes the league has very socially active and aware players who want the league to stand for issues they care about. Finally, the WNBA has some of the more socially active owners in sports. (See our recent profile of the ownership group of the Seattle Storm, who lobbied hard for this initiative, SBJ April 23-29.) I like how this effort is tied to ticket sales, which is the lifeblood of the WNBA, and it includes a ticket giveaway for young girls as a way to attract a new generation of fans. 

Another element to keep in mind: It was three years ago when Silver said at our Game Changers conference that the WNBA was not where he thought it would be after 19 years of existence. It was just a few months ago when he said he wished the league was more appealing to young women. So he sees this effort as a way to be more relevant and important to women of all ages. But this move does risk alienating moms and dads and groups who don’t want a percentage of their ticket purchase to fund organizations they may not wish to support, such as the controversial Planned Parenthood. But the leaders at the WNBA obviously felt there was more upside than downside. What’s success look like? More ticket buyers, who feel a stronger sense in the social value in supporting the WNBA, and players who sense that the league in which they play stands for causes and organizations worth backing.

THE PREDATORS’ POLITICAL ENDORSEMENT: The Nashville Predators, a team that was nominated for Sports Team of the Year at the Sports Business Awards for the effective way it has built a passionate following, have done a lot of things right. But their endorsement of Nashville Mayor David Briley in his re-election raised eyebrows and ire locally. It’s rare for a team to go public with political support or endorse a specific candidate. It comes as the team was negotiating with Mayor Briley over a new lease and obviously, Predators ownership felt comfortable with their decision. Most teams would not do this, fearing it would only turn off a segment of fans who want organizations to stick to sports. But this could be another sign that the days of being socially or politically neutral are over, and some brands and ownership groups will use the power of their sports platform to advocate specific positions or convictions.

THE EXAMPLE OF MIKE SLIVE: On May 16, we lost a friend of long-standing in former SEC Commissioner Mike Slive. Slive, a former district judge in New Hampshire, was clear about what he stood for: fairness and inclusion. He was rightly proud of the fact that the SEC made strides in getting schools off probation and also in its minority hiring, starting with Sylvester Croom, the SEC’s first African-American head football coach in 2003, at Mississippi State. The commissioner couldn’t hire, but he could set the tone for the schools, which is real leadership. 

Slive had a sweet, soulful manner and the wide, happy smile of a man who seemed to love his life. He laughed easily, remembered names and went out of his way to make people feel special. He was a tough negotiator, firm, resolute, demanding. He lacked pretense, he didn’t try to have a “style,” but tried to get to a place where everyone felt satisfied in a negotiation. I remember being in rooms with Slive where he was more interested in showing me photos of his granddaughter than in engaging in deep issues on sports business, as it showed how he prioritized what was important. 

Highly respected former SEC Commissioner Mike Slive leaves behind a legacy of leading by example.
Photo: r.d. moore

The last time I saw Slive in person was when he sat down for a great and lively interview with his longtime friend Paul Finebaum at our college conference in New York City in 2015. He opened by giving a positive update on his health, as he had been battling prostate cancer, and said to a rousing ovation, “I’m really glad to be here!” He then added, “Cancer is a competitor, like any other competitor. I’ll be damned if it’s going to get me.” Slive eventually succumbed to the dreaded, relentless disease, and Finebaum gave a heartfelt eulogy in Birmingham, Ala., on Friday, May 18.

Sitting in a hotel room in New York City two days after Slive’s memorial, I kept replaying Finebaum’s comments online, as they hit home for me. After praising Slive, he said, “That’s not to say he was perfect, but he was pretty damn close.” I also nodded when Finebaum added, “He was one of the most powerful people in sports. Yet, one of the nicest.” And I treasured how an emotional Finebaum closed with the legacy Slive leaves: “Live life to the fullest, set an example for others, display courage and care.” Well said and spot on.

I felt lucky to have known and learned from Slive, who lived his life clear about what he stood for.

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