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Volume 21 No. 38

Leagues and Governing Bodies

Over multiple weekends this spring, the NCAA’s Oliver Luck traveled to the XFL’s headquarters in Stamford, Conn., to meet with Vince McMahon, the league’s founder and billionaire chairman of WWE.

 

Luck didn’t know McMahon well, so as the XFL was courting him to become its CEO and commissioner, Luck wanted to be sure he would be stepping into a serious football enterprise if he left his high-level position at the NCAA, not a repeat of the short-lived, gimmick-filled attempt the XFL tried in 2001.

 

NCAA exec Oliver Luck will be the new football head of the XFL.
Photo: AP Images

The new league, working with sports and entertainment search firm James & Co., needed an accomplished, credible football executive and it was willing to pay top dollar. Sources, including some who were approached about the job during the six-month search, said the XFL was offering a guaranteed $20 million over multiple years, a number that could grow to more than $30 million if the spring league succeeds.

 

Luck, who played five years in the NFL as a backup quarterback, studied the XFL’s most recent research and met with senior staff before he finally agreed during the last week in May to run the XFL.

 

“I love college sports, but this is a special opportunity,” said Luck, who was widely considered the NCAA’s No. 2 to President Mark Emmert and potentially the heir apparent for the top job. “I have a real passion for football, and the opportunity to collaborate with Vince is awesome. He’s a tremendous entrepreneur with a track record of success.”

 

Luck said he was drawn to the infrastructure McMahon is putting into place for the single-entity XFL, which plans to launch in early 2020 with eight teams and a 10-week regular season. When McMahon announced the XFL’s return in January, he said it would take more than $100 million to get it off the ground, and he has sold $100 million in WWE stock so far to begin funding the startup.

 

“The key ingredients in my mind are that there’s a well-capitalized launch, there’s a long-term approach and we’ve got time to put together the highest-quality coaching staffs,” Luck said. “We can take our time to identify the best marketplaces. Because of the experience Vince has and the media savvy of the WWE, we can build this right, we can build it for the long term and, most importantly, deliver great football.”

 

Three primary tasks will be front and center for Luck once he starts next month.

 

He intends to assemble a medical advisory committee so that the league is “on the cutting edge for health and safety of our players,” he said. Also, the XFL is moving ahead on selecting its eight markets, as last week the league sent out RFPs to 30 cities.

 

Luck wouldn’t say if the XFL will look at markets where Charlie Ebersol’s Alliance of American Football has already established teams. The AAF added Birmingham, Ala., last week to go with San Diego, Atlanta, Orlando, Memphis, Salt Lake City and Phoenix, giving Ebersol seven of his eight teams to start the league in February 2019.

 

“Our focus is on what we think we need to do,” Luck said.

 

Lastly, Luck said the league will begin to establish a plan for how to implement technology into digital broadcasts and fan enhancements.

 

Luck is no stranger to startups. As the first president and GM of the expansion Houston Dynamo in 2006, Luck guided the team to the MLS Cup title that inaugural season. Earlier in his career, Luck was instrumental in the start of the World League of American Football as Frankfurt’s GM in 1991 and later served as president of NFL Europe from 1996-2000.

 

More recently, Luck emerged as one of the most influential figures in college sports, first as athletic director at his alma mater, West Virginia, where he shepherded the Mountaineers into the Big 12. In December 2014, the NCAA announced that it had hired Luck as executive vice president of regulatory affairs and partnerships.

 

“Almost everything I’ve done as a player, practicing law, launching franchises overseas, NFL Europe, launching the Dynamo, all of those experiences will provide me with the background to take on what’s going to be an enormous challenge,” he said.

 

Luck said he’ll work at the NCAA through the end of the month. He will relocate to Stamford, Conn., where he’ll work from the XFL’s headquarters.

Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

 

Don’t look for any wagering kiosks in NBA arenas any time soon based on the league’s gambling guidelines that it sent to all 30 teams after the Supreme Court’s decision last month to legalize statewide sports betting.

 

According to some NBA team executives familiar with the guidelines, teams, at least initially, won’t have any such kiosks. Teams will be allowed to sell gambling-related sponsorships, but those deals must be approved by the league, and, notably, gambling must be legal in the team’s state for a team to sign any gambling-related sponsorships. The league has not yet determined whether teams can sell sponsorships to out-of-state gambling-related companies. 

 

“It has to be legal in the team’s state and we’ve tried to structure something where teams will be able to have partnerships,” said Amy Brooks, president of team marketing and business operations and chief innovation officer for the NBA, adding that the league will evaluate any potential deals to ensure that any gambling operators associated with the NBA are taking necessary precautions to protect the integrity of the league.

 

Brooks elaborated on more details that haven’t been disclosed, such as teams will not be able to offer casinos the visible jersey patch deals.

 

“What they cannot sell is assets that are closely associated with the players, such as the jersey patch,” she said. “They cannot allow fans to bet in-arena and things like that. We know this is very rapidly changing and we wanted to make sure our teams were aware of what they are able to do.”

 

SELLING SEASON: The Finals come during a key part of the NBA’s season-ticket selling efforts. Heading into the offseason, the Milwaukee Bucks are among the teams with the highest number of new full-season-ticket sales, Brooks said.

 

Other teams that rank among the top tier of new season-ticket sales include the Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans.

 

But it’s the Bucks, who this fall open their new downtown Milwaukee arena, that are particularly notable. The team has sold more than 2,100 new full-season tickets and are on track to have a full-season-ticket base of at least 10,000, which would be a first for the 50-year-old franchise.

 

The Bucks have sold all but one of their 33 suites, ranging in price from $175,000 to $350,000, and all of their 33 loft premium-seating products that range in price from $80,000 to $175,000.

 

The push in season-ticket sales comes as the team this year has an average ticket price increase of 12 percent as the Bucks move into their new arena, which is not yet officially named beyond its placeholder: Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center. 

 

“The tricky part is that we launched renewals without [season-ticket holders] having the ability to see the arena,” said Jamie Morningstar, senior vice president of ticket sales and service for the Bucks. With the arena nearly complete, the Bucks are inviting potential buyers into their new building, which is helping boost interest.

 

BRANDING BITS: With YouTube TV making a big branding splash around this year’s Finals as the NBA’s first presenting sponsor of the championship series, league executives are looking to broaden the relationship.

 

“We will continue to have conversations about what more we can do together,” said Kerry Tatlock, senior vice president of global partnerships for the NBA.

 

YouTube TV’s Finals activation included logo integration on the court and 30- and 60-second spots during the games that use real-time game footage.

 

Look for more YouTube TV NBA-related activation as the multiyear agreement also includes presenting sponsorships of the WNBA and G League finals.

 

NUMBERS GAME: How popular is Steph Curry? Youth sports organizations in the Bay Area have given up on deciding who gets to wear Curry’s No. 30 by simply getting rid of jerseys with those digits. “Every kid in the Bay Area wanted to wear No. 30, and not having a No. 30 was easier than figuring out what kid got to wear No. 30,” said Rick Welts, Warriors president and chief operating officer. “Little league after little league has made that decision.”

The NHL hands out its most important hardware in June, from the Stanley Cup to the annual awards gala that this year takes place June 20 in Las Vegas. Now the league is adding a new set of honors to that list, including Top Player Tweet and Top Player Instagram (see samples below).

It’s part of a new digital effort that the league has launched called the NHL Fan Choice Awards, curating some of the top social media posts shared by players and teams during the season and allowing fans to vote for their favorites.

League staffers helped select 40 of the most popular pieces of content shared by players and teams throughout the season and put them into 10 different categories that range from the Best Player Tweet to the Best Hockey Smile — sans teeth. Each of the league’s 31 teams are purposely represented. The NHL opened voting on the Fan Choice Awards last week and will begin to highlight the winners on their digital platforms starting June 12.

“We wanted to create something that gives more people a chance to get to know the players better and really showcase their personalities,” said David Klatt, NHL senior manager of social media programs and who helped create the awards platform. “We see what players are sharing every day across the league, and honestly, a lot of this stuff made us laugh and is really entertaining.”

The new awards also fit into the league’s enhanced effort to boost its players’ profiles on social media, aiming to both build stars and draw in more fans.

“We want to make sure we’re putting content in front of fans that they might not have seen otherwise,” said Sean Dennison, NHL director of social media.

Dennison said there is a concerted effort from the league’s social media managers to amplify both team and player usage of social media through the league’s main accounts, a message that is being passed down to the team and player level as well with encouragement to create more content.

Lady boss #Halloween

A post shared by Erik Karlsson (@erikkarlsson65) on

“Social media provides a level of access that we don’t necessarily have with our players all the time, outside of the few touchpoints that we have with them at bigger events like the Stanley Cup Final or the All-Star Game,” Dennison said. “Any time that they share content that we think is entertaining, funny, heartwarming, emotional — any feeling really — we want to do our best to distribute and amplify that as much as we can.”

Klatt noted that players and teams have already begun their public campaigns, sharing posts across their social media platforms encouraging fans to vote for them. Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, whose goldendoodle Gustl is nominated for Best Dog, has also been tweeting in an effort to win the award.

“We’ve seen a shift in the number of players who are active on social media, and we’re no longer seeing rookies entering the league who don’t have social media,” Klatt said. “We love to see when players want to have that relationship with fans, so whenever we can do something to amplify that and allow them to have fun with it, we want to do it.”

Frank Brown, longtime NHL communications executive and liaison for Commissioner Gary Bettman, is retiring from the league.

Brown, currently NHL group vice president of content integration, joined the league in 1998 after nearly three decades in print journalism. He most notably spent more than 17 years at the New York Daily News, where he served as the New York Rangers beat reporter and as the hockey columnist. Brown said his first hockey article was written for the New York Rangers’ game program in 1970, for which he was paid $50 by John Halligan, the team’s longtime public relations director.

In recent years, Brown has become a close confidant to Bettman, sitting in during his interviews, helping to craft the league’s messaging and commonly seen tailing the commissioner during press briefings at league events. During his annual state of the league address before Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final last month, Bettman poked fun at Brown’s retirement, noting their ages — Brown, 65, and Bettman, newly 66 — “Since we’re the same age roughly, I don’t understand what he’s doing,” Bettman said, as Brown stood nearby. Brown said he had discussed his career decision in recent conversations with Bettman, adding that the commissioner “was extremely gracious, as he always has been to me.”

Brown said he has no immediate plans for the next step in his career, saying that “it’s an opportunity to reset my dials a little bit.” He noted that after nearly 50 years in hockey, he’s looking forward to “finally being an attentive husband and a doting grandfather.”

“I’m lucky enough to have good enough health and good energy, so I’m excited for what may lie ahead,” Brown said. “When you have the privilege of doing any of these jobs, whether you’re a beat writer or columnist or work in communications, you’re never off duty and there is intense pressure to stay ahead of the 24-hour news cycle. It’s time for some real-life equilibrium, and a life without Twitter — but a lot more tee-ball.”

Brown’s last day at the NHL will be June 30.

With the biggest rugby event ever on American soil just five weeks away, USA Rugby is trying to pull itself out of a corporate crisis caused by the financial collapse of its for-profit subsidiary Rugby International Marketing.

In the past two months, four USA Rugby board members have resigned, leaving in charge interim chair Barbara O’Brien, who replaced former Chairman Will Chang after he stepped down two months earlier than planned on May 31. In March, RIM CEO David Sternberg resigned and USA Rugby CEO Dan Payne announced he would leave after the Rugby World Cup Sevens, set for July 20-22 at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

In an interview, O’Brien said the former leadership of both the governing body and Rugby International Marketing were slow to appreciate the scale of the problems and hid them from members.

“The members of the board knew we really needed to restart the governance of USA Rugby,” O’Brien said. “That there had been some major glitches with what everyone had hoped would be a revenue-producing venture with RIM, and it had not been handled very well, and I think we all knew we needed fresh eyes and fresh skill sets on the board.”

Chang declined to comment.

RIM’s primary failure was The Rugby Channel, an over-the-top digital property that had spent $4.2 million on startup costs with no profits in sight. RIM sold the channel to FloSports in May for an undisclosed sum, leaving RIM with an events business and its control of the U.S. national teams’ commercial rights.

The rugby governing body has taken hits with financial challenges and leadership changes.
Photo: getty images

O’Brien said much of RIM’s activities will be reclaimed by the governing body, though decisions on the exact future of that business are still forthcoming. Its minority investors include CSM Sport & Entertainment, the English Rugby Football Union and the Harlequin Football Club. A USA Rugby task force reported in May that RIM has “no ability to successfully sustain itself as a business,” according to Rugby Today.

“Part of what we’re doing is bringing a number of activities back under the umbrella of USA Rugby,” O’Brien said. “So the commercial arm that was RIM, whatever the appropriate role of a commercial division of USA Rugby is, will come in under the umbrella. Same for fundraising, the USA Rugby Trust won’t be outside the umbrella anymore.”

The USA Rugby board will be fully populated again by September, with the hope of hiring a new CEO by October, she said.

While USA Rugby did not contribute any cash in the creation of RIM — its 75 percent ownership stake came in exchange for its commercial rights — it is nevertheless heavily exposed to RIM’s failure. RIM is supposed to pay USA Rugby annual royalty fees, which amount to $1.8 million in 2018 under the original founding agreement. A payment is due this month.

O’Brien said she now believes the “worst-case scenario” will be avoided, but the governing body began cutting costs earlier this year in anticipation of a missed payment.

“I believe we’re going to be in better shape than what we feared at one point,” she said.

In addition to selling The Rugby Channel to FloSports, RIM got a temporary infusion from World Rugby, the global governing authority. World Rugby advanced cash to RIM to help it pay for the San Francisco World Cup event, which it is operating.

The loan underscores the global rugby community’s eagerness for the sport to succeed in the world’s largest sports market.

“Rugby is about partnership, and we are advancing a limited amount of funding to USA Rugby, specifically related to up-front hosting costs,” a spokesman said. “With a strong commercial and ticketing program, we are anticipating that this investment will be returned following the tournament.”

Mark Lambourne, a member of the USA Rugby Congress, a liaison between membership and the board, said RIM was hampered by bad execution, particularly in regard to the streaming site. He was on the task force that gave RIM a poor chance of surviving, and he’s now on the board. “I think it was a good idea, but there was bad timing, bad execution, a tough environment and it was under-capitalized,” Lambourne said.

Unrelated to RIM, USA Rugby faces another potential problem in the courts. On June 5, the founder of the now-defunct PRO Rugby league, Douglas Schoninger, sued USA Rugby and RIM in a Colorado court, accusing them of violating his exclusive rights to found a pro league that have since expired. Schoninger is seeking $6 million he personally spent on PRO Rugby, which lasted only one year. So far, USA Rugby has not responded to the lawsuit.

The struggles at the corporate level stand in contrast to the overall picture of the sport. Rugby participation continues to grow at a time when most major team sports are stable or declining. Major League Rugby, a professional league with close backing from USA Rugby, is on CBS Sports Network every Saturday this spring and is preparing for a second season. The World Cup Sevens event will draw global attention.

Pat Clifton, an associate editor at Rugby Today, said the sport has always been stronger at the grassroots than as a business, and a lot of rugby enthusiasts take the troubles in stride.

“If you’ve been around rugby a lot, it’s not a shock to you that good things are happening that don’t have much to do with the national governing body,” Clifton said.