Dave Checketts returns to his roots
Dave Checketts is leaving the sports business. Well, for the next three years at least. The longtime sports executive, who was only 27 years old when NBA Commissioner David Stern tabbed him to be president of the Utah Jazz, is returning to his roots as a missionary for the Church of Latter-day Saints. The 62-year-old Checketts and his wife, Deb, left the United States earlier this month to take a three-year assignment as the mission president for the Mormon Church in England, a role that will see him serve as an ambassador-of-sorts to the faith throughout that country. Checketts was very reluctant to talk about the move (“It’s about one’s faith”), but he eventually opened up about why he’s excited for the opportunity. He also shared his views on the business of sports as he departs the U.S., and the best advice he’s ever received as he prepared for his three-year term. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
“In late November, Deb and I got a call from the Office of the President of the LDS Church and a member said, ‘We need you to take three years out of your life and preside over the missionary work of the church in a country. We don’t know where it will be, but it’s probably not a U.S. assignment. Can you do this?’ Deb and I thought about everything, including could we take three years and not have any income, and we said, ‘We’ll do whatever is asked of us.’ He told us that we would get an assignment in about three weeks delivered to our home.”
The Dave Checketts Timeline
Family: Wife Deb,
Education: University of Utah (B.S.); BYU (MBA)
1981-84 Bain & Co.
1984-90 President, Utah Jazz
1990-91 Vice president, international affairs, NBA
1991-94 President, New York Knicks
1994-2001 President, CEO, Madison Square Garden Corp.
2001 Founds Sports Capital Partners Worldwide, an investment service firm for teams.
2002 Acquires SportsWest, a syndicator and producer of college sports programming.
2004 Becomes an investor in and named co-chairman of CSTV. As part of the deal, CSTV acquires SportsWest Communications.
2004-13 Checketts’ SCP is owner of MLS Real Salt Lake and Rio Tinto Stadium.
2005-10 Board of directors, IMG
2005-12 Checketts’ SCP is owner of the St. Louis Blues and Scottrade Center. He sold a majority of the assets in 2012 and remainder this spring.
2011-15 Chairman and CEO, Legends Hospitality Management
2011-current Managing partner, Checketts Partners Investment Management, private equity firm focused on sports, media and entertainment investments.
2018 Relocates to London for three-year assignment as mission president for the Church of Latter-day Saints.
“We had no idea where we would go, and we were blown away with how much we’d have to do to get ready to go wherever it was. There was great anxiety; Deb thought we were going to Nigeria or the Philippines. When the actual assignment came on Dec. 21, we gathered all of our family around us and others joined by Skype, and we opened it up and it said that I’d be the mission president headquartered in London. Because I’ve spent so much time in London, we took it as a blessing. It’s one of our favorite cities in the world. This is a full-time volunteer assignment that has me overseeing the efforts of 250 volunteers at a time, who are between the ages of 18 and 25. The work is both proselytizing for the church, but also a tremendous opportunity to serve communities and hard-hit areas in need. It’s three years of devoting ourselves to develop these young people in terms of giving back and doing good.”
“The area we’re responsible for is a very significant part of England. It’s wonderful to work with these young people, who take two years out of their lives, usually during college, to do great things and give back. Their sacrifice is the impressive part of this.”
“I was a young 19-year-old missionary and most of my time was in Los Angeles. I had a mission president, and suspected that perhaps when I was ready to retire, that I might be asked to do this. But it really was a surprise even though the timing was incredible. My firm, Checketts Partners Investment Management, was working to assist Joe Tsai and his investment in the Brooklyn Nets. Our work for Joe, who became a Nets minority partner, came to an end the day before this call came. It truly was right out of the blue. It was not something we applied for or raised our hand for.”
“I am optimistic about the sports business, but I definitely see significant challenges. The Supreme Court ruling on gambling is going to create many, many opportunities for investment in businesses around that. They’re not necessarily businesses I’m interested in being in. I grew up in the generation under David Stern where any association at all with gambling in sports was heavily discouraged. That was the belief of most of the legacy owners in the NBA, and I was very steeped in that tradition as a young executive in the league. Now the atmosphere and the times have changed so much. This is going to be a gigantic revenue stream and have an enormous impact on sports, but I don’t think we’ll really know what kind of impact it will have for about 10 years. The fact that the leagues will find their way to share in this revenue is a positive, but the impact overall on the game is yet to be seen.”
“The revolution that’s coming in streaming and distribution and over-the-top networks is going to be a place where many of the big players are investing. I bought a company, Gravity Media, which is headquartered in London. It’s a television production business, and it’s a great business. The production business in the new media world is going to be significant. If your daughter is swimming for Vanderbilt, you’re going to be able to watch her swim meets because there will be a camera located in every college facility. Even the minor sports that haven’t created a lot of interest on television will be shown. It will really be a revolution in distribution.”
“We have built so many great, new stadiums, and really capitalized on the premium seats and spaces, but I’m not sure how much more there is that we can do. Technology has enhanced the live viewing experience. But, at the end of the day, what we found out about technology and the live experience is that people don’t want to be bothered. They just want to watch the game. They can see the instant replays up on the big board. They want to be at the game and engaged with the game. I don’t know how much more change or technology there is that will really enhance the live viewing experience. People want to come, they want great sight lines, they want great food and service. They want a game experience and they’re willing to pay more than any of us ever dreamed they would for that. But, I just don’t know that there’s a ton more upside. There certainly is with the real estate value of owning your own building and the surrounding development of mixed-use around the stadium. But as far as the game experience and game operations, I don’t know how much more upside there is.”
If you learn from your mistakes all your life, when you get to my age, you understand how much you don’t know.
“Sports are at a pinnacle of becoming too expensive to too many people. We’ve driven ticket prices across the board to incredible levels. And, unless somebody is a corporation or an extremely wealthy individual, they just can’t afford it. The Arthur Blank way is one we should all emulate. The fact that he said, ‘Look, I don’t want an $8 hot dog, I want a $3 hot dog. I don’t want a $10 soda, I want a $2 soda.’ He recognized that his take from food and beverage wasn’t all that significant, and he did a really good thing and is being universally acclaimed for the way he’s handled the customer experience. Here’s a guy who built one of the most successful consumer retail concepts of our time and he’s applied it to sports. He’s an owner who gets it and gets truly taking care of the customer. We’ve got to make it possible for people to come to the building and have a great experience and not feel like they’ve been held hostage or spent money they don’t have. That’s the trend I’d like to see more owners follow.”
“The best advice I ever received? I’d go back to George Steinbrenner. We were adversaries and friends when I was running MSG and MSG Network. In 1999, I had to fire my good friend, Ernie Grunfeld, the general manager of the Knicks. We then went all the way to the NBA Finals from being the eighth-place team. George sent me a letter that I have on my wall and it says, ‘Dear Dave. Sometimes being a leader is the loneliest position of all.’ And, then he wrote, ‘Much of the victory belongs to you. Sincerely, George.’ I’ve always cherished that because, especially being a CEO, it is a fairly lonely position. You feel like the board and ownership is in your corner, but you’re not sure. Even to keep your management and leadership team together is a lonely feeling, because at times they are unhappy with you, and your level of engagement and decision-making. It is a lonely job. But, if you recognize that, it’s actually a lot easier. So, I always appreciated Steinbrenner saying, ‘Look, being a leader is oftentimes a lonely job. But, the tough decisions have to be made by someone and that’s your role.’ ”
“If you learn from your mistakes all your life, when you get to my age, you understand how much you don’t know. I don’t think I understood that in my early years. I was undaunted in what I was out to accomplish. There’s a lot of good things about courage, and I had a lot of courage and a lot of confidence. My approach now is to mentor others and help them build their dreams. That’s what I get a charge out of, and find that extremely rewarding, even though sometimes I think I’m about halfway through my career. I think I’ll come back and start anew. But, I have a much better understanding of how much I don’t know and I’m more accepting of that and more open to learning than I was when I was younger.”
“I’m trying to make sure that I can devote 100 percent of my time and energy to the mission. It’s three years. There’s no way that I won’t keep track of my friends and things that are going on in the sports industry. It’s been my life since I became president and general manager of the Jazz in 1984. I’m sure I will keep up to speed on things, but I want so much for Deb and me, together, to focus on what we’re out to do, helping these young people.”