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Volume 22 No. 32

Opinion

Our Game Changers conference last week featured plenty of discussion on diversity hiring and career and personal growth, but there also was plenty of frank talk about the business side of women’s sports.

 

WNBA COO Ann Rodriguez started the day off with a clear, direct point to the audience — women’s sports must generate revenue and focus on growing top- and bottom-line revenue to grow the business. She called out the audience to help, saying, “We need everyone in this room. We need your support. We need your corporate support. We are not a cause.”

 

ESPN’s Carol Stiff stressed that the media company is involved in women’s sports because it’s good for its business, adding, “We are in the game and we’re going to stay in the game.”

 

Finally, WTA Tour President Micky Lawler said the global tennis organization is a revenue driver in the emerging economies around the world that want to invest in sports. She cited cultural change through sports in parts of the world like Qatar, where the WTA brought its Qatar Total Open. “Now, there are countless girls playing tennis. You didn’t see that,” she said. “China is a massive opportunity. The Chinese consumer is hungry for sports content, and there is major sponsorship revenue in China. So we are seeing these economies open up and accept women’s sports.”

 

MLS Commissioner Don Garber noted how diversity and inclusion have improved the soccer league’s business model. “We have more women on the MLS board than ever before, and it’s clearly changed the way people think, the way people talk and interact, and even the way people behave is different.” He believes such diversity of thought can help all sports “have a better bottom line.”

 

These were serious business leaders all talking about the key business issues facing women’s sports — and they offered a clear, yet familiar roadmap. Women’s sports can’t be positioned as a cause. They have to drive significant value for fans and stakeholders, and when the properties can prove that consistently through data and results, the revenue mix will be far different.

 

Two first-time speakers who really impressed:

 

CATHY LANIER: Her story, from dropping out of high school to becoming the chief of police in Washington, D.C., and now the NFL’s chief of security, had everyone buzzing. As she said, “Poverty is a motivator.” Asked about the track of her promotions, she said simply, “Every time you get promoted, there are less idiots to tell you what to do.” Finally, the number of interviews she sat through to get the NFL job: 16.

 

CLAUDE SILVER: VaynerMedia’s chief heart officer offered a strong tale of creating culture and an open, empathy-driven workplace environment. The turning point from a bratty kid to a caring leader came after a 93-day Outward Bound trip where she fully admitted she needed to “get her ass kicked.” It changed her life: “It’s where I learned to put others first.” Silver gives a calm, cool presentation of being an “emotional optimist” who sees the ROI of productive and positive cultures. “We have forgotten to be human at work and forgotten how to treat each other well,” she said. “We treat each other like robots.”

 

John Henry is greatly respected in sports circles, but the Red Sox owner remains a mystery to many and few in the business know what he’s truly like. In January, our frequent contributor Bruce Schoenfeld and I first started discussing a profile of one of the most influential and powerful figures in sports, yet one of the least known. After eight months, Bruce’s profile of Henry appears in this week’s issue. I asked Bruce what he took out of it.

 

“I started talking to people and there quickly became this disconnect between what people thought of him and those that knew him, because the people close to him told me he’s a warm, funny and interesting guy.”

 

After months of talking to sources close to Henry, the Red Sox owner agreed to have Bruce sit with him during a game at Fenway. “He is really a fascinating guy. Yes, there is the analytical side, but he is warm, anecdotal, funny and very much a real person,” Bruce said.

 

But one has to talk baseball to crack the code. “The way in is baseball,” Bruce said. “You engage with him on baseball like the way you would do so with people at a bar. He’s a math genius, but he is the same baseball fan we are.”

 

At the end of the process, Henry stood out from the number of owners Bruce has profiled for SBJ over the years. “He is not your typical owner. He may be more multifaceted than most people who own sports teams.”

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

In an attempt to better connect with the growing Hispanic population in the United States, Minor League Baseball launched the “Es Divertido Ser Un Fan” (It’s Fun to be a Fan) campaign in 2017 via a four-team trial. Encouraged by the results, the concept expanded to 33 teams located in 19 states in 2018 and the program was dubbed “Copa de la Diversion” (Fun Cup). In total, teams played more than 165 games in their new brand identities and each game featured culturally relevant game-day experiences through music, concessions, promotions, community partnerships and merchandise. Most notably, the main goal of the program was to better connect and develop a culture of fans to more closely match that of the communities’ home to the respective MiLB franchises. The program has proved to be very successful as Copa games showed an attendance growth of 12 percent versus same-date games the previous year and teams are reporting record merchandise sales.

Having spent eight years of my life in Oklahoma as a college student and marrying an Oklahoman, I have decided to profile the Oklahoma City Dodgers, whose Copa identification became Cielo Azul — Blue Sky.

During my tenure at the NBA, I was interested in ethnic marketing initiatives and engaged the services of a Hispanic marketing expert, Tom Cordova of the Córdova Marketing Group. What I remember from that interaction is the importance of having a genuine presence in the Hispanic community, asking for input and support, and being patient in terms of ROI, pursuing a strategy of long-term value.

The Oklahoma City Dodgers, under the leadership of Michael Byrnes (president) and Jenna Byrnes (SVP), followed those basic principles and created a very successful Hispanic marketing platform. The first step was formulating their brand identity and the Dodgers began by involving all members of their organization and engaging a local Latino marketing agency for thoughts and input. Three possible names and identities were then given to focus groups comprising key stakeholders in the OKC Latino community for their feedback and input. Cielo Azul was the clear winner because the group felt that it was the most inclusive and best vehicle to speak to not only Mexican Americans but the other Latino cultures living in Oklahoma City as well.

Once the name and logo had been developed, the organization hosted the OKC Hispanic Chamber After Hours Networking event to provide those attendees with an early unveil and to seek feedback regarding how to integrate an appropriate in-game experience in terms of food and beverage, music and entertainment. This was followed by a brand reveal event at Supermercados Morelos, a local grocery chain that has been a multiyear partner of the franchise, demonstrating to the local Latino community that they had ownership in this concept.

The Oklahoma City Dodgers’ rebranding to “Cielo Azul” was a carefully planned and executed marketing effort that included team, business and community stakeholders.

Byrnes and the team then hired a bilingual sales rep with roots in the local Latino community to not only focus on this initiative but to provide some familiarity for the community. Special ticket packages including F&B were created and included a $1 donation from each ticket sold to the Latino Community Development Agency. 

What came next was a combination of complete integration and immersion that I have found lacking in the efforts of professional sports franchises attempting to court the Latino market. A sample of these efforts, for all eight games played by OKC in the Copa Series, included:

Complete buy-in and support from the local Latino Chamber of Commerce.

Latino music.

Latino décor at every entrance and throughout the concourse.

Pregame and in-game PA announcements in both English and Spanish.

Multiple Spanish-speaking customer service staffers throughout the ballpark and ticket office with buttons identifying themselves as bilingual.

An impactful and relevant social media promotional campaign.

Bilingual game programs for the series with special cover illustrations featuring the Cielo Azul brand designed by a local Latino artist. 

Michael Byrnes summed up the experience by stating:

“The Es Divertido Ser Un Fan campaign created by MiLB gave us a great framework to develop our own outreach program that would have meaning in Oklahoma City. As this outreach program developed, we were able to include so many of our team members in the development of the brand identity and ballpark experience, which makes the outcome one that all of our team members can have pride in. Through the course of our dialogue with stakeholders, the element that exceeded my expectations was just how much these conversations helped us learn about our brand and its standing in our community. We also are extremely proud of how these relationships have created brand advocates for us in the community.”

It was by far the most thoroughly and strategically well-executed ethnic marketing effort I have ever witnessed. Tom Cordova, my Latino marketing expert, described it this way:

“The Oklahoma City Dodgers have won the imagination, hearts and wallets of Hispanics. Their fundamental-based approach is a lesson all leagues and teams should heed: Methodically engaging and learning from Hispanic community organizations, combined with making and funding the commitment to earn Hispanics’ business is an investment that brings an exponential return-on-investment.”

His sentiments were also echoed by one of the stakeholders, Cinthya Allen of AT&T Oklahoma, who stated:

“Being part of the OKC Dodgers’ Latino market fan-base program was an eye-opening experience to the dedication the Dodgers place on their brand and mission. The focus group discussions began with a brief history of the team and an understanding of their mission. However, it was evident that team leadership was very open to understanding and learning more about cultural connections. It was clear that they wanted to create a Latino-focused brand image that was genuine and created great inclusivity. Seeing this project come to life was amazing!”

Where does it go from here? MiLB CMO David Wright said that “in 2019 more than 70 MiLB clubs will participate in Copa and MiLB will continue to refine and take key learnings from each community to amplify the fan engagement initiative.”

It seems obvious to me that the major leagues can take a page from the minors’ playbook — as the minors develop far more than just players.

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.

When the NCAA had its first business meeting in 1906, its position on amateurism was unequivocal. Article VI of the bylaws banned the offering of financial inducements to players to enter universities and colleges because of their athletic skills. Need-based aid unrelated to sports was consistent with amateurism. Athletic scholarships, however, were a form of pay.

During the early 20th century, Americans enthusiastically embraced college sports as a form of mass commercial entertainment. As rivalries became more intense, so too did the temptation for alumni and others to funnel under-the-table payments to potential recruits. In an effort to reduce the influence of these outside donors, the NCAA decided in 1957 to openly pay athletes’ room, board, tuition and fees in return for their athletic participation.

Regardless of whether these “scholarships” stemmed the flow of under-the-table payments from fans and alumni, it is beyond dispute that such payments were blatant violations of amateurism. Walter Byers, the NCAA director at the time, later characterized these scholarships as “a nationwide money-laundering scheme” that allowed payments to athletes through the school’s financial aid office.

One can reasonably argue that paying the room, board, tuition, and other fees of big-time college athletes in return for participation in an extracurricular activity is a pretty good deal. Many students must rely on loans, part-time jobs and payments by parents, and find themselves in considerable debt after graduation. I felt privileged to have received a full athletic scholarship to play football at Notre Dame in the 1960s.

Several decades later, however, a major antitrust case, often referred to as the Regents case, transformed big-time college athletes into highly exploited wage laborers. In that case, which was settled in 1984, the University of Georgia and the University of Oklahoma argued in the U.S. Supreme Court that the NCAA had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by not allowing its members to sell their television rights to the highest bidder. The court sided with the plaintiffs, arguing that big-time college sports are businesses just like any other.

Between 1984 and the present, the major football and basketball powers have made millions of dollars by adopting the best business plan imaginable — one that combines socialism for the players with free enterprise for everyone else. Universities now sell their broadcast rights to the highest bidder while athletes continue to be paid scholarships whose value has increased very little since 1957.

The increased competition for television money forced coaches to put greater pressure on their players. Schools now schedule televised football games on evenings during the week, and athletes’ academic schedules and choice of academic major often give priority to sports over getting the best education possible. Coaches’ salaries have rocketed into the multimillion-dollar range.

About 30 years after the Regents case, a former UCLA basketball star, Ed O’Bannon, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA claiming that players were entitled to a share of the millions of dollars the NCAA earns from video games and other products that use their names, images and likenesses. In 2014, a U.S. district judge in California ruled in favor of O’Bannon and awarded the players scholarships that paid the full cost of attending college and a $5,000 stipend for every year of competition completed.

Unfortunately, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not support the district court’s proposal for $5,000 yearly stipends, arguing that cash payments not “tethered” to education violate amateurism. Although the court ruled against awarding athletes the stipends, the idea of tethering such stipends to education suggests a unique way to increase player compensation without having to address the amateurism issue.   

For instance, athletes could use yearly $5,000 stipends to pay for graduate school, law school or to complete a bachelor’s degree after eligibility expires. The stipend could also pay for vocational training and cash compensation to pay for study abroad. There are other ideas that the NCAA could adopt immediately to give athletes a pay raise. Some of these stipends could easily exceed $5,000 a year.

This idea has already been raised by attorney Jeffrey Kessler in Jenkins v. NCAA. In this class-action case, which is being tried this month in U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken’s Oakland courtroom, the plaintiffs are suing the NCAA over its capping of athletic scholarships. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that college sport was just another business, it was inevitable that athletes would someday demand a bigger share of the profits.

 

Allen Sack, professor emeritus at the University of New Haven, played on Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship football team and is a co-founder of the Drake Group.

Congratulations on the new look and format of SBJ. It’s a refreshing approach that takes your excellent publication to the next level and into a new era.

Congratulations too on the recent Diversity Leadership issue (July 30-Aug. 5, 2018), which was the most compelling edition of SBJ’s commitment to covering the crucial issues relative to diversity and inclusion.

There was, however, a noticeable and unfortunate absence: the USTA. The USTA has committed itself to and actually has been delivering on an ambitious D&I program. It would have been fitting to see their efforts recognized. They have earned it.

Again, thank you for the Diversity Leadership issue, and all the other superlative work you deliver day in and day out.

Tom Cordova
Orlando