Students shape discussion on sports business
I drove 90 miles south from Charlotte to Columbia, S.C., recently to speak to students at the University of South Carolina. The Sports and Entertainment Management classes — The Future of Sports, Entertainment and Venues; and Business Principles in Sport Management — had about 55 graduate and undergraduate students, and are taught by Susan O’Malley and Danny Morrison, respectively.
I go back a long time with both professors: O’Malley was a pioneer, as she became president of the Washington Bullets in 1991 at just 29 years old and led Abe Pollin’s Washington Sports and Entertainment group until 2007. Pollin’s relationship with my former boss, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, led to my first job in sports, as I interned for Bullets general manager John Nash, and that’s where I first met O’Malley and watched her lead the organization.
Morrison and I became acquainted when he was commissioner of the Southern Conference, and we forged a strong friendship during his eight years as president of the Carolina Panthers.
As I expected, their students were smart and our free-flowing talk covered the rise of over-the-top platforms, when/if the top tech companies will be major players for sports rights, the impact of legalized sports gambling and investments around content and data. To give you a sense of the discussion, here are a few other questions they asked and what I shared with them.
■ CAN THE PREMIER LACROSSE LEAGUE WORK? I was impressed by how current this question was, as news of the Paul Rabil/Raine Group-led startup broke only a day earlier. I wouldn’t dismiss anything the well-regarded Rabil does, as a disrupter in professional lacrosse could pay higher player salaries, offer better benefits and ramp up the game presentation. I could see this six-team summer league competing for players and appealing to media entities and investors who want to buy teams but can’t afford major league valuations. But buzz about lacrosse isn’t what it used to be; executives I respect don’t love it as a televised product; and there is concern the ticket-buying marketplace is limited.
■ ARE NASCAR’S STRUGGLES DUE TO LOSS OF STAR POWER? Of course, having Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. retire in three straight years would be akin to the NFL losing Brees, Rodgers and Brady. Those departures may not be cited enough in studying NASCAR’s struggles. But audience erosion started well before these drivers left, and many other factors have contributed to NASCAR’s current state — team and social economics, rules packages, changing car culture and season length in particular. But losing such star power hasn’t helped and can’t be overlooked.
■ WHAT DOES TIGER WINNING MEAN FOR GOLF? TV ratings, media coverage and ad rates around the game will see a significant lift and bodes well for next year. I don’t think it moves the needle on participation. Big picture, pro golf has had a good year: Woods’ amazing comeback; new, innovative leadership; true collaboration among the governing bodies; an improved schedule; and a deep bench of successful, likable players. The sport is in a good spot.
■ WILL THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF EXPAND? Many people would love to see the successful CFP grow to six or eight teams. There is a great deal of pressure on the system for a format that provides more access, especially for conference champions. While the CFP has been adamant there will be no changes until after its current 12-year deal with ESPN expires in 2025, I wonder if economic pressures on college athletics forces the decision.
■ COULD THE NFL BUY ONE OF THE NEW STARTUP FOOTBALL LEAGUES? I am sure that is one of the goals for Charlie Ebersol, the CEO of the Alliance of American Football, who has surrounded himself with a number of top-flight people connected to the NFL game. Could he establish a true NFL-style learning experience for players, coaches, trainers and officials as well as test new concepts around data and gaming? If so, that could make for an attractive option for the NFL. But I don’t see a groundswell of support from ownership, which has no problem with college football being its feeder system. The biggest question on the AAF (and XFL) is about the quality of play.
■ WHAT’S THE IOC’S STRATEGY CONSIDERING THE LACK OF CITIES BIDDING FOR THE GAMES? Go cycle-by-cycle. Get a decent outcome with the 2026 Winter Games, benefit from locking in Los Angeles in 2028 and see if the global appetite changes. The IOC has taken steps to make the bidding process less costly and more transparent. Shifting to a rotation of specific cities — L.A., London, Tokyo, Paris, Beijing, Salt Lake City and possibly one in South America or Africa — isn’t out of the question, but it seems the IOC isn’t quite there yet.
All were strong questions and made for a fun few hours. My advice to them was something more timeless: Buy personalized stationery for the handwritten notes they should be sending as they develop their future relationships in sports.
Abraham Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.