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Volume 22 No. 8

Opinion

The biggest sports business story over the holiday was the continued chaos surrounding the once-proud Washington Redskins and the shocking termination of President of Business Operations Brian Lafemina and his leadership team.

 

In June, I applauded Redskins owner Dan Snyder for making such a smart hire in landing the former NFL executive. Lafemina is well-respected, with a strong ticketing background, and he is familiar with the inner workings of a league/team dynamic. Many believed he was the right person to change the business performance and negativity around the organization.

 

Lafemina worked quickly to build his team — hiring Steve Ziff from the Jacksonville Jaguars as CMO in June and Todd Kline from the Miami Dolphins as chief commercial officer in August. The organizational turnaround was never going to be quick or easy; it required a slow, methodical grind. Lafemina and his group were doing the right things — being transparent with an angry fan base while trying to change the longtime disrespect of people’s time and wallets. He aimed to be more honest and fan friendly and to repair the team’s dreadful relationships with local leaders. But the ever-impatient Snyder obviously lost trust and faith in this group after just eight months, which is shocking considering how long and hard Snyder worked to convince Lafemina to leave the league office.

 

Few know exactly what led to the swift terminations, but it’s hard to believe the business leaders had a litany of screw-ups in only eight months. Reports out of Washington suggested that the team’s signing of controversial linebacker Reuben Foster after a second domestic violence arrest caused a rift between the business side, which didn’t approve of the signing, and football operations, led by the woeful Bruce Allen. Then there was Snyder’s frustration with attendance, which our research shows is down more than 20 percent since 2016.

 

The environment around the organization and FedEx Field is toxic — the team has not made the playoffs since the 2015 season and hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2005 season; attendance, local TV ratings and team revenue have plummeted. 

 

But this is not on Lafemina. It falls on Snyder and his lieutenant, Allen.

 

Lafemina spent 22 years at Madison Square Garden and eight years at the NFL, so he knows how to operate in difficult environments. I know he talked to plenty of people before agreeing to join the Redskins. I’m sure many of his friends offered the same advice I would have if he asked me — beware of the politics and an incumbent who obviously has Snyder’s ear and attention. I don’t know what talented business executive will work for Snyder now after witnessing the treatment of this well-regarded group. Maybe Allen takes over the business side, which would only further erode the brand. 

 

This is clearly the low point for the Redskins and the weeks over the holiday showed how far this once gold-standard franchise has fallen.

 

The dysfunction was the subject of a bruising feature in the New York Times, which ran the headline “The Redskins Aren’t Very Good On The Field. Off It, They’re Even Worse.” The local Washington Post, which chronicles the team as closely as it does government, had numerous features lamenting the state of its hallmark sports team. Columnist Jerry Brewer wrote, “it takes more than losing to sink so low.” This is “what happens when a franchise loses while displaying little integrity and having absolutely no feel for what its fan base wants. This is what happens when an organization has no trustworthy face of the franchise.” Longtime Post columnist and D.C.-area native Tom Boswell wrote, “The shrinkage of the fan base has become shocking.” A featured piece on the final weekend of the NFL season by Liz Clarke, Les Carpenter and Mark Maske wrote Snyder has “(driven) away one of the more loyal fan bases in professional sports.”

 

It’s really sad. It’s especially sad to see a franchise that means so much to so many stand for so little that’s right. No, Snyder is unlikely to change his approach, and yes, winning is a way out for the franchise. But winning can’t mask all of the Machiavellian flaws of this organization. Neither Snyder nor Allen have enough local capital or allies to wave the flag for them. The apathy, anger and distrust of the fan base is at an all-time high, all while the organization is seeking public assistance for a new stadium. Lafemina, Ziff and Kline will hopefully be fine and likely end up in key business roles at other organizations. It’s a shame they weren’t given time to change the culture and fortunes at the Redskins. I’d be surprised if anyone is successful as long as the current ownership and leadership remains.

 

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

This time of year always makes me nostalgic about things that have happened and disappointed in things that didn’t happen, yet optimistic about things that could happen. This list would be a great start to my vision of what 2019 could be.

That the CFP watches “The Greatest Showman” and understands Barnum’s genius when it comes to using curiosity and skepticism to attract attention and interest. EXPAND and let the football field answer the skeptics and reward the curious with how UCF actually competed against Alabama and why a two-loss Georgia team really deserved to be in the final mix. 

A healthy recovery and long life for Urban Meyer the person, not Urban Meyer the coach, beginning with a restful 2019 without any issues of self-inflicted pressures. 

I have grown weary of Paul Finebaum’s incessant and unrelenting defense of the SEC. Spend a glorious football Saturday out of the SEC. Notre Dame vs. Michigan, Oklahoma vs. Texas, and a host of other possibilities come to mind as possibilities to expand Mr. Finebaum’s world view as it relates to non-SEC football.

A fan base for the Chargers worthy of the team and the start of a great intercity rivalry. The Chargers are a very interesting business story. They have struggled to fill the StubHub Center despite being a high-performing team, and as they begin selling their seat licenses for the new venue, they appear to be a bargain hunter’s dream. I would like to see them become a viable tenant with an avid fan base prior to moving into the L.A. Mega Stadium with their landlord, the Rams.

Another March Madness miracle and story like Sister Jean and Loyola. Unlike the CFP, David is always welcome to play with Goliath in basketball. In fact, David is welcomed by everyone except when he “busts your bracket.” The David factor is a key ingredient in the continued existence of the NCAA. Without it, it would be a power five-only basketball tournament, and where’s the fun in that?

A great outcome for the Fox RSNs that keeps them viable and accessible. Being a regular viewer of both my Florida options, I am hoping that a realistic alternative is found to keep this programming affordable and available. Amazon, Netflix and a variety of non-traditional broadcast options are the basis of speculation, but what about an RSN owned by multiple teams working together to produce content, sell space and share revenue? It isn’t that farfetched.

More movies like “Green Book” that explain our history while at the same time offering hope for healing and our future. As I focus on sport and entertainment, I wanted to share what I feel is a great story with Oscar-caliber performances that leaves the audience feeling positive and even uplifted in this current partisan, divisive climate.

The Cleveland Indians adopting the nickname Tribe — a name not rooted solely in Native American culture — but in fact dating back to biblical times. In pop culture terminology we discuss the importance of everyone finding his or her own tribe and in Cleveland this could be the outcome. Obviously I would eliminate the Wahoo logo, but with all of the creativity in the world today and evident in MiLB logos, we can do better. And since it is my list, maybe such activity could influence that team in the nation’s capital with the most offensive nickname.

A realistic educational training policy aimed at reducing violence against women (and violence in general) and a disciplinary policy that not only makes sense but also is a real deterrent. The NFL has the opportunity here to make a real statement, one that could make us feel better in lieu of the way the Ray Rice situation was handled and even more recently the signing of Reuben Foster. The punishment needs to fit the crime, no matter how talented the offender might be on the field.

Continued growth and acceptance of esports or competitive gaming as a viable activity at the collegiate and professional levels. The Big East has partnered with Riot Games for a Big East League of Legends Championship, a move that will be repeated by other college conferences throughout the U.S. Academic programs are growing as are club and intramural offerings. Can varsity competition by scholarship athletes (currently in existence and growing) playing for national championships be far behind? As student athletic fees are an essential part of athletic department budgets, this would seem to be the natural evolution. The only impediment would be amateurism, certification and governance. This will become a major story in 2019 and beyond.

The rise of recreational betting will be coming to a venue near you. By recreational betting I mean the type of betting by individuals without research just betting on something they find interesting and something that makes them more interested in the game they are watching/attending. For example, going to an Oklahoma City Thunder game and betting Russ will get a triple-double or that he will score the first basket, or the number of minutes before the first assist. Granted, these particular bets could be researched, but then there is the person who will bet on the Celtics because he or she is Irish. I think this type of betting is going to be much larger than expected and I sincerely hope that like state lotteries we can find a way to allocate some of the funds for the common good. 

Books: “The Attention Merchants,” “Everybody Lies” and “Selling the Hug Your Customers Way” are insightful reads that can have an immediate impact on the strategic planning and business initiatives of any business organization. Hoping everyone has read or plans to read them. I know my students in the Vinik program at USF will be reading them this year.

Here’s hoping that 2019 is a banner year for people everywhere and that it brings us closer together.

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.