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Volume 22 No. 15

Opinion

left this year’s Super Bowl feeling positive about the NFL.

 

■ The league has a compelling narrative around its forthcoming 100th season.

 

■ Super Bowl host city Atlanta was extremely gracious and successful.

 

■ The community and social activism of both the players and the league is admirable.

 

■ Some insiders actually believe the next round of labor negotiations could be much more amicable than first thought.

 

■ A new CBA would lead into the next round of media talks, which are poised to bring the league huge increases.

 

■ And while many are understandably tired of them, the New England Patriots offer a fascinating story of sustained greatness.

 

In addition to these feel-good stories, I continue to focus on the current and future leadership of the NFL, starting with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

 

Goodell’s public profile and PR strategy remains an issue. If there was one topic that dominated Super Bowl week among team executives and league partners, it was the way Goodell responded to the controversial aftermath of the NFC Championship game. Most of the people I spoke with felt the messaging from the league office on the officiating was too reactive and late. People wanted to see Goodell publicly address the controversy immediately and not let the issue dominate conversations before Super Bowl LIII.

 

For years, Goodell’s playbook as the public face of the league was to take criticism and the tough questions for ownership. But this season, the league shifted its communications strategy and lowered Goodell’s public profile. The shift seemed to work. The league bounced back on several levels this year, Goodell had fewer reasons to address the media, and many believed that helped avoid any public missteps.

 

The problem is that this strategy rubs both ways. Unfortunately, Goodell was not in top form during his annual address in Atlanta, coming across as stiff and scripted as I can remember. His performance showed someone out of practice with taking questions in public. I’m sure some owners were fine with this, especially given that the questions were dominated by on-field issues rather than the off-the-field domestic violence and health concerns that have dogged the league for years.

 

After 12 years as commissioner, Goodell’s public persona still surprises me. He excels in certain settings. I’ve watched videos of Goodell surprising fans at bars with unannounced visits, where he pays for meals and shows an easygoing personality that endears people to him. The morning of Super Bowl Sunday, I watched him walk along Peachtree Street in Atlanta with a small group, going unnoticed before greeting a fan who acknowledged him with an easy smile and pat on the back. Compare that relaxed Roger Goodell with the one from his media avails. I hear the negative reaction toward him and it reinforces the vast disconnect he has with NFL fans that unfortunately seems irreparable.

 

Goodell’s contract is scheduled to go through the 2023 season. He has acknowledged that this will be his last deal, with his focus on a new CBA and media deals. But there is no clear succession plan at the NFL, one not nearly as defined as the successful passing of the torch from David Stern to Adam Silver or Bud Selig to Rob Manfred.

 

The biggest question is if owners look inward or go outside 345 Park Ave. If it’s inside, one person comes up in every conversation I have: chief media and business officer Brian Rolapp, who is well-regarded for his deep intellect, presence and speaking ability. Rolapp has significant support among ownership but he’s also known as a tough negotiator, which has likely ruffled some feathers. Other internal names mentioned are Chief Operating Officer Maryann Turcke, who is relatively new but getting good marks, and Chris Halpin, who is lauded for his skills as chief strategy and growth officer. Any internal candidate will need to display a delicate balance between showing interest in the job without actively campaigning for it.

 

The outside name I’ve heard more than once, in all seriousness, is Condoleezza Rice. She knows football and how to manage outsized egos and she would bring needed diversity to the top level of sports. But she’s a risk for owners, who could face major repercussions if they resist her. Another name worth considering could be longtime NFL executive and our Champion profiled in this issue, Kevin Warren. Finally, some expect owners to look to Silicon Valley, and there is  a school of thought the job should be split, with a top executive focused on a long-term strategic vision and a CEO who runs the business.

 

The NFL had a nice year. But these are complicated and difficult decisions that the league will face in the future.

 

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

Believe it or not, the inspiration for this latest column came from a trip to the grocery store. My shopping list took me to the cereal aisle, and I thought about buying some Cheerios for a change of pace. I was astounded to find that there are more than a dozen types of Cheerios. My astonishment continued as I decided to surprise my wife with one of her favorites — peanut M&M’s. Imagine my surprise when I also learned that selection was also now a choice with three types of peanut M&M’s (including peanut butter) and nine overall varieties of M&M’s. I thought about this for a while and made the following observations:

Successful brands continue to evolve hoping to both retain and expand market share. Tastes change not only in food, but also in cars, music and movies, and obviously in the types of experiences we seek out. A restaurant we preferred as teenagers might not have been the preferred choice in our thirties and beyond. As “tastes” change, so must the experience: What is offered, how it is offered and even why it is offered. Apple brought us the Mac but has continued to evolve in providing us iPods, iTunes and a variety of other products and services. Suites have evolved into loge boxes and a variety of smaller exclusive seating options with customized benefits. The New York Yankees have their premier seating — the Legends Suite — but also are replacing bleacher seats with spaces to provide for a higher level of social interaction.

In our customized world with almost instant access, we not only want to have it our way, we are willing to go elsewhere if our demands and preferences aren’t met. Sports organizations must become better listeners and more attuned to shifting behaviors and interests. A family night can no longer be simply four tickets, four hot dogs and four beverages. The Aspire Group encourages its clients to create the Modern Family Plan — a tribute to the family diversity portrayed in the TV show — while acknowledging a single-parent family is just that: a family, and that other families might have more than two children. This plan has a price per person and starts at two people and moves on from there. Four just doesn’t fit in 2019.

The experience has become the differentiation point for many consumers. While at Citi Field for a Mets game last season, I made a visit to the Coca-Cola Porch. I saw a very desirable target market — 18- to 25-year-olds — playing cornhole, petting dogs, sitting in comfortable porch-type furniture, playing video games and also watching portions of the game. Some were very engaged in the game while others had a passing interest if any. The common denominator was people engaged with each other having fun at a baseball game, and who doesn’t want to repeat an experience where they had fun and enjoyed themselves? 

The late Bill Veeck once said if he depended upon people who were baseball fans to make a living, he might be out of business before Memorial Day. The game, while an important part, is only one part of the experience.

As leaders, your vision and your imagination must continue to grow if you are to help your organization evolve. Years ago Theodore Levitt wrote “Marketing Myopia,” a work that looked at why and how companies became obsolete. Leaders need to look at their sport, at other sports, at entertainment, at mainstream business and at pop culture to help create the depth of understanding necessary to assess where they are and where they need to be and also where they could be. The growth and success of the NBA is due in part to its visionary Team Marketing & Business Operations group, which does just what I have described: provide information to the teams and challenging them on how to use it. Is it a coincidence that the NFL just launched an expansion of its team services group based upon a similar approach?

Bigger has become better once again because bigger means more varied experiences. Mergers and growth have always been at the core of organizational evolution. Marketing agencies have expanded by purchasing boutique agencies that may have had expertise in a particular area or dominated a niche. Teams are no longer content being just teams. They want to evolve and have varied interests in a variety of markets. Fenway Partners helped pioneer this philosophy. The New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys used it to create Legends, which started a concessions company but now helps teams build and operate stadiums and seats. Most recently, Elevate used strategic alliances and partnerships among the San Francisco 49ers, HBSE (New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia 76ers), Oak View Group and Ticketmaster to provide consulting to sports and entertainment properties.

Evolving doesn’t always involve growing in size, but becoming more knowledgeable, more informed and more skilled. Evolving could mean hiring a sales trainer, using a consultant for the first time, traveling to see what someone else in your space is doing, attending a conference on a topic of interest, hiring people with nonsports backgrounds, starting a departmental book club or offering employees a sabbatical. These are not just retention tools but can be used for development and growth.

Evolving may also involve experimenting, reconfiguring duties and responsibilities, adding new positions or eliminating others.

Evolving at its core implies some type of change, and change can be very difficult because it also implies uncertainty, which varies from person to person within the organization. The uncertainty cannot be prevented, but confidence in leadership and in the direction of the organization can go a long way in the evolution. Remember, we are all explorers — setting out in the unknown for what we hope is the greater good. Don’t fear it, embrace it.

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.