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Volume 23 No. 17

Opinion

The Big Ten Conference is getting a powerfully effective leader in Kevin Warren as its next commissioner. The 55-year-old Warren, who will take over from outgoing Commissioner Jim Delany on Sept. 16, almost lost his life after being hit by a car at age 11. But he pushed himself to earn a law degree and an MBA, and become a player agent, a business owner, an administrator and, most recently, Minnesota Vikings COO. Warren’s experience is broad, but he doesn’t come from college sports. That’s not a bad thing, but it will be his learning curve.

I’m an unabashed admirer of his. I have sat with him many times and went back to study the quotes he gave to get a glimpse into what one could expect from his leadership of the Big Ten. In reading his remarks, I was struck at how similar Warren’s style and substance are to his accomplished predecessor Delany.

“I believe in the adage that you hear Navy SEALs talk about: ‘Embrace the suck.’ If you’re in the industry we’re in, and if you’re really trying to deal with tough issues and create a legacy, the majority of your life is going to be mundane, tough and demanding. You’ve got to embrace it.”

“In any hire, I look for work ethic. Can they set goals? Do they have vision? Can they think really big, but then are they willing just to crystallize it down where they embrace the suck and are they physically, mentally and emotionally tough?”

“When I went to the Vikings, I visualized a hardworking, demanding, collaborative, healthy, detail-oriented environment, and those are the people we looked for. Our group works really hard. We’re very demanding. We’re a very, very detail-oriented organization.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Few will outwork Warren, who is known to sleep little, have early morning workouts and be meticulous about details. Like Delany, he’s a demanding, level-headed leader who looks for similar attributes in his staff.

“We in the sports business need to understand that sports is bigger than sports. It has a major impact on societal issues, political issues, how people raise their children, and how people deal with race and gender issues. We forget about the power of sports. This is a powerful platform.”

“We have to start recognizing that diversity and inclusion in sports is a critical component. How do we make the staffs of these sports organizations look more like America? Women and men in sports, are they paid similar?”

WHAT IT MEANS: Another similar trait to Delany. When you look at Warren’s hiring history and the initiatives launched at the Vikings, including a women’s platform, the first NFL team LGBTQ symposium, as well as a leadership program for young people, you can see Warren will continue to use the Big Ten platform to promote inclusiveness and empowerment and create an environment where everyone can feel comfortable.

“Sports people are in their bubbles and pretty insular, and don’t get outside. We must talk to politicians, to the financial services industry, to Silicon Valley and internationally. How can sports interplay with other industries? Because it’s powerful. Sports executives need to be more leaders of community and of industry.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Warren isn’t afraid to learn from other industries and develop innovative partnerships, similar to the nontraditional approach of Delany. Expect him to continue to push the Big Ten into unique areas of business, technology, research and development.

“Leaders underestimate the power of their presence, the power of their words, and most of all, the power of their actions.”

“People want an honest opinion on where they are, and the best way to do it is to be brutally honest with people. I’m very direct.”

“Sports and entertainment are truly relationship businesses. So many people think that they can just bully their way into success. You may get to a certain point, but in the long term, people do better deals with people that they like.” 

WHAT IT MEANS: Like Delany, Warren is not showy or flashy. He is very understated. But when he speaks, there’s a powerful message delivered clearly. In Warren, Big Ten presidents and athletic directors are getting a consistent, direct individual who doesn’t speak to hear his own voice.        

Finally, I kept coming back to a comment Warren shared when reflecting on his accident, saying, “I should have died. My classmates should have been coming to a funeral for me as a young boy to say, ‘He was a nice young boy, a good athlete, a good student and was fair, but life was cut short.’ That should have been the story of Kevin Fulbright Warren. But it wasn’t.”

No, it surely wasn’t.

 

First Look podcast, with issues Abe is watching this week, at the 27:56 mark:

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

During a recent game between the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians, when a seventh-inning base hit created a brief lull in the action, the New England Sports Network went into promo mode. Color commentator Dennis Eckersley told viewers that the Connecticut Sun now called NESN home. Then he said, “Don’t miss the Sun hosting the Indiana Fever live from Mohegan Sun Arena tomorrow night at 7 on NESNplus.” As Eckersley spoke, a graphic appeared on screen and relayed the same information.

The promo lasted 11 seconds. But it was an early indication of NESN’s commitment to Sun coverage. It also provided great optics.

When the Sun share the screen with the Red Sox, even if only for a tune-in message, it raises the profile of the Sun. It signals that the WNBA product is valued and valuable. And it sends this bigger message to viewers: Just like the Red Sox, the Sun and the WNBA are worth your investment.

NESN and the Sun agreed to terms in April. This season, the network will broadcast 23 games with plenty of cross-promotion. That gives the Sun an enviable platform and an enviable association with the Red Sox. (Last summer, NESN’s Red Sox broadcasts reached more than 950,000 viewers per game throughout New England.) The same can be said about the new deal between the YES Network and the New York Liberty, and the platform created by the Yankees.

The WNBA’s COO Christin Hedgpeth calls the YES and NESN deals “feathers in our cap” that “further validate the confidence we have in our product.” It’s a diplomatic answer since all 12 of the WNBA’s teams have local or regional broadcast partners, or both. But when the most-watched regional sports network in the country (YES) and the second-most-watched (NESN) partner with WNBA teams, it carries greater significance and, potentially, greater influence. 

Networks are starting to offer more consistent WNBA coverage this season as part of longer business strategies.
Photo: nbae / getty images
Networks are starting to offer more consistent WNBA coverage this season as part of longer business strategies.
Photo: nbae / getty images
Networks are starting to offer more consistent WNBA coverage this season as part of longer business strategies.
Photo: nbae / getty images

YES and NESN could build bigger fan bases for their WNBA teams, fan bases with some of the same passion and loyalty shown their MLB teams. That’s not a knock on the WNBA’s much-ballyhooed national television deals with ESPN, CBS and NBATV. But YES and NESN have a special, more intimate relationship with their viewers. They’re a constant in the lives of those sports fans.

Being there, being part of the cultural landscape, makes a difference in sports. Potentially a big difference.    

“People are tweeting at me and at the Sun and saying, ‘I’m at a local sports bar and the Sun is on in Boston,’” said Connecticut Sun vice president Amber Cox. “That’s unbelievable. That’s just unbelievable legitimacy that it brings to our franchise and the WNBA.”

You can count Sun games in Boston bars as an early victory for the NESN deal. But its short- and long-term success, its ability to grow the women’s game, its power to put fans in seats at Mohegan Sun Arena, its influence on sponsors and advertisers depends on something more important and more fundamental than optics. It depends on how NESN and YES executives see the WNBA when no one else is watching.

“We know that the WNBA is making a big effort to grow revenues and we hope to help the Sun do that,” said Rick Jaffe, NESN’s vice president of programming and production. “We see the growth potential.”

Meanwhile, YES executives see WNBA games as an opportunity to strengthen the network’s lineup and its relationship with Liberty and Nets owner Joseph Tsai. “Mostly, it’s a business decision,” said John Filippelli, YES president of production and programming. “But we enjoy women’s basketball. It’s competitive. It’s fun. It’s energetic. It fit what we were trying to do. It takes us to a place I thought we needed to be in live programming.”

From there, the decision-making that follows naturally emphasizes the on-court product and cross-promotion.

On NESN, that’s how you get Eckersley reading a tune-in message. It’s also how you get a rebroadcast of a Sun-Fever game replacing a rained-out Red Sox-Yankees game. (According to Nielsen metrics and NESN estimates, the replay reached 120,000 viewers throughout New England). The network’s Sun coverage extends to articles and videos on the NESN website. The WNBA also appears in regular rotation on the NESN ticker.

Again, it’s a similar story with YES. Filippelli takes particular pride in the fact that the people who produce Yankees and Nets games on YES work on Liberty games, too.

Even though it’s very early for both deals, it appears that NESN and YES have a clear vision for their WNBA coverage. Equally important, the networks have committed to consistent coverage. They believe in the WNBA product. They believe if the games get good marketing, then the viewers will come. The networks are all in. No half measures. No shortcuts. And that’s another early victory for the teams and the league.

One more win: Jaffe and Filippelli said they’re not worried about ratings this season. They know it will be a slow build. Still, they’re already thinking about ways to give the WNBA more exposure in the future.

Next season, Jaffe hopes Sun players will be featured on NESN’s “My Story” program, a half-hour show that takes a deep dive into the backgrounds of Red Sox and Bruins players. Filippelli raises the possibility of a Liberty-focused magazine show down the road. It would also be nice to see pregame and postgame shows with analysis and player profiles.

But right now, the beauty of the NESN and YES deals is that fans get to sit back and consistently watch what happens.

Shira Springer (saspring@bu.edu) covers stories at the intersection of sports and society for programs on NPR and WBUR, writes a column on women’s sports for the Boston Globe and teaches journalism at Boston University.

Questions about OPED submission guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com

Athletes across the globe are increasingly using their very public voice to represent the vast number of citizens who have been otherwise silenced with fear of reprisal if they speak up about social injustices. For decades, very few athletes spoke up because of the same fear. While today’s athletes also risk their livelihood when they choose to become public activists, they are more willing to do so because they now share the platform with other athletes.

Athlete activism is here to stay. I encourage sports organizations to embrace the idea of trusting and partnering with athletes to say or do the right thing for the sport, the country and the world.

It is very easy to include the athletes in an organization’s social responsibility plan. A well-developed and executed social responsibility plan includes athletes and garners media attention, enhancing fan perception of the team and sport. It also increases the fan’s trust in the sport. Social responsibility creates a positive, diverse and creative workforce, ultimately building trust among all stakeholders, including the athletes.

Olympian Allyson Felix recently used her public platform to address women’s maternal rights. Nike is her largest sponsor and her largest source of income. Her contract, like that of many other track and field athletes, was purely based on performance. It did not allow her the opportunity to have a child without a severe cut in pay. Like many men, I was not aware of this obvious inequity. Felix published an op-ed in the New York Times to accelerate the discussion with Nike and give women a voice. The power of sport has started a worldwide discussion about maternal rights, and Nike has changed its policy and joined the discussion. Maybe it will even help us recognize that the U.S. ranks with Swaziland, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea as the last countries on Earth that do not mandate paid maternity leave.

On the other side of the world, Raheem Sterling is a professional athlete with Manchester City. He was subjected to racist taunting during a Premier League match in December. He decided to use his public persona to address racism in sport by focusing on how the media portrays black athletes differently than white athletes, thus fanning the flames of racism. His message is the foundation of Kyle Korver’s op-ed titled “Privileged,” published by The Players’ Tribune in April. Korver, the veteran NBA player for the Utah Jazz, was affected by how teammate Thabo Sefolosha was treated by law enforcement a few years ago. He was inspired to write about his thoughts after witnessing Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook endure racist and inappropriate comments from fans earlier this year.

The power of sport amplifies the voices of athletes to create a larger influence for social change.

Sterling’s message has brought awareness to the racist culture that has long been present and tolerated in the world’s sport of football. The press now highlights overt acts of racism that occur during games, and there are organizations around the world collaborating to create a more inclusive culture in sport at all levels. Korver’s message received considerable press coverage and discussion. I hope this has resulted in many more people doing what he asked: Shut up and listen.

Allyson Felix, Raheem Sterling and Kyle Korver had the courage to risk their livelihoods and years of training and sacrifice to represent the unheard voices. Thankfully, Man City, the Premier League, the Utah Jazz and the NBA understood the value of social responsibility plans and the power of sport. Nike also did that in a big way when it supported Colin Kaepernick with its ad campaign last year.

Athlete activism is more than Muhammad Ali protesting an unjust war, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists on the Olympic podium, Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem, Felix writing op-eds in the New York Times, or entire NBA and WNBA teams wearing “I can’t breathe” T-shirts during warmups. It is also about supporting underserved communities. It is a way to give back to communities that have the biggest fans, but which have little or no voice for change.

LeBron James recognizes that he stands on the shoulders of so many who helped him achieve his dreams. He fulfilled his promise to the city of Cleveland to bring it a long sought-after NBA championship. Just a few short years later, he found a way to bring more hope to families in underserved Ohio neighborhoods when he opened his “I Promise” school, which provides tuition, uniforms, meals, transportation and many other benefits to allow children to attend school and begin the path to achieving their dreams.

As Felix noted in her op-ed, you can’t change anything with silence. The power of sport amplifies the voices of athletes to create a larger influence for social change. Felix, Sterling, Korver and James, unlike athletes before them, were successful in achieving change without further sacrificing their careers. This is in part because they are sharing the platform with other athlete activists, and their teams and employers understand the benefits of trusting and partnering with them.

Athlete activism continues to change the public conversation about several social justice issues. All sports organizations should develop social responsibility plans that include a strong partnership with athletes and represent the voices that have been silenced in fear. This is the true spirit of the power of sport.

Richard Lapchick (rlapchick@ucf.edu) is chairman of the University of Central Florida’s DeVos Sport Business Management program and is director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport and the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick. David Zimmerman made a significant contribution to this column.

Questions about OPED submission guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com