As Sports Media Advisors turns 10, founder Doug Perlman reflects on key moments that solidified agency
In 2009 Doug Perlman, a former NHL executive, talked to me about how he was launching a boutique sports media advisory firm with industry vet Steve Solomon serving as a senior adviser.
While interviewing Perlman for that story, I remember feeling that his firm, Sports Media Advisors, would not be around for long. I didn’t think it would fail. I simply thought a bigger company that wanted to acquire a media rights discipline would swoop in and give Perlman an offer he couldn’t refuse. To that point, Perlman had held a string of corporate jobs — Proskauer, IMG, NHL — and it didn’t seem like a stretch to think he would wind up heading back into that life.
At a dinner in a Manhattan restaurant late last month, Perlman laughed when I told him of my prediction from 10 years ago. He had good reason to do so, as this month Sports Media Advisors turns 10 years old. Perlman has grown the business from one to eight employees. He recently bought the office building next door to the building in New Canaan, Conn., that has housed his firm since its start. He has a client list that includes the NFL, NASCAR, USTA, EA, Little League, Omnigon and NextVR.
One of Perlman’s first moves was to hire Dan Shevchik in 2009; he’s now a partner and senior vice president with the firm. Their first windowless office was so small, they shared a desk.
“I went way out of my way to try to convey that this was not a consulting gig while I find my next gig,” Perlman said. “I obviously didn’t do a good job with you, but I was very focused on that.”
Perlman found success early on. A headhunter contacted him for a job as the commissioner of a thoroughbred horse racing league that Jess Jackson — the founder of the Kendall-Jackson wine business — was looking to launch.
He met with Jackson, but instead of taking the job, he convinced the billionaire to hire Sports Media Advisors to build out a business plan and flesh out the idea. Perlman spent half a year working on the plan with Jackson, but the wine magnate died in 2011 before the idea became reality.
“It was the kind of initiative that needed a personality like his to drive it,” Perlman said.
Bit by bit, the business grew. Within the first few months of hanging out his own shingle, Goldman Sachs hired Sports Media Advisors to vet sports media investments that it was thinking about making. Perlman’s friend Ross Greenburg, who was the HBO Sports president at the time, hired Perlman to work on several initiatives.
“Within the first few months, we had some blue-chip brands in HBO, Goldman Sachs and Jess Jackson,” Perlman said. “We were off to the races after that.”
A little more than three years after launching, Sports Media Advisors became entrenched in the business, battling bigger rivals including CAA, IMG and Wasserman for clients. Over a several-month stretch in 2013, Perlman and his team helped the USTA, NASCAR and the Little League World Series cut big media rights deals.
“That was the moment when I felt like we were playing with the big boys,” Perlman said. “That was a watershed period.”
Harlan Stone, the USTA’s former chief commercial officer, credited Perlman’s strategy for a deal made in 2013 that saw ESPN agree to pay $825 million over 11 years for rights to the U.S. Open. The deal caused ripples in the sports business world, as it marked the end of a 46-year run where CBS would carry the tournament on broadcast television.
“Doug led the strategy and negotiations for that deal,” Stone said. “What I’m most proud of is that despite not going forward with a 46-year relationship, [CBS Sports Chairman] Sean McManus — while disappointed — never felt that Doug or I did anything that was not appropriate.”
In 2013 Perlman had to find a buyer for the NASCAR package that was on ESPN; the Fox deal was negotiated two years earlier. The day after ESPN’s exclusive negotiating window ended, Perlman met with Mark Lazarus, the head honcho at NBC Sports. Before noon, the two hammered out the framework of a 10-year, $4.4 billion deal.
Before the deal was signed, Comcast’s Brian Roberts invited NASCAR’s Brian France to a dinner that included Lazarus and Steve Burke. France told the unaware Perlman that he was coming to the dinner, too. France even had his secretary buy Perlman a tie for the dinner.
“It was really fun to be at the table with people of that ilk and listen to their perspective on the industry,” Perlman said. “That’s a great memory.”
As I suspected 10 years ago, several bigger companies have come calling, seeing if Perlman is interested in selling. Perlman, who would not divulge the names of those companies, always takes the meetings but he lets them know up front that he is unlikely to sell.
“I love what we’re doing,” he said. “The work we’re doing is incredibly interesting. The team we built is awesome. My office is five minutes from my house.”
Perlman wants to keep Sports Media Advisors as a boutique firm focused on three areas. It has a healthy business advising sports properties on their media business. It has helped companies such as Omnigon and NextVR get into the sports business. And it advises private equity firms looking to invest in sports.
“With younger companies, a lot of times we’ll take sweat equity — we have equity positions in seven or eight different businesses,” he said. “Some have worked out well; some probably won’t. But it has got me thinking whether we want to have access to dedicated capital to directly invest. I haven’t done it, partly because our time has been better spent on other things. But I do think about that.”