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Volume 22 No. 35

Opinion

I’d like to share some thoughts and anecdotes about three executives in the news recently.

Roger Penske

Few people in sports have made as indelible an impression on me as Roger Penske. His placid, polite demeanor counter an unrelenting drive and work ethic. We named him to the 2016 class of The Champions: Pioneers & Innovators in Sports Business, and in getting to know him better, I marveled at his steely focus and forward-thinking mindset — “looking through the front windshield,” as he likes to say.

His move to acquire Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar is massive. Penske has a deep gravitas and understanding of the sport — he will bring much-needed acumen to changing the business approach, and there are many in motorsports who feel that with the right strategy, IndyCar is nimble enough to become a sustainable success.

After Penske announced his deals, I re-read our profile of him from January 2016. This paragraph, written by Bill King, struck me for the attributes that are desperately needed to grow the sport: “Penske is known for loyalty to personnel and business partners. For a boundless work ethic, spread across many miles with little sleep. For attention to detail, and a passionate belief that it could yield the tenth of a second that would put his team ahead. For a willingness to sweep floors, plow snow or check the bathrooms of a camper to make sure no one snuck into his speedway without a ticket. For a right-or-wrong, black-or-white approach, especially on matters that cut to his character.” 

Those exemplary personal and business characteristics are what motorsports needs at this time.

George Pyne

The $600 million capital commitment from CVC Capital Partners and The Jordan Company was more than a jolt of cash for Bruin Sports Capital. It was a huge vote of confidence in George Pyne from two of the biggest players in private equity.

Pyne, who founded Bruin in 2015, now has vast resources to build out his sports and entertainment portfolio. He appropriately called this investment “the next chapter” for Bruin. I still recall an evening where my colleague, Michael Smith, and I took Pyne to dinner at Sullivan’s Steakhouse in Charlotte. It was late 2014, and Pyne was visiting to update us on his plan to establish Bruin. Over dinner, Pyne displayed an understandable mix of excitement, nervousness and anxiety in talking us through his plans to launch a company that would take a long-term approach to building businesses across sports, entertainment, media, marketing and lifestyle. With his strong investor backing, he didn’t feel the intense pressure of instant flips and shareholder scrutiny, but instead envisioned a long-term build. I left dinner refusing to bet against Pyne.

Four years later, when you look at his track record, you can see that Pyne has a good eye for business. From On Location Experiences to Deltatre to Courtside Ventures to Engine Shop and Soulsight, among others, Pyne has been smart in how he looks at the business — perhaps because he knows the sports landscape so well. Pyne isn’t looking at distressed assets. He’s buying sound companies where he can grow both top- and bottom-line revenue, and he’s not afraid to pay for such assets. 

The early returns have been promising, and Pyne now has some serious depth and scale of capital that doesn’t limit what he can do, especially globally. He’s only going to become a bigger player in the business.

Jim Bell

Finally, Jim Bell may be the least known of the three executives that caught my eye recently, but I can guarantee that you’ve experienced his storytelling and undoubtedly have been moved by his Olympic productions over the years. 

From learning at Dick Ebersol’s side and putting his own stamp on NBC’s Olympics coverage, to leading the “Today” show from 2005-12, to serving as showrunner of the “Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon, Bell has called the shots on some of the most-watched programs in U.S. television history. 

The former Harvard football player who landed at NBC while backpacking around Europe in 1992 is cerebral and personable. He has been successful for nearly three decades in the vicious spotlight of entertainment and sports media. Bell should be proud of his run at NBC. I was surprised that he won’t remain through the Tokyo Games, but one report stated he may look to play a role in the 2020 presidential election — fitting, considering his degrees in political science and government. Any candidate or cause would be lucky to have him, because few programmers understand storytelling and how to move an audience better than Bell.

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

The following is an excerpt from “A Different Way to Win: Dan Rooney’s Story from the Super Bowl to the Rooney Rule,” a new book by Jim Rooney published in November that examines Dan Rooney’s life in football and his legacy in the eyes of his colleagues, his players, and his family.

Booming revenues and skyrocketing valuations tell the story of the NFL’s growing footprint in American culture. And for Dan Rooney’s part in laying the foundation of what the league is now, he enjoyed tremendous respect from his fellow owners. Falcons owner Arthur Blank tells a story about the time when my father, as the chairman of the compensation committee, stood up to announce that [Commissioner Paul] Tagliabue’s contract had been extended. He offered no details — not how long the contract would run, not the amount of the compensation, or anything about what the negotiation was like. He told the other owners that if they had any questions, they could call him. Blank jokes now that this was hardly a best practice for corporate America. But the other owners showed so much deference to Dan Rooney’s judgment that they asked him nothing.

Still, the league he helped build ultimately made my father uneasy. The NFL, the money, the spectacle had all gotten far bigger than my father had ever imagined they would. And, just as he had been initially, he was concerned about what the pursuit of more money would do to the league. He pushed back sometimes, privately and publicly.

Early in the 2000s, some owners were encouraging the league to find ways to mine ever more revenue, to market itself even more aggressively. Sponsor-creep had begun — names of advertisers appeared on jersey decals in NFL Europe, for instance, and every space in the new stadiums was ripe for signage. [Roger] Goodell was the league’s executive vice president, and while he had worked on some of the league’s thorniest issues, he was also thought of highly by a segment of owners because he was comfortable with the NFL as an aggressive business.

Dan Rooney often disagreed with Goodell on the avenues the league took in pursuit of more revenue and he warned him of the perils of the path. During one ongoing conversation about league branding, a football jersey arrived at the league office addressed to Goodell. It was made to resemble a NASCAR driver’s uniform, adorned with sponsorship decals and corporate logos. Dan had sent the garish jersey to convey a message.

“Our business is the game; we’re not in this thing to make all the money in the world,” Dan told The New York Times in February 2006 about that jersey. “I think some other teams still do things our way. But on this, we might be the last guy on the mountain.”

Dan Rooney resisted the corporatization of football. One league initiative had signs wrapped around the goal posts that read “Feel the Power.” Dan took one look at them on the goal posts at Heinz Field and ordered them taken down. Told that the league said they had to be up, my father replied, “We’re not feeling the power.” And they stayed down.

His most assertive public statement, though, came when, while serving as U.S. ambassador to Ireland, he returned to Pittsburgh in January 2011 for a playoff game. The league would lock out players two months later, but the sides were still negotiating to try to reach a new collective bargaining agreement before the old one expired. The ambassador was not involved in the negotiations and that might have been just as well. He was frustrated by the lack of progress. Management was pushing for an 18 game regular season, arguing that the extra revenue it would generate from television contracts would facilitate a deal.

My father agreed with other owners, who thought the proceeds of the business were not being fairly shared, and that significant action needed to be taken to adjust the revenue split between teams and players. But he had long opposed the idea of a longer season. He thought it was too much for the players to endure and maybe too greedy for the league. That day, he spoke to three reporters who regularly covered the league. 

“I would rather not get the money” than expand the season, Dan said. “You have a system that works. Why add them?”

He understood the power of mass media. And he felt a responsibility to say that the train needed to be slowed down.

He had helped build something and it had grown much bigger than he had ever imagined. 

Jim Rooney worked alongside his father Dan Rooney for decades assisting with relationships at the State Department and the White House during Dan Rooney’s time serving as ambassador to Ireland, and also was involved in the football enterprise of his father’s advocacy for the Rooney Rule. In addition to being an author, Jim is co-partner of Rooney Consulting, which assists organizations with enhancing culture, building strong teams and growing businesses.

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

As of state, influential business leaders and diplomats descended upon New York in the latest attempt to thrash out a solution to the impending climate crisis during Climate Week in September, a few blocks away the New York Road Runners — the body responsible for organizing the annual TCS New York City Marathon — made a commitment to reduce its own carbon footprint by agreeing to the principles of the UN’s Sports for Climate Action Framework.

Unveiled last December, the Framework has been devised as sport’s Paris Agreement — a roadmap for the industry to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Since then, a host of major U.S. sports properties have signed up and pledged to measure and reduce their carbon emissions, as well as offset all emissions they can’t avoid, such as those related to travel.

The NBA, the New York Yankees, AEG and the United States Tennis Association should be commended for making the commitment, particularly during a period when the U.S. federal government has moved in the opposite direction and climate change, in general, continues to be argued about rather than acted upon.

But once the press releases have been sent out and the fanfare (or criticism) has died down, bold statements have to be backed up by significant and concrete actions.

The New York Road Runners and the TCS New York City Marathon committed to a UN climate directive.
Photo: getty images

The fact is that sport is one of the biggest victims of the climate crisis. During the summer just gone, a number of test events for next summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo were adversely affected by the intense heat, with a number of young athletes being treated for heatstroke.

Summers are getting hotter, but for winter sports the picture is even gloomier. The Alps in Europe, one of the spiritual homes of skiing, are forecast to lose up to 70% of their annual snow cover before the century is out. Mountain ranges across the globe are facing similar threats. It seems the number of locations able to host a Winter Olympics — and that are willing to do so — will dwindle rapidly.

What, realistically, can sports entities like the New York Yankees and U.S. Tennis Association do about a big, macro issue like climate change? 

The early adopters of the Sports for Climate Action Framework already do a lot to mitigate their own negative impacts. Energy efficiency, water conservation, LED lighting, composting and carbon offsetting are fairly commonplace. But in signing the framework, these organizations have suggested that their endeavors in this area will be cranked up a notch in the not-too-distant future.

This means looking beyond internal operations and out into sport’s wider sphere of influence. That’s where the real impact can be found. What if, for example, every sports organization had a sustainable sourcing policy like the Paris 2024 Olympic Games? Imagine what the impact would be if every signatory told all of their suppliers — and sponsors — that they had to commit to the same climate action principles if they want their business relationship to continue.

Transportation partners could be encouraged to provide electrified vehicles for staff and events. Energy providers could be pressured to transition into renewables. Merchandise manufacturers could be asked to source sustainable materials and produce goods in renewable energy-powered facilities.

This may seem like a lot of effort, but with the framework as a reference point, additional resources like the International Olympic Committee’s Sustainability Essentials guides — which look at carbon reduction and sustainable sourcing as two key topics — and support from bodies including the Green Sports Alliance and SandSI (Sport and Sustainability International), the transition doesn’t have to be too overwhelming. 

It does, however, require leadership, a long-term view and a genuine concern for the future of sport. For such a traditionally conservative industry, change of this scale can seem daunting, particularly if those in leadership positions are not super literate about climate issues. The prospect of asking too much of sponsors may also make sports executives shuffle uncomfortably in their seats.

But the clock is ticking. According to a landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we only have 11 years to put the brakes on catastrophic and irreversible climate change. By the time Super Bowl LXIV and the FIFA 2030 World Cup come around, we could be living in a world totally unrecognizable from the one we live in today. And that may change the face of sport forever.

Sport, with its impact on so many other industries (not to mention its influence over fan behavior), can play a significant part in making sure we don’t get to that stage. But now is the time to take action and to position sport as a genuine climate-leading industry.

Matthew Campelli is founder and editor of The Sustainability Report.

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

The holiday season signals the beginning of a series of events in which the sports industry celebrates by hosting turkey and gift giveaways.

These heartfelt traditions are often inspired by an athlete’s childhood memories of their family’s struggle to afford holiday celebrations and their wish to help other families realize their holiday dreams.

Raise the Barr, founded by Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, hosted a holiday party last year at Jeremiah Program, a residential initiative for single moms pursuing post-secondary education. Anthony regularly visits the kids at the program’s early childhood development center, which they provide in tandem with an array of services for the whole family.

Raise the Barr repeatedly hears how difficult it is for families to find and access the resources they deserve. Lack of transportation is a key factor as is the non-centralization of services. Who can realistically take the time off to travel to multiple locations?

To increase the long-term impact, I’d encourage athletes, teams, and leagues to partner this season with local charities that can advise families in attendance on more comprehensive resources available to them.

Excitingly, this simple additional step could transform the lives of families for generations.

Stephanie Sandler
CEO, Full Circle Philanthropy
Boston

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