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Volume 23 No. 25
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Home Work: Sports execs settle into remote settings, offer advice on work flow and leaving time for fun

Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins is adjusting to a job with no commute.


“I have an office at home and as with anyone with children home from school, it will be close the door and work from there,” Martins said.

Alex Martins and the Orlando Magic are letting employees set their work schedules.
Photo: Courtesy of Alex Martins
Alex Martins and the Orlando Magic are letting employees set their work schedules.
Photo: Courtesy of Alex Martins

Joining Martins working from home are some 275 Magic employees out of the 325 total team staff. The team spent last week shifting employees out of its headquarters into a virtual operation, with only essential basketball staff remaining at the team’s front office.

“Right now, there have been a lot of late nights and a lot of early mornings, and we expect that to continue for a while,” Martins said. “We talk daily to the league in some fashion, and it varies on the topic. It’s everyone to legal to operations and to talking with [NBA team marketing and business operations President] Amy Brooks.”

The biggest challenge for Martins isn’t knowing when the league will resume its season, but rather the team’s employees.

“There is staff anxiety on so many levels,” he said. “We have tried to help them quell anxiety and answer as many questions as we can to get them through this. It is reassuring our staff that they will get paid. But like all around the world, there is a lot of anxiety.”

The team is allowing employees to set up what eight hours they will be working in the day. “We are trying to be flexible with our staff knowing that children will be home and that there may be a lack of child care,” Martins said.

Managers set up meetings through teleconferencing based on the availabilities of employees. Weekly check-ins will be scheduled with supervisors, who will develop work plans for each employee.

“We’ve never seen anything like this in our lifetime, but when a major crisis happens, it gives us a time to pause and the opportunity to reset,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to look at things differently and innovate more. My sense early on is that there is definitely going to be a change in the way we work and in our workforce.”

Here’s the take from other sports executives adjusting to new work surroundings:

Brian Graybill

President, Intersport 

“We’ve never worked from home before, so it’s entirely makeshift,’’ said Graybill, who is working remotely in Chicago, along with his wife and two small children (ages 6 and 8) home from school. He does not have a specific home office. “She’s in one room, I’m in the other, and we high-five each other when we pass in the hallway. I’ve had to get used to having an intense phone discussion with a client CMO one minute, and when I hang up the phone, I’m explaining how to calculate the area of a rectangle.”

Doug Vosik

Chief marketing officer, Philadelphia Union

“With the numerous options for conference calls, video conference calls and file-sharing platforms, we’re able to efficiently collaborate and maintain a great working environment. We have maintained every one of our department head meetings and individual one-on-one meetings. Productivity has been high.”

Laura Gentile

Senior vice president of marketing, ESPN, founder espnW

ESPN’s Laura Gentile says her team uses BlueJeans to stay in contact.
Photo: Courtesy of Laura Gentile
ESPN’s Laura Gentile says her team uses BlueJeans to stay in contact.
Photo: Courtesy of Laura Gentile

“My home office is pretty comfortable — honed from three maternity leaves and many a night of continuous work. Keeping the marketing team united right now is key. We have built a strong culture together so we actually look forward to our calls. Our team uses BlueJeans heavily, but I’m fine with conference calls. I know what everyone looks like and Lord knows what they are wearing right now.

“We talk at least two times a week as a leadership team across ESPN Marketing. … I’ve been sending short notes to the team and checking in to see how everyone is doing. The notes I receive back are a little heartbreaking as everyone is feeling the fear and uncertainty. For me, leadership is about being optimistic in good times and in bad, so my chief role is to keep us all focused on the work at hand … while making plans for the future and finding humor within the madness. Ultimately, it’s inspiring to work on a purpose-driven brand where it is all about serving, engaging, enlightening and entertaining our fans in a time of need while preparing for the inevitably awesome comeback for sports.”

Fred Ortiz

Principal, HKS

With the pandemic hitting his travel schedule,  Ortiz welcomes the prospect of communicating with current and prospective clients using older communication technologies. “That old-school mentality of picking up a phone or reaching out and writing a note to clients is great if it means them staying in tune in that way,” Ortiz said.

The architecture firm can weather this crisis because it had already invested heavily in creating a robust mobile and remote workforce that allows employees to be agile and bounce around the world, Ortiz said. “And in the case of the pandemic that we’re faced with, I feel like what we’ve done and invested in, it allows us to respond quickly and efficiently as these things arrive.”

Ortiz, who led HKS’s efforts on the Texas Rangers’ new Globe Life Field, said the firm uses many different platforms to communicate with each other, including Zoom. “For example, there’s daily scrums where individuals are really looking to continue to be participatory and relying on Zoom to allow work sessions to continue. On Monday we had a phone call with a new client. Literally it was like, ‘Hey, you’ve been awarded the project.’ And so, there’s an understanding on their side too, which is great because there’s a sensitivity to shutting or not shutting down, but they’re having to make changes in their workplace and potentially having to respond in the same way.”

Jessica Berman

Deputy commissioner, executive vice president, business affairs, National Lacrosse League

“We are grappling with questions and decisions none of us had ever contemplated and not being in the same physical location makes that extra challenging. I am grateful for technology like video conferencing that is allowing us to feel connected and provide some version of human contact (that’s what I miss the most). … I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the biggest adjustment, which is not necessarily that I am working remotely, but rather that my kids are expected to be home schooled. I am confident our new normal will come … at some point.”

Adam Richman

Board president, Strat-O-Matic Media

“We are making salmon and peppers for dinner for my amazing wife and two young children (daughter, 8, and son, 6), and unpacking our new home that the family moved into March 2, just before the world went upside down. We alternate between coordinating distance learning, child care and keeping the trains running at our respective jobs, which is all about time management, a skill which we have to get better at. On top of that, I focus on one thing going ahead … that baseball will return and we will have learned a lot about ourselves during this process.”

Ashley Ellefson

COO, Drone Racing League

“As we transition through a complicated time for the world and sports, I’ve made a few changes to ensure my team and I feel set up for success. I now livestream my favorite fitness classes, do video calls to get face time with my colleagues, leverage Slack more than ever, and watch the 2020 DRL SIM Tryouts, our livestreamed, player-to-pilot esports tournament, with the volume all the way up. Most humbling, however, is experiencing the WFH support from the sports community: Folks across leagues and teams are reaching out to help each other and come together.”

Amanda Tischler

Vice president of marketing, Washington Capitals/Monumental Sports and Entertainment 

“In entering this new work dynamic, a paramount step was to ensure there was a foundation of accessible tools that foster communication and connection. For example, while Slack was a primary messaging system for the digital team, the larger department has now adopted it. I personally have grown to understand my own motivators to set myself up to make more choices grounded in productivity. As a team, we are going to have to step back and redefine our goals. As part of that, we will create a new project management map and track progress. There will be new wins that we celebrate. My sports business colleagues are wired with some of the best qualities; they know how to show spirit and entertain. We have all started to express ourselves and display our personal environments — family members running around, reminiscing on our favorite sports moments and sharing internet gems.” 

Nelson Rodríguez

President, Chicago Fire FC

“John Urban, our COO, and I have made it a point, in tandem, to reach every one of our colleagues every week. We just check in and see how they’re doing and respond to any needs. We have also made a list of those who live without family or are new to the city to ensure they’re not feeling alone and remind them that we are grateful for their being members of our ‘Fire Family.’

“We hold a daily video conference with senior staff where we encourage teammates to use this time away from the daily grind to think, innovate and create. There is an opportunity in the midst of this particular landscape to make ourselves better as a club, as individuals and as a tool for serving our communities. We also encourage intentional, cross-departmental collaboration in order to have staff involved in more than just their specific area of expertise.

“Finally, we have continued with some of our office rituals while adding a few new ones. Our Wellness Wednesday smoothie is now delivered as a recipe instead of the actual drink, but our Thursday fitness activations continue via video link and are led by our colleague, Lindsey Pelfrey. Virtual coffee breaks, book clubs, TED Talk Tuesdays, bring your pet to work day and even a costume contest are all being planned. We have a great staff and work for a great club. Temporary physical separation is no match for our spirit.”

Tara August

Senior vice president, talent services and special projects, Turner Sports

“Instead of working on the couch or makeshift area, I’ve been dedicated to an actual desk so that I can establish a bona fide ‘work’ feel and avoid distractions. I have all my tools, supplies and equipment in my home office and, when I’m done working at the end of the day, I close the office door and re-establish myself back into ‘home’ space.”

Staff writers Terry Lefton, Karn Dhingra, John Ourand and Mark J. Burns contributed to this report.