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Volume 23 No. 28
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Crises carry huge community impact

The damage from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans forced thousands from their homes and exacted a huge economic toll on residents.
Photo: getty images

When leaders across sports talk about navigating these past two months, they readily concede that nothing they’ve been through compares to it. But Hugh Weber weathered something that offers striking similarities.

As president of the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Weber led the franchise through a period of such utter devastation it necessitated the temporary relocation of the team for two seasons. It was days before Weber heard from some of his employees, and there were nights when some weren’t sure where they’d lay their heads.

Now president of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, owners of the New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia 76ers, Weber sees parallels to what he once thought was the most extreme crisis through which he’d live.

“On first glance, you’d say this is a worldwide pandemic, and that was a flood. How could they be the same?” Weber said. “Well, whatever community you are in, right now we’re homebound. Our jobs and lives have changed dramatically. But we’re thinking of it through the lens of our community. And in that way it’s very similar.”

The breadth with which Katrina upended lives was overwhelming, making large swaths of the city unlivable for months and unleashing an economic toll that lingered for years. While paralysis came suddenly, return and recovery played out uncertainly.

 “People in that community at that time kept saying ‘I just want things to go back to normal. I just want to have the same old boring life I had before and I don’t have it,’” Weber said. “That’s something we hear now with the coronavirus and pandemic. I think part of why sports are so important is that they bring the sense of normality to people’s lives.”

With Katrina as a frame of reference, Weber pointed to three approaches to embrace during chaotic times:

 Survive and advance. “In any chaotic period … oftentimes our mind goes to just getting through this and surviving,” he said. “In fact, leaders have to take a position that you’re running toward an opportunity. You have to create a vision of where you’re going and why you’re going there.”

Weber said HBSE leaders are encouraging staff to focus on how the franchises will have to emerge into a “new normal” in which spectators are easing back uncertainly through the gates.

“We have to think about how the world has changed,” he said, “and how we’re running toward it and adapting to it.”

 Give employees a sense of greater purpose. “There’s a why and a reason for everything we do,” Weber said. “The meaning we have in our society and what we mean to the greater inspiration and feelings of our community is an incredible opportunity but also a great obligation. So how are we using our content teams to think about where the collective psyche of our community will be?

“Using our platforms for this greater good is a big part of leading a team through something like this.”

 Admit mistakes and adjust accordingly. “Everything we do as an organization is about adaptability and being agile. So sometimes we have to come clean as leaders. We are making decisions based on what we know at the time. We start off with the premise that we’re going to take some risk and do something that may not work out the way we want. So how are we going to adapt and be agile?”