Forum: An assessment of big league leadership
I’m interested in the different approaches the leaders of sports leagues have taken while sports have been on hiatus.
ROGER GOODELL: Goodell’s approach has been consistent and mostly well received. He has been assertive in keeping league executives and ownership on point while pursuing a singular goal: maintaining regular business. Goodell faced criticism for his decisions to allow free agency, the draft and the schedule release to move ahead as scheduled. All three decisions paid off handsomely for the league. Goodell has understood the political element, working the phones with the elected officials he’ll need to start the season. Outside of his starring role in the draft, he has kept a low public profile, as he should, because with no games being missed, there’s little reason for him to meet the media.
ADAM SILVER: Perhaps the public face of commissioners during the pandemic, Silver led sports’ response to COVID-19 by being the first league to shut down. His interviews convey the depth of his uncertainty about the road ahead. He’s been honest in saying that he doesn’t know much more now than he did on March 11. His talking points are consistent: No one knows how long this will last; the financial damage will be vast; and player/staff safety is paramount. Silver’s message aligns — for now — with owners, and his transparency resonates with players, where he continues to have a very strong relationship. Most insiders sense he will make a decision by mid-June on if the league will move ahead with its season and how.
ROB MANFRED: The least visible of the major commissioners, Manfred has remained more behind-the-scenes than his peers. He negotiated an early, now controversial, compensation plan with the union and advocated for MLB employees to take part in an antibody study that assisted public health efforts. But Manfred’s less public role may have led to the drip-drip-drip of the return-to-play plans cited by media. The pandemic is serving as a litmus test of Manfred’s relationship with players and Tony Clark as he navigates a CBA extension. He must balance a hard line on player compensation amid an economic crisis. Due to baseball’s spot in America’s summer consciousness, the stakes just seem higher for him.
GARY BETTMAN: Of all the commissioners, Bettman seems to be the one most in control of his message: The NHL will be back. He has spoken frequently to media, and with Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, the NHL has trial-ballooned virtually every return-to-play scenario, from teams competing in four cities to neutral sites to a 24-team playoff, among others. Bettman’s relationship with the NHLPA has become more collaborative than ever, with members of both sides making up the influential “Return to Play Committee” — one of the reasons why Bettman seems to be among the most determined to crown a champion.
DON GARBER: MLS’s stable of new teams is widely seen as the most vulnerable during a prolonged shutdown, which is why Garber has been so visibly pushing the intention to play a full season in 2020. Insiders say Garber sees a real opportunity to grow the MLS fan base and has focused for some time on playing at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando.
STEVE PHELPS: Phelps and NASCAR CEO Jim France have turned to the friendly confines of the Carolinas to return to racing through a rapid schedule of four Cup Series races in 11 days, all while going through major staff restructuring at NASCAR and ISC. Phelps and team seem to be working skillfully behind the scenes to be one of the first sports back, and the aggressive return has been welcomed within the NASCAR community.
DANA WHITE: The sports leader most ardent to return, White found initial success with his UFC 249 card in Florida. He oversaw an ambitious investment in testing and safety measures to put on a national event and broadcast. It’s too early to say if his move should be cheered as a safe risk or bashed as a reckless folly. White frankly doesn’t care about public sentiment and seems to represent many Americans eager for the country to open up and get the economy moving.
Sports Come Together, again: I hope you saw the special advertising section on May 4, which recognized the philanthropic contributions of pro leagues and governing bodies. In this issue, we dedicate another special advertising section to the NCAA and its conferences, and it’s heartwarming to see how collegiate sports also have found resources to help their members and local communities.
First Look podcast, with Abe’s take on how leagues are facing critical decisions this week on return-to-play scenarios, at the 20:40 mark:
Abraham Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.