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Volume 23 No. 13
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Forum: The mental test of 2020; NFL stories worth watching

I offered a weary laugh when I saw my first “2020 Sucks” T-shirt. The first six months of the year have been a grueling test to our mental, physical and spiritual well-being. The year started off on an awful note on New Year’s Day. I had just sat down to enjoy a glass of wine with friends when I received an alert that David Stern had died. Three weeks later, while touring the Grammy Museum with my brother at L.A. Live, I received a text from a friend alerting me to a TMZ report about Kobe Bryant’s death. On the weekend of Feb. 14, I flew to Vermont to be with my father for his last days before he died on Feb. 18, just before the coronavirus threw our lives into such upheaval. On March 16, our offices at SBJ shut down, and our business remains greatly affected by the pandemic. On May 25, video of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis made me, and so many others, question our societal values and the way we treat each other. Please, let there be better days ahead.

Three stories from the NFL that are worth a second look:

A CHANGE IN DETROIT: Keep an eye on any changes under new Lions Chairman Sheila Ford Hamp, who took over after her mother, Martha Firestone Ford, resigned this month. The news isn’t surprising, as Hamp, the family’s second-oldest, has attended every league meeting since Mrs. Ford took over in 2014, and has been visible in team affairs over the past few years. If you watched the NFL Films’ documentary last year, “A Lifetime of Sundays,” you saw Hamp consistently at her mother’s side, and the Yale graduate was engaged and active in the team’s business. While I have never met Martha Ford, I certainly hope I’m as sharp as she is at 94, and I’ve continually heard the great respect she engenders from league executives, owners and NFL lifers, including Bill Belichick, who raved about her last year. With the transition, insiders don’t expect much of a change in the way the team operates under the 68-year-old Hamp, who will lean heavily on the family, her husband, Steve, who ran the Ford Museum for nearly a decade, and team president Rod Wood, the highly regarded leader in the organization. Hamp won the press conference when she met the Detroit media, and observers hope she changes the perception that the organization doesn’t do what it takes to win. I have long felt the franchise and brand in that market has a tremendous upside if it could consistently win. 

TWO MORE JOIN THE CLUB: Josh Harris and David Blitzer have reportedly acquired a stake of less than 5% in the Pittsburgh Steelers, which would match up with the stake that David Tepper sold when he purchased the Carolina Panthers. It’s been known that the co-managing partners of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment want to expand their sports portfolio beyond the 76ers, Devils, Crystal Palace and Prudential Center, and they have also shown interest in the New York Mets. But sources tell me their specific interest – especially Harris’ – is in owning an NFL team, so buying into the Steelers is a smart way to socialize in sports’ most exclusive club and get into the circle of trust.

WATCHING THE PEGULAS: I live in Charlotte, which has a large number of transplanted natives of Buffalo. We all know the passion for their teams is among the strongest in sports. So it’s no surprise that they are concerned about the state of the Bills and Sabers, especially in light of Terry and Kim Pegula making massive changes on the personnel side of the Sabres this month. The situation in Buffalo is worth keeping your eye on. Terry and Kim Pegula have done a number of things right — restored pride to the region and have invested heavily in team facilities and the impressive Harbor Center development. But winning has been more difficult than they anticipated, and they could use a few “W’s” soon, as the narrative around the organization isn’t very positive. There are questions about their patience — the Sabres are on their sixth coach and fourth GM since the 2012-13 season — and their engagement in player personnel. There was a recent overhaul of the Bills’ business-side staff. There are questions about Terry Pegula’s financial state and whether his oil business is facing difficulties. In announcing the changes at the Sabres, he alluded to having a more efficient operation but pushed back on speculation he was financially leveraged. There are calls to bring on more executive help for Kim Pegula, who serves as president of both teams. All of this comes while the Bills continue to seek a long-term stadium solution. So, there are a number of factors here. And while the local media — and NHL/NFL media — have sharply criticized ownership, league insiders and people within Pegula Sports & Entertainment still remain confident in the Pegulas and stress that winning will quickly change the tenor around the organization. 

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