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Volume 23 No. 17
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Forum: Some thoughts on people who have stood out

Give credit to Gary Bettman and Don Fehr. Throughout the pandemic, the NHL commissioner and the NHLPA’s executive director have been consistent in their public statements and positioning. They acknowledged they were in the midst of a terrible storm, and that they would work as hard as possible to swim safely to shore together.

That was an actual analogy Fehr used in April that stood out to me, and the two stayed true to their word, adroitly negotiating a return-to-play plan combined with a four-year extension of their collective-bargaining agreement. They did it with little rancor or divisive leaks. The two have often been criticized for their previous failures in labor negotiations during their careers, so they deserve praise for collectively and collaboratively coming to an agreement that guarantees a continuation of the sport for the foreseeable future. The hardened Fehr even acknowledged it wasn’t his best deal, which will expose him to shots from agents, media and players. But in the end, he and Bettman were attuned to and accepted world events and acted in the best interest of their sport. Good for them. 

Bubbling up: As Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports quickly became the hub for two U.S. sports properties in the NBA and MLS, I continued to think of Reggie Williams. Williams was the executive director of the complex when it opened in 1997 and was seen as a rising star in sports business. He’s a Dartmouth graduate and former NFL linebacker who won the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 1986 and was a co-winner of Sports Illustrated’s 1987 Sportsman of the Year Award. 

He was a strong, high-profile choice to lead Disney’s efforts to make the massive facility the global destination for all sports — professional, amateur and youth. I visited the facility shortly after it opened in the spring of 1997 and spent time with Williams, touring the vast complex and taking in the U.S. Men’s Clay Court tennis championships. The grounds were beautiful, but I noticed that few people were there and there was little activity. Like many destinations, the complex ebbed and flowed by its calendar. I could never fully determine if it fulfilled its lofty promise, but I couldn’t help but think of those early days as the complex takes center stage during the pandemic. It offered us a good reason to catch up with Williams, who has had serious health issues that stemmed from his football career. At 65, he lives in Florida, and in speaking with our John Lombardo about MLS and the NBA committing to the 200-plus acre campus that is the epicenter of their restarts, he stated, “I feel like a proud parent.”

Learn more from Lombardo’s visit with Williams in our story this week.

Living history: One of the best pieces I read this summer was Joe Browne’s guest column for a vacationing Peter King and his “Football Morning In America” weekly edition on NBCSports.com. It offers a rich account of Browne’s more than 50 years at the league. There was so much I learned about the NFL through his anecdotes, including a critical meeting on a possible NFL/AFL merger between Cowboys President Tex Schramm and Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt that took place in Schramm’s Oldsmobile; the incredible details of how the NFC divisions were shaped; the luck of the draw that led the Dallas Cowboys to be placed in the NFC East; and the colorful details of the young Browne being invited to sit in on Friday lunches with Commissioner Pete Rozelle and other league bigwigs at a Mexican restaurant in midtown Manhattan: “Pete never had the patience for office staff meetings so he would have occasional staff lunches for his senior execs on Fridays at a Mexican restaurant. As accomplished as he was, Pete still had at least three vices: he smoked too much, drank glasses of Coke for breakfast, and enjoyed Mexican food. … What was said over margaritas and guacamole stayed in el restaurante. Lo entiendes?” 

It is a fun, tour-de-force read of league history by a great storyteller. Don’t miss it.

 

First Look podcast, with Abe’s notes on MLS’s return and expansion strategy; NFL teams’ plans for training camp; and facility design amid the pandemic, at the 30:40 mark:

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