Forum: Watching Jason Wright; and remembering J.J.
One of the most intriguing hires of the year was Daniel Snyder naming former NFL player and McKinsey consultant Jason Wright as the Washington Football Team president in August. Wright takes on the difficult position of changing the organization’s culture and image and working for one of the most challenging owners in sports. He has said all the right things during his media rounds and understands the game of football. He will have his honeymoon period, and the early word is that he’s a strong communicator who has left a positive impression inside the team offices.
Here’s what I’m watching: We have had very competent people take leadership roles in this organization before — see Brian Lafemina — who have wanted to make significant changes. But they were let go because ownership wasn’t ready to give up its oversight and allow for change. The key now is just how hands-off Snyder, under league investigation, will be, and how much he will let Wright change the culture of the franchise.
There is a lot on Wright’s to-do list, and a lot to get right. But what will be his priorities? His first hires will be telling, and insiders expect him to hire a head of human relations, a position noticeably needed, and one previous leaders at the organization tried to fill only to have it not be deemed a priority by ownership. Wright will likely need a chief revenue officer or chief commercial officer, and most observers are watching to see if he selects someone with extensive team or league experience.
The skills of a business consultant — assessing various business lines from the outside — are far different from understanding the intricacies of a team business operation, which Wright will need. We can all agree that Washington’s NFL franchise should be one of the league’s flagship brands, one that leading multinational corporations want to be aligned with and one the league proudly puts forward in its biggest sales pitches. But that hasn’t been the case for years. There are still so many dark clouds over this franchise, including the league’s investigation into workplace misconduct. I do feel for the good, hardworking, earnest employees who want to see this organization return to the greatness of decades ago. Jason Wright is a refreshing, positive start. I wish I had the confidence that he will be able to make significant changes and the organization will become one of the league’s jewels. But I don’t knowing the history of ownership.
REMEMBERING J.J. DAMATO: The most-read story on our website recently was news of the sudden and tragic death of longtime sports executive J.J. Damato, who died on Oct. 3 while playing street hockey in Huntersville, N.C., at the way-too-young age of 48. Damato had been in the sports business since he graduated from St. John’s, first working at the NHL before moving to Charlotte to work in the licensing department at NASCAR in 1999. I first met J.J. around 2002. We were at a party, and a small group of us were having drinks on a front porch. All of us were immediately taken by Damato’s infectious storytelling, as well as his sports business “story suggestions” focused on the “successful licensed merchandise efforts at NASCAR.” He was relentless — and entirely humorous — in his pitch.
That was J.J. — one would feed off his energy, and one always felt better being around him. I didn’t spend enough time around Damato — we hadn’t seen each other in years, and we blamed it on our frenetic schedules. But we had email check-ins and promises for future lunch meetings or drinks. I’m angry for failing to make those happen.
Damato shifted from NASCAR to join Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008, where he was vice president of marketing services for the team. I feel for everyone at JGR as the team has endured too much grief in the past two years. But I know that organization will rely on its strong faith to get it through another heart-wrenching loss. Those fortunate to be around J.J. and revel in his company are aching terribly. He was set to embark on an exciting new chapter in his life — with a fiancée and two young daughters, who are understandably lost in heartache and sadness. I will remember that J.J. Damato loved being around people, loved to smile and laugh, and loved, loved, loved sports and the sports business. Keep smiling, J.J. — we will surely smile every time we remember you.
Abraham Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.