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Volume 25 No. 6
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From Half Moon Bay: Seen and Heard at Thought Leaders Retreat

LISTENING, LEARNING AND PLAYING IN HALF MOON BAY: Innovation. Disruption. Taking big swings. The promise and peril of artificial intelligence. The threat of security lapses. And how you may only be allowed to drive a car for another 25 years. The speakers and discussions at the Thought Leaders Retreat presented by CSM and LeadDog were provocative and frequently frightening, but also offered optimism and ideas for facing an uncertain future. Most attendees – who were drawn from our classes of Forty Under 40, Game Changers and Champions honorees – began arriving Wednesday night at the Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay in California. Those early arrivals were the first to enjoy the nightly ritual of a magnificent sunset (usually around 8:30 p.m.) complete with a roaming bagpiper, drinks around the fire pits and a cool wind blowing off the Pacific Ocean.

WHAT WAS SAID: We’ll be a bit circumspect about this. Thought Leaders Retreat is an off-the-record conference so that everyone in the room can speak their mind without fear that ideas, problems and plans will be revealed publicly. But there were plenty of takeaways that were not proprietary and will give you a good idea of the quality of the discussions. The speakers who had everyone buzzing had one thing in common: a certainty that we’ll see more changes in sports in the next ten years than we’ve experienced in the last 50.

MALCOLM FRANK, Cognizant, executive vice president, chief strategy officer and chief marketing officer. With a precise eye and full understanding of the digital economy, Frank offered a sometimes chilling look at how artificial intelligence and machine learning will bring dramatic changes to the way we live. One of our favorites points from his presentation: Things sucking is the mother of all invention.

JEFF COLE, director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The professor examined the potential collapse of broadcast networks, how it will happen, the future of ESPN and what all of this means for sports. He spoke boldly of Amazon’s growth plans and said if the company’s leader, Jeff Bezos, wants sports programming, he will get it.

KEVIN COMPTON, Radar Partners: The former owner of the San Jose Sharks gave a frank look at the future of technology, the challenges he faced in team ownership and the benefits of being able to manage down better than up. Abe Madkour asked Compton to elaborate on his principles of leadership, which include: never guess; silence is golden, insights are silver; managing down is more important; master the rhythm of anticipation; over-communicate in as few words as possible; and lead with a servant’s heart.

DAVID HILL, Hilly Inc.: In a fun closer to the event, SBJ/SBD Champion (from the inaugural class of 2010) and long-time sports business leader Tony Ponturo interviewed TV production legend Hill, who was funny and frank about his upbringing as the son of a miner in Australia, his lack of a formal education, his years of collaboration with Rupert Murdoch and how even he can be afflicted with what he called “the worm of self-doubt.” One other takeaway that we had not given enough thought to: Hill was one of the earliest sports execs to realize the potential growth and impact of video gaming.

DAVE and NATE CHECKETTS: The father-son duo offered an insightful lesson on generational similarities and differences just before Father’s Day weekend. The senior Checketts stressed how the financial scope of sports has changed while the younger talked about how he leans on his father for direction and advice, while using his own instincts to build his hot active wear company, Rhone.

OTHER THEMES: SportsCastr.Live’s Kevin April gave a thoughtful look at the life of a serial entrepreneur. The quiet Canadian talked of the challenges of chasing funding and setting up a culture and organization … Virgin Sports’ Mary Wittenberg outlined the vision for that company’s sports festivals bringing people together and the desire to “help people be their healthiest and fittest.” She also complimented NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for his efforts in organizational diversity: “Great organizations have strong women in positions of leadership.” … Rugby International Marketing’s David Sternberg talked about efforts to grow rugby in the U.S. and the plans for next year’s Rugby World Cup Sevens at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

FOCUS ON INNOVATION: We kicked off Friday morning with an hour-long group discussion featuring three lead speakers, Fuse’s Bill Carter, Visa’s Andrew Cohen and the Sharks’ Flavil Hampsten. The conversation, facilitated by Madkour, focused on challenges and opportunities in sports and the potential for disruption. Many people joined in as we passed a microphone around the room (though one of the benefits of the Retreat is that it is small enough that everyone can be heard). Among the comments were that many of the issues affecting the live fan experience could be fixed with better planning and communication between teams, venues and city leaders, and that there is a big push going on to attract more diverse talent to sports (but, Compton noted, sports today can’t match the salaries being offered in Silicon Valley). Other themes: Teams and properties, in general, are too locked into historical thinking and processes that prevent them from trying new approaches. And the sports industry needs to take bigger swings at key issues and push innovation.

THE JOYS OF PLAY: We all took full advantage of the surroundings, from informal walks, runs or bike rides along the beach to organized activities around golf, tennis, hiking among the coastal redwoods, and wine tasting at a local vineyard. As always, one of the highlights of the Thursday night dinner was the presentation of awards for golf and tennis. In the golf competition, winners were Nick Carey, Christine Brown, Michael Brown, Dave Checketts, Nate Checketts and Adam Davis. In tennis, special recognition went to Mike Rosenblum, Eric Guthoff, Sternberg, Irwin Raij and Jennifer Duberstein.

Also spotted: Ponturo taking a daily afternoon walk along the beach; Wittenberg, practicing what she preaches, returning from runs before each morning’s sessions; Davis running 8 miles on Wednesday afternoon, then reading a book on the lawn before being interrupted by Madkour, Dan Mannix, Wally Hayward and Ross Nethery, who were returning from a fierce battle on the tennis court (Spoiler alert: We switched partners after each set, and everyone who played with Wally won.); David Katz taking a private tennis lesson in preparation for what he predicted would be dominance on the court at next year’s Retreat.

FAMILIAR FACE: Tony Wells, who is well known in the sports business, was spotted at the Ritz on Wednesday afternoon as he was taking in a different conference in his current role at CMO of Schneider Electric.

RECONNECTING: Madkour and Nethery met former colleague Tripp Mickle for lunch before the conference started. Mickle, who many of you know from his work at SBJ, now covers Apple for the Wall Street Journal.

FOOD, WONDERFUL FOOD: We heard more than a few people say that the food was among the best they’ve had at a conference. Our Thursday dinner, set up on the lawn among the fire pits and looking out at a glorious sunset over the ocean, featured the Ritz Carlton’s “Farms of Half Moon Bay” selections. The menu was much too extensive to list in full, so here are five of our favorites: Pepper crusted Brandt Farms New York strip, Bellwether Farms agnolotti, Sonoma foie gras mousse, Princeton Harbor sea bass and Pescadero Farms blood orange cremeux.

NEXT YEAR, A BIGGER NOTEBOOK: We took more notes at this conference than at any other we can remember, and were told that others did the same. Our goals were to expand minds, spark creative thinking and strengthen relationships, and we think we can put a checkmark by all three. If we didn’t see you at this year’s event, we hope you’ll join us next time.