FOG Roundtable: leadership in the sports industry, Part 1

(Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images)
(Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Welcome to the second edition of the FOG Roundtable, an ongoing series of Q & A discussions with sports business industry participants covering a wide variety of topics. In this edition, the Fields of Green posed five questions to a cross-section of prominent sports industry executives, in order to gain a variety of opinions on strategy and approaches to leadership in the industry. 


Anita DeFrantz, President, LA84 Foundation

Greg Economou, Executive Vice President & Chief Revenue Officer, Guggenheim Media/dick clark productions

Jed Hughes, Vice Chairman, Sports, Korn Ferry International

Bill Shumard, President/CEO, Special Olympics Southern California


Are there traits that are specific to being an effective leader in the sports business industry that may not be present in other industries?

Defrantz: In the area of sports, it seems that no matter how well supported by fact, everyone is able to be an expert. Thus, folks may or may not have much solid information as they form opinions. Leaders in the area of sport need to be open to a variety of opinions and recognize that they must speak from fact, not just opinion.

Economou: Great leadership is a force multiplier, whether in general business or in sports-related businesses. It is usually the difference between good and truly great organizations – ones that are able to achieve exponential growth and brand sustainability. In general, leaders who possess admirable and high-minded core values – and have the ability to impart those values into the organization he or she leads – are always the most effective, regardless of their leadership style or personality.

Specific to the sports industry, leaders are faced with a unique dynamic: there are generally two fundamental sides to the industry, the business function and the competitive function. For leaders on either side, it is critical to be able to connect on each side of the equation, and in best-case scenarios, marry those two aspects as deeply as possible. When the two sides are completely distinct, there is the possibility of differing missions, values, corporate cultures, and goals and objectives, which invariably creates long-term issues and less-than-desired results. When the two sides are inextricably conjoined, there is a certain harmony and ability to feed off each other, helping optimize success and organizational growth like nothing else.

Hughes: As we look at the most successful commissioners and leaders in professional sports – whether it is intercollegiate, amateur, the Olympics or professional sports – we have found that the most effective leaders are really bright. They are active learners and can quickly assimilate a lot of information. They demonstrate an incredible ability to listen to multiple parties and to bring resolution to complex problems. Not only do the most effective leaders have the mental agility and temperament to maintain their cool, at the same time, they are able to effectively push a vision, advance their point of view, and build consensus for an agenda. When leaders are good listeners, they tend to get tremendous buy-in from their staff and also from their partners in the media and among sponsors. Good listeners are truly concerned about the needs of their partners and by hearing and understanding these needs, they are better suited to bring more value from a commercial perspective.

Shumard: Perhaps more than other industries, the sports leader needs to weigh the “emotional factor” in making key decisions. The voice of the fan, whether informed or otherwise, plays out in the media – traditional and social – and can build momentum quickly. The leader must stay ahead of these trends. Two examples I’m familiar with are the Al Campanis situation in 1987, and the Donald Sterling ordeal in 2014. Right or wrong, there was a rush to judgment, driven by public opinion because of the voice of the fan. Sometimes the best decisions don’t have time to play out because of this.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)
(AP Photo/David Goldman)

What types of leadership challenges do you find are unique to the sports business industry?

DeFrantz: Sport industry exists because athletes exist. It is essential to understand the unique life that an athlete leads. The time for excellence is short-lived, in most cases lasting less than a decade. Thus far, there seems not to be much transfer from the field of play to the halls of management for the top athlete. Or, so it would seem by the current listings of those in management. Keeping respect for the athlete and what the athlete is accomplishing is essential to be a successful manager in the world of sport.

Economou: Sports industry leaders must be aware and alert that sports brands are extraordinarily volatile in nature. On a base level, an organization’s ability to drive brand equity is generally contingent on wins and losses, or in the cases of leagues and media companies, competitive playing fields. It is very difficult to build long-term brand strength if teams are not consistent winners or if the competition isn’t fair, dramatic, authentic, or relevant. A lack of winning or competitive balance makes it more difficult to drive fanaticism and evangelism – things that drive key performance indicators such as viewership, attendance, fan engagement, corporate partnerships, etc. Therefore, leaders must be able to leverage and maximize successes, while also maintaining the ability to buoy the organization when wins are more infrequent than desired or a lack of competitive balance is not present at any given time.

Hughes: The leadership challenges in sports vary, but the most important is that for these businesses – it’s a 24/7 commitment. They are not 9 to 5 jobs. It is more of a lifestyle than a job and it takes a special type of person who can do that. The truly bright and gifted professionals will rise to the top, as they will in any business. As you continue to give them more and more responsibility, they will continue to grow. Integrating outsiders into the insular world of sports has also been difficult. It’s often challenging for insiders and outsiders to find common ground. Outsiders may be perceived as lacking the knowledge in sports and they view insiders in sports as not as smart and savvy. When both sides discover a working balance, it can lead to long-term success in an organization. Another important challenge facing the sports industry is that leaders align their strategy with talent. Identifying leaders in an organization who have common sense and are smart is essential to growth. To have common sense requires a combination of personal experience and individual instincts, which impact the ability to make the right decision. Smart people who have good relationship skills are critical to building successful organizations. Those who are smart but cannot build relations aren’t good leaders.

Shumard: The successful leader must be able to ascertain the informed opinion from the emotionally-driven one (see my response to Question 1). In my own experience, in both professional and collegiate sports, I placed a strong emphasis on weighing the opinions of those who were invested in my product, to counter-balance the public opinion that is likely formed from recent wins or losses. My own experience has also taught me that the more successful people are in their chosen field, the more measured and objective they are in critiquing your product. I made a habit of staying close to those who could offer an informed opinion.

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)
(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Which organization in the sports business industry best exemplifies leadership and how does it do so?

DeFrantz: This is a difficult question for me to answer. Others measure industry by the bottom line of cash earned in a year. In my opinion, there is more to it than that. The sports organizations that have had the most success are those that embrace both sexes in management, as well as recognizing that everyone may want to have an access to sport. At the world level, the Olympic Movement has been successful, although at the national level, there is more work to be done. Further, many of the sports on the program of the Olympic Games have challenges in their methods of management.

Economou: The NBA has long been considered the most progressive and innovative sports league in the world. When examining any facet of the NBA – the league itself, the success of its 30 teams, the growth of the players as brands, the size and scope of broadcast partners, the unmatched digital and social media efforts, the international growth and expansion, etc. – it is obvious that it has consistently displayed unparalleled leadership as an organization. It is considered by most experts to be amongst the most intelligent and innovative businesses within the sports industry, having developed platforms and programs that have become best practices across the globe.

Hughes: This is a difficult question to answer. The United States Olympic Committee is the organization that has probably been the most transformed in the last 3 to 4 years. When Scott Blackmun took over as their CEO, the USOC was struggling with their membership and with the IOC. Scott, along with Larry Probst, the Chairman, was able to rebuild the relationships through relentless listening, both nationally and abroad. Together they have put together a team and have re-established the reputation of the USOC on a worldwide basis, giving the United States a true opportunity to host the summer games in 2024, I believe.

Shumard: Those that come quickly to mind are the St. Louis Cardinals, which remind me greatly of the Dodgers organization under the O’Malley ownership – strong scouting and player development and a culture of winning as a team. The Los Angeles Lakers, under Jerry Buss, were the “gold standard” of professional sports franchises – intelligent, strategic decisions and a commitment to a top-quality product AND fan experience.

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Click here for Part 2

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