They’ve Got Game
A look at the unique challenges leaders in the sports industry face and how they find success in this fast-paced, very public field
Twenty years ago, YPO member David Shoemaker was working as a corporate lawyer in New York. “I was working for some of the best blue chip companies in the world but not feeling terribly passionate about what I was fighting for,” he says. So Shoemaker quit his job at his law firm and turned to his childhood passion — sports. After getting his foot in the door with the Women’s Tennis Association, he landed his dream job in 2011 as CEO of NBA China. “I’ve been able to marry this great passion for basketball that I’ve had since childhood with the skills that I’ve acquired professionally,” he says. “I get to come to work every day clicking my heels.”
In the mid-1980s, then-NBA commissioner David Stern traveled to China with a backpack full of video tapes showcasing NBA games and convinced China Central Television to air those games on national television. Basketball caught on — and in the last few years, “the popularity of the game has really exploded,” Shoemaker says. “We have more than 110 million followers on social media in China. It dwarfs any other sport here in China or anywhere else in the world. It’s really quite remarkable.”
The flipside of working in a sport you love and which has such tremendous growth opportunities is that you are placed under fairly unremitting scrutiny by the press. “What we do is in the public domain on a daily basis,” Shoemaker says. “Unlike some other businesses which — barring an incredibly positive or negative development — can go the entire year without the public paying attention to them, people are routinely reading about what we do, if not on the front page of the sports section, then sometimes on the front page of the newspaper itself.” In addition, your customers feel such a direct and visceral connection to your company that every armchair coach with a Twitter account is determined to give you their analysis of last night’s game.
It’s a scenario that YPO member Dave Kaval knows all too well. As President of U.S. Major League Soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes, he’s used to life under the microscope. “It’s unusual to be conducting business in such a public forum. It’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “On one hand, it’s challenging to manage. But by the same token, the passion is what makes running the business so interesting. You have customers who care in a way that they wouldn’t if they were just, for example, buying a computer. That emotional connection brings with it unbelievable power and ways to use your brand for a lot of positive ends.”
Kaval has had the sports industry bug since 2002 when, while attending business school at Stanford University, he launched and ran the Golden Baseball League, an independent minor league that ended up attracting star players like Rickey Henderson and Jose Canseco. Since Kaval joined the Earthquakes in 2010, the team’s fortunes on the field have increased, and the club has opened a new USD100 million stadium where, as Kaval puts it, he regularly hosts “18,000 of my closest friends.” Kaval runs an open-door policy whereby once a week any of “these friends” can drop by and give him a piece of their mind. “I had a guy who came in one time and he had a new formation he wanted us to do,” Shoemaker says. “He laid it all out. He had all of these little pieces and props, but there were 12 men. I was thinking, ‘If I’m allowed 12 men on the field, I think I am definitely going to do well.’”
Despite whether the ideas are constructive or even doable, Kaval believes, “Transparency, openness and an open line of communication is very important when you have passionate supporters and people who care for your product. At times when we were a little more cloistered it invited speculation. It allowed fans to get heated and riled up in ways that were usually not constructive.” An extreme openness to feedback is one of the hallmarks of the sports chief executive. “We exist or loss every weekend and where the loss is judged, torn apart and discussed for pretty much the entire week,” says YPO member Andrew Fagan, CEO of Adelaide Football Club. “Whether you succeeded or failed, you still need to review hard so you can quickly make adjustments. It’s an environment of improvement over much shorter lead times than most other businesses. The ability to both give and receive feedback is a really important part of a football club, and we use the word ‘accountability’ often because we need to get better every single day.”
Looking after the fans
In China, Shoemaker has teams that are focused on collecting data from social media and surveys and on engaging fans through every means possible to help the organization stay responsive and to drive its innovations. For instance, when fans repeatedly brought up that while NBA games are played in prime time in the United States, they screen in the morning in China, Shoemaker responded by opening up new channels that resulted in encouraging results. Average viewership on digital and mobile platforms in the 2015-2016 season almost doubled, and the number of fans who watch NBA games via mobile devices was up more than 260 percent.
“We’ve invested in our mobile distribution of live games, in our video on-demand content, and our chats and social media narratives so the fans can engage with the NBA in the way that they want to, and at the times that they want to,” he says. “Our mantra is to do our level best to be true to fans. Replace the word ‘fans’ with ‘consumers’ and I think this applies across most businesses.”
YPO member Mark Weightman, President of the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes, says this focus on the needs of fans is part of a broader business strategy. “Everything is relationships,” he says. “Whether it’s fans, broadcasters, sponsors or the player’s association, you can never over-value the importance of building strong relationships that are based on trust.” Weightman’s own relationship with the Alouettes is a longstanding love affair. He started with them as an intern when they were the Baltimore Stallions and followed them to Montreal, Quebec, Canada, where he worked his way up to top management. “I guess you could say that I’ve definitely been very loyal to this organization,” he says with a chuckle. “Same franchise for 22 years, two countries, two cities, two names, I’ve worn many different hats and had many different titles.”
Having a love for the game is vital, particularly when times are tough. “My staff doesn’t necessarily need to be diehard Alouettes fans, but they do need to be passionate about the sports industry,” Weightman says. “There are demands that are placed upon people in this organization that go far beyond what someone working for, say, a marketing agency, would ever have to live through and deal with. There is no such thing as being off the clock, but you also never run out of energy because you’re fueled by so many different passions within and around you.”
The Alouettes had an extraordinary run between 2000 and 2010 in which they won the Grey Cup (the league championship) three times. But then a lot of the star players retired and moved on, leaving the team in a rebuilding phase. “We’re about halfway through our season and admittedly we are disappointed with our results so far, but we’re continuing that climb back, looking to create that next dynasty,” Weightman says. He’s determined to bring the fans along with him and engages with them at every opportunity. Once a week, he picks up the phone and calls season ticket holders to ask for their opinions and thank them for supporting the team. “I prefer not having a specific agenda for the call,” he says. “It feels more meaningful than calling for a predetermined purpose.”
Connecting with the community
Over in Australia, meanwhile, Fagan has helped reinforce support for Adelaide Football Club by becoming a crucial part of the community. “We’ve got a vision of bringing people together to achieve great things,” he says. “When we look at our supporter base and the community in which we interact, we feel as though there’s a responsibility to spend time with them, to play a role in helping people achieve their own personal goals.” To that end, the club has a charity foundation, a mentoring plan for the indigenous community and a school program to help kids develop mental resilience. It makes sense for all chief executives, whether in the sports industry or not, to invest in their local communities.
It also makes sense to put customers at the heart of everything and to collect as much data about their desires so innovations can be made around them. To solicit and accept customer feedback — no matter how harsh — and react to it swiftly. To find the passion in what you do and hire staff who share that passion. And finally, as Shoemaker says, always savor the very best parts of your job and remember why you love it. “I do my level best not to get overly excited when I spend a little time with Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant,” he says. “But there is still a fan inside of me that thinks that’s pretty cool.”