Subscribe to The SportsThink Newsletter!

If you don’t already, I’d love it if you would consider reading and subscribing to the SportsThink Newsletter. While I’m sad to say that I haven’t the time to regularly update the blog, the newsletter goes out (almost) every week and features my favorite content from around the sports internet (and beyond!). I send two types of newsletters: the regular Weekly Read, which features the best thing I read each week about the wide world of sports. At the end of each month, you’ll get the Monthly Review, a longer format newsletter, featuring my favorite content from the previous month, occasional commentary, and other goodies. With any luck, I’ll get back to blogging regularly in the new year, but I hope that the newsletter sustains your SportsThinking for the time being. Thanks for reading!

Do reporters need to be in the locker room?

There’s some consternation over the NFL’s recent decision to keep journalists out of the locker room for a second straight year. Ostensibly a pandemic safety measure, critics argue that the move hurts objective coverage of the league and grants the league and teams greater control of media narratives via official channels. There is fear that this move will become permanent post-pandemic. But is this really a big deal?

On the one hand: yes, we should generally be concerned when journalistic access (to anything) is restricted in a democracy. On the other: what percentage of big-time sports coverage is truly independent, anyway? Do we really accept that journalists from media conglomerates who broadcast the league (and related) content are giving us the objective dirt? (And yes, not all journalists covering the league are paid by these outlets; fair is fair.) Even before the consolidation of media, the transparency of sports reporting has a dubious history. Go back to the days of Babe Ruth and you’ve got newspapermen embedded on the team Pullman car, cutting deals to ignore athletes’ bad behavior and indiscretions in exchange for access. Add to this a generation of sports fans raised in the direct access, social media era and I’m not buying that the average fan is losing much sleep over this decision.

Finally, let’s not ignore that it has always been a bit weird to have media in the locker room anyway. As if an athlete in a towel is somehow more candid than the same athlete in street clothes at a press conference an hour later. I’m all for transparency and access, but I’m unconvinced at this point that we’re losing anything of great importance here.

New Article Published on Innovation in 20th Century Fitness

Well, this was a long time coming. My article, “Critical Mass: Oral History, Innovation Theory, and the Fitness Legacy of the Muscle Beach Scene,” was just published by the International Journal of the History of Sport. This paper began its life as part of my dissertation, which was submitted in 2014. I’d wager the initial research began in 2011 or so, so this is a sporadic decade’s work. I think it’s pretty good. 50 free copies via this link, but email me if you miss out on one of those and need a copy.

Playing the Long Game Symposium: April 12-15

We’ve got a big event next week, folks! I have spent the last six months co-organizing Playing the Long Game with Jim Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Rooney Consulting. Presented by Rooney Consulting, the Sport Management program at UT, and the HJ Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports, Playing the Long Game is dedicated to meaningful conversations on the future of the sports industry.

We’ve got an absolutely killer lineup, starting with a keynote address on April 12th featuring former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, one of the most influential figures in the history of American sports. We’ll then move on to four panel discussions, two each on April 13th and 15th. Topics include sports after COVID, innovation and the long term future of the industry, diversity, and culture and ethics in the workplace. Some panelists of note:

  • Swin Cash-Canal, former NCAA,WNBA, and Olympic champion, current VP of Basketball Operations for the New Orleans Pelicans
  • Paxton K. Baker, minority owner of the Washington Nationals and a long-time business leader in media and entertainment
  • Jeff Miller, NFL Executive Vice President for Communications, Public Affairs, and Policy
  • Larry Miller, Chairman of the Jordan Brand Advisory Board (Nike), former President of Jordan Brand, former President of the Portland Trailblazers
  • Sam Rapoport, NFL Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion
  • And many, many more thought leaders from across the sports industry and academia. Click here for a full list of panelists and their bios.

Head to our website to register for the event, it’s free and open to the public, via Zoom. Our vision is to make this annual event, one that will be live and in-person in Austin starting next year. While focused on the pressing issues that face students entering the sports industry in uncertain times, I trust that anyone interested in the business and future of sports will come away with much to think about. Finally, we plan to “play the long game” beyond the big event, building a community rooted in our vision of long term success and meaningful impact, in sports and beyond. Conference registrants will receive a monthly newsletter, featuring the latest from our panelists and hosts, unique content, networking opportunities and more.

I hope you’ll join us in Playing Long!

Sport and Geopolitics Roundup

Some recent items of note.

  1. North Korea is out of the Olympics. As the article notes, there’s a twofold explanation: covid-exposure fears and a rebuke of the opportunity for diplomatic conversations, sending a message to both Seoul and DC. This is decidedly a step backwards after the seeming progress at the previous winter games and in-line with the state’s recent weapons tests.

  2. The US is mulling a 2022 Olympic Boycott. Here’s my in-depth analysis: not happening.

  3. After a year-long delay due to the pandemic, the NBA’s Basketball Africa League will launch next month. This is a big and logical step for the league, a way to extend the global brand and step up talent development efforts on the continent. Given the lingering friction with China over the Daryl Morey-Hong Kong “scandal”, I expect more of these diverse global efforts from the league. Update 4/9/21: Xinjiang cotton production may be at the center of the next China-NBA rift.

  4. Xi Jinping has his sights set on soccer. Despite several attempts over the years, China has never really ascended on the global soccer stage. With a strong foothold in Olympic sports, gaining relevance in world soccer is an obvious step for China, but of course it’s easier said than done. But things can change if the Chinese government follows to through on the vision to throw big money and big efforts into the sport. Competitive success is complicated, but hosting a World Cup and taking a bigger role in FIFA seem inevitable.

We Can Dance If We Want To

A note from the editor: I’m tremendously excited to share this guest post by Scott Jedlicka, a dear friend and sport management professor at Washington State University. I find it challenging and thought-provoking in all the right ways. And it’s timely, coming not just when most of us surely thought the pandemic would be a memory, but also on the eve of the Final Four, when most of us will be engaging in just the sort of sports consumption (and, for some, the internal conflict) that Scott expounds on here. I hope you’ll read it, maybe a couple times, and let us know what you think. This is exactly the sort of work I had hoped to share when I started this site a year ago and I’m so thankful to Scott for the time, thought, and effort he put into this work. Finally, a special thank you to Andrew Hao, Alec Hurley, and George Kioussis for their insightful and prompt comments and suggestions on Scott’s early draft.–Tolga

In the June 2020 issue of The Atlantic, George Packer’s bluntly titled “We Are Living in a Failed State” recounts the United States’ woefully inept response to COVID-19. While much of Packer’s withering criticism is leveled specifically at the Trump administration and its utter inability (or refusal) to deal with the unfolding crisis, he also artfully captures the social, cultural, and economic environment that exacerbated these failures of leadership:

This was the American landscape that lay open to the virus: in prosperous cities, a class of globally connected desk workers dependent on a class of precarious and invisible service workers; in the countryside, decaying communities in revolt against the modern world; on social media, mutual hatred and endless vituperation among different camps; in the economy, even with full employment, a large and growing gap between triumphant capital and beleaguered labor; in Washington, an empty government led by a con man and his intellectually bankrupt party; around the country, a mood of cynical exhaustion, with no vision of a shared identity or future.

All of this is accurate and not very optimistic, of course, but the final clause is what really gives Packer’s description a dire tone: “no vision of a shared identity or future.” Packer is describing an empire on its last legs, a riven populace bereft of solidarity and unable to imagine a departure from the status quo. He is describing a culture in decline.

Insofar as it is an indicator of “normal” life, sport plays a revealing role in this denouement. The approaching end of the pandemic is unlikely to reverse the trajectory on which America finds itself. At the same time, the resumption of major sporting events, the familiar cycle of ritualized celebrations reliably marking the passage of time, will no doubt be heralded by many as a positive and welcome development. The critics and reformers will continue to stridently draw attention to sport’s shortcomings, of course, but—as was the case before the pandemic—the lion’s share of this criticism will either be filtered through various identity-based lenses or reduce sport to just another battlefront in the war of labor against capital. While these approaches are not without value, they tend to share the same contradictory and self-defeating endpoint.

For those concerned with issues of social equity, sport’s value lies primarily in its status as a visible platform for raising awareness. Consequently, sport is considered to be a distinct realm of public life only to the extent that it engages an audience that might otherwise reject considerations (or be wholly ignorant) of social justice. When professional or college athletes engage in various forms of protest, or when injustices occur in sport itself, it is meaningful precisely because it demands the attention of those who would prefer to look away. In this view, the dialogues, conversations, et al. that are ostensibly initiated or advanced through athletes refusing to “shut up and dribble” will necessarily lead in the direction of broader social critique: of the factors underpinning racism, misogyny, state violence, exploitation and abuse, and so on. It is at this point, unfortunately, that this critical approach to sport tends to go off the rails. Those whose politics position them in opposition to the causes championed by athletes will inevitably conclude that sport is being “politicized,” the response to which is typically to point out that sport—as a social practice—is an unavoidably politicized activity. This is a largely irreconcilable stalemate, as the two competing claims are generated from dissimilar premises; the “keep politics out of sport” crowd believes (however disingenuously) that there is something about sport that makes it essentially different from other spheres of social life, while its opponents decidedly do not.

Unfortunately, by denying that sport is anything other than a mirror of society, even those sympathetic to the causes associated with “politicized” sport reach a similar impasse. If one acknowledges the existence of intractable problems that are manifested in sport and in society (the latter of which, again, are often emphasized in sport through athlete activism), they are faced with two general paths to resolution. The first, common to many reform efforts in sport, is the “bad apples” diagnosis: that the problems of sport and society can be largely attributed to the negligent or malfeasant behavior of individuals. At the end of this path lies an easily implemented but rarely effective set of solutions that typically involves some combination of education, awareness-raising, and selecting the “right” leaders. The second path points in the direction of structural change, but the solutions on offer here are less obvious and (for most) emphatically less palatable. Those who pursue this line of critique must, at some point, confront the reality that if sport is a socially constructed activity (political in the way that all realms of social life are political), and if the causes of the problems with which they are concerned are rooted in the structures of society itself, then true reform will necessarily require fundamental changes to sport. In other words, the conditions that make sport a useful arena for social advocacy are also very likely the conditions that create the issues that require advocacy in the first place. Many who champion sport’s utility as a platform for awareness raising are less enthusiastic about setting fire to the stage.

Read More »

One More Women’s NCAA Observation: Learning from Rosters

A not-too-scientific, but potentially interesting addendum to Tuesday’s NCAA post.

When I watch college sports, I like to pull up the team rosters to see where everyone hails from, learn interesting trivia, etc. As I’ve been doing this during the basketball tournaments, I started noticing some things on women’s rosters that I think are positive indicators of the overall growth and investment in women’s sports:

  1. Rosters are less local. Historically, colleges tended to recruit from their local base. Football and basketball powerhouses were the exception, but even they relied heavily on in-state talent. Women’s teams also tended to be overwhelmingly local. Not the case anymore: these teams are built from all across the country and, in another positive sign, across the world.
  2. Transfers, transfers everywhere, as far as the eye can see. This trend has been accelerated by the rule-changes allowing graduate transfers immediate eligibility, but also to a lesser extent by greater case-by-case flexibility on undergrad transfer eligibility.

I’ve noticed this across many of the rosters I pulled up as I watched games, but Arizona’s Final Four squad serves as a good example. Of the 14 players on the team, eight are Americans, but only one hails from Arizona. The six internationals come from Canada, Spain (x2), Australia, Latvia, and Turkey (woot woot!). Four are transfers.

So what does this all mean? Again, this isn’t a particularly rigorous analysis, but I think the diversity here says much about the increasing seriousness of women’s sports, both in the US and abroad. To develop this level of talent requires investment, as does recruiting on the national and global scale. To be sure, the internet has made scouring the globe that much easier, but you still need dedicated staff to conduct research and get players on board. Interpreting the transfer tend is a bit hazier, but again, it takes resources to pull off and that players are keen to continue their careers suggests that they find value in the opportunity to keep playing with the potential of WNBA or foreign professional prospects.

I may be overthinking this, but I think there’s something here.

Some Thoughts and Reading on Women’s NCAA Sports

I’ve been thinking a lot about women’s sports in the past few weeks. No real surprise here: we’re discussing the topic in one of my classes this week and the NCAA women’s basketball tournament has been flat-out fantastic. Tournament time inevitably focuses our attention on the good and the bad of college sports: see the annual referendum on athlete compensation as we watch unpaid “amateurs” compete for hours in between endless advertisements. This year, the inequities between the men’s and women’s tournaments got much needed attention, in no small part due to the social media efforts of Sedona Prince. Here she is lampooning the ridiculous women’s “weight room” and here she is chronicling the “food” situation. (and here’s an excellent piece on her journey, hard not to root for her.)

I have thoughts and things to share:

  • For more on the NCAA’s embarrassing showing, I really like Sally Jenkins, who pulls exactly 0 punches. This one is great, as is this one. I particularly like her opening in the second one: The NCAA’s handling of the women’s basketball tournament is either malpractice or malfeasance. When it comes to the NCAA, why not both?
  • A related conversation that’s been thrust into the spotlight: the women’s tournament cannot use the marketing term “March Madness.” Only men can make madness, apparently. I generally understand arguments surrounding things like “brand dilution,” but come on. Here’s a decent piece on this absurdity.
  • In a related bit of indignity, one of the dumbest arguments against paying college athletes is that doing so will somehow “hurt” female athletes. As you can see from the above, the NCAA is of course very concerned with taking care of the women. But then there’s this graphic from Axios, with data from Openendorse:

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  • So what do we have here? Projected earnings potential for athletes still in the tournament, if they were able to monetize their Name-Image-Likeness. Couple things: yes, the remaining men’s teams are star-light and yes, converting follower counts to estimated earnings is a shaky metric at best. But you know what I don’t see here? Harm to female athletes. Let ’em get paid!
  • And finally, there’s the classic bit about all of the above being justified because “people just don’t watch women’s sports.” This is not totally off-base, but is incomplete. I’ll be back later this week with more on this, but for now, I’ll leave these here (via Zoomph and ESPN):

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Contextualizing the National Anthem Conversation

The most unexpected headline this week was the news that the Dallas Mavericks hadn’t been playing the national anthem before their home games. Of course, as soon as this made the news, things changed course and the anthem is back. Apparently, the NBA had softened the rule at the start of this season, but has now doubled back and clarified the expectation that all teams will play it before games. Some assorted thoughts on this:

While the US isn’t the ONLY country that plays the anthem before all professional and collegiate (and many high school) games, we’re in a pretty small minority. How did we get here? The tradition–as an occasional performance–dates back to the Civil War, but the current norm is decidedly more recent. I’ll defer to my UT colleague Michael Butterworth, who summarizes nicely in a pair of tweets:

So there’s that. I asked my small corner of Twitter if there were any examples of US teams similarly avoiding the anthem, as the Mavericks recently did. I didn’t get much, but historian Zach Bigalke pointed out that the Philadelphia Flyers abandoned the anthem amidst tensions during the Vietnam War, when many fans would leave their seats in a bit of protest. They replaced the song with God Bless America, won a Stanley Cup, and birthed a tradition. These days, it looks like the Flyers do play the anthem.

But for the most part, it appears to be standard fare, with a 70+ year history. The timing of the anthem hasn’t always been consistent: many NFL observers pointed out that, for many years, the anthem was played before the athletes took the field. Obviously, this changed before Colin Kaepernick’s now famous demonstration. Also on Twitter, historian Andrew McGregor noted that many Big 10 football teams would also play the song before players took the field, sometimes to the chagrin of visiting opponents.

So why might Mavericks owner Mark Cuban have signed off on this? Say what you will about Cuban, but he’s no dummy when it comes to business. My take was that it was somewhat calculated: fans offended by the absence of the song have likely already tuned out of the NBA and its increasingly visible social justice efforts. Thus, the Mavs decision might be taken as show of solidarity with their athletes and/or an alignment with fans who support the league’s progressive platforms.

And what does it all mean? Big picture…honestly, not a whole lot. But it’s another reminder that sports and politics are inextricably connected, as they have always been.


Sports are Weird: A Mental Model for Success in the Sports Industry

Roughly middle-aged in human terms, the academic field of sport management remains a bit maligned and misunderstood, sometimes fairly. Looked down upon by some academic peers, we’re also dismissed by many in the industry as nerds lacking a perspective from the trenches. (Sports industry types love the trenches.) While we professors are left to reckon with this dual-inferiority complex, the field is booming with students keen to enter an industry that has long enchanted them. And of course, there are plenty of young people outside of sport management who would love to work in sports and what follows applies to them as well.

To better serve my students, I have tried to help them articulate a response to a question they regularly encounter, seldom in good faith: why sport management, why not a business degree? My suggestion: sports are weird. There’s likely a more elegant way to phrase this, but I said it once a decade ago and it stuck. So again, sports are weird. Understanding this not only justifies a dedicated course of study in sport, but more importantly, is fundamental to long term success and career advancement in the industry.

So what do I mean here? Simply put, to see sports as directly interchangeable with other business sectors or industries is a perspective that is somewhere between limited and wrongheaded. (And to my peers whose departments treat the field as “management with sports examples”: do better.)

Some examples of the weirdness may help:

  1. The “rebuilding year” and consumer loyalty. I would never buy a product I knew was bad just because I love the brand, letting them off the hook for a “rebuilding year.” No one has ever said “Oh yeah, the new Camry is known to explode when you hit 55MPH, but come on, Toyota’s in a rebuilding year.” Yet the Chicago Cubs have one of the most fervent fanbases in the world, most of whom stuck it out through a rebuilding century. I am still a Raiders fan. This is weird.
  2. The nature of competition. Yes, franchises and schools compete against each other on the field, but are they really competitors in the traditional, market sense of the term? McDonald’s wouldn’t mind putting Burger King out of business, but FC Barcelona needs Real Madrid. When the Cleveland Browns left town for Baltimore, it was the Pittsburgh Steelers who led the charge to reestablish their rival franchise. Best Buy certainly didn’t do the same when Circuit City went under. We’ll leave the discussion of professional leagues and the NCAA operating as cartels for another day.
  3. The oft-used examples of BIRGing and CORFing. (Basking in reflected glory and cutting off reflected failure.) In simpler terms, the sports fan pronoun game: “WE WON!” There are plenty of actors and musicians and I’m a fan of, but I don’t take partial credit when they win an award or make something great.
  4. Locating the product. Are professional franchises in the live entertainment business? The broadcast or digital media space? The service sector? The clothing and retail sectors? Yes. And more. Jim Rooney succinctly captures one version of this in the biography he wrote about his father Dan, the late owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers: Labor deals in professional sports are unique because players are both the labor force and the product. Maintaining labor peace means maintaining the product. I might add that players these days also have a role in the PR functions of the organization. A TV show or a Big Mac can’t tweet, but your star player can.
  5. Let’s not even get started on professional team values and the mockery they make of traditional valuation metrics and multipliers…

6. In his recent book Post-Corona, Scott Galloway distinguishes between two fundamental business models:

One, a company can sell stuff for more than the cost of making it. Apple takes about $400 worth of circuits and glass, imbues it with the promise of status and sex appeal through brilliant advertising, and charges me $1,200 for an iPhone. Two, a company can give stuff away–or sell it below cost–and charge other companies for access to its product: the consumer’s behavioral data. NBC hires Jerry Seinfeld to write a TV show, films dozens of episodes on a studio lot in LA made to look like a sanitized version of Manhattan, then beams it out for free to anyone with a subscription to watch. But every eight minutes, NBC interrupts the witty banter with several minutes of ads, for which it charges the advertisers, who are its actual customers. The product is of course, you.

But Galloway also notes that some businesses combine both. His example? The NFL. The league generates revenue from selling tickets and other things to consumers, but also sells access to consumers to advertisers and sponsors, without cannibalizing itself. Relatively speaking: weird.

The list of examples could go on, but the big picture is what’s important. The aim isn’t to over-romanticize or over-complicate what makes the industry unique, but to identify and articulate the ways in which it IS unique. From there, a reasonable course of inquiry–and hopefully, action–should begin to manifest itself. If you build it get weird, they will come.

Postscript

  1. Thanks to Seth Kessler, Brian Mills, and Matt Bowers for their feedback on early drafts. Matt gets extra credit for letting me bounce this off him for the past 10 years.
  2. As they say, there is really nothing new under the sun. The sport academics reading this may find many parallels to Laurence Chalip’s essential article, “Toward a Distinctive Sport Management Discipline” (Journal of Sport Management, 2006). Chalip’s concern is for academia, not industry, but the gist is quite similar. Not surprising, given I took several graduate courses with him and he gets credit for shaping much of the way I think about these things. What I can’t quite wrap my head around is that I somehow never came across “Toward a…” until a couple years ago. This is embarrassing, but also a testament to his teaching and wisdom: I somehow lifted the idea from him without even being directly exposed to it. Folks with academic library access should be able to find the article easily. Get in touch if you need help. Here’s the abstract:

The current malaise over sport management’s place and future as an academic discipline provides a useful basis for envisioning the needs and directions for the field’s growth and development. The field’s development requires two complementary streams of research: one that tests the relevance and application of theories derived from other disciplines, and one that is grounded in sport phenomena. The legitimations that sport advocates advance for sport’s place on public agendas are useful starting points for research that is sport focused. The five most common current legitimations for sport are health, salubrious socialization, economic development, community development, and national pride. The value of sport in each case depends on the ways that sport is managed. Factors that facilitate and that inhibit optimization of sport’s contribution to each must be identified and probed. Identifying and probing those factors will be aided by research that confronts popular beliefs about sport, and by research that explores sport’s links to other economic sectors. The resulting research agenda will foster development of a distinctive sport management discipline.