One of the major hurdles the NFL task force is encountering, as are othersports, is the different restrictions state by state. It’s not hard to imagine few problems reopening in four months in front of a limited number of fans in states like Florida and Georgia while also having difficulty winning approval in states like California and New Jersey to even bring in teams, support staff and TV production crews. Said the team executive, “The NFL can come up with best practices, but it’s going to be county by county … I don’t really report to the NFL, I report to the county.”
First, a correction. In my summary post last week, I said that Saturday’s UFC fight marked the return of live sports. I was wrong! Credit goes to the PBR, who brought back live rodeo on April 25th. While we’re on the subject, a reminder that rodeo–and not football–is the official state sport of Texas. With this bit of trivia, you should be able to win a beer off a friend at the bar when things are back to normal. It’s also the state sport of Wyoming and South Dakota. If you need to go double or nothing on your bar bet, try Colorado, where pack burro racing is the state sport. Here’s what that looks like.
Back to the UFC, which felt like the return of sports to most of the viewing public. Justin Gaethje took down Tony Ferguson to claim the interim lightweight championship, while Francis Ngannou knocked out Jairzinho Rozenstruik in a mere 20 seconds.
But the event was not without controversy. The day before the fight, it was revealed that fighter Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and two of his cornermen had tested positive for COVID-19 and that his fight was cancelled. As social media clips of the fighter and his entourage suggest, they weren’t exactly holding a firm line on social distancing. The positive test suggest one of two scenarios, neither of which is ideal. The first is that the UFC dropped the ball, despite their ostensibly rigorous screening and testing plan. If this is the case, it’s a terrible look for Dana White and his organization. The second possibility is even scarier: if the UFC did adhere to all stated protocols and Jacare still tested positive, it is a bleak reminder of the contagiousness and aggressiveness of the virus, and the myriad challenges that lie ahead for all sports leagues trying to mount a return. Remember that the UFC was a bit of a test case in this regard.
The UFC also took heat for an extremely restrictive “non-disparagement” clause foisted upon all fighters and members of the media in attendance. Fighters could give up their prize purses for being critical of the organization, while journalists could be blackballed for the same. As the pandemic shines a spotlight on personal liberties, I wonder if we’ll see similar in other sports. Players’ unions will likely protect athletes in the major leagues; UFC fighters have no such union.
And why was the UFC so intent on the early return? The answer, is of course, dollars. UFC’s contract with ESPN requires 42 events in order to collect $500 million in fees, or roughly 70% of UFC’s projected revenues. Furthermore, parent company William Morris Endeavor is desperate for cash, seeking to recoup upwards of a quarter billion dollars in lost revenue due to the pandemic.
“Any buyer would have two choices. The first would be to just wait out the pandemic, and hope to resume operations next spring. The second would be to reimagine the XFL within the pandemic context, perhaps as a made-for-television product that eschews in-person fans altogether.“
The XFL may not be dead just yet. News on a potential takeover, from Axios.
Earlier this week, my graduate course in sport ethics enjoyed a virtual guest lecture and Q&A with Jim Rooney. Rooney’s family business is, of course, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the legendary NFL franchise founded by his grandfather Art in 1933. Jim’s father, the late Dan Rooney, deserves much of the credit for the team’s prestige and reputation; it was under Dan’s visionary leadership that the franchise transformed from the laughing stock of the league to one of the most consistently competitive and commercially successful outfits in big time sports.
Last year, Jim wrote a biography of his father, A Different Way to Win: Dan Rooney’s Story from the Super Bowl to the Rooney Rule. It’s an insightful and enlightening book, connecting lessons from Dan’s days running the football team to his time as US Ambassador to Ireland during the Obama administration, and definitely a good addition to any sports leadership library. Those familiar with the NFL likely know Dan Rooney not just as the leader of the Steelers, but as one of a small cadre of owners who really shepherded the league through its growing pains into the juggernaut it is today.
The book serves as a reminder that success in business (or sport business) is “simple, not easy.” The Rooneys would likely be the first to admit that there are no real secrets and Dan’s lessons are time-honored and tested. Value long term initiatives and planning over short term results. Negotiate for win-win situations and do so with dignity. Know the ins and outs of your organization, but don’t micromanage; empower people to succeed. Focus on building quality, long lasting relationships. But as I said: simple, not easy. The book details Dan Rooney’s steadfast commitment to these principles and how they generated consistent, long-term success. And there’s no BS here, it’s as fair as a treatment as any son could write of a father. Plus, it’s not like Jim has any room to re-write history: almost all of his father’s successes were closely observed by the media and the public, the track record is there for all to confirm. Those Super Bowls didn’t win themselves, nor did the three (!!!) head coaches that the team has employed since 1969 (!!!) hire themselves.
This guest post comes our way from Alec S. Hurley, a Ph.D. candidate in Physical Culture and Sport Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. When not musing on the intersection of the Church and pro sport, Alec studies the role of sport in the formation of empires and identity.
Less than two weeks ago the Miami Dolphins selected their franchise quarterback. Tua Tagovaiola was chosen – nay appointed – as the latest savior of the woe begotten franchise which has become the poster child for mediocrity over the last three decades. During the draft my father, a knowledgeable albeit restrained sports fan, remarked on the seemingly absurd fascination ESPN had with promoting the resurrection epics and saint-like backstories of the NFL draftees. Airing shortly after the defining Christian holiday of Easter he made an off-hand comment about the similarities between the NFL Draft and the pinnacle religious holiday. The NFL calendar, upon further reflection, shares a rather high degree of similarity with the Christian liturgical calendar. While essays, books, and op-eds on the connection between football and religion have been regurgitated ad nauseum, I would like to offer a musing or two of my own on the subject. Understanding the ways in which the sport calendar interacts and intersects with overlapping designations of the year offers administrators in sport the ability to increase their commercial appeal. Look no further than the National Basketball Association’s history with Christmas Day performances, which now present the opportunity for unique, one-off uniforms and other commercial opportunities. College Football’s “New Year’s Day Games” garner near equal attention and sponsorship-affiliation to the national championship game one week later. And the NFL’s monopolization of Thanksgiving has so greatly altered the culinary landscape that former coach and commentator John Madden’s “Turducken” turned a local delight into a national dietary phenomenon. Perhaps, then, there is practical usefulness in examining the connections between the calendars of the Christian faith and the NFL.
I was amused earlier this month when Taiwan Baseball returned to play with mannequins and cardboard cuts taking the place of fans in the seats. As leagues begin to wrap their heads around the logistics of playing in empty arenas, I wonder how they’ll deal with the lack of fans in the seats on live broadcasts. I know that we are itching for live action, but I also think that many of us realize the overall ambiance that a live crowd adds to a broadcast. Being an academic and man of science, I posed this question to my small cadre of Twitter followers.
You’ll notice I didn’t include mannequins as an option, but I think the results are interesting enough. It would appear that most folks don’t want a virtual or artificial simulation of the crowd–even if it’s just simulated crowd noise. The split between keeping the seats dark and acknowledging the emptiness with all of the lights on is notable, maybe a tacit admission that we want to fully embrace the weirdness of what lies ahead. As for my vote? I’d like to see the seats full of digital avatars, perhaps with some random celebrity easter eggs thrown in.
This guest post comes our way from Dr. Austin Duckworth. Austin is an expert in matters of global sports governance and security issues, amongst other things. He is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow with Aarhus University in Denmark. You can find him on Twitter @austinduck1.
I distinctly remember my first Sport Marketing class when I was starting my Ph.D. coursework. Matt Bowers, our instructor, showed us a YouTube clip of Lebron James advertising some Beats by Dre headphones for working out. Matt taught us the idea of storytelling in marketing and had us identify how that ad told each of us in the classroom a story (Matt, if you’re reading this and I got the idea behind the lesson wrong: I’m sorry). So to go away from my naïve self of 2015, fast-forward to the last six weeks or so when I have been craving any sort of interaction with my favorite pastime, watching sports. Thankfully, ESPN’s coverage of the Bulls 1997-1998 season has helped scratch the itch somewhat. When I was watching though, I couldn’t help but think that, language included, the first four episodes of this alone would be an incredible tool in a sport management classroom. Yes, studies and research and so on are important to help convey information to students, but this series subtly hits on so many different points of sport management that teachers could use in their classrooms, both in person and remote.
1. Poor Scottie Pippen. From the first few episodes the first and most obvious connection is Sport Law/Legal Issues in Sport. **First, a disclaimer, this is not criticizing Pippen for signing the contract as I don’t think you can second-guess someone who grew up in his conditions for accepting life-changing money. But that also does not mean the moment can’t be teachable. That contract Pippen signed, remember he was 122nd on the NBA money list, is historically bad. (for the opposite example, see Bobby Bonilla – paid until 2035). Now some of Pippen’s misfortune has been taken care of with max salaries and a slew of other concepts. However, teachers of Sport Law, there are lessons here. Show this to your students for a class on contracts, and emphasize that whole leveraging concept. Athletes with dreams of turning pro could use the lessons learned from Pippen’s bad contract.
2. Every good story has a villain and it seems clear that the villain here in this story is Jerry Krause. And I think this antihero could help Sport Business students benefit from learning what to do and what not to do when running a sport organization. Analyzing whether telling Phil Jackson that he wouldn’t be the coach the next season regardless of what happened in 1997-1998 is, at best, a curious decision from a business standpoint. While Pippen’s aforementioned contract was horrible from the player’s position, it was a boon for the Chicago Bulls, or as the phrase goes, “good business.”
3. Did you honestly think that Dennis Rodman would somehow not be part of the lesson? Multiple parts of his story arch, plus most anything related to the Detroit Pistons, would fit perfectly in a course on Sport Ethics. Have your students find which team had the most number of fans by the city’s population during any of their Finals runs and have them apply Utilitarianism to see which team should have won. Greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people, that’s how sport works, right?
4. Phil Jackson should be utilized as a perfect example in any course on Sport Leadership. There’s not much more to be said. Just roll the tape.
Granted, we are only four episodes in, and I cannot imagine that the backstory of Nike and the company’s relationship with MJ won’t be covered in some depth in the next six episodes. If this storyline appears, say hello to Sports Marketing. Perhaps after the final six air, I will come back with an update on how to use The Last Dance in a Sport Management classroom.