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.


  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.

SportsThink 2.0: Don’t Call it a Comeback

I launched this site in the early days of the pandemic, making good on a long-standing plan to write on a non-academic platform. Of course, in those days, it was also a nice antidote to the hours of doom scrolling. While I remain proud of the pace I maintained in the early days of the site, it was simply too much to keep up with as the fall semester came to a close.

Today, a month into 2021 and about a year into the pandemic, I’m looking forward to a return to regular posting, albeit with some changes. I don’t think readers need me to keep up with the day to day of the sports world; there are plenty of outlets for that, and much of the work done by my early link posts is now covered in the site’s companion newsletter, The SportsThink Weekly Review. The Weekly Review collects my favorite sports reading of the week, as well as some current events and other odds and ends. Issue 33 goes out this Friday and I’m proud to say that other than a short winter break, I haven’t missed a week since the launch. (And this may explain losing steam on the blog!) I’d be honored if you’d subscribe. It’s free and all I ask is that you consider sharing with other folks who may enjoy it.

So what can readers expect? More longer form writing, hopefully at a rate of 2-3 pieces a month, if not weekly. And some more guest contributions as well (writers, get in touch!). I’ll be editing the archive, focusing on leaving up the longer and more insightful pieces from the past year. I’m long overdue for tags on posts, so those will be coming as well. I’m also working on some permanent pages that will collect links on relevant topics, more on those in short order. And who knows, maybe some other good stuff?

Thanks for reading, I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you once again!

Doping’s Latest Threat: Unilateralism (guest post by Alec Hurley)

I’m excited to revive the blog with this guest contribution from Alec S. Hurley, a doctoral candidate in Physical Culture and Sports Studies at the University of Texas.

Lost amidst the ongoing chaos of a turbulent and exhausting election in the United States was a rare display of senate bipartisanship. In the early afternoon of November 17, 2020 senators unanimously passed The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act. The bill, named for Grigory Rodchenkov, who helped expose systematic state-sponsored doping practices in Russia, would make it “unlawful to knowingly influence a major international sport competition by use of a prohibited substance or method.” Less than two months after being officially signed into law, news of a decades long, Russian backed, doping coverup in international biathlon was revealed by the New York Times. The passage of this bill, in what will hopefully be an Olympic year, creates a series of interesting problems for a new presidential administration in the United States. The Biden/Harris agenda, focused on resuming global cooperation, could be complicated by legislation like the Rodchenkov Act, which doubles-down the ‘American First’ policies of the previous administration.


The new law was born nearly three years ago, at a meeting of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, where lawmakers consider a broad range of US-European issues. Early drafts of the bill worked through the U.S. House of Representatives in late October of 2019 before facing minimal opposition en route to unanimous passage through the U.S. Senate in mid-November 2020.

Among the reasons for the bill’s origins was a long-simmering dispute between the Trump administration and the World Anti-Doping Agency over funding and perceived influence. A transactional approach to international relations was a defining trait of the Trump administration and the US/WADA relationship was no different. As of 2019, the United States contributed $2.7 million to WADA. Additionally, because the IOC matches each government’s contribution, the total size of the US-generated funds sat at roughly $5.5 million, which accounted for roughly 7% of the organization’s overall budget. The general concern for the United States government was that their investment was not being met with the rigor they believed was necessary. Officials from the US Office of National Drug Control Policy often cited the need for fairness and a level playing field for American athletes in international competition. Perceptions of unfairness in the United States escalated rapidly between the 2016 and delayed 2020 Olympiads following the reinstatement of Russia’s anti-doping agency and athletics federations in 2018. With an Olympic host site on the horizon, the United States believes that it is owed the right to take the lead on such matters.

What can the law do?

Read More »

A Short History of Thanksgiving Day Football

I originally published this piece for the holiday in 2017, on It now sits behind a paywall, but Stratfor subscribers can find it here.

November 23 marks the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, a time for airport delays, overindulgence and passive aggression at the family dinner table. For many Americans, Thanksgiving also means football. Fans can expect a full slate of games to accompany every bite and sip throughout the day, perhaps viewed from the couch next to the requisite drunken uncle. As we look forward to this week’s matchups, it seems like an opportune moment to reflect on the history of Thanksgiving football.

Much of the early development of American football traces back to the Ivy League, and the tradition of playing on Thanksgiving Day is no exception. In 1876, just 14 years after Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, Yale and Princeton squared off in what is considered the first Thanksgiving matchup on the gridiron. The other Ivies and early football powerhouses like the universities of Michigan and Chicago followed suit, embracing the self-evident logic of playing on Thanksgiving: In the era before television or radio, a day off work meant large crowds with time on their hands that could be enticed to stadiums for holiday entertainment. High school football programs soon kicked off their own Thanksgiving traditions, some of which continue today. On the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border, Easton and Phillipsburg high schools will meet for their 111th Thanksgiving contest this year. Arguably the most storied high school football rivalry in the country, between the Boston Latin School and the English High School of Boston, has been a Thanksgiving staple since 1887.

When the National Football League was established in 1920, it was no surprise that it joined the fray. Its teams played as many as six games each Thanksgiving Day for the first decade of its existence. Today, NFL fans can expect three matchups on the holiday: one each featuring traditional mainstays the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys, and one randomly assigned game. The Cowboys have been a Thanksgiving fixture since 1966, when Tex Schramm, their legendary general manager, established the holiday tradition. But Schramm was some three decades behind the Lions’ first owner, George Richards, who scheduled a Thanksgiving Day game against the champion Chicago Bears in 1934 in an effort to boost attendance and draw attention to his struggling ball club. That contest was the first NFL game to be broadcast on national radio. Richards, a radio station owner himself, coordinated with NBC to run the game on almost 100 stations nationwide. It was a coup for Richards, whose team leapt onto the national stage, but it was just the beginning of the NFL’s campaign to dominate the airwaves. In the second half of the 20th century, shrewd positioning on radio and television would help the league eclipse college football and other professional sports in popularity in the United States.

And Then Came ‘Franksgiving’

The addition of NFL games cemented Thanksgiving football as an American institution in the interwar years. By this period, most collegiate programs had arranged their schedules to culminate on the holiday, usually in a much anticipated matchup against a traditional rival. This routine was upset at the tail end of the Great Depression during a somewhat forgotten period between 1939 and 1941 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to reschedule the holiday. The move caused a mild national fracas known as “Franksgiving.” For the play-by-play, I’ll defer to the Aug. 28, 1939, issue of Time magazine:

“… Mrs. President Roosevelt … went to bat cleverly in her column to defend an act of her husband’s which had stirred the country to its grass roots: shifting Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday in November (the 30th) to the next-to-last. … Only since 1863 has Thanksgiving had a consistent year-to-year day, but football coaches were furious: 30 percent of them had games scheduled Nov. 30 which would now play to ordinary weekday crowds.”

With the adjustment, FDR was ostensibly attempting to boost national morale and holiday spending by extending the festive season. Historians argue that the economic impact of the action was negligible; the effect on morale was equally debatable. Along with the frustrated football coaches, critics of the president took the opportunity to link the holiday decision to his broader deficiencies. Time quoted Alf Landon, former Kansas governor and failed presidential challenger, describing the situation as “another illustration of the confusion which his impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken in working it out … instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.” The greatest morale boost likely came in Colorado, Texas and Mississippi: While other states split the difference, observing either Roosevelt’s proposed date or the traditional fourth Thursday, those states chose to observe both.

War and Beyond

On the heels of the Franksgiving kerfuffle, the onset of World War II brought the most sustained challenge to Thanksgiving football, especially for the NFL, which abandoned holiday action through 1945. The collegiate level also saw a steep decline, mainly because wartime realities meant that most seasons were truncated, concluding well before Thanksgiving. As the draft shrank the pool of available players at all levels, wartime restrictions on large group air travel further held back the sport. Basketball, meanwhile, enjoyed a significant boost in popularity during the war, and not just because it replaced a diminished football offering. The sport’s smaller squads could get around the travel restrictions that kept football teams grounded. In addition, because men taller than about 2 meters (6.5 feet) didn’t fit military uniform and equipment standards, many elite basketball players remained at home while shorter football stars entered the service.

The end of the war brought the return of full-time football and of the Thanksgiving Day schedule. In the postwar decades, as the NFL’s presence grew across the country, professional football for the most part displaced college offerings from Thanksgiving Thursday, save the occasional marquee matchup. The shift has only been a boon for the well-stuffed fan. Most universities still will feature a major rivalry this weekend, meaning viewers can now enjoy leftovers alongside four days of glorious gridiron entertainment — which I’m pretty sure is what the Pilgrims were really searching for anyway.

Pandemic Accelerants: NCAA NIL Rights

More developments in one of the areas I suggested would be accelerated by the pandemic, as the NCAA has outlined their plan for granting athletes NIL rights. These are not the same as the federal and state level rules on the books or making their way through legislative processes. Why now? No surprise, as college sports have been financially brutalized and have come under fire for soldiering on with games despite all of the risks to athletes, coaches, and fans. It’s part of the classic NCAA playbook: claim that something is impossible and would destroy the fabric of the system– nay, American life– wait for the pressure to mount, then relent a bit while still maintaining control.

Great summary from Axios here and some key points to note:

Four ways to earn: Student athletes would be able to conduct private lessons or camps, endorse products, sell autographs and crowdfund for things like charities and family emergencies.

Restrictions: School logos must be absent from any of the above and athletes can’t endorse products that conflict with existing school sponsorships or NCAA legislation (i.e. banned substances, gambling).

Oversight: There will be a third-party platform for disclosure and approval of all NIL activities.

Pandemic Accelerants: Youth Sports In Danger

In what wasn’t a particularly bold prediction, I previously forecasted significant pandemic challenges for youth sport. This is not the type of thing that I’m happy to be right about, but some recent data confirms that there is reason for concern in this space. Excellent reporting from the New York Times.

From Front Office Sports, data from the always excellent Aspen Institute’s Project Play:

Some youth sports have returned to play, while others remain sidelined — showing the pandemic’s adverse effect on the future of the $19 billion industry. A new survey by the Aspen Institute has found 29% of parents reported their child is no longer interested in sports.

Among the findings was a widening opportunity gap, with wealthier families finding ways to keep their children active in sports. Also contributing to the lack of interest is the inability to gather for games — whether at an arena or in a communal setting — which promotes fandom that sparks children to take up sports.

Sports participation was at an all-time high in 2019, with 45 million youth program participants. With video games rising in popularity and live sports still paused in many communities, that upward trend is at risk.

More data from Aspen:

  • 28.9% of parents reported their child is no longer interested in sports as a potential barrier to resume. 
  • 63.9% reported fear of illness in children — 59.3% in parents — as a barrier to resume sports.
  • 28% of parents reported they would willingly spend more money on sports when they return.
  • Children went from playing sports 13.6 hours per week pre-pandemic to 7.2 hours per week in September.

The Power of Sports and Memory

My three year-old son, Gus, recently began his foray into organized (well, somewhat organized) sports with a great tee-ball program called Little Rookies. Newsletter readers may recall that the very first thing he did upon taking the field was to drop his little shorts and pee on home plate. I wasn’t there for that priceless moment, but the story from my wife filled me with a blend of horror and pride. This week, my afternoon class has a big project, so I’ve given them the week off from class to work, which meant I was able to go and see the action for myself.

It was a blast: a gaggle of 3-5 year olds running around and occasionally doing something resembling sports. Bless the coaches, who have the patience of saints and I’m pretty sure keep a smile behind their masks throughout the session. The kids seemed to have a great time playing, but the handing out of post-play stickers was clearly their favorite part. I was most impressed with how well they’ve trained the kids to support each other; every hit and fielded ball is met with a chorus of cheers from the crew and I hope they’ll always be like that. (I know they won’t, things will get serious all too soon, no matter how hard we try.)

I had a great time, but I wasn’t expecting the wave of emotions that came at the end of practice, after loading Gus up in his mom’s car and making my way to my own. I closed the door and pretty much broke down. In part, it was what all parents must feel when the kids begin to grow up. I still remember holding him for the first time in the hospital, absolutely terrified; now he’s taking big cuts and giving high-fives to his buddies. This feeling, I may have expected. But I didn’t expect the torrent of memories from my own childhood spent on fields and courts. The wins and the losses, sure, but mostly my folks, always taking the time to show up and support, to learn the rules and traditions of the American youth sports world. Taking my first home run ball to my mother, sick and in bed at home. My dad inscribed the ball with the date and field; it now sits in my top desk drawer at work, something to hold and fiddle with in distracted moments. A few years later: playing soccer the weekend after she passed away, my absolute legend of a coach, George Inyang, putting his big arm around me and saying “you’re going to be ok maaaan.”

I called my dad from the car. Twenty minutes earlier I had been live-streaming Gus at bat, marveling at the technology to broadcast the experience to the other side of the planet. I think he knew the call was coming. We had a good talk and he brought me back to neutral, as he has always done. I headed to our old house to finish up a move. Fittingly, the last boxes out were the old trophies and the old family photos.

This morning, I woke up, feeling peace and tremendous gratitude. For Gus’s coaches. For my wife and son and our families. For those who have passed and those who have their life ahead of them. Even when the world is upside down, life can be so, so sweet.