It has been some time since the Ivy League has been associated with athletic excellence on par with its academics, but for at least one day “Ivy League” and “Sports,” well sports business anyway, were one in the same. The event was the seventh annual Ivy Sports Symposium, which brought together over 600 “Moneyball” wannabees with some of the biggest names in sport business at Columbia University. Like the MIT Analytics conference, and other events hosted by schools like the University of Michigan, Georgetown, George Washington and others, the annual Ivy event puts leaders in a rare setting where senior speakers share best practices with the next and current groups of decision makers.
Some of the more frank and positive discussions came from the leadership groups of teams from various leagues and global sports brands. The teams included the Brooklyn Nets (GM Billy King), the Minnesota Vikings (GM Rick Spielman), The Arizona Diamondbacks (President Derrick Hall), Sporting Kansas City (CEO Robb Heineman), and the Boston Celtics (President Rich Gotham) among others. While their thoughts on success varied, they had a commonality amongst their bottom line goal…treat the franchise with consistency and respect…earn the respect of all in the organization…constantly be learning about those who follow you…and understand and communicate across all areas of business. While all may be successful on the field to different degrees, the place where the groups all sided was that leadership and a clear vision has to be communicated for a franchise to be successful.
Now obviously the daily functions, the markets, and the day to day work for each franchise and sport varies widely. Gotham talked openly about rebuilding the pride in a Celtics team that had lost its core mission during previous ownership, and how the organization of today relied more on “communication more than process” to get the business of the team accomplished. He talked of how the Celtics instilled in their staff on every level an understanding that everything contributes to winning, from ticket sales to maintenance to how coaches and players prepare for a game. It is a sense of Celtic pride and understanding that keeps the business moving forward and striving for a title.
Hall, the likeable and highly popular D-Backs leader, talked much more about the personal connections to all those working for the team, and the sense of inclusion employees feel and the pride they take in being associated with the business, a big reason why the club has been named the best place to work in Arizona seven years in a row. Heineman talked openly about all the little things that go into the club’s success, from the way employees are treated (mandatory off day and $50 on your birthday) to the sense of inclusion (a junior staffer came up with their logo) to their look to the non-traditional to grow their brand (Livestrong Park’s focus on technology and cutting edge fan-friendly features) as key reasons for their club’s success in a market where the NFL Chiefs and MLB Royals are still top dog.
King and Speilman, as the leaders more of the on-field side of sport vs. the business side, were also surprisingly frank about the need for learning, communication and inclusion into the making of winning franchises. King spoke openly about the lessons learned from when he ran the 76ers that he picked up from Flyers owner Ed Snider about how to run a team and make decisions, despite the fact the Hall of Fame owner eventually fired King from his position in Philly. Still those lessons, along with the leadership he studied and witnessed first hand at Duke University, dominate his work in building an open and healthy franchise now in Brooklyn. Like so many of the other business leaders during the day, Speilman talked about a sense of learning and inclusion in the decision-making process when looking at how to build a team correctly, and never working in a vacuum. It is about using all input…social, physical, community…in determining if anyone…staff member, coach or player…fits into the positive culture of the organization.
There were similar thoughts from other leaders like Mets GM Sandy Alderson and AS Roma head Mark Panus, but in the end the core values were the same. In order to have a successful business you have to have a consistent and clear culture, be inclusive and understanding of all your employees, convey a strong vision to your fans and brand partners, and never stop learning and improving on your business goals. They all were frank about failure and overcoming failure and conveyed a wisdom that inspired all, as did the dozens of other speakers throughout the event. In a business where the jaded can easily lose focus and passion, the overall day was a healthy dose of positive energy, especially conveyed through the vision of some of the businesses most open and candid leadership.
“The level of speakers and the access, along with the enthusiasm of the students, really makes this event unique,” added Bill Squadron, head of Bloomberg Sports, who was part of a panel on analytics. “There are many amazing gatherings throughout the year, but this one has carved a niche that really makes it stand out.”
There probably isn’t much chance of the Ivies rivaling the Big Ten on the playing fields with football and hoops any time soon (although Harvard’s surge in hoops and the improved play of schools like Columbia are giving powerhouses Penn and Princeton a run in recent years) but from a brand standpoint, at least one day a year, all eyes settled on the Ivy to hear what is the newest and latest and most innovative in sport, at least on the business side.