USC Sports Business Institute Blog –Fields of Green

By Greg Economou

  1. Are there traits that are specific to being an effective leader in the sports business industry that may not be present in other industries?


Great leadership is a force multiplier – whether in general business or in sports-related businesses. It is usually the difference between good and truly great organizations – ones that are able to achieve exponential growth and brand sustainability.  In general, leaders who possess admirable and high–minded core values – and have the ability to impart those values into the organization he or she leads – are always the most effective, regardless of their leadership style or personality.


Specific to the sports industry, leaders are faced with a unique dynamic – there are generally two fundamental sides to the industry: the business function and the competitive function.  For leaders on either side, it is critical to be able to connect on each side of equation – and in best-case scenarios, marry those two aspects as deeply as possible.  When the two sides are completely distinct, there is the possibility of differing missions, values, corporate cultures, and goals and objectives – which invariably creates long–term issues and less than desired results.  When the two sides are inextricably conjoined, there is a certain harmony and ability to feed off each other – helping optimize success and organizational growth like nothing else.


  1. What types of leadership challenges do you find are unique to the sports business industry?


Sports industry leaders must be aware and alert that sports brands are extraordinarily volatile in nature.  On a base level, an organization’s ability to drive brand equity is generally contingent on wins and losses – or in the cases of leagues and media companies, competitive playing fields.  It is very difficult to build long–term brand strength if teams are not consistent winners or if the competition isn’t fair, dramatic, authentic, or relevant.  A lack of winning or competitive balance makes it makes it more difficult to drive fanaticism and evangelism – things that drive key performance indicators such as viewership, attendance, fan engagement, corporate partnerships, etc.  Therefore, leaders must be able to leverage and maximize successes, while also maintaining the ability to buoy the organization when wins are more infrequent than desired or a lack of competitive balance is not present at any given time.


Additionally, leaders must always be cognizant that sports brands are deeply tied to the individual behaviors of the competitors.  If an athlete breaks a bond with the core values or brand mantra that has been established by leaders and organizations, it can tear away at the overall brand equity of the organization much more quickly than in most other industries – due to the public nature and popularity of these people.  For example, the Ray Rice situation has had a tremendously negative impact not only on his brand, but the Ravens’ brand and the NFL’s brand as well.  His actions alone put the entire enterprise under a microscope and in an understandably defensive position.  Like in any sport or business, it is difficult to create success and progress when restricted to playing only defense – thus hindering leadership’s ability to grow and achieve desired results.



  1. Which organization in the sports business industry best exemplifies leadership and how does it do so?


The NBA has long been considered the most progressive and innovative sports league in the world.  When examining any facet of the NBA – the League itself, the success of its 30 teams, the growth of the players as brands, the size and scope of broadcast partners, the unmatched digital and social media efforts, the international growth and expansion, etc. – it is obvious that the NBA has consistently displayed unparalleled leadership as an organization.  It is considered by most experts to be amongst the most intelligent and innovative businesses within the sports industry – having developed platforms and programs that have become best practice across the globe.


Furthermore, the NBA’s ability to stay true to its core values and maintain unbending pursuit of its mission makes it unique and powerful in the space – while also serving as a beacon for all the other parts of its ecosystem.  Whether it has been the growth of Team Marketing & Business Operations unit – an internal management consulting firm that helps its teams optimize success; the tremendous leadership in player development and alumni relations – which helps players become better citizens and brand ambassadors; the ever–growing relationship with media partners and corporate partners – which helps convey brand assets through every possible channel and engage fans at every turn; or the implementation of an unprecedented International operation – which has globalized the game and created incremental and exponential revenue streams;  the NBA has been and continues to be a trend-setter and shining example of great organizational leadership.



  1. Which individual in the sports business industry best exemplifies leadership and how does he/she demonstrate this?


Part and parcel to the previous question, David Stern’s ability to lead the NBA to the unprecedented heights mentioned above made him one of the more exemplary and successful leaders in the history of the sports industry.  From a top-line perspective, he successfully embedded his core values – an unparalleled drive and work ethic, unmatched intelligence and innovative spirit, unbridled passion and compassion, and unending teamwork and collaboration – into every facet of the NBA as an enterprise and consistently maintained those ideals as the key to the NBA’s success.  His mission to put the game at the heart of everything the NBA would ever do was high-minded enough to guide the implementation and execution of whatever strategies and tactics were necessary to build an ultra-successful operation.  His vision for the future and his ability to engage his organization on individual and collective levels, helping every single stakeholder to better understand, pursue, and ultimately achieve that vision, is stuff of legends.


Moreover, his ability to create and manage an incredibly complex and volatile ecosystem – the league, the teams, the players, the union, media partners, corporate partners, and especially the fans – by instilling a common mission and set of objectives helped make him a hall of fame caliber leader who could inspire individuals to go beyond their limits and groups to innovate beyond their imaginations.   Every leader, regardless of their style or personality, should aspire to create and manage their ecosystem with the type of consistency, strength, inspiration, and vision that Commissioner Stern displayed for so many years.


  1. What advice would you impart to an individual entering a leadership position in the sports industry for the first time?


First and foremost, new leaders must understand and define their core values – so that they are realistic, scalable, and defendable to anyone and everyone associated with the organization.  Secondly, they must be able to articulate these core values every day and in everything they do – so that the organization they lead embodies those ideals.  The more symbiosis there is between a leader and his or her organization, the more common ground will exist to create much needed trust and productivity.  Once trust exists, communication becomes open and progressive – whether positive or negative in nature – and everyone from the leader on down can be held accountable.  Sometimes the greatest multiplier of growth comes from the melding of differing opinions and debate – which fuels best practice thinking and actions.


Finally, new leaders must always remember his or her organization is made up of human beings – people that have differentiating thoughts, ideas, idiosyncrasies, styles, and approaches to problem-solving.  Therefore, leaders must be constantly and consistently open and adaptable – possessing an uncanny ability to mesh differences to find the strongest and most common denominators.  Doing this authentically engenders unconditional support and loyalty – which is the basis for individual and collective success.