Saturday, December 3, 2011

Maryland Athletics: The Gladiator Games in College Park

The University of Maryland recently released the findings of a special commission on the financial condition of athletics, which examined the business operations of the universities athletic department, and was charged with producing recommendations upon which President Wallace D Loh could choose to accept, or not. Put another way, “Thumbs up” or “thumbs down”, Loh could signal his choice. Ironically, this also was the role of the emperor in the gladiator days of Rome and it may not be a stretch to apply that same visual image to President Loh and Maryland athletics today.

In the days of the gladiator games in Rome, the competition was brutal, tougher than anything on what we refer to as the “gridiron” today. However, as tough as those competitors were, and for as much physical exertion the competitors put forth, instead of simply finishing off his opponent with one final plunge of the sword into his beaten opponent, the winning gladiator would stand over his fallen competitor and look upward at the royal box, for a signal, thumbs up or thumbs down. For it was not the gladiator himself that made the final decision, rather it was the emperor, the politico, who made the final decision about the fate of the fallen.

Thus, after weeks and months of examination in College Park --and by the way, we were led to believe that this was a tough and challenging exercise -- the investigation recommended administrative cutbacks and the elimination of up to eight varsity sports. The commission completed its assignment, and then looked upward to President Loh for the signal. With the sword drawn and pointed directly at those sports and their respective athletes, what was it going to be, thumbs up, or thumbs down?

Playing the role of Roman emperor, President Loh indicated thumbs down. That's it, cut the eight sports, let the coaches go and save the money, cancel the respective seasons!

But wait, the emperor was rotating his thumb up. Could this be, he was changing his mind?

As you read the report, their came the alternative that those sports which were targeted for cuts could be saved. If the alumni, former athletes or anyone otherwise specifically interested in those sports could raise enough money to support any of those teams for a period of eight years into the future--approximately $29M dollars for all sports, they could be restored, for now that is.

Stop collecting the uniforms, tell those coach they still has a job --if they can raise the money--, we've got games to play! It's as if the fallen gladiator gets up, dusts himself off and heads into the stands to start collecting gold coins to give to the emperor, on his behalf.

What just happened? What is going in college athletics? What is going on in College Park?

Without the changes called for by the commission, if the leadership of the university and athletics at Maryland did not act the report cites, the operating deficit for the sports program would grow to as much as $17M by 2017. President Loh referred to the findings of the commission recently as a “day of enormous sadness,” and went to point out the risks of inaction" puts at risk the entire Maryland athletics program." In part of his written response to the commissions report, Loh goes on to say, ..."In a time of constrained resources, we have to choose; should we have fewer programs so that they can be better supported and, hence, more likely to be successful at the highest level….?”

What the report should have said, however, was that across the board in college athletics, including in College Park, there is a failure of leadership and the list of failing leaders includes Coaches, Athletic Directors and most importantly, University Presidents. There has never been, nor will there ever be, a better time to act and clean up the hypocrisy and fiscal irresponsibility of college athletics on this country. In the case of the University of Maryland, it's as if they are too close to the Nation’s Capital and they have been infected by the inaction of our countries elected leaders and have caught the same incurable disease of "lack of courage".

When the special commission returned it's findings to President Loh recently, he should not have gone to his figurative balcony and given the ambiguous half thumbs down-up signal. Rather he should have communicated in no uncertain terms, "Go back and find more sports to cut, you’re work is not done.” That would be been the clear and courageous thing to do. You see, the University of Maryland does not have a problem with swimming, or water polo, or men’s tennis. No, Maryland like so many other schools has a money problem with football and basketball and they are trying to make tennis, swimming and water polo pay for it.

The problems with the “revenue producing sports” are simple; they are not producing enough revenue on their own. For example, Football is producing just $1.8M in revenue; just over half of what it did five years ago. Men’s basketball, in what was the signature sport with a highly paid alumnus, Gary Williams as Head Coach, generated $4.5M in fiscal year 2011,down from $6.8M five years ago. Moreover, The athletic program has been running a deficit for the last several years, a deficit that has been financed by student fees and state funds. According to a study by Indiana University's National Sports Journalism Center and USA Today, Maryland athletics receives nearly $14M dollars, or 25% of it’s total revenue, from subsidies, which include student fees and other direct and indirect dollars from the institution and state. This is an increase from 19% of total revenues in 2006. In comparison to its peer group of public institutions in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Maryland athletics receives the most subsidies, in term of total revenues. Folks, this trend line is going in the wrong direction.

It is important to know that the NCAA is partially negligent in this case. As part of it's mandate to schools that want to be in Division 1 at the highest level, requires those schools field 14 varsity sports. That is the minimum. When you sprinkle in the additional obligations that come with Title IX compliance, the make up of sports programs at major universities is a reflection of a bygone era, both in terms of policy and economics. Today, unlike in the early 1970’s, it’s not uncommon for females to make up more than half the campus population and opportunities for athletic participation and scholarship are plentiful. Economically, it’s time to allow schools to go below 14 sports to be considered a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) eligible school.

In fact, there are mixed messages being sent to the University community, including faculty, students, alumni and supporters in this most recent round introspection. The message is, "we have a deficit and we need to cut certain sports to bring our budget into balance". However, while the football and men’s basketball are the single most important drivers to profit and loss on the athletic books, there will be no real change there. Stay the course, coaches salaries keep going up, just win more games please. Message sent and received. Oh, and for those eight sports that were to be cut, raise enough private dollars and you can be restored. What the commission did was sanction a capital fundraising campaign for those fallen sports, more or less!

Maryland athletics, like so many other athletic departments at major institutions has a leadership and management problem. In the offices of athletics at Maryland you could shoot a cannon off, and not be in danger of hitting anyone that has a practical experience in sports business, marketing or the turnaround of a business that is in trouble. No, all open roles are filled either with someone from another, many times equally failing athletic department, or an alumnus associated with the school. The University has a financial problem that requires new thinking, the type that reduces the footprint for athletics, moves other sports to club status and sets a new course that others could follow. President Loh, however, as chosen to fall in line with the status quo. Legendary American General George S. Patton Jr. might have been referencing athletics at the University of Maryland when he said, “If everyone is thinking alike then somebody isn't thinking

There was no reason for President Loh not to act decisively; he has the power to do that. The institutions that make up the NCAA made sure of that. The Knight Commission on College Athletics, commonly referred to as the Knight Commission was formed in 1989 and by 1991 had issued it's landmark report, "Keeping Faith with the Student Athlete: A New Model for Intercollegiate Athletics. Among other things, it called for "One-plus-three" model, in which the one, College Presidents, would run college athletics, taking power away from the Athletic Directors. The "three" goals of college athletics were identified as academic integrity, financial integrity and independent certification. It sounds simple right? Place the Presidents in charge, focus on academic and financial integrity and have independent verification.

Except, that's not what happened across the board in college athletics, and it's certainly not happening in College Park today. The President is in charge, but there is no evidence of financial integrity whatsoever.

President Loh and Athletic Director Kevin Anderson have abdicated their real responsibility in this case. Rather than putting the university and its athletic department on a new course, one of a smaller, more efficient and effective athletics department, they have responded in another way. Where there was opportunity to be aggressive, perhaps even innovative, their form of leadership seems to be one that strives to preserve their own future and their next job. For, if we know anything it’s this; no President, and certainly no Athletic Director, will get another high paying job in Division 1 athletics with a reputation for cutting sports at a major university. This is fundamentally wrong, and why Jack Welch could never work in college athletics.

Looking at Maryland athletics, like the gladiator games; after a long struggle, and with an arena of onlookers focused on the leader to signal, for now, the Emperor of College Park has signaled his decision, and it’s, a thumbs down….I mean up! Heck, for now, there seems to be no real decision, or real direction.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

While Rome is Burning The Orioles Change Caps

Recently, the Baltimore Orioles revealed a new cap for the 2012 season. The change involves altering the symbol on the front of the cap. Specifically, the change removes the "ornithologically correct bird", and replaces it with the "cartoon bird". Here is a link to the story with a photo.


In 2011, the Orioles completed their 14th consecutive losing season, dropping 93 games, finishing 28 games behind the division winning New York Yankees. The first change that was announced after such an awful season? New caps, of course.

This reminded me of a wonderful business lesson that I learned while working for the Orioles in 1988. The late Edward Bennett Williams owned the team at that point and his brilliant protege Larry Lucchino was running the ballclub. The Orioles started the season by losing the first 21 straight games. We went "0-for April" that year. I can still recall the Hall of Fame broadcaster Jon Miller cracking wise about the Orioles later that year, by saying "The Orioles started the season by losing 21 straight game, they won game #22, and then went into a slump!" Miller was spot on, we were awful that year and while there were plans for a new stadium at Camden Yards in three years, the product was terrible and needed to be fixed, immediately. The management lesson, was one of developing a business plan to turn the product around, establishing priorities in the plan, and communicating the plan clearly to everyone, inside and out of the organization. If you communicate anything other than your priorities, you are sending exactly the wrong message.

There was such a "teachable moment" in 1988 that illustrates this point. I, along with other team marketing executives began to consider changes to the uniform and cap for the following year, in an effort put a bad year behind us and change an impression in the market, or at least we thought so. We worked up some potential changes and created some potential new looks. We asked Larry if he would show them to Mr. Williams and seek his approval before moving any further. Weeks passed and we heard nothing. Finally, in a meeting that Larry had with the marketing team, we asked Larry, "so, has Mr. Williams seen the new designs, and what did he think?"  There was an uncomfortable pause, and then Larry said, "you want to know what he said?  "Sure", we nodded.

"We're the worst team in baseball, we can't hit and our pitching is just awful. Rome is burning, and you want to change caps?"

Edward Bennett Williams was right then, and though I was not present when he spoke those words to Larry, I can recall his voice tone well enough to know that when he spoke those words, there were strains of disdain in his voice. Not just that he didn't like the potential designs, rather that his well paid executives were thinking about changing hats in the middle of the one of the worst seasons, not just in baseball, but in all of sport history. "Caps, these guys are thinking about caps!", I can image a shake of his head, perhaps accompanied by a wave of the hand in contempt.

There will be a new logo on the caps that the team will be wearing when they take the field in 2012. However, for a team that lost over 90 games, will there be changes to anything more important?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How Digital Media Fails at the Washington Post

The Washington Post digital efforts illustrates why companies who once dominated the media landscape, prior to digital, fail in their efforts to convert that leadership to online and digital formats. At one time the Washington Post, and others like them, could decide for themselves what stories to develop and print, push that product to the press, place it in their distribution system and finally, drop it in your box, sling it to the end of your driveway, or fill the box on your street corner. There was no place for the their customer in that elaborate chain of events.

The Washington Post is making an attempt at conversion to digital, but failing, badly. Why? Because again, they leave the end user/customer out. We are not in the bottom of the first inning in terms of a digital evolution, yet it's pretty clear that for all of advances in the medium which the Post exclaims they can not yet deliver a simple, effective digital customer experience.

Today is a classic example, one that seems to repeat itself at the Post, and others companies of the like.

In their online sports section they have some interesting articles related to local sports. After all, this should be a core competency of the sports staff. I can get all the national sports news, information and commentary that I need from my dozens of sources.  From the Post, I am looking for that interesting story from a local perspective.

Such a story piqued my interest. The presentation online included a video about the subject of the story, a local high school athlete. When you click and engage the video, you are first met with a 15 second video advertisement for Conoco Phillips, the subject of the advertisement was the important role of natural gas in everyday life.

And this is related to the subject of the story how? Or, this fit my user profile how? As I alluded to earlier, we are several innings deep into the digital game and by now publishers know my browsing history well enough to server video ads that match my interest or they don't serve me anything. No match, no video. Forcing me, and anyone interested in this story to see the very same ad? Perhaps in 2005, but not today.

I did ignore the advertisement long enough to get to the 3 minute video feature. As I started to watch, I was interrupted every 5 seconds by the video buffer. I stuck with it for all of 20 seconds and recognized that it was not my connection. I even closed the video, opened it again to see if I had a poor connection. Nope, same staccato effect.

I abandoned the effort, left the Washington Post site and found other sources for local sports news.

The Post had two "epic fails", to borrow from the Gen Y crowd. First, they can make the effort to match my interest if they want to interrupt my online video session. I might yet be a bit annoyed, but at least I may find some value in the match. Second, and more importantly, they clearly are not monitoring the user experience on the video. I can only presume that my experience with the video is that of others. They are doing just what they did offline for 50 years, they are dropping off their content at the end of my driveway and hoping that I have a good experience. They posted the video and left it at that. If nothing else, digital media, including advances in video integration, is a more personal and engaging experience than anything in print, or even on television. How many times do you think the Post reviews the videos that it publishes for quality and reliability? Is there a quality assurance team looking across the online experiences at all times, monitoring for breakups like the one that I experienced?

The Post consistently seems to be playing a new game, by the old rules.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Baltimore Grand Prix: Wrecks and Confrontation OFF the Track

Fingers snapping.....the sound of fingers snapping. We can hear the sound of fingers snapping in rhythm and the strains of the clarinet combining for the familiar introduction to the story.

It's the Jets as they dance their way across the streets and playground of NYC, in the musical West Side Story. You know, the story of youngsters who are on opposite sides, with their respective gangs falling in behind, to support the leader. In the meantime, young Maria is placed squarely in the middle.

Fingers snapping, fingers snapping.

While there may not be a romantic interest, the underlying theme of West Side Story is now playing out in Baltimore, with the Baltimore Grand Prix in the middle.

As I wrote shortly after the conclusion of the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix event that ran through the streets of downtown, the economic impact study street-fight has begun. You can review how I expected this would play out.

Baltimore's Grand Fish Story

Today, the Baltimore City officials produced their own study of the spending and impact for the event. Their bottom line? $28M in spending and $47M in total impact. You can read the Baltimore Sun article that features the study Here.

Baltimore City officials are snapping their fingers, protecting their "territory". In this story, they are the Jets.

From the other side, comes the rival group with their impact study. This one produced by Professors from UMBC and UMCP respectively, which pegged the impact at approximately $28M dollars.

The Professors are snapping their fingers, protecting their "territory". They can be the Sharks.

It looks like a 'rumble' is about to breakout in Baltimore. If they were to ever come together imagine the pushing and shoving. Instead of switch blades, we might have 4 inch binders being swung in the direction of their adversaries!

In the meantime the actual event, the subject of all this study, has long since passed and now there is more thought given to plowing the streets, than racing through them. Clearly, the officials associated directly with the event shoulder more than an equal share of the blame that is now playing out in the public and media.  Poor financial management, vendors left to file ugly lawsuits, public spats about ownership. All of this falls squarely on Baltimore Racing Development (BRD). It's ironic, there have been more wrecks in the weeks after the event, then during the 3 days those high performance machines raced on the grid.

To their credit, BRD officials do acknowledge the carnage they have left and made public comments toward "making it right". It may not be enough, however. IndyCar and Baltimore City officials are demanding change if there is any chance for the race to return to Baltimore. Both IndyCar and Baltimore City can start by requiring a team of racing and sports professionals be put in place, with well supported and resourced ownership to draw upon. This is not such a big challenge, it happens all over the sports world, there are many, many professionals from which to choose. And by the way, they do not have to be from Baltimore. Too often the excuse for the failure of sporting events and activities in Baltimore has been "well, they are not from here, they don't know this city". Well, news-flash to Baltimore officials, there is a whole new world out there, relative to sports and event marketing an it's time to reach out and plug the city and surrounding area into that scene.

The story of the Baltimore Grand Prix does not have to be like that in West Side Story. Put your studies away before you hurt someone. Tell those respective followers that you have made your point, whether it's $28M or $47M dollars in impact. It's the big picture, do you want this in Baltimore or not?

I learned a key lesson about values and sports properties from a representative of a company that spends a tremendous amount of money on sports sponsorship in Baltimore and the surrounding area. As we got into the back and forth, the haggle, over what the new deal should be, he looked at me squarely and said, "you don't understand what's going on here. This is not the difference between the number you have and the one that I have. Actually, it's the difference between my number and zero, because if we can't agree, you are not getting anything".

It's time to decide, will it be, $28M, $47M or zero for the Baltimore Grand Prix?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Georgetown University-CityLab

The Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies has partnered with the SPIRE Institute to create a new, interdisciplinary course for students, CityLab. This course gives students the opportunity to  work collaboratively on problem solving, including working with municipalities such as Geneva Ohio.

Read more about SPIRE and CityLab:  Here

I am pleased to be able to work with some very, very bright and articulate students, faculty and staff in the Georgetown program as they work on this first phase of the CityLab program. They are working extremely hard in preparation for a final presentation to SPIRE staff, Geneva and Northeast Ohio community leaders and residents in December. The students have entered the critical phase of the program as they focus in on the development opportunities for SPIRE, Geneva and the surrounding Ashtabula County community.

Stay tuned for more amazing developments from Georgetown SCS, SPIRE and CityLab.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Climbing the Mountain.....Again

Today, the Texas Rangers organization faces the toughest challenge in sports. How to get BACK to the top!

That's right, while each and every baseball club has the same goals, that is to win a championship, they will spend time on organizational meetings, planning, developing metrics for success, etc. As you read this now, I'm quite sure that Theo Epstein and his new staff members are busy plotting and planning for how to turn the Chicago Cubs into a franchise that can compete, and win, in the National League. Compared to what faces the Rangers organization, this might actually be the easier task.

Today, while celebrations are in full swing in St. Louis, and anywhere in Cardinal-Nation, quietly the Rangers organizations reflects on coming oh so close to winning it all, winning that final game that Oakland Athletics General Managers Billy Beane said in the movie Moneyball, "that all of us are measured by".

The Rangers are now 0-2 in World Series appearances. Just getting there twice in a row is something special in baseball. The Phillies of 2008 and 2009, were the most recent, the Yankees of 98-2000, the Braves in 95-96 and Blue Jays of 1992-93 the others in the last 20 years.

The challenge for the Rangers, is one of leadership. In sports, when your organization comes this close to winning not one, but two World Championships, there is a tendency to tell yourself, "We're on the right path, we're just missing a piece here and there". Teams rarely step back and make big changes.

However, is that right? What makes executives think that what propelled them to the level that is one step below the championship is good enough to get them all the way the next time? It may be that just like in NASCAR when the crew chief of the best team knows that while his car his good "over the long run", what really matters is how fast the car is in the final segment of the race. The one that ends with a checkered flag.

In terms of baseball, the Rangers now face long, long odds. Going to the World Series three times in a row? The aforementioned Yankees of 98-2000 did, but they won all three times they were in it. The Oakland A's of 1988-90 were the only team in recent history to get to the World Series three straight years, and only win once.

Looking ahead, the Rangers will be a lesson in leadership and challenge. If there is a sense of urgency, they may be the best team for that NASCAR-esque finishing segment. If they are focusing on being the best over the long run, what if Lady Luck does not want to ride along?

Friday, October 28, 2011

And We'll See You...Tomorrow Night...

Early in the morning on October 28th, we heard Joe Buck call the walk-off home run for David Freese. It was thrilling, one the great moments in baseball and World Series history.

Joe Bucks Call early Friday Morning: WS Game 6

And, it was 20 years ago that his father Joe Buck made this great call in a Game Six, to send the home-standing Minnesota Twins to game 7.

This is why baseball "owns the night".