Game changers

From Major League Baseball and the NBA to Italian soccer and the NFL’s foothold in China, the sports world’s executive suites have a Maroon tint.

A A A

Adam Silver, JD’88. (Illustration by Bill Sanderson)
 

A league of his own

With the gentle clink of a knife on a glass, attention turns to Adam Silver, JD’88, successor to the gavel-wielding David Stern as NBA commissioner.

By and large, professional sports commissioners are about as popular as a labor dispute. The National Hockey League’s Gary Bettman gets booed everywhere he goes. Bud Selig has been mocked by Major League Baseball fans and reporters for his entire tenure. Players and fans routinely hammer the National Football League’s authoritarian Roger Goodell. As for David Stern, he’s largely seen as the unwavering despot of the National Basketball Association.

That fate may eventually befall Adam Silver, JD’88, Stern’s successor in waiting, but a different impression precedes him into the job. “He is probably always going to be the nicest person in the room,” says Chicago Bulls president and chief operating officer Michael Reinsdorf.

“Very open-minded,” combustible Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote in an e-mail.

“Everybody loves Adam,” says Michael Schill, the dean of the University of Chicago Law School.

“He’s a nice guy, a good guy,” Stern recently told reporters.

This isn’t normal, is it? “It’s probably not that typical,” says Reinsdorf. “He’s obviously one of the great guys in sports.”

When the NBA Board of Governors learned at its October 2012 meeting that Stern was retiring, the debate about his successor wouldn’t have resulted in a three-second violation. About a dozen owners spoke, Reinsdorf says, but there was no argument. The clear choice was Silver, 51, the deputy commissioner since 2006. He starts his new job on February 1, 30 years to the day after Stern took over for Larry O’Brien.

The transition should be seamless. Silver has been Stern’s right-hand man for a very successful two decades. He’s been the driving force in taking the NBA global, renegotiating lucrative cable deals, and helping launch the league’s TV channel and website. “We knew Adam had turned down probably some pretty good opportunities elsewhere outside of the NBA,” Reinsdorf says. “We knew we had a gem and were not going to let that one slip through our hands.”

Stern has given Silver a major voice in league operations, and the two have made a strong team. They are known in league circles for their “good cop, bad cop” routine. Stern is the one who tells everyone what to do, and Silver is the one who works with owners to find amenable solutions. “I’m taking the gavel with me so that Adam will be a gentler NBA [commissioner],” Stern said to reporters after a recent Board of Governors meeting. “He’s just going to hit the glass with a knife and that will quiet everyone down.”

While Silver typically turns down interview requests—he declined through an NBA public relations representative to be interviewed for this story—he’s known in NBA circles as a quick wit. But it is his cautious, gracious professionalism that has won over league owners. “He treats everyone the same,” Reinsdorf says. “If he meets you he’s going to talk to you. He’ll look you in the eye. He’s not looking to get out of the conversation.”

Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has largely ceded control of the Bulls to his son. Last spring, the elder Reinsdorf told Sports Business Journal that he didn’t enjoy owning a team because “you go to NBA meetings and David Stern tells you what to do.”

Michael Reinsdorf expects this style of leadership to change under Silver. “Adam really wants to be inclusive,” he says. “One thing you’ll see with him as commissioner is him involving all the owners with the process.”

Even Cuban likes him. The Dallas owner wrote that he and Silver get along well and “we swap ideas all the time.”

Despite a hectic schedule in New York, Silver recently completed a turn as the head of the Law School’s annual fund and sits on its visiting committee. Fellow Law alum Michael Alter, JD’87, who now owns the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, says Silver stood out in law school “in the sense he wasn’t trying to stand out.” Silver was “very secure in who he is.”

Now Alter gets to see Silver work, like when he helped renegotiate the WNBA’s broadcast deal with ESPN in 2013. “What Adam’s great at doing is a win-win deal, not one of those arm-knuckle push and push to get you what you want kind of deals,” Alter says. “He’s a relationship guy. He understands and values long-term relationships.”

Silver grew up outside of New York City, the son of a prominent attorney, and graduated from Duke University in 1984. After law school, he clerked for a federal judge and worked as a litigation associate at a New York law firm.

In 1992 Silver approached a former associate of his father’s at Proskauer Rose—David Stern—to ask for career advice and he wound up with a job.

Silver was Stern’s assistant and then the league’s chief of staff before joining NBA Entertainment as a vice president. He spent several years as the COO of NBA Entertainment.

With a new labor deal in place, Silver’s primary concern when he begins his tenure as commissioner will be negotiating a new TV deal. The league’s pact with ABC/ESPN, worth $930 million per year, ends after the 2015–16 season.

Cuban believes that Silver’s “biggest challenge is guessing the direction of the entertainment business.” As for the on-court issues, such as rule changes and play-off formats, Cuban adds, “basketball is the easiest part of the job to learn.”

Content to operate behind the scenes for so long, Silver will soon become one of the most high-profile sports executives in the country—with his name literally imprinted on the game. Spalding is replacing Stern’s signature with Silver’s on its official basketballs on February 1. Then it really will be Silver’s league.—Jon Greenberg, AM’07

 

Kim Ng, AB’90. (Illustration by Bill Sanderson)

Utility player

Professional baseball executive Kim Ng, AB’90, had the right skills at the right time to rise through the ranks.

In Michael Lewis’s 2003 blockbuster Moneyball, the Chicago White Sox organization receives an unflattering portrayal. While the book’s primary subject, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, uses cutting-edge data gathering and mining to shape his team’s roster, his Chicago counterpart seems stuck in a time warp, undervaluing his own assets. It’s good theater, but it’s also not the organization Kim Ng, AB’90, remembers from her time there a few years prior.

Ng began her groundbreaking career in professional baseball as an intern with the White Sox more than two decades ago. “I was running the numbers 20-plus years ago,” says Ng, now Major League Baseball’s senior vice president for baseball operations. “The White Sox were ahead of the curve—in the top three” in supplementing traditional scouting methods and evaluating talent based on sophisticated statistical analyses. Ng says her work “complemented,” rather than replaced, traditional “advance” scouting, as the evaluation of upcoming opponents is known in baseball.

Today Ng’s primary responsibility involves creating the infrastructure for a potential international draft. Although not a part of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, such a system, like those held in the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, could have a significant effect on the way baseball secures international talent.

Ng took the job with Major League Baseball in the spring of 2011 after spending nearly a decade in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, where she served as assistant general manager and interviewed for the general manager position—typically the overseer of a franchise’s baseball operations—in 2005. She later interviewed for the same job with the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners, again falling short in her ambition to become the first female general manager in a major American team sport.

Becoming a GM, Ng says, remains her ultimate goal. Meanwhile, she’s making the most of her experience in MLB’s front office. Working for the league, she says, has given her a break from the constant crisis management that often becomes the crux of working for a team. “Your shortstop goes down or your pitcher gets hurt—and you have to react,” she says. “It’s challenging. It’s engaging. But you’re completely engaged in those 25 guys [on the major league roster].”

Her current position offers a perspective that’s “much more 10,000 feet up.” For example, Ng’s job includes running Major League Baseball’s scouting bureau, which oversees the developmental Arizona Fall League as well as international talent scouting and development. Ng travels about once every six weeks to survey the game’s international infrastructure, visiting baseball hot spots like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, as well as burgeoning talent pools like Colombia. In her role, Ng is not performing on-the-ground scouting of international players but rather coordinating the processes by which such talent is nurtured and procured—as well as projecting future challenges related to international talent development. “You’re able to have more of a vision,” Ng says. “You feel yourself accomplishing short-term goals and being able to tie them to that long-term vision. It’s been fun to think in a different way.”

Ng started as an economics major at UChicago before settling into public policy. At the time, although a member of the University’s softball team, she was not dead set on forging a career in sports. She considered consulting and law school, among other possibilities. Public policy studies gave Ng a background and comfort level with data and statistics just as they emerged as useful tools among sometimes resistant sports executives. Those skills helped Ng overcome any disadvantage her gender might have created in that culture. She had the tools, to borrow a baseball scouting term, that the game would increasingly covet.

“I was ahead of the curve,” Ng says. “I remember the first time I showed my boss a regression analysis graph, he didn’t know which way to hold it. It’s been fun for me to see how it’s developed. That was one of the reasons I was able to get into baseball—my analytic skills. It just wasn’t prevalent at the time.”

Ng jokes that her international role, which can frequently include discussions with the US and foreign governments over various public policy matters—such as work visas for international players—“finally” gives her the opportunity to use her degree. But in fact, she acknowledges, she’s been using it all along, contributing to a change in the way talent is evaluated and teams are built.—Jeff Carroll, JD’12

 

Richard Young, MBA’02. (Illustration by Bill Sanderson)

Forward progress

Richard Young, MBA’02, tackles the daunting challenge of importing American football to China.

Richard Young, MBA’02, was sitting in a café in China two decades ago, watching one of his pals warily drink a cup of coffee. “My friend kind of choked this black liquid down,” Young recalls, adding that few places in the country even served it at the time. At the end of their meeting, Young’s friend told him that Chinese people were never going to drink coffee.

Even though it’s hardly become a beverage staple, today there are around 1,000 Starbucks stores in China. That figure resonates with Young as he tries to increase the popularity of another nonnative product: American football.

Since 2010 Young has been managing director of NFL China, overseeing the league’s business operations. Young, who studied in Beijing in 1990 as a Boston University undergraduate, previously served for eight years as vice president of event management and programming development for ESPN STAR Sports. On a given day, he may be working on sponsorship or marketing deals, or hammering out an event like the league’s annual inter-college flag football tournament.

It has been a challenge to attract a Chinese audience to the sport. There is no history with football, so the rules and nuances can be lost in translation. Even the time difference complicates Young’s efforts. “Monday Night Football is Tuesday morning, Sunday Night Football is Monday morning, Sunday afternoon football is super early Monday morning,” he says. And unlike sports such as baseball and basketball, there aren’t organizations based in the country to aid in expanding interest. “There is no Chinese American Football Association or Asian American Football Association,” Young says, adding that “we don’t have that luxury, so we kind of have to do it all ourselves.”

NFL China does work with the International Federation of American Football to promote the game among Chinese youth, instilling an understanding that they hope will translate into a lifelong interest. There are also appeals to national pride. The first NFL player of full Chinese descent, offensive tackle Ed Wang, played for the Philadelphia Eagles before being released in 2013.

These glimmers of potential give Young confidence that, like Starbucks, the NFL can establish a successful presence. Already, he notes, the country has about three million “true NFL fans”—defined as those who said in a survey that they were “very” or “extremely” interested in football. Last year’s Super Bowl attracted 15.7 million viewers in China. Nearly 1,000 people attended Beijing and Shanghai hotel viewing parties, where the game was broadcast live at 7:30 on a Monday morning.

The growth of football goes beyond viewership. For instance, Young points out that NFL China’s University Flag Football League has expanded in five years to include more than 1,000 players on 36 teams throughout the country. The 2012 championship game attracted 1,200 spectators.

Another sign of progress: fully equipped tackle football teams, unaffiliated with the NFL, have begun to emerge. Two years ago, there were none.

Young, whose work history in China includes consulting for sports leagues and a media partnership that launched the country’s first HD sports channel, believes in such targeted, grassroots growth as the path to lasting popularity, as opposed to a blanket effort to carve off a portion of the population. “A lot of people come to China and they kind of say, ‘Oh wow, 1.38 billion people, if we just get 1 percent we’re all good,’” he says. “That’s just not a solid theory by any measure, or a solid plan.”

Young wants to build deliberately. Based on survey data from 19 “tier one” Chinese cities, he estimates that there are 22 to 25 million people with some interest in the NFL. They are typically well educated and relatively affluent urban dwellers who have some kind of connection to North America.

But because the percentage remains so small, NFL China identifies one of its primary obstacles as the lack of peer pressure to be a fan. Using social media, the organization amplifies conversations already occurring—the virtual equivalent of a discussion over a cup of coffee. “We’ve got to make sure,” Young says, “that it’s a person-to-person building of the fan base.”—Andrew Clark

 

Italo Zanzi, AB’96. (Illustration by Bill Sanderson)

Win in Rome

Italo Zanzi, AB’96, the unlikely CEO of a proud Italian soccer franchise, breathes new life into the brand.

When it appeared two years ago that the famous Italian soccer club AS Roma would be sold, there was hand-wringing in Rome, and even political posturing, about the prospect of foreign owners. But it wasn’t long before Romans welcomed the Boston investors who purchased the underachieving team and promised a return to glory. “If they bring money, let them come,” a fan club president had said before the sale.

Of course, it takes more than money to win, says Italo Zanzi, AB’96, CEO of the team since December 2012. It takes enthusiasm, smarts, and luck—all of which the Long Island–born sports business executive and lawyer appeared to bring when the new owners recruited and hired him. The luck came early in his tenure; AS Roma began his first season at the helm with a stellar, and unexpected, nine straight wins, the most to start a season in the club’s history. Good thing, because the club’s passionate fans soon started recognizing Zanzi on the streets of Rome.

The American may have seemed an unlikely choice. Not at all, according to James Pallotta, lead investor and president of the club. “I wanted an American with Italian roots who could speak Italian,” Pallotta says. “If we were going to run the team from Boston, I wanted someone who could walk that line.”

Zanzi was in many ways custom-made for it. “I had the real blessing of growing up in this bicultural, bilingual household,” he says, speaking English and Spanish with his parents, who emigrated to the United States from Chile. His father is of Italian origin, and since accepting the Roma job Zanzi has also become fluent in Italian. More important, he brings management skills and media knowledge developed during more than a decade as a baseball and soccer executive in America.

One of Zanzi’s goals is to help AS (Associazione Sportiva) Roma capitalize on a pervasive trend throughout professional sports—globalization. Soccer players today frequently cross national borders and Zanzi is eager to internationalize the team’s fan base and garner the higher revenues that come with worldwide telecasts.

The road to Rome has been circuitous. A goalie on the UChicago soccer team, earning most valuable player honors as a fourth-year, he used his language skills in a behind-the-scenes job helping broadcast the 1994 World Cup soccer tournament, which opened at Chicago’s Soldier Field. Leaving Hyde Park during his senior year, he moved to Chile to research his senior thesis and play professional soccer. Then, through contacts made at the World Cup, he got part-time work for NBC during the Bulls’ championship runs in the late ’90s.

During law and business school at Emory University in Atlanta, Zanzi played on the US national team handball squad, winning a bronze medal in the 2003 Pan American Games. His interests in sports and business merged after grad school when he went to work for Major League Baseball. For seven years, he helped generate revenue abroad, primarily by negotiating broadcast contracts in Latin America. Toward the end of that stint, Zanzi took what he called a “sabbatical” to run for Congress in New York’s 1st district in eastern Long Island in 2006. “I went in with my eyes open” to the fact that his Republican Party was not poised to topple incumbents that year, and his campaign did not. He calls the race “a great learning experience.”

Returning to baseball in 2007, Zanzi went on to become deputy general secretary of the Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football. He managed the confederation’s marketing activities before making the leap to the sport’s most prestigious levels.

Serie A, as the Italian league is called, is one of international soccer’s biggest brand names, along with England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga. Yet pro calcio is beleaguered, say observers, by tired management, outdated stadiums, and red ink. Locally, Roma hasn’t won a scudetto (Italian league championship) since 2001 and has never won as consistently as rivals from Turin and Milan.

But for success, “all the basics are there,” says Zanzi. “Great football, a great competitive landscape, and then in Rome, having an international platform to be able to promote it. … Is it simple? No, not necessarily. But is the upside massive? Absolutely.”

Short-term, Zanzi and his staff are working to make games more fan friendly, with kids’ activities outside the stadium and autograph sections in the stands. That’s in addition to curtailing fan violence—a problem all over Europe that peaked in Italy after deaths in 2007. Zanzi also says that Roma is actively campaigning against racism in the sport, an issue as urgent as steroid use in baseball and head injuries in American football; last year the Fédération Internationale de Football Association passed a resolution to fight racism and discrimination in soccer, and plans a summit on the subject this summer.

Roma is also eager to build a new stadium. Currently they share the Stadio Olimpico with Rome’s other team, Lazio, and the dated venue is hardly ideal. Plans to build a dedicated stadium with modern amenities “will change the economics for us dramatically,” says the CEO. A global fan base garnered through television and other media is a longer-term objective.

Modern initiatives depend, naturally, on traditional success, such as winning games. And for Zanzi, there is nothing like game day, when he joins much of Rome (save those who support Lazio, Roma’s archrival) in thinking only of the score for 90 minutes. Then he returns to his overall goal: to “become the best football team in the world, both on and off the field.”—Jay Pridmore

Join The Discussion

Log in with Disqus to automatically enter your contact information.