November 26, 2013

The Big Leagues

Alumni executives in the industry are pursuing bold agendas that will have lasting impact.

Dan Rosen

The Boston Red Sox won baseball’s 2004 World Series and, for their fans, it was a long time coming. The “Sawx,” as locals are wont to call them, had last won a championship in 1918. They then went on an infamous 86-year drought. After all that time, some New Englanders openly wondered if they’d ever get to see their beloved team win it all. When Boston did, a great weight was lifted. Bill Simmons, the ESPN personality and notorious Boston fan, summed up a widely expressed sentiment with the title of his subsequent book, Now I Can Die in Peace.

Red Sox supporters are far from alone. Sports inspire a level of passion that may seem otherworldly to the uninitiated. Senior Vice Dean Gita Johar, the Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business, has illustrated this in recent research. Working with Eric J. Hamerman of Tulane University, she found that consumers sometimes come to associate certain products with winning or losing. Fans may even abandon a favorite brand (and rational thinking) to support their team. “If someone buys a Snickers bar and subsequently begins to see their team improve, they might attribute that performance to their purchase decision,” Johar says.

Inspired by such zeal, alumni executives in the sports industry are pursuing bold agendas that will have lasting impact. They’re working to bring the National Basketball Association (NBA) to cultures across the globe. They’re trying to transform Major League Soccer (MLS), a relatively young league, into one of the sport’s most popular. Along the way, these alumni are finding great satisfaction. “In the course of doing business, we’re also making people smile and enjoy their lives,” says Michael Ma ’13, a senior director of business development with the NBA. “It’s very rewarding.”

On the Rise
Ramin Tabib ’05 is interested in growth. In his first job in sports, with Major League Baseball (MLB), after years working in the telecommunications industry, Tabib gravitated toward projects in emerging areas: the league’s website, MLB.com; the new franchise in the capital, the Washington Nationals; and expanding baseball’s outreach to kids.

So when the position of vice president of strategic planning and research opened with MLS, a league that launched in 1996, Tabib saw another chance to follow his passion. “The league is at such a critical phase of its life cycle,” he says. “We’re entering this period that we believe will be one of exponential growth. So coming here and doing a lot of the strategy work on how to achieve that is really, really exciting.”

One obstacle for MLS in this effort is competition. For MLB, the NBA, or the NFL, there aren’t comparable professional leagues anywhere on the planet. That’s not the case with soccer, which is often called the most popular sport in the world (and referred to fondly as “the beautiful game”). Many of the best professional players have traditionally gone to Europe, where hundreds of millions of dollars are poured into clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid. MLS must compete both with the other American sports leagues and these foreign counterparts, who often see the US market as an opportunity to expand their reach.

Despite that, as the top-flight professional soccer league in the United States and Canada, MLS is in a prime position, according to Tabib and his colleagues.

There is reason to be optimistic. Social scientist Richard Luker, who partnered with Major League Soccer in the early days, told ESPN last year that he believes the league’s fanbase will triple or quadruple in the coming years. According to Luker’s polling, American kids ages 12 to 24, who have grown up with the league in their backyards, pick soccer as their second-most popular pro sport (behind the NFL).

To capitalize, Tabib and his colleagues have targeted a decade-long timeline culminating in the 2022 World Cup (it looked like it might be hosted by the United States before Qatar won the bid). By then, they want MLS to be one of the most popular soccer leagues in the world. “We have a wonderful opportunity to be the league of choice,” Tabib says. “That’s our goal.”

A Product of Passion
“I have to think I’m one of the few who has made the transition from women’s skin care to professional football,” says Brian Friedman ’03 (EMBA), CFO of the New York Jets.

Friedman’s unorthodox switch happened nearly four years ago, when he got a call from a recruiter he knew. At the time, Friedman was the CFO of Bliss, a spa and skin care company. Though a lifelong sports fan, he hadn’t been targeting a job in the sports industry. “I figured I was a brand retail guy for the rest of my life,” he says, “and that was fine.” But when the recruiter presented the opportunity, Friedman leapt at the chance to pursue it.

To this new area, he has brought a number of assets. Many of the finance and accounting skills he developed at Columbia and in his previous work carried over. As a football fan himself, he also had an immediate understanding of the customer, something he hadn’t had in his old job (“I had to run home and ask my wife, ‘What does a woman think about when she’s shopping at Sephora?’”).

Friedman has also tackled new obstacles.

One is the ever-improving experience of watching football at home. To see a Jets game, fans can buy tickets and come to the stadium or they can view it on TV. Thanks to new technology — like better picture quality and the digital yellow line that’s superimposed on the field to mark a first down — football on TV has drastically improved in recent years. With the rising popularity of fantasy football, fans also increasingly want to be able to follow multiple NFL games simultaneously, which tends to be easier on the couch. And then there are the creature comforts. At home, Friedman jokes, “there’s never a line for the bathroom.”

To counter these conveniences, he and his team are constantly looking to improve the in-stadium experience so people continue to want to come back. Friedman and his colleagues made MetLife Stadium, which the Jets share with the New York Giants, one of the first in the NFL to offer free Wi-Fi access, for example, a boon to fantasy footballers.

Ultimately, Friedman says, he finds himself working for the fans — their dedication to the sport and the team is inspiring. “It’s a great thing and also a challenge,” he says. “Because of that passion, the expectations are so high.”

Going Global
Basketball has always been an international sport, at least technically. Though it was invented in Springfield, MA, in 1891, its inventor was a Canadian-born teacher named James Naismith. In recent decades, the NBA has tried to make the game even more global, opening foreign offices, cofounding “Basketball Without Borders” to teach the sport to kids in other countries, and even scheduling exhibitions for its teams abroad.

In his work for the league, Michael Ma ’13 is helping to lead the overseas charge. A few years before he enrolled at Columbia Business School, Ma was part of the original team that opened the NBA’s Beijing office. It was an opportune time to enter the market, as the 7-foot-6 Chinese center Yao Ming had just emerged as a formidable NBA player and the country’s interest was at a fever. In that climate, he says, selling the game was kind of like selling a Ferrari. “The car’s not selling because of me,” he explains, “it’s because of the product.”

For Ma personally, early in his career, it was also a great educational experience. Given the small size of the Beijing office, he says, the culture was similar to a start-up — everyone did everything. “I learned to be innovative and entrepreneurial but with the safety net of a big corporation.”

When Ma graduated from Columbia this past spring, he returned to the league as senior director of business development. His group manages the NBA’s marketing efforts around the globe — from his former haunts in Asia, to the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America.

One challenge is appealing to so many different cultures. In the United States, Ma says, kids grow up associating basketball with a certain hip-hop bravado, perhaps best exemplified by attention-grabbing slam dunks. But in countries where people are raised to be more deferential, Ma and his colleagues try to frame the league differently to make it more relevant. Of course, he says, it also helps to have a local superstar, like China’s Ming, make it big.

In today’s NBA, that seems increasingly likely. When the 2012–13 season opened last October, there were a record 84 international players from 37 countries and territories in NBA uniforms, including stars like France’s Tony Parker, Argentina’s Manu Ginobli, and Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki. Meanwhile, both the 2013 All-Star Game and the NBA Finals were shown live in 215 different nations. In addition, this past June, for the first time the first pick in the NBA Draft was a Canadian. “The NBA,” declared Forbes earlier this year, “is no longer merely an American brand.”

Undeterred
Years ago, as an intern at the sports and entertainment company Advantage International, Alec Schall ’93 was placed on the corporate side of the business, selling sponsorships and managing events. It was seemingly a natural fit for his business degree, but he found the work unsatisfying.

A former athlete himself (Schall played football in college), he wanted to be closer to the players and the action — to what had drawn him to sports his whole life.

So Schall pushed to intern on the player management side of the company, a rarity for someone with an MBA (many sports agents are lawyers). “I weaseled my way into football and hockey,” he says. He had to pay his dues and then some before he earned a full-time job.

“There’s no question you sacrifice financially to do what I do, at least to start,” says Schall, who found success as an agent to National Hockey League (NHL) players. “But I looked around at the people I knew who were happy and they were doing what they loved. I decided it was worth a shot.”

Once he became an agent, Schall still had a tall hill to climb. He had to build relationships; as an outsider who hadn’t played the game, he had to break into the insular hockey community. Having Columbia Business School on his résumé gave him credibility, he says, as did working for a big, well-known firm like Advantage, which later became Octagon. But it was still a long road, filled with travel to hockey rinks the world over. As he signed young players, he also grew close to the teams they played for.

After establishing himself, Schall started his own agency, r4pa, in 2000. This past March, he sold it to Legacy Global Sports, where he now works as the director of player representation. As he scours the youth ranks for his next client, Schall keeps an eye out for similar dedication. “You always ask whether a player is going to get better,” he says. “I find the guys that improve are the guys who love to play.”

Illustrations by Ping Zhu

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