The sports business world many operate in today is about living in the moment. Capture the tweet, send the video, sound bite the reaction and move on. Often times the loudest impact comes from the most controversial; the off the cuff comment, the blind post, the anonymous source, the heated reaction. The implications for those heated comments have a linger tail than ever before because of the digital world we are in, and often times the effects are beyond what anyone originally imagined. All of which makes for challenging times for media companies, athletes, brands, leagues and anyone involved in the navigation of the sports business world today.
Into all the white noise can come some strong voices that can provide context, insight and hopefully counsel not just for the moment but for the long term. One of those is industry veteran and professor Ken Shropshire. Now at Wharton, Shropshire has built a career on advising, planning and working with any number of organizations and institutions, many of which are listed in his bio below. However what he is perhaps best at is looking at the big picture and leading the conversation to a calmer and more fruitful place in sports business. His latest book Sport Matters: Leadership, Power, and the Quest for Respect in Sports looks at many of the most recent issues we have seen in sport and society and provides some smart and unique insights into the problems and the solutions.
We caught up with Ken to talk sports business, the future, and the athlete in a new age…
As a professor, with so many young people streaming into “sports business,” what is the one lesson you try to engrain in people, given the uncertain times we are in today?
Have a skill. Know how to do something like accounting, marketing, social media…and not sport specific. Have the generic talents and broad based skills where an employer can see that you might bring something new to the business.
We have had so many cases of antisocial behavior in sport in the last year, is it more a reflection of carelessness or because of media access do we just know more about athletes and owners now?
I think there is no question that so much that has always, unfortunately, been going no, is now being exposed. Beyond elevator videos and personal cameras there is also the “self” exposure. Just contemplate for a moment how many problems have occurred via tweets? I do think if we had the same media focus on Babe Ruth and Red Grange, we would possibly find that they were involved in many more of the foibles of the day than we now know.
Many people say that because of the passion of sport, the business itself will overcome even the worst of tragedies, is there a point where the actions of many will kill that golden goose?
Well, we have seen sport and “sport” at least decline in popularity. Boxing is probably the most notable. There were many contributors but you can’t not point to the violence and the elements of corruption. Further back, if it was sport, gladiators and lions and fights to the death are no longer with us. Sport fears the negativity that often emerges. From the institution of a commissioner shortly after the Black Sox scandal to the inclusion of domestic violence experts in the NFL. Sports have largely been proactive in staving off problems. I think the major sports will remain stable for the foreseeable future.
Who are the athletes and owners you follow who “do it right”?
I really like a lot a lot LeBron James. Here’s a guy who can truly do nothing political and be set for life. He speaks up on Trayvon Martin, Donald Sterling, Ferguson and then he becomes an officer in his union. Past examples have followed the model of being apolitical. James appears to cautiously study and then speak his mind.
Is there ever such a thing as too much access or content that leagues, athletes and teams can provide these days to fans?
Well limit, I don’t know. I think the goal by these properties has to be to find that balance that still makes going to the ballpark a treat. Some of the give has to be a form of incentive to preserve the live gate. I think for the long haul, asses in seats is still very meaningful.
With gambling becoming more front and center in American sport these days, is there a way to legalize sports wagering and avoid the issues that many fear will come about?
I think what we know is the integrity of the game is the key. So as we wade into this space, it is important to be on guard to the protections that exist and must continue to exist to protect those who are involved on the field of play. I think part of the realization in the U.S. is that gambling is occurring not only around the world, but here in so many forms now as well. This will be a very tightrope, but in the end either the leagues engage or they miss out, not only on the revenue, but to have integrity fully interwoven into the development.
Looking towards Rio 2016, who are the athletes and the sports you will be watching who could break through as brands?
I’m biased on this one. I serve on the board of USA Volleyball. But even if I wasn’t, is there a better venue for beach volleyball? In my mind that sport is on the edge of finding that right pro presentation and audience in the U.S. The best case would be for Rio to serve as a springboard for the AVP and others.
Sites like SportsBlog and The Cauldron and Players Tribune are about giving athletes a voice. Do you think there will be a time when the traditional way we think of media can truly be bypassed by athletes, or is this a sort of correction in the old model of the athlete-media relationship?
I don’t think so. It’s hard to do a Mike Wallace on yourself. Fans want more and more. This platform will be an important element, but not a replacement.
What are the areas of business you direct young people towards when they say they want to get involved in sport?
It has to be an area of your passion. I do urge those with an interest to fully contemplate the Olympics and college sports.
Kenneth L. Shropshire is the David W. Hauck Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the Faculty Director of its Wharton Sports Business Initiative. He served as Chairman of the School’s Legal Studies and Business Ethics department from 2000-2005. Shropshire joined the Wharton faculty in 1986 and specializes in sports business and law. He is also Special Counsel to the global law firm Duane Morris LLP. He is also a former president of the Sports Lawyers Association, the largest such organization in the world and Program Chair of the ABA Forum Committee, Sports Law Section.
The most recent of his eleven books are Sport Matters: Leadership, Power, and the Quest for Respect in Sports, Negotiate Like the Pros: A Top Sports Negotiator’s Lessons for Making Deals, Building Relationships and Getting What You Want and Being Sugar Ray: The Life of America’s Greatest Boxer and First Celebrity Athlete. His works include the foundational books, In Black and White: Race and Sports in America, The Business of Sports and The Business of Sports Agents. His current book project is Sports Matters, a work focused on the current stats of diversity and respect in sports and lessons for broader society. That book will be published by Wharton Digital Press in 2015.
His consulting roles have included a wide variety of projects including work for the NCAA, Major League Baseball, National Football League, and the United States Olympic Committee and Rory McIlroy. In 2000 the mayor of Philadelphia appointed Shropshire to chair Philadelphia’s stadium site selection committee and later, projects focused on future Philadelphia bids for the Olympic Games. He currently leads the research efforts of the Major League Baseball On-Field Diversity Task Force. He is developing a not for profit focused on respect in sports and beyond, at the behest of Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross. Shropshire also serves as the Academic Director of Wharton’s Business Management and Entrepreneurship Program for NFL players focusing on their transition away from the game. He has served as an arbitrator for the NFLPA and USATF.
He earned an undergraduate degree in economics from Stanford University and his law degree from Columbia University. He then joined the law firm of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg and Tunney in Los Angeles and later served as an executive with the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee.
His current research focuses on sport and social impact. He is particularly interested in how sport has been used to impact social conditions in the United States and around the globe. This research has taken him frequently to South Africa, where he focuses on the Royal Bafokeng Nation. This led to the teaching of the Coursera course, The Global Business of Sports, to 30,000 global students.
Shropshire has provided commentary for a number of media outlets including Nightline, CNN, the New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio and Sports Illustrated. He also hosts The Wharton Sports Business show on Sirius XM Radio.