It was 10 years ago Thursday that I got the call to go down for a casual meeting with my boss Barry Watkins which turned into my last day at Madison Square Garden. Change of philosophy, roles, duties etc., and it was time to part ways after seven seasons that started with Jeff Van Gundy as head coach, Steve Mills as President and Scott Layden as GM and ended with Larry Brown coaching, Isiah Thomas as GM and President. Over. Done. Next.
The biggest question at that point, as so many have when you reach that crossroads, was, what’s next?
Ten years later I can say the road I ended up on may seem clearer but it certainly was not; it wasn’t planned or asked for or wanted. It has never been very safe or easy, but it has been interesting, challenging, unexpected, lucrative and fun. It’s not what I chose, it really chose me, this consulting business, but we certainly have made it work.
All along the way, from almost two years helping get the fledgling International Fight League afloat, running and then holding on as we ended with a great business plan and no cash as a public company that was sold to the UFC , to the myriad of tasks, partners, advisories, teaching assignments and meetings that make up a busy life today, it has always been about the people. Those you meet along the way, help out, stay in contact with, ask questions of, struggle with, laugh with, hug, scoff at, and listen to, are what a business is all about. It’s not about things as much as maybe it was once, it is about experiences and figuring out how to shape those experiences into smart business decisions where everyone benefits.
Looking back, one of the biggest lessons learned was to trust and listen to your friends and colleagues who take the time to reach out, especially when the time is dark…and there always will be dark days..
Putting my family on another plateau, they have always been there…three people; Meredith Geisler, John Genzale, and Jon Pessah, saw something in me that could get me started…that a loyal network of contacts and understanding of media and people gave me an edge, and that there would be people willing to help.
Genzale, one of the founders of The Sports Business Journal, went one better; he knew of something…namely a writing project…that I would have the time for. There was a need in a new text book series for a book on Sports Publicity, and over a year and a half transition period (during which I was at the IFL learning about a startup and how it ran, and helping run it) the book became reality. John also introduced me to Lucas Rubin, who was tasked with starting a sports management program at Columbia University. That has led to 10 years of teaching graduate classes, and four years of teaching a vibrant high school sports program in the summer at Columbia, which has been beyond rewarding in terms of meeting so many young people entering the business, as well as a robust faculty, many of whom I was able to help bring to Columbia through other relationships.
Geisler and Pessah, two longtime friends, were really the ones who convinced me to jump into the consulting pool while the water was just starting to rise. Meredith had been in the consulting business in DC and Jon had just helped ESPN The Magazine get its legs, and both saw things in me that I didn’t know were there. Now that the economy has changed several times over… a recent Wall Street Journal article said that over 60 percent of the workforce will be consulting by the year 2020 as companies continue to streamline headcount, assess benefit costs and adapt to a volatile business environment…the consulting pool is very much deeper and many have plunged in, only to eventually wade out. Somehow the push of those people at an early stage helped me learn how to swim, and has kept me afloat for over 10 years now.
Along the way I could have never envisioned the myriad of places and events that have come, stayed and moved on. The list includes helping get one sport back in the Olympics (wrestling) and a valiant and fun effort that failed to get another sport back in (baseball). The launch of franchises in World Team Tennis (second one coming up this summer), and amazing work with people in DNA testing, security, analytics, beach volleyball, rugby, soccer, cricket, hockey, golf, football, high school sports, MMA, mind sports, eGaming, gambling, fantasy sports, drone racing, drag racing and on and on. I have worked on FIVE Broadway plays, including one, Lombardi, which has spawned so many other business and personal relationships that have lasted much longer than anyone thought the show ever would, as well as a host of film and book projects. We flew out on a helicopter to train sailors in MMA and then rode the ships back into New York Harbor for an amazing experience for Fleet Week, learned how to throw a knuckleball from Charlie Hough, helped hold wrestling events in Times Square and Grand Central Terminal, chatted with Larry David at the batting cage at CitiField about our freshmen daughters at GW, took then- Packers star Greg Jennings to Capitol Hill to talk about philanthropy, created and helped run a growing number of conferences and continue to meet and experience relationships with folks young and old, in and out of the media, from around the world. Every day is different, and every day something interesting happens.
Then there have been the startups. The successful ones that were eventually sold like The Big Lead and Comicon, Global Options and Bloomberg Sports, and some of the fun but less successful ones that came and went pretty quickly, or ran out of money and had to retrench. There were so many innovative and smart people to learn from; Harvey Schiller and Chris Russo, Mary Scott and Chris LaPlaca, Melissa Chusid and Karla Swatek, Bill Squadron and Tom Richardson, Randy Walker and Chris Lencheski, Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, Mike McCarthy and Bryan Harris, Ron Colangelo and Ross Greenburg, Chris Dougan and Eric Gelfand, Harrie Bakst and Sara Weinstein, Vince Gennaro and Ray Katz, Seth Abraham and Gareb Shamus, Lee Stacey and Terry Lyons, Tina Cervasio and Seth Magalaner, Jerry Milani and Jim DeLorenzo, Frank Scandale and Q. Williams and the late Jay Larkin just to name a few.
As we head into a second decade of consulting, there are a few basic things that stand out, simple as they seem. I hate lists, so consider them just some discussion points from the road.
People say you work for yourself, but you actually work for everyone else. While there is freedom and autonomy, there is always a churn of business and starts and stops and so many personalities to deal with. When one works for a company, a team, a league; there is kind of a natural flow at least in some parts of the year. When you are on your own you are always on someone else’s time. Learning how to balance those needs, that workflow, those finances and most importantly your time, is not always easy and is not for everyone. Having 27 to 30 1099’s at the end of the year is always interesting, but in many ways it serves as a reminder of all the people and places you can touch if you can get the sauce cooking correctly.
It’s About the Experiences, Not the Things: While we need the best tools of communication to do our work, we should be able to live and work in a setting that is both affordable and functional. The more valuable assets we have are the shared experiences, the positive memories that we can take with us on the darkest and quietest of days. The journey we have in business, any business, is made so much tougher if the ride along the way isn’t enjoyable.
Put Joy In What You Do. I was listening to SiriusXM a few weeks ago when I happened on to a conversation that Brendan Suhr, a longtime friend, now associate men’s hoops coach at LSU, was having about the secret he has seen to successful athletic programs. One key element he thought was lacking in the demeanor of so many elite athletes or successful people was joy. No matter how driven you are, you should be able to convey the good to others. I have never been known for being the most outwardly happy of people, but I am convinced that a smile and more importantly, positive passion and enthusiasm are invaluable, whether you are a third grade teacher or LeBron James. There is too much sadness in the world, if you love what you do convey that publicly.
The People Matter More Than The Work: Like the experiences, the spending of time with people…real, in your face time, not virtual time, and making sure the people you are working with share your values, your work ethic and your goals, is very important. We live in a society where culture in the workplace sometimes gets lost, but that culture, that shared experience with friends and colleagues, is so much more valuable for the long term than any one project. No you can’t shirk your duties to go and share a bottle of wine at lunch, but taking the time to talk and listen and enjoy those around you is invaluable to success.
Be A Good Listener. I have said this before, but the value of listening…you have two ears and one mouth…is invaluable in business and society today. The world we are in sometimes become a place where you have to shout the loudest or proclaim yourself important to move along, but in the long run if you listen well to those around you, you become a better business partner and a better friend and you will HEAR and learn some amazing things from others.
Always Be Willing To Learn. It is cliché that we learn more from failure than success, and frankly I think you learn a great deal from winning, but regardless, you should always strive to learn more. Read, consume information, try new technology, watch and listen to others around you. Yes it’s true there is so much white noise out there and so much we could be consuming in terms of media it can be overwhelming and somewhat deafening, but if you pick your spots and curate the channels you can learn from someone every day, and then share that knowledge, sometimes it’s just trivia, with others.
Choose The Right Opportunity, Not The Only Opportunity: One of my best friends spent a career in insurance and was miserable. He was always a people person, he sang at my wedding and got hired by the band. Now as he transitions for what he does next what is he doing? Driving for Lyft. Not as a last resort, it’s because it gives him flexibility, the ability to meet and network with people and be around for when his kids need something. It more than pays his bills and keeps him in conversations that actually lead to jobs. Is it foe everyone? No. But he found something to get him to another place. Are there times when you may get painted into a corner and do things just for the money? Maybe, and if you aren’t in control of your own path it certainly isn’t always an easy choice, but at the end of the day the one currency you always have is your reputation, and in this business, reputation trumps dollars. If you are good at what you do and are able to articulate your value, opportunities will arise. Sometimes not today, but they will arise. Right is might.
Tell Your Story To Yourself And Others. There is the famous scene in the movie “Glengarry Glenn Ross” where Blake, played by Alec Baldwin, gives his ABC speech; Always Be Closing. No matter what your field, you are always selling, and in order to sell you need to tell the right story. No difference if you are selling yourself for a new opportunity, a date, a school, an internship. By listening and always learning you develop your narrative and if you can tell your story, you can certainly tell the story of others. Like listening, storytelling is so important to success. Take the time to become a good storyteller. Maybe you have to have a little more BS in you, but everyone has a story, you just have to work at telling it.
Do The Little Things. Write notes, remember birthdays, say thank you, send little gifts at the holidays, tip well, answer emails from job seekers, and always ask “what can I do for you?” when someone does you a solid. Those little pieces of humanity get lost, and certainly go a long way.
Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously. I used to be a lot more guilty of this, but having to wear so many hats for so many people, gives you perspective. Rarely in sports or entertainment is something life and death. Take a breath. Examine the situation, look for a different answer. Don’t panic. Don’t lie, and after the smoke clears, look left and right. Chances are the fire you were putting out was just a small skirmish, the whole forest wasn’t really burning down. Go back to the idea of finding joy before too long.
And lastly, Be True To Yourself, Your Family and All Those Around You. My old friend Scott Layden, always said “the whole world is two blocks long,” and that is more true in sports and entertainment than anywhere else. Your reputation, more than you’re your network, your twitter followers, your expense account, the big company or team you work for, your LinkedIn page, is what you have to stand on. Once you screw people, the world knows. Also, and I have seen this happen countless times, success makes people forget where they came from and who helped them get there. Treat people as people no matter whom or where you are. The little kindness on top goes a long way when you are on the bottom.
So that’s it. Ten years in, businesses have come and gone, my family, especially my kids and my nieces, continue to surprise me every day. Not a week goes by where there isn’t some agida, but I continue to learn that the joy from those around me, far outweighs the negatives and probably always have. This certainly isn’t where I thought I would be as I walked out of 2 Penn Plaza 10 years ago, but I have really enjoyed most of the ride, am eternally grateful to those I have shared it with, and am more than willing to see where it’s gonna go next.
So what can I do for you?