This week saw two big stories develop around the big money in college sports. It makes one wonder, when did sports become more important than academics in American universities – and why?
The first story was how the football team at the University of Missouri was able to fire the university President. Ongoing racial tensions, and some horrible acts of aggression, had been problematic at Mizzou, leading to a student hunger strike. But the President remained uninvolved and taciturn on the topic.
Until the football team threatened to strike. Within 48 hours the President was booted out, allowing the team to play this Saturday and keep the big money flowing.
Separately, the NCAA shut down a web site set up by the family of LSU running back Leonard Fournette to sell merchandise plugging his catch phrase. The concern was ostensibly whether the family received discounted services in creating the site due to the player’s popularity. But more important was whether anyone other than LSU and the NCAA was going to make any money off a college football player.
The USA is the only country where university coaches make multi-million dollar salaries. Elsewhere, one must coach a professional team to earn such sums. And the USA is the only country where alumni donations for sports are greater than alumni donations for academics. And the USA is the only country where college sport venues (coliseums nonetheless) consume as much, or more, capital budget than the entire balance of the university. And the USA is the only place where more money is spent to recruit and retain athletes than the brightest academic minds.
The United States is the only country where sports have become more important than academics at many (most?) major universities. Around the world, colleges are about education first, foremost and pretty much entirely. Sports are left to professionals. How did Americans turn their universities into sports leagues rather than institutions for research and learning?
Blame it on the NFL and the NBA.
Prior to the rise of both major sports leagues, college athletics were not that important. Sure there were teams, but they were very clearly for fun. Players had to take a full regimen of classes, and they were expected to pass those classes. Players were students first, and athletes just for the pleasure. Athletes were expected to obtain a degree in 4 years, then move on to professional lives. Sure, there were alumni booster clubs supporting athletes, and some schools (especially in the south) were notoriously crazy routing for their home teams, but the school was more about education than playing ball.
Years ago professional sports was dominated by baseball in America and soccer pretty much everywhere else. Baseball and soccer both developed “farm systems” by which the professional teams created other teams that recruited and trained young players. And in northern climates hockey developed similar farm systems.
Often starting well before players finished high school (or its equivalent outside the USA) recruiters would approach athletes and their parents to ask if they could place the youth into their training program. Players would improve their skills level by level, moving up through different teams until they reached the top level of performance. In American baseball, for example, these “farm teams” run 4 levels deep, and when a player makes it to the top it’s called “reaching the show.”
The cost of identifying, recruiting and training athletes for baseball, and soccer, has always been carried by the professional franchises.
But the rise of the NFL and the NBA changed this dramatically. By relying on colleges to do the recruiting and first level of training, they could avoid an incredible amount of cost. An “unholy alliance” was born between the NCAA and the professional leagues. The professionals would not create “farm systems.”
Instead, universities would act as the recruiters and developers of “pre-professional” athletes. These athletes would be called “amateurs” and thus receive no compensation for playing, nor would they receive compensation for promoting the school, nor would they be able to receive compensation for using their likeness, personality or any individually created brand elements. The schools would receive 100% of any revenues related to the athletes and other branded elements of college sports.
It did not take long for colleges to realize there is BIG MONEY in fan-crazed athletics. Just like the NFL and NBA, colleges could create brand franchises around their athletic programs, and top players. The value of a top athlete to the university could be measured in millions of dollars, far more than the grant raising ability of top research professors with long-standing academic programs tied to industry.
Suddenly, it was worth great value to a college to recruit a “student” who possibly could barely read and write. Who cared if that student ever graduated? That wasn’t his purpose. Who cared if this “student” had limited respect for women’s rights, or otherwise struggled to behave like a “gentleman and a scholar” What mattered was whether he could play ball – whether he could bring in the fans and all those merchandise dollars.
For many university leaders the allure of the BIG MONEY was simply too hard to ignore. The BIG MONEY for the university was by building a brand around semi-professional athletics. Not academics. The old non-profit approach of running a school was replaced by the very much for-profit business of college athletics. Winning ball games replaced winning research grants, or even Nobel prizes, as the measure of a successful university.
And that is what we’re now seeing in the news. The Mizzou trustees weren’t all that concerned about swastika’s made of feces, nor student hunger strikes, or name calling of professors. That was just “campus life.” But if the football team doesn’t play – OMG, that’s a crisis!! The former has little impact on university economics, the latter could be catastrophic.
It is doubtful anyone is willing to separate athletics out of America’s universities. But not recognizing the corruption this has done to the original academic purpose of these institutions is turning a blind eye to the obvious. For far too many universities job #1 is about running a sports franchise. And oh, by the way, there are faculty and students and all that other stuff out there – but that’s for the academics to worry about. We’re here to make money off sports teams.
And the biggest winners of all are the owners of NFL and NBA franchises, who get a farm system at no cost. Thanks to the financial corruption of modern university leadership. More is the sadness for America, when ball teams matter more than great research and education.
Few businesses fail in a fiery, quick downfall. Most linger along for years, not really mattering to anyone – including customers, suppliers or even investors. They exist, but they aren’t relevant.
When a company is relevant customers are eager for new product releases, and excited to talk to salespeople. Media want to report on the company, its products and its leaders. Investors want to hear about what the company will do next to drive revenues and increase profits.
But when a company loses relevancy, that all disappears. Customers quit paying attention to new products, and salespeople are not given the time of day. The company begs for coverage of its press releases, but few media outlets pay attention because writing about that company produces few readers, or advertisers. Investors lose hope for big gains, and start looking for ways to sell the stock or debt without taking too big a loss, or further depressing valuations.
In short, when a company loses relevancy it is on the downward slope to failure. It may take a long time, but lacking market relevancy the company has practically no hope of increasing revenues or profits, or of creating many new and exciting jobs, or of being a great customer for suppliers. Losing relevancy means the company is headed out of business, it’s just a matter of time. Think Howard Johnson’s, ToysRUs, Sears, Radio Shack, Palm, Hostess, Samsonite, Pierre Cardin, Woolworth’s, International Harvester, Zenith, Sony, Rand McNally, Encyclopedia Britannica, DEC — you get the point.
Many people may not be aware that Microsoft made an exclusive deal with the NFL to provide Surface tablets for coaches and players to use during games, replacing photographs, paper and clipboards for reviewing on-field activities and developing plays. The goal was to up the prestige of Surface, improve its “cool” factor, while showing capabilities that might encourage more developers to write apps for the product and more businesses to buy it.
But things could not have gone worse during the NFL’s launch. Because over and again, announcers kept calling the Surface tablets iPads. Announcers saw the tablet format and simply assumed these were iPads. Or, worse, they did not realize there was any tablet other than the iPad. As more and more announcers made this blunder it became increasingly clear that Apple not only invented the modern tablet marketplace, but that it’s brand completely dominates the mindset of users and potential buyers. iPad has become synonymous with tablet for most people.
In a powerful way, this demonstrates the lack of relevancy Microsoft now has in the personal technology marketplace. Fewer and fewer people are buying PCs as they rely increasingly on mobile devices. Practically nobody cares any more about new releases of Windows or Office. In fact, the American Customer Satisfaction Index reported people think Apple is now considered the best PC maker (the Macintosh.) HP was near the bottom of the list, with Dell, Acer and Toshiba not faring much better.
And in mobile devices, Apple is clearly the king. In its first weekend of sales the new iPhone 6 and 6Plus sold 10million units, blasting past any previous iPhone model launch – and that was without any sales in China and several other markets. The iPhone 4 was considered a smashing success, but iPhone 4 sales of 1.7million units was only 17% of the newest iPhone – and the 9million iPhone 5 sales included China and the lower-priced 5C. In fact, more units could have been sold but Apple ran out of supply, forcing customers to wait. People clearly still want Apple mobile devices, as sales of each successive version brings in more customers and higher sales.
There are many people who cannot imagine a world without Microsoft. And the vast majority of people would think that predicting Microsoft’s demise is considerably premature given its size and cash hoard. But, that looks backward at what Microsoft was, and the assets it previously created, rather than looking forward.
Just how fast can lost relevancy impact a company? Look no further than Blackberry (formerly Research in Motion.) Blackberry was once totally dominant in smartphones. But in the second quarter of last year Apple sold 32.5million units, while Blackberry sold only 1.5million (which was still more than Microsoft sold.)
The complete lack of relevancy was exposed last week when Blackberry launched its new Passport phone alongside Apple’s iPhone 6 actions. While the press was full of articles about the new iPhone, were you even aware of Blackberry’s most recent effort? Did you recall seeing press coverage? Did you read any product reviews? And while Apple was selling record numbers, Blackberry analysts were wondering if the Passport could find a niche with “nostalgic customers” that would sell enough units to keep the company’s hardware unit alive. Reviewers now compare Passport to the market standard, which is the iPhone – and still complain that its use of apps is “confusing.” In a world where most people use their own smartphone, the only reason most people could think of to use a Passport was if their employer told them they were forced to.
Like with Radio Shack, most people have to be reminded that Blackberry still exists. In just a few years Blackberry’s loss of relevancy has made the company and its products a backwater. Now it is quite clear that Microsoft is entering a similar situation. Windows 8 was a weak launch and did nothing to slow the shift to mobile. Microsoft missed the mobile market, and its mobile products are achieving no traction. Even where it has an exclusive use, such as this NFL application, people don’t recognize its products and assume they are the products of the market leader. Microsoft really has become irrelevant in its historical “core” personal technology market – and that should scare its employees and investors a lot.
Anyone who reads my column knows I’ve been no fan of Steve Ballmer as CEO of Microsoft. On multiple occasions I chastised him for bad decisions around investing corporate funds in products that are unlikely to succeed. I even called him the worst CEO in America. The Washington Post even had difficulty finding reputable folks to disagree with my argument.
Unfortunately, Microsoft suffered under Mr. Ballmer. And Windows 8, as well as the Surface tablet, have come nowhere close to what was expected for their sales – and their ability to keep Microsoft relevant in a fast changing personal technology marketplace. In almost all regards, Mr. Ballmer was simply a terrible leader, largely because he had no understanding of business/product lifecycles.
Microsoft was founded by Bill Gates, who did a remarkable job of taking a start-up company from the Wellspring of an idea into one of the fastest growing adolescents of any American company.
Under Mr. Gates leadership Microsoft single-handedly overtook the original PC innovator – Apple – and left it a niche company on the edge of bankruptcy in little over a decade.
Mr. Gates kept Microsoft’s growth constantly in the double digits by not only making superior operating system software, but by pushing the company into application software which dominated the desktop (MS Office.) And when the internet came along he had the vision to be out front with Internet Explorer which crushed early innovator, and market maker, Netscape.
But then Mr. Gates turned the company over to Mr. Ballmer. And Mr. Ballmer was a leader lacking vision, or innovation. Instead of pushing Microsoft into new markets, as had Mr. Gates, he allowed the company to fixate on constant upgrades to the products which made it dominant – Windows and Office. Instead of keeping Microsoft in the Rapids of growth, he offered up a leadership designed to simply keep the company from going backward. He felt that Microsoft was a company that was “mature” and thus in need of ongoing enhancement, but not much in the way of real innovation. He trusted the market to keep growing, indefinitely, if he merely kept improving the products handed him.
As a result Microsoft stagnated. A “Reinvention Gap” developed as Vista, Windows 7, then Windows 8 and one after another Office updates did nothing to develop new customers, or new markets. Microsoft was resting on its old laurels – monopolistic control over desktop/laptop markets – without doing anything to create new markets which would keep it on the old growth trajectory of the Gates era.
Things didn’t look too bad for several years because people kept buying traditional PCs. And Ballmer famously laughed at products like Linux or Unix – and then later at entertainment devices, smart phones and tablets – as Microsoft launched, but then abandoned products like Zune, Windows CE phones and its own tablet. Ballmer kept thinking that all the market wanted was a faster, cheaper PC. Not anything really new.
And he was dead wrong. The Reinvention Gap emerged to the public when Apple came along with the iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad. These changed the game on Microsoft, and no longer was it good enough to simply have a better edition of an outdated technology. As PC sales began declining it was clear that Ballmer’s leadership had left the company in the Swamp, fighting off alligators and swatting at mosquitos with no strategy for how it would regain relevance against all these new competitors.
So the Board pushed him out, and demoted Gates off the Chairman’s throne. A big move, but likely too late. Fewer than 7% of companies that wander into the Swamp avoid the Whirlpool of demise. Think Univac, Wang, Lanier, DEC, Cray, Sun Microsystems (or Circuit City, Montgomery Wards, Sears.) The new CEO, Satya Nadella, has a much, much more difficult job than almost anyone thinks. Changing the trajectory of Microsoft now, after more than a decade creating the Reinvention Gap, is a task rarely accomplished. So rare we make heros of leaders who do it (Steve Jobs, Lou Gerstner, Lee Iacocca.)
So what will happen at the Clippers?
Critically, owning an NBA team is nothing like competing in the real business world. It is a closed marketplace. New competitors are not allowed, unless the current owners decide to bring in a new team. Your revenues are not just dependent upon you, but are even shared amongst the other teams. In fact your revenues aren’t even that closely tied to winning and losing. Season tickets are bought in advance, and with so many games away from home a team can do quite poorly and still generate revenue – and profit – for the owner. And this season the Indiana Pacers demonstrated that even while losing, fans will come to games. And the Philadelphia 76ers drew crowds to see if they would set a new record for the most consecutive games lost.
In America the major sports only modestly overlap, so you have a clear season to appeal to fans. And even if you don’t make it into the playoffs, you still share in the profits from games played by other teams. As a business, a team doesn’t need to win a championship to generate revenue – or make a profit. In fact, the opposite can be true as Wayne Huizenga learned owning the Championship winning Florida Marlins baseball team. He payed so much for the top players that he lost money, and ended up busting up the team and selling the franchise!
In short, owning a sports franchise doesn’t require the owner to understand lifecycles. You don’t have to understand much about business, or about business competition. You are protected from competitors, and as one of a select few in the club everyone actually works together – in a wholly uncompetitive way – to insure that everyone makes as much money as possible. You don’t even have to know anything about managing people, because you hire coaches to deal with players, and PR folks to deal with fans and media. And as said before whether or not you win games really doesn’t have much to do with how much money you make.
Most sports franchise owners are known more for their idiosyncrasies than their business acumen. They can be loud and obnoxious all they want (with very few limits.) And now that Mr. Ballmer has no investors to deal with – or for that matter vendors or cooperative parties in a complex ecosystem like personal technology – he doesn’t have to fret about understanding where markets are headed or how to compete in the future.
When it comes to acting like a person who knows little about business, but has a huge ego, fiery temper and loves to be obnoxious there is no better job than being a sports franchise owner. Mr. Ballmer should fit right in.
Reading reviews of Super Bowl ads I was struck by two observations:
- The reviewers got the value of most ads backwards
- They missed the most important ad of all – on Twitter
Super Bowl ads cost $1M+ to make. Then they cost $2M+ to air. So it is an expensive proposition. This isn't fine art, like a Picasso, with a long shelf life to create a rate of return. These ads need to pay off fast. They need to build the brand with existing and/or new customers to drive sales and make back that money now.
So let's start with one of the best reviewed ads – Chrysler's "God Made a Farmer". Reviewers liked the home-spun approach of using a dead conservative radio commentator voicing over pictures of farmers in pick-ups. Unfortunately, from a rate of return perspective my bet is this ad will end up near the very bottom.
- Firstly, the 50 year trend is to urbanization. In 1900 9 out of 10 Americans had something to do with agriculture. Now it is fewer than 1 in 20. Trucks are used for lots of things, but farming makes up a small percentage. It has been a full generation since most 2nd generation Americans had anything to do with a farm. Showing people using a product in ways that almost nobody uses it, and with a message most of your target market doesn't even recognize, leaves most people confused rather than ready to buy.
- Secondly, first generation Americans are changing the demographics of America quickly. First generation Americans (can I say immigrant?) proved large enough, and powerful enough, to play a spoiler role in Mitt Romney's run for the Presidency. To them, farming in America has no history, appeal or meaning to their lives.
- Thirdly, no one under the age of 35 has any idea who Paul Harvey is. Perhaps Chrysler could have used Bill O'Reilly and achieved its message mission. But as it was, there were two of us +50 people who spent 5 minutes trying to tell the group watching the game at my home who Paul Harvey even was – and why he was being quoted.
A 24 year old boy watching the game with me in suburban Chicago listened to my explanation about Paul Harvey and farming. He drives a Ford F-250 4×4 pick-up. After I finished he looked me square in the eyes and said "Swing, and a miss." And that's what I'd say to Chrysler. Whoever made this ad had more money than market research and common sense.
Simultaneously, reviewers hated GoDaddy.com's "Perfect Match, Bar Rafieli's Big Kiss." This portrayed a very stereotypical engineer enjoying a long kiss with a pretty girl – referring to how the company's products well serve client needs. Reviewers found the ad in bad taste. My bet is this ad will have immediate payback for GoDaddy.com
Have you ever heard of the monstrously successful situation comedy "The Big Bang Theory?" At just about any time you can find this in reruns on at least one, if not more than one, cable channel. The show is so successful that to pull people viewers to its Monday night schedule CBS actually chose to rerun "Big Bang" episodes amidst new episodes of its other programs in January. The show thrives on the tension of male technical professionals seeking to solve the age old question of how a man can appeal to desirable ladies. Politically correct or not, the show is successful because it is a timeless message. Most boys want to be liked by girls.
Today the world of people who have technical, or quasi-technical jobs, is HUGE. GoDaddy's target audience of people buying, and servicing, web domains just happens to be mostly male under-40 men with technical or quasi-technical backgrounds. This little, tasteless demonstration may have upset the high ethics of ad execs (or has "Mad Men" unraveled that myth?) but to its target group this ad was pure gold. And same for GoDaddy.com.
But most importantly, none of these ads will have the payback of 9 words a marketer tweeted when the lights went out at the game. Because it had blown a huge wad of money on a traditional game ad the Oreo brand folks at Mondelez were watching the game with their media agency 360i. Thinking quickly the creatives came up with an idea, and the brand guys approved it – so out went the tweet from Oreo Cookies "No problem. You can still dunk in the dark."
"Booya" as my young friends say. 10,000 retweets and an entire Monday news cycle devoted to the quick thinking folks who posted this tweet. ROI? Given that the incremental cost was zero, pretty darn high. If I was investing, I'd take the tweet over the video. The equivalent of a kick return for a TD.
The world has changed. We now live in a 24×7, real-time, always-on world. We no longer wait for the weekly magazine for analysis, or the daily newspaper for information. Or even the 11:00 television daily recap. We pick up alerts on our mobile devices constantly. Receive highlights from friends on Facebook and Twitter. We want our information NOW. And those who connect to this new way of living for providing us information are not only accepted, but admired by those thriving on the social networks.
This year's Super Bowl social media postings were triple last year's; over 30million. This is the world of immediate feedback. Immediate discussion. And the place were ads need to be immediate as well. Those who understand this, and connect to it, will succeed. Others, who spend too much to make and then distribute ads on traditional media, will not. Just as newspaper ads have lost of their relevance – TV ads are destined for the same conclusion.
The good news is that Mondelez and its Oreos team was ready, and willing, to take advantage. Where were most of the other advertisers? Audi, VW and P&G's Tide also jumped in. But of all those millions spent on once-run ads, these major corporate advertisers – and their extremely highly paid ad agencies – were absent. When the easy money was to be made, they simply weren't there. Off drinking beer and watching the game when they should have been working!
Today we learned Twitter is buying Bluefin to make its information on who is tweeting, about what, in real time even better. This will be helpful for any smart advertiser. And not just the multi-billion dollar giants. The good news is anyone, anywhere in any size company can play in this real-time, on-line social media world. You don't have to be huge, or rich.
Where were you when the lights went out? Were you taking advantage of what we may later call a "once in a lifetime" opportunity?
Where will you be the next time? Are you ready to invest in the new world of social media advertising? Or are you stuck spending too much to come in too late?
I recently listened to a great presentation on innovation by Bill Burnett, partner at Launchpad Partners. I recommend you download the slides to his presentation, "The CEO's Role in Innovation," in order to understand just how important innovation is to profitability as well as the CEOs role in creating the right culture. I also hand it to Bill that he not only lays out the CEO's role, but discusses what it takes organizationally to implement innovation – including getting the right people involved to go beyond just coming up with good ideas.
Markets shift. Sometimes there are long periods in which the market is reasonably the same (like newspapers). And sometimes it seems like new changes are happening rapidly (like computers). How long between shifts is impossible to predict. But it is certain that all markets shift. Some new technology, or a new form of solution, or a new way of pricing, or a new competitor will enter the market and change things such that the profitability of previous solutions declines. And it is the role of CEOs to create an open culture in which the management team feels it must keep its eyes peeled for market shifts, bring them to the company for discussion, and propose innovations which can increase the longevity of company sales and profits by addressing the market shifts.
Take for example the current shift in the sports market. This is important, because a throng of businesses advertise in the sports market. Everything from TV or radio ads during games, to ads inside event brochures, to putting logos on equipment and uniforms, to paying athletes as endorsers. Being aligned with the right sports, the right teams and the right athletes is worth a lot of money. You can legitimately ask, would Nike be Nike if they hadn't been the first company to sign up Michael Jordan – and later Tiger Woods? So the money is very large (billions of dollars) making mistakes very expensive. But getting it right can be worth billions in returns.
So catching a recent MediaPost.com blog "The Allure of Action Sports" is important. While most of us think of basketball, baseball, American football and possibly NASCAR – for GEN Y (young folks) sports is taking on an entirely new meaning. These are sports with almost no rules – just technique. They pack the stands at events such as the Dew Tour and X Games. Active participants include almost 12 million skateboarders, 7 million snowboarders and 3 million BMX riders. Not only do people watch these sports, but the most popular performers have their own cable TV shows – like "Viva La Bam." Just like football and basketball overtook our fathers' love of baseball as America's pastime – young competitors are shifting to watch and practice action sports. For people in consumer goods and many retailers, it becomes critical that the CEO provide an environment where the company can Disrupt its old marketing practices and create White Space to explore how to link with these new markets. The winners will rake in millions of higher profits. The laggards will see the value of their sports market spending decline.
Have you recognized this shift in the sports market? Are you prepared to take advantage of this shift? Are you considering sponsoring a local skateboard competition – for example – to promote a restaurant, quick stop, or T-Shirt store? You can react faster than Wal-Mart, Coke or GM – are you considering the options to grab loyal customers when they are still "McDonald's targets"?
A great example of the right kind of CEO has been Jeff Bezos of Amazon. As I reported in this blog back in January, book sales declined about 10% in 2008. You would think this would spell a huge problem for the world's largest bookseller. But SeattlePI.com recently reported "Amazon Profits Jump Despite Recession." CEO Bezos recognized long ago that book readership was jeapardized by changing lifestyles. Fewer people have the willingness to buy printed books, carry them around and take time to read them. So he Disrupted his retail Success Formula and implemented White Space to develop something new. This led to Kindle, a product which is small, light, can hold hundreds of books, can be read "on the go", accepts downloads of journals (magazines and newspapers) and can even read the book to you (Kindle has an audio feature.) And that's just product rev 2 – who knows where this will be in 3 years. By focusing on the future he could see the market for reading shifting – and he created an environment in which new innovation could be developed to keep Amazon growing even when the traditional products (and business) started declining. Kindle is now outselling everyone's expectations.
Innovation is the lifeblood of businesses. Without innovation Defend & Extend management leads to declining returns as competitors create market shifts. So it is crucial leaders, from managers to the CEO, keep their eyes on the future to spot market challenges and obsess about competitor actions that are changing market requirements. Then be willing to Disrupt the old Success Formula by attacking Lock-ins, and use White Space to test and implement new innovations which can lead to a new Success Formula keeping the business evergreen.