April 26, 2018 – Over the last 25 years, sports has grown into a formidable global industry. Historically, professional sports teams operated on a relatively modest level, with league officials, team owners, managers, and coaches surrounding themselves with people they knew and trusted from their own small worlds. College sports teams relied on in-house search committees and word-of-mouth recommendations.
Familiarity, however, can also breed contempt. Teams with huge followings like the Dallas Cowboys, Real Madrid and Manchester United have seen their valuations soar into the billions of dollars. That’s attracted search firms – big time. Seasoned recruiters now provide strategic planning advice, in addition to talent identification services, with the capability of applying their findings to speed along the process in the hunt for talent.
“When I started in 1995, there were virtually no HR directors in sports. HR was always handled by finance,” said RSR Partners managing director and head of sports industry practice Joe Bailey, a former CEO of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins organization. “The pipeline for talent has gone from C-level people to Bs and As. The quality of the person that has gotten interested in sports, from an administrative standpoint, has really risen.”
Sports Meets Entertainment
Many C-suite focused recruiting firms are now active in the sector and some specialize only in the sports field itself. These include, in addition to RSR Partners: Nolan Partners: SRiCheyenne, Turnkey, CarrSports Consulting, Korn Ferry, Harvard Group International, Prodigy Sports, Marquee Search, DHR International, Hartmann Mason, College Sports Solutions, Egon Zehnder, Heidrick & Struggles, Ascension Sports Partners, Russell Reynolds Associates, Diversified Search, Odgers Berndtson, Eastman & Beaudine, Alden Associates, Parker Executive Search, Neinas Sports Services and Collegiate Sports Associates, among others.
According to Mr. Bailey, the biggest change facing the executive search industry is finding enough top tier talent to keep pace as sports intersects with entertainment/media. “When you combine these sectors, it’s probably closer to $500 billion in revenue in the U.S.,” said Mr. Bailey. “That’s almost twice as large as the automobile industry.”
Sports franchises and college teams now compete as global brands in a world of entertainment choices that is being revolutionized by new digital platforms and technologies. eSports, for example, is the fastest growing category within the sector (see ‘By the Numbers’ below). Managing this growing complexity requires leaders with wider ranging skills and more diverse industry and functional expertise. It’s created a perfect storm for recruiters to step in and expand alongside.
Shifting their focus away from the playing field, dugout, sideline, front office and executive suite, specialized recruiters now focus on how sports consumers access their media content with an emphasis on targeting multi-faceted executives who can keep clients relevant – and in some cases, ahead of the pack – in a fast-changing marketplace.
For the first time, social media giant Facebook plans to live stream at least 20 Major League Baseball games this season that will be available to users in the U.S., the league announced. A few years ago, MLB embedded its video player directly into its Facebook page to live stream spring training games. Facebook also plans to offer an online version of fan interaction that takes place in the stands during games. In another example of mixing sports and entertainment, Amazon paid $50 million to live stream NFL Thursday night games this season. Amazon replaced Twitter, which live streamed Thursday night games last year. This year, Twitter will live stream MLB and NHL games.
“Everybody is producing or distributing content,” said Diversified Search managing partner Tracy O’Such, whose responsibilities include running the firm’s global digital media, entertainment & sports practices. “It’s not just, ‘we have to get this to our cable operator for broadcast distributors.’ We have to deal with the whole mobile infrastructure and the whole competitive piece coming from players like Facebook, Google and Apple creating their own content. They’re going after producers from the cable and broadcast world because they want to create Apple TV. Facebook is creating their own programming because look at what Netflix has done. There’s a million channels, and there’s always something on.”
Ms. O’Such’s longevity in the industry and unique perspective makes her uniquely qualified to recruit senior-level talent in the media/entertainment sector.
“It’s been a fascinating ride from my early days. I came out of the cable television industry when that was kind of the new technology,” said Ms. O’Such, who grew up in affiliate relations selling content to cable operators. “Having worked in programming (now called content) at USA Network, I was in marketing there and with another cable operator. I started at a small boutique that just served the cable operators community and magazine publishing. It was the mid-1990s when people started requesting talent.”
Ms. O’Such said Yahoo was one of her first clients. “They wanted me to help them find ad sales people because they were trying to make money,” she said. “They wanted people who came from college because they were versed at selling to advertisers until it became established enough to become its own category that was called New Media. Now you fast forward, they don’t consider themselves media companies anymore. They want to be considered a technology business.”
According to Ms. O’Such, the majority of multimedia companies have a “robust” executive search recruiting arm. “There are people like me who are executive recruiters who understand the art and science of executive recruiting,” said Ms. O’Such. “We’ve become much more advisors and partners than we’ve ever been. We’re only getting hired to identify talent for really tough searches when the in-house group can’t solve it.”
The sports industry is being constantly reshaped by the seismic forces of globalization and growth of digital media platforms that includes social media, live streaming and over-the-top broadcasting.
The England & Wales Cricket Board, a European organization with a loyal but aging fan base, was seeking a sports chief commercial officer to expand the appeal of the sport to a younger, digital savvy audience.
The search was conducted by SriCheyenne, a global sports and entertainment focused firm which has positioned itself to navigate new digital and data-driven business models and consumer platforms. SriCheyenne is a product of the merger of the Cheyenne Group, an executive search and consulting firm with a focus on media and SRi, formerly known as Sports Recruitment International, which specialized in sports, media, and entertainment. SRi had distinguished itself as a leader in sports recruitment; the Cheyenne Group had made its reputation doing top-of-the-house search and talent consulting for a range of broadcast, print and online content companies. Given the natural symbiosis of the sports and media industries, combining the two firms’ capabilities made perfect strategic sense.
“The successful candidate (at England & Wales Cricket Board) had previously been a senior marketing executive for a global consumer packaged goods brand with a track record of building innovative online/offline customer engagement teams and packages,” said SriCheyenne CEO Jay Hussey, who formerly led Odgers Berndston’s U.S. technology and digital transformation practices.
Mr. Hussey’s background is typical of new-wave recruiters joining the sports executive search industry. He boasts more than 15 years in executive search with leading global firms, including in addition to Odgers, Russell Reynolds Associates and Egon Zehnder. Prior to his role at Odgers Berndtson, he was founder and managing partner of NineSeven Partners, an executive search and talent consulting firm which he merged with Odgers in 2015. Before his career in search and assessment, Mr. Hussey served as president of Digitas West, the regional operating unit of Digitas, Inc., a publicly traded technology and marketing services company.
“Jay’s experience in digital and technology, both as a business leader and as an executive search professional, gives us even stronger capabilities with which to help our clients,” said SriCheyenne chairman and vice chairman Pat Mastandrea.
Like many of his peers, Korn Ferry vice chairman Jed Hughes utilizes his extensive list of contacts to secure an impressive list of clients encompassing a variety of sports.
Mr. Hughes’ background and level of respect developed as a college and pro football coach has led to numerous high-profile hires such as Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Oregon basketball coach Dana Altman, Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujri, Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson, and Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred.
Mr. Harbaugh, who was recruited from the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, is a Michigan alumnus and considered among the top coaches in college or pro football. Recruiting him to Michigan was a major coup and a perfect example why Mr. Hughes is so successful. Mr. Harbaugh’s father, Jack Harbaugh, was a defensive backs coach at Michigan when Mr. Hughes was a linebackers coach there. Jim Hackett, Michigan’s interim athletic director when the school hired Mr. Harbaugh in 2014, played football at Michigan when Mr. Hughes and the elder Mr. Harbaugh coached together at the Big Ten Conference school.
“It is important that a candidate has the opportunity to interview the organization as much as they are interviewing them. The more the candidate is aware of the opportunities, as well as the challenges, the better equipped they will be to be effective in their new role.”
“It all goes back to relationships,” said Mr. Hughes, who also served as defensive coordinator at UCLA and was an assistant coach with the Minnesota Vikings, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns. “You won’t find anyone out there that’s close to matching what we’ve done and the impact we’ve had in sports, whether it be collegiate or professional, abroad or in the United States. The reason we continue to get searches, especially in professional sports, is that owners call their friends and tell them we know what we’re doing. Whether it’s ownership or college presidents, it’s very critical who you’re building relationships with. Those are the people making the decisions.
“If they don’t trust you, they wouldn’t talk to you,” said Mr. Hughes. Even the most skeptical of clients trust Mr. Hughes when faced with a challenging hire. After firing three head coaches in four seasons, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslem reached out to Mr. Hughes before hiring Mr. Jackson in 2015.
“We’ve used Korn Ferry a lot in our other lives and had gotten to know Jed,” Mr. Haslem, CEO of Pilot Flying J, told Cleveland reporters. “Actually, when we first bought the team (in 2012), he approached us. He’s around at NFL meetings, and we’ve talked to him a lot. I just think it will help us run a better process than we have in the past.”
It was the first time the Browns organization made public it was using a search firm since returning to the NFL in 1999.
“Jed has a tremendous amount of contacts,” said Mr. Haslem, whose net worth is valued at $3.7 billion. “He’s been involved in both college and pro football for literally his entire life.”
White Glove Treatment
Asked about Cleveland’s selection of Mr. Jackson, Mr. Hughes said this: “The way we’re able to sit down with the owner is key. Nobody does that. The training that I had in how to conduct searches and how to provide the ‘white glove treatment’ – we do it better than anyone.”
Mr. Hughes teamed with Korn Ferry senior client partner Liz Moulton, whom he recruited from Russell Reynolds Associates, on several searches, including former Georgetown University basketball standout Patrick Ewing becoming head coach at his alma mater.
“Jed and I know Georgetown very well – I worked behind the scenes; Jed really led that search,” said Ms. Moulton, who indicated that Mr. Hughes is preparing her for big things in the firm. “He specializes in top of class doing coach and general manager searches and very big Power 5 athletic director searches. I have a whole set of clients around diversity work.” Essentially, each has maintained their own practice, but they are clear partners. Mr. Hughes helped groom Ms. Moulton with the expectation that she will be leading all of it when Mr. Hughes decides to step down.
The explosive growth and demand for talent and people in the sports industry can, to a great extent, be attributed to an increased interest in collegiate and professional sports. “An increase in revenue increases the need for a higher level of professionalism,” said DHR International director of global marketing and public relations Lauren Finch. “While a source of entertainment, sports organizations must function as Fortune 500 businesses, and this need for professionalism showcases the need for an executive recruiter who can assist in their searches for highly sought-after candidates.”
That’s where executive search firms can add a lot of value – not just in identifying and recruiting talent, but also in helping sports industry executives gain practical insight into how other organizations and other industries have navigated similar disruptive changes.
In addition to the SRiCheyenne pairing, there have been several mergers among executive search firms since the start of the year as companies better position themselves in a competitive recruiting market. Some provide national expansion opportunities, others more global reach, while still others allow for additional solutions offerings for clients requesting a full suite of talent management services.
Wurster Partners merged with On Partners, a boutique leadership advisory firm. The partnership enhances ON Partners expertise in global consumer brand recruiting. Founder and managing partner of Wurster Partners, Michael Wurster, joined ON Partners as a partner.
The proliferation of search firms serving the sports sector is creating a business international in scope. U.K.-based sports specialist Nolan Partners, working primarily with sports-related clients from Europe, Asia and the Middle East, last year introduced a North American operation with offices in Los Angeles and New York.
Chad Biagini, the firm’s U.S. managing partner, has expansive executive search experience representing American clients, including the NFL, NHL, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, WWE, and Ultimate Fighting Championship.
One of Nolan Partners’ more notable assignments involved filling 40 positions in coaching and scouting for the prestigious U.K.-based Manchester United soccer club of the Premier League. The firm also serves sports clients in Hong Kong, Japan, and West Africa.
“I’ve always admired Nolan Partners’ reputation and success around the world in the industries of sports and entertainment,” said Mr. Biagini, who has placed over 200 senior executives in a variety of industries, including media/entertainment and technology and previously served as managing director at Harvard Group International. “It’s not a generalist firm where sports is just a small, flashy badge on the lapel, and whose consultants split their time across several other industries. That was important to me. Sports and entertainment is what we do all day, every day.” Executive search firms provide an invaluable service to clients by conducting its searches in relative privacy.
Typically, one candidate will be hired from a deep pool, resulting in a search firm impressing heavily on candidates and clients the concept of confidentiality to avoid putting those candidates in a position that might negatively affect their current roles. Good search firms will reach into less obvious talent pools to find outside-the-box candidates.
Matthew J. Schwartz, president of MJS Executive Search, said the recruitment process must be a two-way street. It’s critical for employers to give candidates the freedom to ask questions and to learn as much as they need as they move through the recruitment process.
“It is important that a candidate has the opportunity to interview the organization as much as they are interviewing them,” said Mr. Schwartz. “The more the candidate is aware of the opportunities, as well as the challenges, the better equipped they will be to be effective in their new role.”
Mr. Hughes, who handles some of the toughest searches – those requiring A-list candidates who can improve the reputation of a losing organization, or transform a good program into a championship team – acknowledged that it isn’t always as easy as he makes it look.
“In 1987 my Dad died, I got divorced, and I ended up getting fired twice that year in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. I was blackballed from the NFL. I had 187 interviews and ended up working for a small assessment company. Being able to get back in the NFL after being fired twice in a year makes you feel like you can do anything. When somebody calls me, I return the call. I remember what it was like getting fired and people thinking you’re poison and you’re contagious.”
He said he started his career in sports, and he’s going to end it in sports. “It’s come full circle,” said Mr. Hughes. “We’ve done work with all the leagues, in all sports, and so I know they respect us. But, it’s like anything else, you have to continue to do good work, you have to continue to be trusted. If you’re not trusted, you’re not going to get called. In this business, we’re all only as good as our last completed search.”
Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media