News Archive

Football & Fútbol

By Keith Morelli

TAMPA (Oct. 26, 2016) Fans of football, considered by many to be emblematic of this American culture, and fútbol, what the rest of the world is hooligans about, were treated to some fascinating insider insights from a pair of heavy hitters Wednesday, in the latest installment of a popular and increasingly prominent lecture series put on by University of South Florida's Sport & Entertainment Management Program.

Behind the Sun Dome lectern were Tod Leiweke, the chief operating officer for the National Football League, which, between September and February, has pretty much kidnapped Sundays from church socials and afternoon naps, and Don Garber, commissioner of Major League Soccer, an organization that has grown by 13 expansion teams and 15 new soccer-only stadiums around the United States since 1999.

Each spoke to hundreds of sports and entertainment fans, students, faculty and the public, all of whom were admitted free of charge. The lecturers discussed their experiences in the business of sports and how both their products emerged from contests waged on fields in front of wooden bleachers to stadiums filled with tens of thousands of screaming fans.

They stressed the use of business analytics and data as now being key in grabbing bigger chunks of the market share. Fans are surveyed, numbers are crunched and decisions are made based on those conclusions. Knowing how to interpret that mountain of data and understanding fan patterns is important in keeping the product relevant, they said.

There's much more to professional sports than being able to catch a ball or score a goal.

Both are in industries that are surging in an ever-fragmented market, where short-attention spans pull people away from taking in three-hour games. The NFL is experimenting with playing more games outside the United States, in venues like London, Mexico City and there even is a plan to play a game down the road in China.

Garber is taking a game that is wildly popular around the globe and bringing it to the United States. His 22-team league is expanding and likely will reach 28 teams within a few years. Where those teams land depends on data collected form a handful of markets, including Tampa.

There is plenty of room for sharp graduates looking for careers in the business of sports, he said.

"Selling is an important way to get into this business," he said. He started out in marketing with the NFL, selling sponsorships and merchandise.

Though the Sun Dome venue is cavernous, the setting was rather intimate, with each speaker seated on a couch, talking informally with Abe Madkour, executive editor of Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal.

Both speakers carry impressive resumes:

  • Before being named COO of the NFL last year, Leiweke served as CEO of Tampa Bay Sports and Entertainment at Lightning Hockey from 2010 to 2015. He has worked for more than 28 seasons in professional sports, having previously served as CEO of the Seattle Seahawks and Vulcan Sports & Entertainment.

  • Garber, MLS's commissioner since 1999, led the league's rapid expansion into cities all across the nation. Before taking on the soccer operations, he worked for the NFL for 16 years. He is the creator of MLS WORKS, a community outreach initiative that focuses on philanthropic and community service issues and has been listed among the most influential people in American sports by Time Magazine and BusinessWeek.

Both agreed to come to USF to speak for free, despite tight schedules. Garber kept checking scores of a MSL playoff game going on in Toronto as he took the stage.

"Bill," he said from the stage, pointing to William Sutton, professor at the USF Muma College of business and director of the sports and entertainment MBA program that staged the event, "I agreed to this a long time ago, and I'm a man of my word."
Leiweke was scheduled to board an airplane Thursday morning bound for London to take in Sunday's NFL offering between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Washington Redskins in Wembley Stadium.

"When Bill calls," said Leiweke, the number two man with the multi-billion dollar league, "you gotta go."

"We've been fortunate," said Sutton of the speakers the series has attracted. "This is our fourth year. It started out in a classroom, then we expanded it to the atrium and then to the Marshall Center. And now it's in the Dome."

Building the lecture series relies on attracting nationally, and in some cases, internationally known speakers, most of whom come here without charging lecture fees.

Why? Because they are friends and colleagues, Sutton said.

"And," he said, "they appreciate and support what we are trying to build at USF."

"I dip into my network," said the sports marketing professor, who added that in January, former National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern is scheduled to take to the podium.

A distinguished academic and a proven private sector sports marketing practitioner, Sutton teaches courses in sport marketing and sales along with sports fundraising, two fields that are merging and growing and creating lucrative career options for Muma College of Business graduates.

If anyone knows the ropes and has the contacts, it's Sutton. He served as vice president of team marketing and business operations for the NBA and is the founder of Bill Sutton & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in strategic marketing and revenue enhancement. The firm's clients include the NFL and the NBA; the Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns; Madison Square Garden Sports, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Mets.

Both speakers talked informally about their career trajectories and their current jobs, offering glimpses into worlds that seldom get out of the boardroom.

Glenn Sparks, a Verizon employee from Tampa Palms, came to hear Leiweke, saying often comes to USF to hear lectures.

"I'm interested in his take on things," he said moments before Leiweke took the stage.

"This lecture series is really good."