Headline Sports Business

Changing the Game: Peter Guber

The following is a guest contribution from Heather Brittany (@HeatherBrit).  Heather is currently a law student at Loyola Law School and Sports Chair of its Entertainment & Sports Law Society.

Thursday, July 14, Variety and Sports Video Group (SVG) hosted their inaugural Sports Entertainment Summit, held at the Sofitel Hotel, in Beverly Hills, California.  The event touted an all-star cast filled with the who’s-who of the sports business world.  The early morning crowd was somewhat sparse and jokes were made about ESPN executives sleeping over their hangovers from the ESPYs the evening before.

However, the room then began to buzz as the first big name of the day stepped onto the stage – Peter Guber.  Guber is not only the Godfather of the sports and entertainment worlds, but he is also incredibly intelligent (he must have spouted dozens of statistics) and absolutely hysterical (during the event someone tweeted that Guber was getting more laughs in the room then Seth Meyers received the night before at the ESPYs… sad, but true).  Guber was interviewed by Stuart Levine, an Assistant Managing Editor of ‘Variety.’

As a controlling force in the sports world, there are many different rumors and stories that float around the industry about Guber.  It has been said that he is incredibly difficult to work with, that he is demanding, and that he expects perfection.  After hearing him speak, I have no doubt that many of those sentiments are true.  However, his demand for excellence mirrors his attention to detail and the perfection that he expects to present you with.  Throughout the interview it became more apparent that Guber only puts forward his absolute best efforts in every aspect of every entity that he is involved with (which, is basically everything).

Levine immediately apologized to the audience, stating that due to the NBA lockout, they would not be talking about Guber’s relationship with the Golden State Warriors.  Guber joked that David Stern had a hand that would reach from New York to LA, and therefore, he would be keeping quiet.  Later on, when asked about his feelings towards Los Angeles fans and sports he joked “LA is great.  I’m a Dodgers fan, an Angles fan, a Kings fan…” he paused and chuckled, “…I’ll stop there.”  Obviously omitting any mention of the Lakers.

When asked about what makes an owner of a sports team successful, Guber had a wealth of information and insight that he provided the now completely filled ballroom.  First, Guber stated that being relationship oriented with the fans is the central most important tactic to creating a successful sports team.  He expressed that it is critical that owners understand that their fans are their “evangelists.”   Furthermore, to truly capture a fan, an owner must aim at the fan’s heart, and not at his/her wallet.  Eventually, the wallet will follow the heart.

Another stab was taken at the Dodgers, as the first thing Frank McCourt did when he became owner of the Dodgers was raise ticket prices.  Guber defended McCourt a bit, pointing out that when McCourt took over the team it was netting a 50 million dollar a year loss and had a terrible attendance record (have we come full circle?).  He stated that McCourt “created a tremendous audience to be mindful of… the problem was… somewhere [along the way] he lost his mind.”

Guber also stressed the importance of understanding that a team’s audience is not tens of millions.  An owner must understand that it is an audience of one, tens of millions of times over.

Additionally, Guber stated that an owner cannot say that a team is “my team.”  He believes that an owner is simply renting a team and that he/she act as a steward to the fans.  Guber’s stewardship became apparent as he ran through the importance of having clean bathrooms, good food, fashionable apparel, friendly staff, and so forth.  He truly believes in the totality of the fan experience.

Furthermore, Guber expressed the importance of understanding that a sports franchise is a brand.  This is especially true in leagues where players are constantly moving.  It is important to sell the team as a whole, and not rely on one player to put butts in seats.  A die hard Bostonian, Guber stated, “You’re the Red Sox, you have a brand.  You’re the Dodgers… you had a brand.”  Half of the room chuckled while the other half winced in pain (I was part of the later).  Although Guber meant the comment in jest, I have to disagree as the Dodgers are still one of the best brands in sports, however, that is a post for another time.

Another important pillar to building a successful sports organization, according to Guber, is authenticity.  Audiences are no longer passive; Guber insists that they are active and aware.  An owner’s foot, tongue and heart must all move in the same direction.  If they are not moving in unison, fans will notice, and your team will fail.  According to Guber, this is done by building up the ethos of your team.  “People will stay with you throughout errors and mistakes if they believe you’re authentic.”  We’ve seen this happen time and time again with athletes regaining the public’s approval after large scandals, and the same goes with organizations.

Being in a room full of sports business individuals, Guber spoke about his success as a business man.  He also joked about his failures stating, “I had a professional hockey team and the audience didn’t give a puck.”  However, he urged the point that success and failure are not miles apart.  Instead, they are incredibly close.  Unfortunately, a risk is something that you have to take to achieve success.  Guber believes that inherent in this risk, is uncertainty, which is the birthplace of creativity.

The sports world is still littered with unpaved roads begging for ingenuity and innovation to take over and further transform the industry.  As Guber stated, “There are no rules in this business; but, you break them at your own peril.”

By Darren Heitner

Darren Heitner created Sports Agent Blog as a New Year's Resolution on December 31, 2005. Originally titled, "I Want To Be A Sports Agent," the website was founded with the intention of causing Heitner to learn more about the profession that he wanted to join, meet reputable individuals in the space and force himself to stay on top of the latest news and trends.

Heitner now runs Heitner Legal, P.L.L.C., which is a law firm with many practice areas, including sports law and contract law. Heitner has represented numerous athletes and sports agents as legal counsel. He has also served as an Adjunct Professor at Indiana University Bloomington from 2011-2014, where he created and taught a course titled, Sport Agency Management, which included subjects ranging from NCAA regulations to athlete agent certification and the rules governing the profession. Heitner serves as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where he teaches a Sports Law class that includes case law surrounding athlete agents and the NCAA rules.