Times: NFL provides own type of MBA program

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Times: NFL provides own type of MBA program

Postby Jake » Thu Jul 15, 2004 10:20 am

NFL provides own type of MBA program
From the Sports section
Jody Foldesy

Once there was a time Louis Riddick didn't know or care to know what happened in the business of football.
Riddick, now a pro scout for the Washington Redskins, intentionally ignored marketing, finance and club operations during his seven seasons as an NFL player. The psychological barrier between football and business, known to all who have worked in the league, was particularly strong in his mind.
"I didn't want anything to do with the business side of it," Riddick recalled. "All I wanted to know was what time was practice, when we were meeting, who we were playing and what the game plan was."
Times have changed. Now Riddick, in between film sessions, meetings and practice, dreams of running his own personnel department. And last month he finished tearing down his wall at the second annual NFL-Stanford Program for Managers, where he was taught many of the broad fundamentals he once ignored but now needs to maximize his career.
At one of the world's premier business schools, Riddick and nearly 40 other mid-level NFL officials underwent what one participant dubbed a "boot camp for managers." Coming from disciplines as diverse as coaching and community relations, they studied cases, attended classes, listened to seminars by high-powered league executives and tapped each other's knowledge and experiences.
Both years' attendees lavished praise on the program, and its future appears strong. The product of a serious effort by the league to boost minority and female representation in the executive ranks, the program also represents further recognition that what occurs on the field is increasingly linked to teams' business operations.
"It's not football ... business," Riddick said, making a slicing sound and cutting his hand through the air. "It's trying to find a way to mesh it together without stepping on each other's toes. Football people want to deal with football, and business people want to deal with business, but you have to understand that one hand kind of scratches the other's back."
'Awesome experience'
This year's participants arrived on a Sunday at the picturesque, 8,180-acre campus about an hour south of San Francisco. Immediately they were thrown into case studies. They discussed the cases in groups that night and then again at class the next day.
Areas of study ranged from salary-cap management to branding to globalization. Stanford professors, led by the program's co-director, George Foster, and a variety of NFL executives, including commissioner Paul Tagliabue, taught and gave speeches.
Classes ran the bulk of each day, Monday through Thursday. By the time the students took a breath Friday and received their certificates, they were amazed at how much they had learned and how differently they had begun to think.
"It was an awesome experience," said Ricky Hunley, an assistant coach on Steve Spurrier's 2002 Redskins staff who now works under the Cincinnati Bengals' Marvin Lewis. "You get a broad-based knowledge of the workings of the league, how it all fits together."
Some pupils, such as Hunley, lobbied to attend. Others, such as Riddick, were singled out by team management. All seemed to return with more confidence to boost their careers.
"My next goal is to be a head coach," Hunley said. "Going to a program like this really gives me an opportunity to understand what the other side does."
The idea of the program, like that of business school, is to give somewhat accomplished pupils exposure to the "big ideas" that shape organizations. Executives want visionaries among their peers; no matter how much film a scout watches, he won't climb the ladder unless he understands his club's more general goals.
"It's stuff you don't think about a lot of times," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers personnel executive Doug Williams, a former Super Bowl-winning Redskins quarterback who attended this year's program. "You come to work, turn on the film projector, do your thing and then go home. And then there's Susan in marketing who's working her buns off to keep the owner happy and keep the lights on."
These days, marketing and finance mean more than paying electric bills -- they increasingly mean the difference between winning and losing. Owners are aggressively milking revenue sources. Suite leases, stadium advertising and team stores help generate the cash to pay big bonuses and lure top talent.
Growing revenue disparity between large- and small-market clubs is leading to a tug-of-war over the NFL's future financial structure. Regardless of who wins, up-and-coming employees like Riddick know they must be at least conversant in business operations.
"I found myself gravitating toward finance people, toward marketing people, toward people who run stadiums and negotiate stadium leases," Riddick said. "Those are the kind of things that, if you really want to have your finger on the pulse of an entire organization, you have to know."
Boosting diversity
The program evolved from the NFL's bid to create more minority opportunities and Foster's sports business research at Stanford.
NFL director of football operations Gene Washington and former Stanford and NFL coach Bill Walsh had talked for much of the past decade about how to boost minorities' odds of becoming head coaches and executives. When Washington, a Stanford graduate, spoke at a class taught by Foster and Walsh in early 2003, hope turned into reality.
Washington left impressed with the studious efforts of Foster and Walsh. Two weeks later he came back to them with the green light for an executive program.
"What we thought was that not everybody has the full scope of the organization," Washington said. "Sometimes you get pigeonholed. So the idea of taking a page from the executive training programs came about."
Foster and Walsh's interest in the dynamics of sports business is no fling. Besides co-teaching a course in sports business management, the pair is writing a book on the subject, and Foster teaches courses in sports marketing and sports finance.
"I think that's why the NFL felt a little more comfortable," Foster said. "We had poured a lot of intelligence resources into this."
Although minority opportunities motivated the program, the final product was expanded to include people of all races and both genders. Each team sends one representative, and the league office in New York sends several officials. Three players attended in 2003 (though none this year because of scheduling problems) and the NFL Players Association expects more players to be on hand in the future.
Hunley, who is black, noted the strong diversity at this year's program, counting 14 women, two of whom were minorities, about a dozen black men and "12 to 16" former players.
"When we started to put this together, we realized that we need all types of managers, not just minorities," Washington said. "But the program still retained aspects for minorities and women."
Staying in touch
Foster lists three goals for the program: to improve participants' basic business skills, expose them to the league's economics and "build the cohort group."
The last area -- networking -- has enjoyed particular success. The class of 2003 remains in close contact via e-mail. Brian McCarthy, the NFL's director of corporate communications, noted how he and his classmates track and congratulate each other's accomplishments, such as cornerback Troy Vincent's signing with the Buffalo Bills and election as NFLPA president.
Hunley compares the experience to training camp -- participants go away, endure an intense experience together and form a bond. He and other members of the class of 2004 see networking as a big long-term asset.
"Now I'll see these people on the road, see them when they come here," Riddick said. "Talk to me a year from now and see whether or not I've tapped into their resources. I'm sure I'll have hit a whole bunch of them."
Washington plans to judge the program's success over the long term despite two years of raves. Only when he sees more minority head coaches, general managers and team presidents will he be satisfied.
"There's a certain amount of success we know it has attained," Washington said. "But there's a certain amount we won't know until we're a couple of years out."
Perhaps providing validation one day will be Riddick, the former player who once saw a wall between football and business and now sees his future.
"Going to a seminar like that, you really realize that it's a big, big, big machine," Riddick said. "Even in this little building, it's a big machine with a lot of moving parts."

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