by Chip Crain
I was reading Eric Musselman's blog (which I recommend all of our readers do as well) the other day and he mentioned an article in the New York Times. In the Talking Business section was the story "Leaving Boardroom for Skybox" and it was about Home Depot founder Arthur Blank and his travails as owner of the Atlanta Falcons.
Mr. Blank made two keen observations that I hope Mr. Heisley will take to heart as well. First, Mr. Blank made a clear distinction between the business side of the team and the sports operation side for lack of a better term. Mr. Blank associated well with the business side of the operations but has yet to make similar inroads on the field.
So how did Mr. Blank make the inroads on the business side? Quite simply he developed strong relationships with his associates (his word for employees) and then he listened to his clients (i.e. the fans). He took over a franchise that rarely sold out games and turned that around simply by conducting surveys of the fans, listening to what they wanted and expected and implemented changes to address those concerns. Notice that he didn't give lip service to them, he actively got involved to change what was wrong while maintaining what was done properly.
The result has been remarkable. The Falcons routinely sell out games now and actually have a waiting list for season tickets. He did this despite the Falcons failure to produce on the field. The team has only made the playoffs twice since Mr. Blank took over as owner. Last season the Falcons were one of the worst teams in the league.
Mr. Blank also looked at the team and quickly came to the conclusion that, while he may understand the business side of the franchise intuitively, the sports side was a totally different animal. He dabbled in coaching hires and the like but he recognized that he doesn't have the skills to determine what makes a good coach like he can determine what makes a good manager. They are different animals. He admitted to himself that he wouldn't have a clue about personnel decisions either. So he hired the best people he could to make those decisions and then let them do their thing. He didn't look over their shoulders or demand to be given the final word on any deal. He hired people he felt knew how to manage a team and let them do their job.
In contrast, Mr. Heisley has been getting more and more involved in the team decisions while seeming to lose interest in attempting to appease his clients. As he said in our interview:
I'm not so sure the professionals have that much more going for them than the fans have going. A lot of it really turns out to be luck. How many trades do you make that turns out horrible because the guy gets injured and he hardly ever plays for you?
Does that sound like someone who believes there is a difference between managing a business and managing a sports team? Does that sound like someone who doesn't believe he can do as well or better than the people he hired to do the job?
On the other side Heisley doesn't appear to be pushing the please the clients concept either. This season's Fan Advisory Board hasn't been selected yet despite camp beginning in less than three weeks so it is doubtful the board will have any effect on changing the fan experience this season. How much impact will the board have on this season if they won't even be selected as a group prior to the start of training camp? Services have been cut in the past and perks eliminated but has anyone done a survey to figure out how this was affecting the fan experience?
Last season the team opened up the parking garage for anyone. Club or better level season ticket holders used to be the only one's allowed to park there. Did anyone survey the season ticket holders who were denied the opportunity to buy those spaces to see how they felt about it? Did anyone ask the people who pre-paid for the right to park in the covered lot how it felt to suddenly be forced to park on the roof in the rain because their normal spots were taken? Aren't those people the exact ones the team is lamenting losing lately?
So Mr. Heisley, please pay attention to the owners who have been successful and pay more attention to your clients and less on the basketball operations. You have hired Chris Wallace and Marc Iavaroni. Now is the time to let them make the decisions that you hired them to make. Focus on the fans who are your clients. Make them feel like you care. Ask for their ideas and then implement the ones that are feasible.
It is just one person's opinion, but I think it is valid.