Q&A with Ben Shields (Part 2)

Ben Shields is the co-author of the 2014 book The Sports Strategist: Developing Leaders for a High-Performance Industry, which delves into how sports franchises can have success off the field regardless of team performance. Shields worked for ESPN as Associate Director of Brand & Fan Strategy from 2008-11 and Director of Social Media from 2011-14. He received a Ph.D. in Media, Technology and Society from Northwestern University and is currently a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

This is Part II of this interview and focuses on the implications of the changing sports business landscape on people looking for jobs in sports. If you missed Part I on how sports teams are adapting off the field, click here to read that first.

Q: How have the changes you’ve described and this move toward having to run teams more like a business changed how teams are hiring, and what does it mean for job-seekers interested in working in sports?

A: The cover letter of “I am an enormous sports fan and very passionate about your team” no longer works. We are in a new era where sports businesses have more difficult challenges, and the question you as an aspiring sports manager should be asking is “how can I contribute to this organization’s business goals.” If you’re not focused on the unique value that you’re bringing to an organization, then you are going to be left behind.

I also think that people on the sports job market who have diverse business experience should be and will be valued highly. The challenges in the sports industry today will require an interdisciplinary approach that calls upon many different experiences and skills to solve some of these pressing problems. And I think those that can bring those diverse skills and experiences to the table will have a leg up on their competition.

Q: What would you say to someone who thinks he or she has these skills and is having a hard time getting noticed? What are some ways for conference attendees or people without a lot of experience to show teams that they do have the skill sets?

A: Take advantage of social media to build your own identity as a sports professional. If you want to showcase your skills and your knowledge, don’t hesitate to do so on free platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram. In other words, you now have more outlets to demonstrate who you are, what your expertise is. I would take advantage of those.

Q: There’s been some discussion about how much front office people should be paid given how much some decisions are worth to a team’s fortunes. Your argument is that there is a lot more value there than we would traditionally believe. There’s also the argument that everyone wants to do this, so there’s so much supply and salaries can be deflated without much impact on who you’re getting. Where do you think salaries are headed?

A: I think it’s somewhere in the middle. I’m not trying to cop out of this, but I do think it’s somewhere in the middle. To face some of the new business challenges and succeed, sports organizations are going to have to acquire some of the best talent. No question about it. To acquire the best business talent, salaries will have to be relatively commensurate with their value. Having said that, the reason why it’s sort of a hybrid is that there still will be the undeniable intangible perks of working in sports. So I see both factors at play here.

Q: Are you finding culture clashes between the business side of organizations and the player evaluation side?

A: We did discover the tension in some organizations between the business side of the franchise and the player personnel side. While we certainly understand and respect the historical dynamics of sports organizations where those two sides were separate, one of the big points we try to make in the book, specifically around the identity of your organization, is ensuring that the business side and the player personnel side are operating from a similar strategic blueprint.

From a business standpoint, we make the argument that if you are deciding between two players that have equal talent but one fits in with your organization’s identity and culture more so than the other, we would argue that the organization should make the choice to sign the player that fits in vs. the one that doesn’t. While that might seem like a somewhat simplistic example, we do think factoring in business potential into the player personnel discussion is important as simply another data point.

My co-authors and I have been talking a little bit about the concept of “revenue above replacement,” just borrowing from the sabermetrics figure, looking at how a team may consider the revenue potential of a player in their personnel selection process simply as another data point. It’s interesting because it does at least get those two parties of the business side and the player personnel side operating from a similar strategic blueprint about the culture and the identity and the values of the organization. That collaboration is going to be increasingly important in an era when sports teams must win as businesses without necessarily winning on the field.

Q: And how about within the business side, do you find a culture clash between people who have been there a while and some of the new people on the business side?

A: In some organizations, yes. But I will say that that is true for really any industry. That’s just because of so many of these new technological business tools that are infiltrating not only sports organizations, but companies of all different stripes. The best organizations are the ones that can manage that change appropriately and see it as additive to the overall pursuit of a successful business.

Q: We know baseball led the way on analytical hires on the player evaluation side. Are there certain leagues or certain sports that are ahead on hiring the right kind of thinkers on the business side?

A: Not to discount other organization, but I have been impressed with the NBA’s and the NFL’s integration of more analytics-based business leaders. That’s not to say that the other leagues have not been integrating, but those two rise to the top as leagues that seem to be first movers in that area.