Monday, 7 July 2014

Advance Book Review: The Sports Strategist by Irving Rein, Ben Shields, and Adam Grossman

At some point in every fan's life the curtain gets peeled back and they realize that their beloved sports franchises are not single-minded entities completely devoted to on-field success. They employ accountants and business managers, have substantial advertising budgets, and eagerly engage in as many sponsorships as possible/legally permitted. Ultimately, as a result of the increasing popularity of sports and some absolutely ridiculous broadcasting agreements has seen the industry balloon into a $750 billion business. In The Sports Strategist, Irving Rein, a communications professor at Northwestern, Ben Shields, the former head of social media at ESPN, and Adam Grossman, a consultant that has worked with the likes of the Minnesota Timerwolves and head of a sports analytics firm, have written a readable and entertaining guide to navigating the growing complexities of sports business and developing plans for financial success without relying completely on winning. It provides a wealth of information to those working in or looking to break into the field but also makes for an enlightening read for general sports fans looking to better understand the business side of things.

The book is primarily concerned with making money from off-field endeavors. While they acknowledge the importance of winning, (sometimes anyway, there are plenty of examples of good teams in dire financial straits and vice versa and a 2009 study by Kirk Wakefield at Baylor found that current season winning percentage trailed stadium quality and star players as factors that impacted attendance for MLB games), corporate officers, marketing teams, and their ilk have little direct control over such factors. Thus, personnel matters are largely pushed to the background and the authors examine broader business strategies related to topics such as public relations, stadium experience, and branding.

The Sports Strategist is mainly comprised of relevant case studies relating to the current major subjects in the industry, from marketing strategies to currying municipal favor for stadium funding and other matters. The book is broad in scope, covering all levels of athletics from high school to professional and leagues ranging from the English Premier League to single A baseball. The prose is rather jargon-free and while I was familiar with some of their examples, some of the cases were new and fascinating to me. Learning about tactics such as Northwestern using the Dutch auction model to price college basketball tickets and the Cleveland Indians' clever Lunch and Three Innings promotion to attract downtown office workers made the book worthwhile. All key takeaways are lucidly explained and sometimes concepts are codified into useful models that readers can apply to their own experiences. My only real criticism is that this wide-ranging "breadth over depth" approach left me wishing for more detail in certain passages. 

I should mention that I generally stray away from business books (I like to spend my leisure time in a less "work"-y fashion) and I don't work in sports. I picked The Sports Strategist up because I find sports business interesting and have always enjoyed the Wall Street Journal and Economist articles highlighting the innovative ways teams and leagues are trying to maximize profits. I was looking to learn more about the subject and The Sports Strategist delivered on that premise. I gained insight into how sports teams try to attract fans, control social media catastrophes and handle other business matters and was entertained throughout.

Additionally, many of the broad concepts promoted in the book are applicable to other industries. The authors emphasize more general strategies such as the importance of differentiation, ensuring all employee teams are on the same page, utilizing technology effectively, and meeting problems with a holistic approach, things that are certainly important outside the athletic realm. More business-minded readers can get a good bit out of the book (especially from some innovative ways teams have utilized new technologies) even if they work outside of sports.

In Sum
 The Sports Strategist was a surprisingly engaging look into the sports industry. While it seems mainly designed for managers inside and outside sports to develop successful strategies, it also provides a readable overview of the inventive methods teams are using to ensure financial success for anyone looking to learn more on the subject.


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