How do you market a team willing to trade losses today for a bright future? That is among the questions Philadelphia 76ers CEO, Scott O’Neil, faces every day. Also the CEO of the New Jersey Devils, Scott’s unique perspective on life, business, and branding makes him the ideal guest for our inaugural podcast. We sit down to discuss the Sixers brand, elevating a city with a sports team, and how “The Rule of Three” has influenced Scott’s career. If you enjoy our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a review in the store of your choice!
Greetings, one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. I am, so excited to kick off our Real-World Branding podcast with our inaugural edition today, to bring you, with great frequency, at least once every couple weeks, some practical, smart, interesting conversation about the world of branding and business building.
We start today with an interview with Scott O’Neil, more on Scott in a minute. This interview is a reflective of what this podcast will accomplish, which is interviews with practitioners, and brand and business builders to understand their journeys and challenges in their careers. The goal for this is to be fast, interesting, helpful, and valuable for those who love the discipline and are involved in the discipline of brand and business development.
So, Scott O’Neil. A little bit about Scott. A great guest. So excited to have him. Scott currently serves as CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Devils, as well as of the Prudential Center, home of the Devils. So a lot on his plate, not to mention franchised in different media markets and different sports. We will get into the compare and contrast game as the interview goes on.
A little more on how Scott evolved over his life. He did his undergrad at Villanova University and his MBA at Harvard Business School. HBS, of course, began his career working with the NBA. He was with them for eight years then rose to SVP of Team Marketing and Business Operations, parlayed that into the president role at Madison Square Garden Sports. He, then, moved onto the Sixers and the Devils in July 2013. Incredible perspective that he has from all he has accomplished, from the unique challenge and interesting situations, from the organizations he has been a part of in his career.
So we’ll run the interview with Scott in a minute. But before we do, and I think what we like to do in each one of these, is give me a chance, for better or worse, to talk about a thing or two that has been on my mind.
I’ve been hearing about a little phrase called ‘personal branding.’ When we were going about thinking through a podcast of this nature, we wanted it to have a place of difference and value in this market. We did what we would do for a client and took a look at what’s out there. What I found was an amazing number of podcasts and other forms of content that were about this notion of personal branding.
We had a colleague, who is a very accomplished graphic designer, and she was invited to speak at a local university and the topic they wanted her to speak about was not design, but personal branding. Everyone is talking about personal branding and the thing that bugs me a bit about it is that 95% of the content that I see about personal branding is not about branding at all.
It’s about publicity. It’s about how do I get more visible. How do I get more Twitter followers? How do I get on the news, on a panel or whatever it is? That’s not branding!
Tom Peters wrote a book that I give to my colleagues when they would start with our company. It was called Brand You. That was about personal branding. It was about applying the rules of effective durable brand development to one’s own sense of self as a business person.
Branding, as we know, is about isolating attributes and values that are consistent, that are important, and then expressing that consistently and in a way that ultimately is renowned to one or a brand becoming known for something. That’s what brand development is all about.
Personal branding, when the words are used correctly, really should be about how you can build a reputation within your work place or personal life for certain attributes that matter to you and others. It’s an immensely important and really helpful topic for those who are entering the work force, being promoted, or entering new professional challenges. To know the importance of thinking of yourself and your own capabilities and your own attributes, thinking of them in the way of the leading brands that are successful today.
What I hear and read and see under the banner of personal branding is shallower than that. It’s about how do I get noticed. The reason why people who have become brands, from Oprah to Michael Jordan, is that the various businesses that they have gotten into are successful not because they had good publicists or were smart at getting noticed. It’s because the core element that makes them popular and makes people want to bond with them is present across the various businesses that they enter.
Oprah is a great example. When one fell in love with the Oprah Winfrey Show, it would be natural that one would find value in the magazine and the TV network, because the ingredient to her success is the same. The engine is powerful, unless all that the engine does is deliver against the same attributes.
In the same way, it will also be powerful, and we think about brands that have expanded into other categories as well. There’s a reason people wanted to wear cuffing, ties, and sports coats from Ralph Lauren because the core aesthetic and sense of value was leverageable and extensible.
When I hear personal branding and I really dove a little deeper because I’m interested in what it means it’s all about things that are transactional and that are about how can I get someone to look at me and less about how I cultivate a sense of self that is valuable and powerful and consistent. So personal branding phraseology and what it means is on my last nerve this week. Not that it’s not important and certainty there’s a lot to be learned on how to promote one’s self but don’t call it branding. Get the words right!
So that’s what’s on my mind. More to come. Let’s hear now our interview with Scott O’Neil.
Bill: I’m with Scott O’Neil. Scott, thanks for being the inaugural guest here. You have a lot of different roles and responsibilities. So you’re title in a paragraph or less?
Scott: Sure. So I’m CEO of Philadelphia 76ers, the New Jersey Devils, and the Prudential Center.
Bill: Awesome, so a lot on your plate?
Scott: Yeah. Quite a bit.
Bill: You’re in Philly about how much of the time?
Scott: About half. I live down here. I live in West Chester, but I’m up there in New York on Mondays then I split the rest of the week.
Bill: Glad to have you. A Villanova guy!
Scott: Go Cats! Yeah, when you’re listening to this, we probably have won a national championship.
Bill: Anyway, when I first was coming to meet with you a year or so ago, being a good stalker, I googled right away after your hire. The first thing I saw was this article from Inc. Magazine; it was about this rule of three. I was very taken with the process and the experience that they had described that you had worked at MSG. Can you tell us what went into that, and how it worked?
Scott: Sure. So when I was growing up, I grew up in a town called Newburg, NY, upstate New York, pretty rough town. My parents both worked – both entrepreneurs. So we had experienced the feast and famine of entrepreneurial parents. My mom ran a couple businesses. My dad ran a few businesses, some successful, some not so successful.
We had 5 kids, all pretty tight. The four oldest are boys and the youngest is my sister. So it’s a pretty chaotic house with 5 crazy kids. So our parents pretty much gave us three rules. One was ‘Don’t hurt each other,’ ‘Don’t hurt your mother,’ and the last ‘No girls in the bedroom.’
So one of the ways I thought about life, love, and the pursuit of happiness came all in 3’s. When I was at the NBA for quite some time and Madison Square Garden, I always thought there were 3 things that drive a business.
One of them was always ‘root for each other’ and three was always ‘make sure your pushing and dedicating yourself to create a world class organization.’ Two seemed to move around over my decade that I used it. At the NBA, it was ‘no surprises’. And at the Garden, it was ‘share everything’. Here we are a little more traditional. We have a mission, core values, and that kind of stuff.
We have our commitments, but I always think that you can rally people around something that matters, in particular with so many millennials in the work force now. The world’s really different, and it’s changing really fast.
I don’t know if this is going off topic, but I’m going to take the opportunity to say that we’ve got over 180 people here of which 150 of them are under 25. That creates an incredible opportunity culturally. It’s such a special workforce especially over the last three decades.
They’re really smart; they’re really fun; they are very entitled; and they believe they have total access. They work hard and believe they can run into a wall. They just need to believe in something bigger than the mundane job they have. This is a group that doesn’t buy houses, that doesn’t buy cars, but they are very mission driven group.
Here we spend a lot of our time talking about the ‘why.’ The ‘why’ really matters to millennials. We’re really focused on our community here. So when you sign up to work here, you give 76 hours of service. We shut down the office once a month, and then people are going to do stuff of their own, but you can mentor; you can teach; you can coach; you can go clean you can paint; you just have to give back if you work here.
Again, very mission driven, very much about using the platform that we are given in sports entertainment to do something better which I think is consistent with this work force – and we have free food.
Bill: As we talk about this is on the business side of your organization and we think about sports brands in particular, professional sport brands have a lot of attention being paid to wins and losses performance on the rink, on the field, or on the court.
I promise I’m not going to ask you any questions about what is Sam doing, but let’s talk about the other side. Because wins and loses come and go but when you think about the role of a brand or culture beyond who happens to be performing or not performing, what do you think of the role that brand plays outside of what the standings might say?
Scott: That’s a pretty complex question, but I can tell you that Finch was instrumental in helping us last year when we came in. As you know I went to Villanova, as you mentioned, and then having worked for the Eagles and then having a failed start-up here. I spent a good 10-11 years of my life here and have a good sense of the market.
Then being back for a couple years, it’s just more of my home. I consider Philadelphia home, and it’s a pretty fascinating and interesting sports city. It’s not like going to Atlanta, LA, or Dallas where some of the more transient markets are. It’s just hardcore, and people love what we do and the brands that we have.
So we are given a tremendous head start on just about any other business and any other brand in any other place in the world. We got a heck of place to start from. We believe that here transparency is really important. We believe in getting ahead of the message. We believe in the core attributes of what our brand is all about.
It’s a city of the heart of the American Revolution. Some of the greatest inventions of the last century took place here. It’s a city that’s Rocky-tough and gritty, and you got to leave it all on the floor or at the office or at the factory.
So a lot of those attributes enter about being a revolutionary at heart, and in the end, being gritty and tough and part streetfighter, part brain. That’s how I see myself and that’s very much how, when we talk about figuring out who we are, that’s always the first step and what fans see or what business people see.
It’s just what it is. But most of our work the past 12 months has been figuring out who we are, and what’s that North Star? What’s the guiding post? What does it look like? The therefore-after that becomes relatively tactical.
So I think when you talk about our business in terms of wins and losses and that’s how we are defined in terms of our success, that the businesses that can flatten out the troughs of the roller coaster and do a little bit better. When a team wins 57 games in the regular season and we’re on a playoff tear, even I could sell in that environment. But when you’re looking at March with 13 wins and 50 losses, that’s when we do the real work.
That’s when we are doing foundational work, and we have had great success. Sponsorships are up 30%, and I just looked at the preliminary business plan and our group has gone up another 30% to share. That’s pretty healthy. Our season tickets grew by over 20% last year. And they are projected to grow another 20% this year.
So you’re seeing, in a really tough environment, growth. And it doesn’t mean we don’t have parts in our businesses that are down, such as individual game tickets sales. Our ratings, some measures of the casual fans, are very much us getting slaughtered. But then core business for us which are sponsorship and season ticket base are growing.
You can either see us being geniuses and having a great staff or you could look at the core realities. We have this incredible opportunity in this city with this great brand and long standing history. We are starting to figure out who we are and the core is following and some of that has to do with messaging and marketing. But at the end of the day, if you don’t understand your brand, your fans won’t.
Bill: Everything you talked about in terms of commitments, I would imagine, regardless of what the standings say, that the experience that one has interacting with anyone within this organization is consistent with the experience of fun.
Scott: Yeah, I think so. I love going to our games. It’s amazing that a team that struggles as much as we can in the win/loss column, it’s amazing our team is built in the likeness of the city, and it’s not an accident that comes right from our coach that says we have to be gritty tough. We have to work hard. We have to leave it all on the floor every night. You don’t take a possession off of this team.
We take every measure. We measure everything. We measure every step in how people are working and running and it’s important but if you go to our games, like a few minutes left in the game, you’ll see 15,000 people yelling ‘DEFENSE, DEFENSE.’ I’ll smile look around, and I get the chills. I say ‘How is this happening? And why?’ We have incredible people here, who create a really fun experience. We have fans who care and players that go hard. But there’s a lot of other stuff you can do.
The challenge when I was in school, seems like over 100 years ago now, I kept hearing ‘I’m ready.’ I was a marketing major studying 1 to 1 marketing. I didn’t even know what it was then, and now if you don’t do that now, it’s 1 to 1- what have you connected with me in the last fifteen minutes. We have this incredible opportunity to reach people on a different level, and I mean I’m really excited about our potential here for this team and growing the business.
I’m really excited about the evolution of the brand here, but more intrigued about how we have this incredible opportunity to change the trajectory of the base and the city here. Think about it, and I’m not overstating this. I’ve seen it happen. You can actually lift a city with a sports team. And think about the power of that, and we have that opportunity and it’s fun.
Bill: So we talked certainly about the trajectory of the Sixers. We know that your portfolio is broader. It includes the Devils, and it includes the building. Hockey and basketball are different on some level, and each franchise is in a different moment. How would you compare and contrast the challenges of the brand or communications level? How it might differ from the Prudential Center itself? Devils? Sixers? How much is the same? How much isn’t?
Scott: I guess the process and discipline are the same but the brands couldn’t be any more different for all three. The Prudential Center was brand-less when we got there. We’re in a really competitive market with the Izod Center, Nassau Coliseum, Madison Square Garden, and Barclays. Izod is shutting down, and Nassau should be shutting down for a couple of years. So we’re kind of left with the two horses.
They’re number 1 and 2 in the country in terms of booking. The world’s most famous arena, the limping legend, they have all that history and tradition at Madison Square Garden that’s just pinned up and I think it’s the 4th or 5th iteration of the Garden, but this history is so rich in there. It’s incredible. And Barclays Center which kind of like faux-hipster-cool with the fake Jay-Z thing, all the black and white, and Brooklyn and hardcore Brooklyn and I think they did both incredible jobs of giving brands to buildings, and we didn’t.
We went through a pretty exhaustive exercise in New York, and where we are is, we’re really different. So we’re hugs over handshakes, we kind of Norm walking into Cheers. We want this to feel like you go home from work, you leave your suit, you throw on a jersey, you grab your keys, and come to a game. We want you to dance and to cheer in our place. We want you to leave with sore throats and sore hands, and when you walk in, whether it’s the ushers, the concessioners, the security guard, me, a player, a coach, or a ticket sales rep, you feel like family. That’s a really fun brand to sell and be part of.
The Devils is different. It’s a little bit of a schizophrenic brand. You have this incredible history and tradition. It’s one of the most winningest hockey franchises among the top three over the last twenty years. They have a reputation of fans not showing. The reality is they have a lot of hardcore fans, and the brand stands for ‘the jersey over back of the jersey’ sacrifice, which is what can you do for your teammates; are you willing to give a little to get a lot for the team? That’s not translated to the fan in the way they react to the brand and the team. So there’s a whole opportunity there to reinvent what that might look like.
It’s also a challenge having the name ‘Devils.’ It was a contest that the team ran in 1981 before they moved to name the team, and there was a legend of a New Jersey Devil who rolled in the swamp lands of the shoreline in New Jersey. It represents some really interesting challenges for marketers and the leadership to figure out how to avoid any demonic presence, and it’s really easy to fall into natural traps that you might have.
We were trying to build a base in a market that’s incredible. If you just took north Jersey and took the population, it would be the 4th largest market in the country behind New York, LA, and Chicago. Second wealthiest state in the country. Number 1 in education. It has 26 Fortune 500 companies, just in north Jersey. That’s more than Chicago, LA, and San Francisco combined.
This is a powerhouse market, but no one is really from there. You got a thousand multinationals, people from all over the world. There’s no sense of town. So when we talked about this being the town square, but it’s not there yet.
Plus, we’re in Newark which is a really tough town. So what we’re trying to figure is how this can be the connective tissue to a bettering community where most people go to Philadelphia or New York to work or live So it’s a pretty complicated jigsaw puzzle, but we’re on the case.
Bill: Obviously, you’ve provided great depth and texture to where the Sixers are, so I won’t burden you to explain it again. This has been terrific, and we appreciate your time and your insight. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you over the past year. Proud son of the city. We are very excited about the future of the franchise and everything else.
Scott: Can I give you a public thanks for ‘Together We Build’ because that was the stroke of genius. I always take credit for it myself, just so you know. I thank you for that and the campaign. It really put us on the map and took us out of the oblivion or pain that I often times see these other franchises go through. It’s brilliant, brilliant work. You’re incredible.
Bill: I know that the hashtag isn’t being used as much. I still try to tweet it back to the organization and see if someone will use it.
Scott: You know I think we’re in a funny time. I’m going to use this time to talk about we’re in a funny time in this organization, where it’s exactly what we needed at the right time. When you’re resetting your brand, you never want to be flipping by month or even year. You want to have something you can stick with.
We do quite a bit of research and testing. The market wanted to move off of that. It felt to them like we were saying five years, and we don’t want to build anymore like make a decision. So we’re a little bit like we’re floating, but we have a plan, but we’re floating now. It’s quite a challenge, but it was the anchor that I’ll always point to forever that kind of stroke of genius.
Bill: Thanks that means a lot to us, and I’ll never forget the first pregame of last season. If we stopped it there, it would have been perfect, we would have been undefeated. We were following social media chatter, and we were so proud. I remember I was at a bar and everyone was crowding around the TV. I look in social media, and everyone is saying ‘Together We Build.’ We’re building; we’re ready – 3-0. But thanks for your kind words. It means a lot.
To close, you shared so much, but any other things that you’ve learned along the way that you think of folks who are practitioners of how to build brands and businesses and people who aspire to reach the heights that you’ve reached through hard work and talent. A couple of things, if not, fine. Any things about this journey and things that stand out to you?
Scott: Yeah, sure. I’m usually on the advice receiving business, not the advice giving. But I’ll give it a shot. I would say one is just listen more, ask more questions, and listen. We are all so focused, and we all have a voice. We are all members of the media Everyone, your taxi driver, the guy that serves you in a restaurant, the babysitters of your kids, the person getting your ticket at the movies, we’re all members of the media. I just to encourage you to ask more questions and listen more than you talk. People will tell you; that’s the good news. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is a lesson that took me a long time to learn in my career. Make it about the who. Forget about the what. Some people say ‘I want to work in sports,’ and I say ‘No, just go work for someone you like, love, and respect.’ And go on the ride because that’s the fun part. The what will take care of itself; it’ll emerge; it’ll come. You’ll find your place, your passion, and probably some of pain points. But the lesson I wish I learned earlier was just seek out the who. You want to be around really, really top talent who are even better people.
Bill:Thank you so much for your time and continue your success and for the first Real-World Branding podcast. That’s a wrap. Thanks.
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