Unobstructed: Sports Business with Dr. Bill Sutton (EP. 5)

Dr. Bill Sutton joins Mike Evenson for episode 5 of the podcast to discuss the current state of the sports business industry. A self-described “prac-ademic,” Bill’s career has been a mix of teaching, consulting and high-profile sports marketing positions.

They discuss the attributes needed to be a great leader remotely, how sports organizations can continue to engage with fans, the concept of a virtual season ticket and a prediction for the 2020 college football season. Bill also talks about how organizations need to increase buyer confidence and to adequately address the number one question being asked: When is it safe to attend sporting events again?

You can follow Dr. Bill Sutton on Twitter at @Sutton_ImpactU.

Episode transcript

Unobstructed: Sports Business with Dr. Bill Sutton (EP.5)



Announcer: You're listening to Unobstructed your view on the live events industry.


Mike Evenson: Hey everybody, welcome to another episode of Unobstructed. I'm your host Mike Evenson. Today, I am super excited to have Dr. Bill Sutton on the podcast today.  Bill, before we get into your kind of long and distinguished career, I do want to create a commonality here and that is while things are pretty crazy in our country and around the world right now, at least we're not Marty and Wendy Bird, right?


Bill Sutton: At least we're not, at least we're not.


Mike Evenson: I noticed you had finished Ozark recently just as my wife and I did. And I think we’re still shook, from the end of that season, not to give any spoilers out.


Bill Sutton: Absolutely, my wife was really shook.


Mike Evenson: I would highly recommend that show while everyone has very little else to do. We'll get into all the ways that people can find connections with, sports teams and athletics programs around the country. It really is a unique time when a lot of disruption is happening, but I saw that you mentioned that I thought that was pretty funny. At a high level, I'd love to hear more about you, your career. It sounds like it's been a mix of teaching consulting and high-profile sports marketing positions. You know you’ve been around the industry a long time, and on this podcast, we really want to zoom in, on kind of the live events industry.


Bill Sutton: Oh Sure.


Mike Evenson: And clearly the discussion and the focus today is how these organizations are dealing with this unprecedented situation. And if you can just give our audience a little background on who you are and what your career has been like.


Bill Sutton: Sure.  I've been in what I call a pracademic, which is an academic that has a strong interest in the industry, and it goes back and forth between the industry and the classroom. So, I've taught at Robert Morris in Pittsburgh, Ohio State, The University of Massachusetts, The University of Central Florida, where I had Nick and The University of South Florida, where I actually started the program. And then periodically I had stops at a sport marketing agency called Del Wilber Associates.

And then I had a seven-year stint with the NBA where I helped develop the team boat concept, team marketing, business operations, with commissioner stern, and then I after I went to UCF, I started my own consulting practice, Bill Sutton, and Associates. And I work with professional teams in all the major, all the big five sports.


Mike Evenson: Fascinating. And you must have throughout your career, seen and experienced a whole heck of a lot. But have you ever been a part of something like we're a part of today?


Bill Sutton: No, this is uncharted territory, and I was working for the NBA when 9/11 hit and I was actually on the road and I was in Memphis with the Grizzlies during that time and found out I wouldn't be going home for a while. And so, I checked back into my hotel and ended up staying there for another week until we deemed it safe to fly. But what I would say is that was a one-dimensional issue, you couldn't fly. There was probably a lot of other things we should have done, but we focused on not being able to fly. Whereas in the current world, there's a lot of uncertainty. We have no idea what we can do. You know sports were down for about two weeks after 9/11, we're approaching two months and counting.


Mike Evenson: Yes.


Bill Sutton: You know, I've been tipped off that we might get to watch Korean baseball on ESPN. So, if that happens, I'm looking forward to that. It's very entertaining, but they're going to play without fans as well.


Mike Evenson: Yes, I think I've, I saw a video on Twitter, they already started and I'm with you.  I'll take anything at this point. So, what did they.


Bill Sutton:  Honestly the bring back Corn [inaudible 00:4;16]. I'll watch anything right now.


Mike Evenson: Yes absolutely. So, what have you been kind of taking a look at? What have you been watching from your vantage point throughout this first month of chaos?


Bill Sutton: So, I've been watching how the sports industry is learning how to work remotely. And it's kind of funny because one of the things I was advocating with my clients was we've got all these millennials or Zillennials coming out of school. And they're used to doing things differently than the guys that are managing them, who have done it the same way all the time. And so, one of the things I've said is if you're in the ticket sales area, I said, you've got a kid that you're hiring out of college, and you're telling them to sit on a landline and make calls for six to eight hours a day. We don't live in that world anymore, this is 2020.

I laugh all the time I look at my students and I say they don't even want to call their friends, let alone call a stranger. They'll text them, but they won't call them. So, I was advocating probably pretty strongly the last 18 months to rip out the landlines, give everybody a cell phone. Have them come in the office probably three days a week and work from there so they can have some training and interact with each other. But the other two days, let them work autonomously and then encourage them to take that cell phone and use it the way they normally use it.

In other words, shoot video, take photos, use social media to tell people about the product. I mean, I did this one thing, I went into a client, I said, Hey, tell me what it would be like coming to this event. And they started talking to me and I said, well, why would you tell me when you have a cell phone and you can walk right outside and shoot a video to show me what it would be like. And then you can text me with that video and then we can talk and set up an appointment. So, we're learning how to work remotely, we're going to learn what does work remotely and what doesn't. We're probably going to learn what jobs are important and which jobs aren't and what we could do without. And then we're probably going to redirect some of that staffing.

[00:06:26] And I think I put on a Twitter, yesterday, the day before. And I said, if I was working in the attendance industry right now, so concerts, venues, sports, whatever it is. I'm hiring a what I would call it, I would call it a Public Health or a Fan Health and Wellbeing Officer whose responsibility would be to work with the public health departments and everyone else. And to work with the vendors that are in a venue and to work with the venue itself to make sure it's safe. Because the number one question that affects sports right now is when is it safe to come back, not when are we going to come back? When is it safe to come back, and what does safe mean.


Mike Evenson: Absolutely.


Bill Sutton: To me is the biggest thing. So, I think, I would be hiring somebody that's an expert in health and communicable diseases. And cause this isn't going to go away, this is one of, this is phase one. To think this won't happen again is silly, this will happen again. Something else, unless we have a stronger World Health Organization, which I think we just pulled the funding on that from Washington, as I've been told. So, we need to figure out different ways because we’ve learned. We've also learned that we are, we're not isolated. No matter that we have oceans on two sides of us, we are global; we're affected by something that goes on in every world or the world. Not just the economy, but now our health.


Mike Evenson: I think that goes both ways too, when you're talking about kind of the, the, not only the impact that being global has, but also the opportunities and a lot of sports teams and, and athletics programs are hyper-focused and for good reason around kind of the local fans that they can engage with. But this kind of forces and creates an opportunity in my opinion, around what it means to be engaging kind of around the world and being a, a transplanted packer and Badger and Bucks fan living in Arizona.

I mean, that's been my entire life; I've lived outside of my home state and my home's in and the number of products or ways where I can spend money with those teams has always been limited. And I think that I'm really looking forward to some innovation and disruption in the industry where teams recognize the opportunity to have in front of them to tap into that audience.


Bill Sutton: Absolutely. You know being a Steeler and Pirate fan, I've watched, you know, I've had DirecTV since it's been around. So, I can watch the Steelers every Sunday and I can watch 80 plus pirate games a year. People ask me why and I say, I don't know, it's my crack, I guess. But I've had that opportunity, now, you know, and I threw this on Twitter the other day and got a lot of reaction.

And I said, now's the time to develop what I would call a virtual season ticket. And it's not just the viewing; virtual means that you actually feel like you're there, but you're not there. So, in other words, you're in your living room, you have your friends on Zoom or whatever it is connected to you, and you're all watching the same game. Or you have an avatar in another country and he's watching the game and you're sharing the game from the exact same seat.

So, you have a seat and you all have the same viewpoint, so you see exactly the same thing. And then any other ways that we can change the sensory experience and make it multi. You know, there was an article written in the seventies called Sport in the Year 2000 by William Oscar Johnson. It was written in 1974, I think it was everything he said was going to happen in two, would happen by 2000 has happened except for one thing. And it was called field of vision, and it was going to be the opportunity to sit in and watch a football game and feel what it was like to get hit and smell and hear the people around you and smell the smell of the popcorn and the whole bit, the whole multisensory experience.

And that's the only thing he wrote about that hasn’t happened.  Analytics happened, all these physical training devices happened, robot umpires. Everything he wrote about happened except for that. And so now I think at times, right because if I'm sitting in Adam Silver's office right now, I would have to guesstimate that there's probably enough interest in the Lakers that I could probably sell somewhere between a quarter and a half billion virtual tickets around the world for people to watch LeBron go for a title with the Lakers.

And if that's the business opportunity that kind of makes up for everything else you lose. And there's not a really hard cost associated with a virtual season ticket because you got a billion people sitting in the same view. Or you offer multiple views, whatever you want to do. But I just think exactly what you said, this is the time to inspire people, to look at different ways to do things. You know I'd be remiss to say who's killing it right now is video games, especially League of Legends is rolling out a new game and they've tested it a couple of times. They've had [inaudible 00:11:38] about Twitch. They set records for participation in viewership, and they're going to kill it. I mean, there are absolutely, it's a global it's organic and you can do it in your home. So, they're ahead of the game they're going to benefit from this more than probably a lot of the other industries.


Mike Evenson: Yes no, absolutely. And I think that in this time you're seeing kind of new products, new content opportunities, ideas come forward. Some of them are fantastic, some of them like the horse. You know, horse contest?


Bill Sutton: Yes.


Mike Evenson: You don't fail, and I think we're going to see a lot of that. But I applaud kind of everyone who's thinking outside the box and is really trying to create.


Bill Sutton:  And the horse thing was a good idea.


Mike Evenson: Yes.


Bill Sutton: It was the execution.


Mike Evenson: Yes.


Bill Sutton: And that's what it is, it's the execution that's when it comes on.


Mike Evenson: Yes, absolutely. So, I guess from your perspective what, you know it's hard to prognosticate exactly what you think is going to happen this fall as far as football is concerned on campuses. But do you have a gut on whether you think the season will happen?


Bill Sutton: My gut tells me that if there is a season, it's maybe six games, it's abbreviated, it starts later. You know it's one of the things that, the reason it scares me is if we go through without college football on top of March Madness, you're probably putting 300 athletic departments in severe, severe jeopardy of being able to sustain themselves.


Mike Evenson: Absolutely.


Bill Sutton: Without that revenue.


Mike Evenson: Yes.


Bill Sutton: And so, I know there's been, they're trying to do different things. You know, the one thing you don't want to see is cutting sports. Cause they cut the ones that nobody watches on television. They're not revenue, they call it Olympic sports or non-revenue sports.


Mike Evenson: Yes.


Bill Sutton: It knows other people that are going to get hurt. But in reality, those are the real student athletes.


Mike Evenson: Yes no, absolutely and I think that there's a rationalization kind of strategy that I’m sure some athletics departments will either be forced to, or will kind of choose to take this opportunity to do that.  I agree with you, it is unfortunate because those are the sports where, you know, having worked in athletics departments before, it's great to see those student athletes in those quote unquote Olympic sports, experience their university time. And I think about now this kind of distance learning and being a former teacher, it makes me kind of think about you must obviously have, quite an interesting perspective on the differences between teaching in the classroom versus distance learning and kind of what that, you know. Give our audience, I guess a view on what you think those main differences are and what you think people are missing by not being physically together.


Bill Sutton: Yes, I’ve done about four or five classes for people the last couple of weeks, because they're about the end of their rope, trying to figure out what to do with their classes. And trying to do something over the air and try and keep the students' interest. So, I've been doing lectures for different people we're doing really, I would call them open air Q and A's through Buffy Phillip Bell, teamwork. You know, we just rolled it out there, said whoever wants to be called Buffy and we'll do it. But I noticed that, not everybody logs in for the class. And so, there's that the people that are logging in some are very engaged and some of them are checking a box.

And you don't really, when you're in the classroom, you really have control over that you really can see it. And me sitting here on Zoom, you know, I can watch, I'm watching all the little boxes as they appear. And, you know, if there was 15 kids in the class, I probably interacted with three. Whereas if I'm in the classroom, I'm going to engage everybody and I'm going to interact with them whether they want to be or not. So, I mean, I'm going to bring them with me, and I can do that live easier than I can do it online. Because, while you're online, you're online on your computer, but you have your iPad and you've got your phone and you could be doing other things while you're doing it.

So, you're not, the level of commitment scares me, the level of engagement scares me. But this could be the new normal, because if you talk about, I heard this today on the news. One of the, one of the fears about starting up the economy is when you start the economy, you've got to start up the schools, because all the people that have to go to work are now home caring for the kids. What's going to happen to all those kids if there's no school, how's that going to work?

So, you're going to have more telecommuting or maybe three days in the office, two days off and you're sharing parenting and you're sharing different things. I don't know. It's a whole new set of circumstances that we've never had to deal with before. And whenever somebody says we're going to do this by this date, I just laugh, you know, really? But then again, I live in a state where the WWE has been deemed essential. So, food, clothing, shelter, medical, and the WWE. Now that's frightening to me.


Mike Evenson: Yes well, it's interesting you talk about kind of, as a leader of a class and kind of engaging with students and the difference between doing it remotely versus in person. And when we look at the live event industry and all these organizations who are used to kind of running the business together at the stadium, at the arena theater, at the concert hall. All of a sudden now, needing to run that business and do it remotely, I’m curious, what your perspective is on how to be a great leader remotely.

And as you look at kind of how you're organizing your team and making these decisions, and a lot of these, these live event organizations that we work with are doing this for the first time and figuring it out as they go like the rest of us. But what do you think are some, some interesting qualities, or attributes that you would recommend, if you are a leader of an organization or of people, how do you do that well remotely?


Bill Sutton: Make sure that you communicate with everyone and you show empathy. That's to me, the number one thing right now. If I'm away, I need to know that you care about me and I'm important to you.  Because what am I worried about? I'm worried about out of sight, out of mind, furlough lay off, termination. I mean, this is what I'm afraid of and when I'm talking to these organizations now, and it's like, I've got three hours today and three hours tomorrow doing some virtual consulting with one of my clients, which I've never done before.

So that would be interesting. But how do you make sure they feel safe and secure and they can still take care of themselves and their family? And I applaud the organizations where the executives have taken a pay cut and that's a good start. It's probably not enough, we're probably going to have to furlough some people or we're going to do something like, Hey, we don't want to furlough anybody, how about if we pay you for three days a week? And we'll try and make up the time later on, but if everybody's willing to get paid for three days a week, we don't have to let anybody go. How do you feel about that?


Mike Evenson: Yes.


Bill Sutton: And help make it their decision. But again, you're showing you really don't want to do this. You realize this is a last resort, so you really want to consider every possible solution before that ultimate decision is what you're going to do. You know, I've talked to some baseball people, I texted Baseball Bill the other day and half of the ones I've talked to are figuring they're going to be playing in 2021, that's what it's going to be. So, what they're going to do is turn their staff's attention to 2021. And then, I also look at, you know, what are people doing with their time? So, if you're a customer, I've got, I get this guy at the Pirates, his name's Steve Morse. And he's my customer see he's my representative for my ticket account.

And I've had tickets to the Pirates for probably 12, 12 years. And Steve's been my account guy for the last couple of years. So, Steve sent me an email about once every 10 days, just to say, Hey, there's really nothing new I can tell you, but here here's some things that you might find interesting. And he'll talk about some things in Pirate history, he'll show me some pictures or whatever it is. And then one day he just said, Hey, you know what? I know a lot about you because I know your account. What do you know about me? Here's who I am, and he had about 15 different things about like, it's like obviously your questionnaire format, where he was encouraging the customers to answer the same question and send it back to him.

So, I mean, this brings out the absolute best in people in terms of their creativity. And so, leaders should also be showing supreme creativity right now. You know how about having a virtual lunch with your team or whatever it is. Or you send food, to do the virtual lunch maybe you can contact Jersey Mike's or Jimmy John's or somebody, and you send everybody food, and everybody logs in on a Zoom meeting and you just talk. I mean, that’s a real heartfelt gesture and that shows me as a leader, you really care about me and you know what I'm going through. In this way, I'm not only getting a lunch out of it, but I'm being connected to my coworkers who I miss. And I’m also brought into this where the leaders on the phone and I feel important and I feel I'm part of this and I don't lose it.

I mean, working for a sports team it's like being on a team; you want to feel like you're part of something and being part of you, that's why you work longer hours. And it's why you take less money than you could working in a bank or another business, because you'd like that feeling. So, the leader has to acknowledge all of the things that are important to people and all the things that go on and whilst keep people informed. I mean, it's okay to say, you know what? We really don't know, it's okay to say that. And if it's coming from a leader like a Scott O'Neil or [inaudible 00:22:53] in case of somebody or Al Guido, that's a good message. Okay, I'm good, you don't know and whenever I know something, I'll tell you and we'll talk about. I'll let you know how it goes on and we're going to touch base every X number of days, or here's my number. Here's my cell number, here's my email. Don't be afraid to reach out to me if you get an idea or something you want to talk about. So just some thoughts.


Mike Evenson: Yes, those are great ones. I really appreciate that, and I think your example are around the Pirates, is aligned with the opportunities that these organizations have. Not only to find new ways to engage, but also some spring cleaning and happens to be spraying. And there's an opportunity to kind of look at your process and look at your internal strategies around what kind of customer profiling you're focused on and how you can learn more about the people while this is an off period. And I love the idea of, of kind of re vectoring and learning as much as you can and building out that, that CRM strategy and I really think this is a new way. Especially when you might need to, to market to them differently coming out of this thing.


Bill Sutton: Sure, I mean it's all, you know I always tell people that the most important question in marketing and sales for the client or customer what's in it for me. And so, what's in it for me now used to be as how much is my seat? Where am I going to park? What are my benefits? What's the exchange procedure, yada, yada, yada. Now it's when is it going to be safe? Why is that going to be safe? Can I trust you on that? Can I bring my kids? Those are all different questions now. And that's why early on in our conversation today, I talked about having that new role because the times have changed, and we need something that doesn't exist yet and it's going to soon be commonplace. Everybody's going to have to have this person.


Mike Evenson: Absolutely. I mean, you've got, there's one thing to say hey, we're open for business again. But it's another to have that, that confidence, that consumer confidence, that they're ready, willing, and able to go to an event and everyone's going to be different. And so, that's a new angle that you need to market that your venue is clean. You know, we go through the proper steps and it's like safety, safety is important on airlines. And so, seeing that become a new way to kind of promote your venue and your experiences. It's unchartered territory, but I totally agree with you that having someone that can drive that confidence level up and execute on it too. Because this is a new world, we're in, and I'm not sure exactly what the standards are going to look like at these venues, big and small. But I think that's spot on, that's spot on.

So, how are you spending your time here while we're, we're stuck at home? Are you missing kind of that personal connection with people? Is it something that you feel? Do you feel frustrated as a sports fan, that sports aren't happening? How do you balance kind of the pragmatism, with just that desire to want to be a fan?


Bill Sutton: Well, so when it first started off, I was really bummed out at things that I missed. So, I had tickets for March Madness here, the first-round games here in Tampa.


Mike Evenson: Yes.


Bill Sutton: But what I missed is my three friends that have done this with me for 32 consecutive years.


Mike Evenson:  Wow.


Bill Sutton: So, we've put an asterisk up for 2020, and hopefully we resume in 2021. And I missed that, that was going to be a lot of fun. I missed what hasn't happened yet, but I'm missing it because it's canceled. I was going to get back down Oklahoma State for the Oklahoma State, Oregon state baseball series, the first week of May and I was looking forward to that.  I had my Pirate season tickets, I had exhibition game for the Pirates and the Yankees. So, I went through a whole series of all the things I'm missing right. And then I thought, okay, what can I fill it up with? That's when Netflix and Amazon Prime and this week, the Turner Classic Movie festival is, its Turner Classic Movie festival at home. And I've gone to Turner Classic Movie Festival in LA before and it's an amazing event. So, the Turner Classic Movie festival at home starts tonight and goes through Sunday. And it features not only the movies, but the people in the movies talking about what it was like to be the movie or how this decision was made or whatever it is.

So, it's really fascinating if you like film and movies. So, I get that to look forward to I've actually lowered my golf score, I'm consistently in the eighties now, which was one of my retirement goals, so that's been good. Where I live, we have a club down the street, and it's still open with a lot of restrictions, one person to a cart. You don't rake the sand trap, which I [inaudible 28:18] in somebody's footprint the other day, so that wasn’t that great. You don't pull the flag out; they sanitize the driving range balls and social distancing. But I've been playing probably three times a week, which I would have never done. My blood pressure's down, I lost about eight or nine pounds.


Mike Evenson: Wow


Bill Sutton: I'm cooking more than I've cooked. So, I mean, you find other ways to fill it up and my wife and I have been married for 47 years, so no surprises there we're fine. And my sister in law is staying with us and she's been with us now for about five weeks, because she was staying at our place down in Clearwater. And it's just not safe for her to fly home yet, so she's staying with us. And then of course, I've got a dog and I feel for anybody who doesn't have a dog right now.


Mike Evenson: Yes.


Bill Sutton: You need something, and my dog is one of those rare kind of dogs, we love her. And I noticed that adoptions are way up, way up, which is a good thing, it's a good side effect. Now I'm worried kind of about what happens when people get back to work what happens to all these dogs that got adopted. But supposedly people had been putting off getting a dog because they needed that first two or three weeks to be with a dog to making sure the dog adjusted and get all squared away.

And so maybe it'd be fine, but it's a good thing.  I've been watching people's videos of what they're doing and like tape and cardboard over their stairs and creating a slide for their kids. I mean it's, you become more innovative because you're forced to. So, we're actually becoming probably better people because we're not rushing around, we're savoring every moment. And there's things we really miss. Like going to a restaurant, like going to a sporting event, like hanging out with a bunch of friends, having a beer on somebody's porch.

We miss all those things, but I think we'll enjoy them more when we get them back than we ever did before. And I don't think we'll take things for granted, and at the same time, I think a lot of kids in this country now has spent a lot of quality time with their parents. And this might become one of the fondest memories of their lives.


Mike Evenson: Absolutely. As someone who travels quite a bit, I've I have two young kids and I run their PE class every single afternoon and yes, I think we'll look back on this time is as one of those times when connections were forged and bonds were created that they'll last a lifetime. So, I'm sorry that you guys had to put a pause on your March Madness experience. I know you're a big College World Series fan.


Bill Sutton: Oh yes.


Mike Evenson: And that'll be a tough one to have to miss, but really looking forward to the great things that come out of this and hopefully people will take your advice and kind of listen to kind of, what you have to say about planning for that future state. If people want to follow you on Twitter, I would highly recommend it, it's @Sutton_ImpactU. Bill, I can't thank you enough for taking the time.


Bill Sutton: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you so much.


Mike Evenson: Out of your day to visit us on Unobstructed. Please do follow Bill and looking forward to more episodes. We can catch you guys again. Thanks. Thanks a lot, have a good day.


Bill Sutton: I'd love to be back on thank you.


Mike Evenson: Thanks Bill. I want to thank Dr. Bill Sutton again for joining me on Unobstructed. That was a fantastic discussion, and as someone who's been a thought leader in the sports marketing space for a long time, some really good nuggets and insights and ideas for live event, organizations to think about. You know the idea that your venue needs to become not just a, a place where people are choosing what entertainment they want to engage in, but also a venue that they can trust. You know some trust and feeling of security that their public health is going to be a priority.

It's a complete shift from thinking about just the content, getting people in, where do they park, all that kind of stuff to all of a sudden, am I safe? Do I feel safe, personally safe in, in your venue. A lot of, threads to pull, on that particular topic. And it will be interesting to see how that evolves. So again, thank you Dr. Sutton for taking the time. Please follow him on Twitter, even if it's not just for his Ozark takes which are great, @Sutton_ImpactU, follow Dr. Bill Sutton. Thank you again for spending time with us on the Unobstructed looking forward to future episodes and exciting conversations. Have a great day.


Announcer: Thanks for listening to unobstructed your view on the live events industry. Subscribe today, wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.

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