The Sports Business Classroom (7/16/16)

By Sean Pyritz @srpyritz
Under the backdrop of International Fight Week, in the fight capital of the world, on the night of the highly anticipated return of the Beast Incarnate, the most decisive knockout blow came not in the cage, but on the court. As the buzzer sounded in the Thomas & Mack Center, the scoreboard may have shown the Lakers on top, but the sound of thousands of cheering fans signaled victory of the Samsung NBA Summer League in its fight for legitimacy. Walking around and seeing owners, coaches, scouts, and even the commissioner himself gathered together with ESPN cameras rolling, there can be no doubt that the Summer League is an important event on the NBA calendar. I spent a week as a part of the Sports Business Classroom at the NBA Summer League and I want to share my experience.

Describing the Summer League is difficult because it is without peer on the professional sports landscape. The Las Vegas Summer League is like a mixture of the Winter Meetings and the Senior Bowl, with all the top power brokers in the NBA in town as the top incoming talent competes on the court. Spawned from the same minds that brought the Summer League to life, the Sports Business Classroom (SBC) is without peer – a crash course on the industry for talented individuals looking to break into the business of sports. Perhaps my week in Las Vegas is best captured by three words – opportunity, evolution, and relationships.

Opportunity

For fans in attendance on the campus at UNLV, the opportunity of the Summer League is obvious. Not only is it the first chance to see the new crop of NBA talent perform with NBA nomenclature across their chests, but it is also an opportunity for most players to prove themselves as professionals – be it here or overseas. Most players in Las Vegas did not see a single minute in the NBA last season and likely won't this season, but the dreams are alive and well, which makes for compelling stories and thrilling competition. The same opportunities are afforded to assistant coaches – taking the reins, even if just for a few games, is invaluable experience and exposure.

What even the most hardcore fans don't see, are the opportunities abounding off the floor. One of the main objectives of the SBC is to illuminate the litany of opportunities in the business of sports. In addition to salary-cap know how and scouting specific to basketball, we received exposure to a growing number of paths into the sports business in general – like digital media and sports science. Over 40 speakers in total from across the industry came to speak with us. In articulating their unique career paths, they unwittingly echoed a common theme: achieving success in this industry is not along any well-beaten path, but simply via a series of seized opportunities. Look no further than the army of interns ensuring the Summer League runs without a hiccup. The star-studded alumni list will need a Hall of Fame soon – all of whom would attribute their success in some part to opportunity in Las Vegas.

Evolution

When I mention evolution, I'm not talking about Triple H or Randy Orton; however, I will borrow from WWE to capture the vision of the Summer League – Then, Now, Forever. What I find so fitting about the catchphrase is the irrevocable connection between the past, present and future in Las Vegas. The top incoming talent compete with current stars in the crowd alongside the current and future decision makers in the league, not to mention all the owners in town for a Board of Governor's meeting.

Warren LeGarie – the foremost agent for NBA head coaches, but more importantly the mastermind of the Las Vegas Summer League – spoke at length with us about change in our lives and careers, framing it as evolution. His career is a microcosm of this idea and mirrors the essence of the Summer League itself. Despite accumulating great deals of power and wealth, he displays remarkable humility and intellectual curiosity – preserved from his humble beginnings. He did not simply change, but evolved, carrying forward his past into his present to shape his future. What began with six handshakes and a box of fliers has evolved into the nexus of the past, present, and future of the NBA – maintaining the same level of scrappiness and innovative spirit that allowed it to succeed in the first place.

As a part of the SBC, we toured the changing landscape of the industry. The Collective Bargaining Agreement can be viewed as a series of well-intentioned compromises and reactions to the unintended consequences of those compromises. People like Kirk Goldsberry are visualizing analytics in new, imaginative ways to learn more about the game using wafts of improved and underutilized data. The fattening coffers of the league greatly affected the power balance in the league this offseason, raising serious concerns over a potential lockout. Wearable devices provide compelling and competitively advantageous information to teams, but only if a culture of collaboration exists to maximize the impact of the data on the athlete's sustainable performance. The moral of the story? The only constant in this industry is continuous improvement – evolution.

Relationships

The most common refrain during my week in Vegas was “it's a relationship business.” Far from just lip service, the never ending waves of hugs and conversations on the peripherals of the on-court action between team staff from across the league reveal this idea in action – it's as if everyone knows everyone. I was pleasantly surprised to discover, after years of athlete's bemoaning the “it's a business” tagline, that the ‘business' is more like a big, sometimes dysfunctional, family. Behind the scenes, the heads of the operation know the importance of building and maintaining relationships to the success of the Summer League. If you ever get a chance to go to the Summer League, take a few moments to locate LeGarie and his partner in crime, Albert Hall of HallPass Media, and watch them work the arena – greeting and touching everyone, from the owners to the ball boys.

I know from my own playing experience that the most rewarding aspects of team sports are the comcamaraderie and friendship. At the Sports Business Classroom, I found the same to be true. Even though we weren't competing together as team per se – in fact we are all competing for limited opportunities – the very act of being in the program bonded us through a collective passion for sports and a dream to get a foot in the door. The week I spent in Las Vegas in the Sports Business Classroom was truly a remarkable and humbling experience. For any sports fan with an eye for business and a desire to learn from the best in the industry, the Sports Business Classroom is more than worth your time and money. Keep in mind, that the most important moments you'll have won't be shaking hands with Adrian Wojnarowski or asking a question to Adam Silver, but those which you share with your fellow classmates in the forging of new relationships, because at the end of the day, that's what it's all about.