The Business Side of Sports: Black power brokers assess the environment

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Tune into your favorite professional sports channel on any given day and you?re bound to see a plethora of Black faces. For the most part, they are competing on the field or on the hardwood. Sometimes they are on the sidelines as coaches, in the television studio as commentators, or even in the ?owner?s box,? albeit rarely. That African-Americans have long been involved in the sports industry is common knowledge. So is the fact that getting to where they are in the industry today has been an arduous journey, replete with setbacks, even on the field.

A growing cause for concern, however, is an apparent standstill?in some cases erosion?in the gains Blacks have made. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, African-Americans made up 27 percent of the big-league baseball roster in 1975, but with scouts recruiting from Latin countries, that figure has dropped to less than 10 percent today. Decades after baseball legend Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier on the field, there are still no Black owners of baseball teams and less than a handful of Black general managers. In football, while the number of Black professional players has increased over the past 20 years to about 70 percent of the players, the increase on the coaching side comes nowhere close. Nationally renowned lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and discrimination attorney Cyrus Mehri have broached the issue to the National Football League, hoping to get the organization to create incentives to encourage owners to boost the number of Black coaches. So far, however, there has been little progress.

Some of the most powerful Blacks on the business side of sports spoke with The Network Journal about the environment for Blacks in the industry and how Blacks are responding to that environment.

A new trend

As one half of Strickland & Ashe, Bill Strickland, 55, has helped build one of the country?s premier sports agencies with an impressive roster of some 40 clients that include NBA stars Rasheed Wallace, Allan Houston, Daunte Culpepper and Levon Kirkland. Strickland has seen many firsts, a few of them his own. He was, for example, the first African-American lawyer for ProServ, the second largest sports agency behind IMG. Strickland, who also worked at IMG, says the issue of race still looms large in the business of sports. ?I think race is always an issue, irrespective of the strides that have been made,? he says. ?There has been a globalization of the participants on the field [and] court, and then some reflection of that in coaches and management, but not so much so in ownership. That is not just a factor of race. Ownership requires discretionary wealth.?

He himself has tried not to make race a factor in his own career, he says. ?What enabled me to become the first [Black lawyer at ProServ] is that I didn?t rely on race in my consideration for appointment. I pointed to my credentials,? he says. And he points to a new trend among Blacks when it comes to the business of sports. ?The thing I?ve enjoyed most is watching a number of my clients who were young develop in their talents, become business owners and employ other people,? says Strickland.

The other half of Strickland and Ashe, partner Mason Ashe, is almost ebullient about this entrepreneurial trend. ?On all levels of professional sports, we [African-Americans] have accomplished success that may not have been dreamed of 10 years ago. We are clearly participating on more fronts than just the playing fields and hardwood courts now. We are responsible for the revenue derived from the talent, event management, broadcasting, marketing, financing and merchandising now,? says Ashe, 40, who not only helps his clients land record-breaking contracts, but also build their careers after sports.

?We not only earn big salaries as athletes, but we are the individuals that are paying out the salaries as franchise owners, determining the salary levels as general managers, negotiating the deals as agents and attorneys, accounting for the enormous cash flow as CPAs and business managers, investing the billions of dollars as private bankers and investment advisors, supplying the diamonds, cars, and mansions as self-employed vendors of the various commodities,? he says.

The burden of making it big

Blacks in sports face other obstacles besides racism, Ashe says. ?The issues that we face in the business are often unique to our community. For example, too often the African-American professional athlete is the first millionaire or even the first gainfully employed member of his or her family with good credit, so he or she is expected to finance the dreams and desires of immediate and extended family. There is a heavy burden carried that puts the athlete at a severe disadvantage when trying to save money and create wealth for future generations,? he says. Moreover, African-American agents, when compared to white agents, are expected to do much more than negotiate the team contract for his or her clients, and without charging additional fees, Ashe says. ?We are often selected because the player and his family can relate better to us and thus feel more comfortable asking us to help deal with some of the dysfunctional aspects of the family, whereas they may hide those aspects from our white counterparts,? Ashe says.

Another major challenge for Black sports agents comes from the Black community, Ashe says. ?The most disappointing issue we still face is that many athletes and their parents believe that the ?white man?s ice is colder.? So, despite the long and impressive history of deals negotiated by African-Americans on both sides of the table, there is still doubt in the minds of both whites and Blacks as to whether we can run a team, negotiate a record-setting contract for a client or manage the money as well as or better than our white counterparts,? he says.

Still, Ashe does not discount the importance of firms like Strickland & Ashe. ?I play a major role in the redistribution of this nation?s wealth in the direction of the African-American community. The most enjoyable thing to me is that at the end of the day, I have helped increase the number of African-American millionaires [and] have increased the number of individuals who have the ability to reach back and improve the lives of many others in our community through job creation, charitable donations and any other methods that improve the lives of our people,? he says.

On the legal and corporate fronts

Far too few Blacks are involved in sports law, many contend. ?I?ve been in the business since 1997 and I really haven?t seen an increase in the front office,? says James Tanner, 35, of the Washington, D.C., firm Williams & Connolly. Focusing primarily on sports and entertainment law, including player, advertising and marketing contracts and general business matters, Tanner represents Grant Hill, Tim Duncan, Shane Battier, Andre Miller, Raghib ?Rocket? Ismail, Chamique Holdsclaw, Nikki McCray, Tina Thompson, Dominique Dawes and a number of other professional athletes. ?I have seen more athletes looking into opening businesses and that athletes have gotten smarter about their finances. That is one of the aspects of my job that I enjoy, helping young athletes mature and watching them grow,? he says.

Tanner, formerly a senior advisor for the 1996 Clinton-Gore presidential campaign, also represents a number of corporate executives and professional and college coaches in the negotiation of their employment contracts. Williams & Connolly lured him from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where he was involved in securities. ?They were looking for someone with a corporate background,? he says.

Like many others, Reggie Williams, star linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1976 to 1989, who played in two Super Bowls, wishes for greater change. ?I have see an increase in the number of [Black] decision makers, but it is not a significant number,? he says. As vice president of Disney Sports Attractions, Williams operates in an arena few Blacks have entered. He oversees Disney?s Sports and Recreation offerings at Walt Disney World and manages nearly every sports-related event on Disney property, including the annual Walt Disney World Marathon and the Disney PGA Tour event. ?When I first came to Disney they didn?t even have sports,? says Williams. He played a major role in developing Disney?s involvement in sports, especially amateur sports, overseeing the creation of Disney?s Wide World of Sports Complex, a 200-acre multisport facility that opened in 1997. Through his efforts Disney lured the Braves to move their spring training and minor league baseball operations to the sports complex in 1997.

?The sports industry is still tremendously guided through networking, and there just doesn?t exist a forum for Blacks and Hispanics to network in that manner. There are a number of [mainstream] events, but only occasionally does [a person of color] get to speak at these events. There just isn?t a platform for exposure,? says Williams, who was a three-time All-Ivy League linebacker in football and an Ivy League heavyweight wrestling champion (1975) at Dartmouth College, from which he graduated in just three and half years with a bachelor?s degree in psychology.

Blacks have to be ready

In football, more Blacks are getting the opportunity to be on the decision-making side of things, says James ?Shack? Harris, vice president of player personnel with the Jacksonville Jaguars and one of the NFL?s first quarterbacks. ?The league has extended itself and made an effort [to hire more Blacks], but it is still unbalanced,? he says. Harris (Buffalo Bills, 1969-71; Los Angeles Rams, 1972-76; San Diego Chargers, 1977-81), who joined the Jaguars in 2003 after leaving the Baltimore Ravens as director of pro personnel, handles all player acquisitions. His acquisitions include first-round draft choice quarterback Byron Leftwich and several veteran free agents, including All-Pro defensive end, Hugh Douglas.

A stronger Black presence on the business side requires action by white and Black executives alike, Harris says. ?Opportunities come when you have owners like Wayne Weaver [of the Jacksonville Jaguars] willing to give qualified African-Americans the opportunity,? he says, adding, ?African-Americans can?t be afraid to hire other African-Americans if they can do the job.? When opportunity does come knocking, Blacks have to be ready, he notes. ?I remember Kenny Robinson once told me you have to be prepared for opportunity,? he says.