Podcast Alert: Abe Madkour – Sports Business Journal
Abe Madkour – Publisher & Executive Editor at Sports Business Journal – joins the Navigating Sports Business podcast to discuss the state of the sports industry and his transition from journalist to editor.
He and AJ also highlight their favorite SBJ events throughout the year, and sports business trends they are keeping an eye on.
3:20 – Abe’s background
9:55 – The transition from journalist to publisher
12:05 – Competition in the sports business news world
16:35 – Balancing objectivity
22:30 – Sports Business Trends
35:30 – Abe picks some of the best organizations in sports
40:45 Rapid Fire Questions
- The Charlotte FC crowd singing the National Anthem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S09-E-OwxtI
- AJ’s 2019 article on downward attendance in college athletics: https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/11/06/maestas-college-football-attendance-is-down-but-why-we-have-the-data-and-ideas-for-getting-fans-back-to-the-stadiums/
[00:00:00] Abe Madkour: We’re just seeing so much money being put to the marketplace between VC and private equity money being invested into sports to buy teams, to fund new companies, to fund agencies, to fund startups. That shows the strength and power of sports as an industry right now. So that’s pretty interesting. A trend to watch
[00:00:42] AJ Maestas: Hello and welcome to the Navigating Sports Business Podcast. I’m your host AJ Maestas Founder of Navigate, a data-driven consulting firm, guiding major strategies and decisions in sports and entertainment. We started this podcast hoping to share the interesting stories and experiences of the amazing people we get to work with at [00:01:00] Navigate.
And even though they’re visionaries and famous in many instances, their true stories aren’t often heard since they’re not on the playing field. Our hope is you get to know them better and learn from them as we have.
Today, I’m happy to be joined by Abe Madkour, the executive editor of the Sports Business Journal. Abe has been at the journal for 28 years, almost 28 years, right.
[00:01:29] Abe Madkour: You’re aging me.
[00:01:30] AJ Maestas: Well, you know, we all know you started when you were 12, so no big deal. No, that’s kind of amazing though. Especially, you know, people don’t stay at jobs like that anymore, so let’s call it 28 years of experience covering sports as the publisher and executive editor, most recently.
He’s responsible for the overall business. He oversees all the content and production for various conferences like the Forty Under 40, World Congress, Sports Business Journal Awards. By the way, thank you very much for honoring Jeff Nelson at Forty under 40 we’re super, super grateful for that. Abe is frequently an [00:02:00] industry speaker.
He serves as the lead moderator at most of their events and as editorial spokesperson for all of the company’s events. I know if you’re listening to this, you’ve seen Abe on stage many times as have I, so thank you very much for letting us talk about you for once instead of other people.
[00:02:15] Abe Madkour: AJ what an honor to be with you, you and I go back a long time.
So I’m really, really pleased to spend some time with you today.
[00:02:21] AJ Maestas: I’m so grateful. I’m probably naive in thinking that we’re friends, you know, because of that history, when everyone probably wants to be your friend, but yeah, I don’t know if you remember. It was the National Sports Forum in 2003 in the deep distant suburb of Chicago, if that rings a bell.
[00:02:35] Abe Madkour: I do I do indeed. Yeah. I’m really proud of what you’ve been able to accomplish.
[00:02:39] AJ Maestas: Oh, that’s really flattering. One of the kindest moments I can remember seeing in sports was before you were the executive editor, you were doing your typical show, which you do an amazing job at the Forty Under 40 awards.
Honoring everybody and with great humor. And he took time out to recognize that you obviously should be Forty Under 40 but it’s kinda tacky for a publication to honor one of their own. [00:03:00] I love that because there’s no question. If you didn’t work at the SBJ, you’d have been receiving an award that day, so that’s kind of you to say, but look what you’ve done.
And I’m really grateful honestly. It’s really important I think to have quality journalism, right. To cover our industry. I think most students, and this was true for me when I was a student. I mean, this is how you got introduced to the industry. This is how you learn about it. This is how you keep your finger on the pulse.
I mean, you are, your publication is a critical source of information for us at Navigate. So thank you. Speaking of which do you mind telling us how this all happened? How did you go from Vermont to working in sports? Do you mind sharing your personal story?
[00:03:32] Abe Madkour: Yeah, so a small town, a kid from a small Vermont town of 3000, I’m the youngest of seven, you know, grew up in a big loving Catholic family, went to the university of Vermont AJ.
You know, growing up AJ I knew that I was going to be in sports or politics. I love both. I was a voracious reader of sports news and information. I’d fought my father for the Boston Globe or the New York Times all the time, because I wanted to get my hands on Peter Gammons or Bob, [00:04:00] Ryan, or Dan Shaughnessy of the Globe.
And I was a voracious I would say follower of the Red Sox, the Patriots. I loved Dr. J and the 76ers. I love Tennis and Björn Borg. So I grew up a hardcore sports fan, and I think you remember those days AJ, you played every sport, right? So you just enjoyed it. I went to University of Vermont. I was poli sci,. I was English.
Tried to make it to the tennis team, did not make the cut. So I was fortunate enough when I left college that I landed an internship in Washington, DC for U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, and you know, those internships were rare. I think I luckily interviewed well and I was so fortunate AJ to go to Washington as a bright eyed 21 year old because people who know that city know how special that city is and to leave Vermont AJ and then go walk to work every day, when you’re walking next to the Capitol, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Russell Senate building, Union Station, it was magical.
It was a [00:05:00] magical time in my life. So I worked in politics for Senator Leahy, for four years really loved it, but I knew I didn’t want to stay in politics. And so he was very connected. I’ll see if you remember this name. Of course, as most senators are connected. Patrick Leahy was very close to a gentlemen named Abe Pollin and of course a Pollin owned the Washington Bullets and the Washington Capitals.
And I asked Senator Leahy. I think my time here in your office has come close to an end and I think I’ve done what I want to do. Is there any chance you’d help me in my next career goal. And he certainly did. And he made a call and the next day I was interviewing for an unpaid internship at the Washington Bullets basketball team.
And so that started my career in sports and my lesson there to everybody. And I’m sure you do it all the time. AJ is like, you have to use your network, and you have to ask for help sometimes. Right. And that’s exactly what I was fortunate enough to do.
[00:05:59] AJ Maestas: You checked off both [00:06:00] of your dreams by the time you were, what? 23?
[00:06:03] Abe Madkour: I was 23. Exactly. And I love politics, but I just didn’t want to work in policy. I didn’t want to be a legislative aid. I didn’t. And so I was drawn. I’m like, I want to try to get into sports. And then, you know, I did the Bullets. I worked one season for the Baltimore Orioles, and then I answered an ad for a startup publication called Sports Business Daily, founded by a gentleman named Jeffrey Pollack.
Interviewed with him and another gentleman named Steve Belfor. And I think I was one of their early hires. I know I was maybe the fifth hire at that organization, a startup in August of 1994. And you know, I’ve been very fortunate ever since.
[00:06:41] AJ Maestas: Jeffrey’s a great guy. That’s good to hear and good to know.
I just assumed it was early days, but I actually didn’t know the origin story for that. You can’t mention Boston without telling us, you know, your favorite teams. I mean, there’s such passion up there. So who’s top of the list?
[00:06:54] Abe Madkour: Oh, yeah, I’m still a hardcore Patriots, Red Sox fan. As someone in the news media AJ, you know, you’re not supposed to show [00:07:00] your editorial partiality and your bias, but we’re all sports fans. And so yes, I have no problem saying where my fandom lies.
[00:07:08] AJ Maestas: Okay, Patriots, Red Sox. Good to know your friends will take care of you better by knowing this. So that’s very helpful. What are your favorite events? You’re at everything. So help a rookie, you know, like some young person that’s listening to this.
What is the best thing to attend in the suite of SBJ conferences?
[00:07:23] Abe Madkour: Well, that’s like asking my favorite child, you know, I just think that the World Congress of Sports is always very special. I love the Sports Business Awards cause we tried to build it like the Oscars of sports business, and we’re very proud of what we’ve done.
That’s an amazing room, AJ, commissioners, team owners, heads of sports media companies, and agencies. You know, I love Game Changers. It’s an event we celebrate women in sports. So I love really all our events. You know, I was never drawn to college athletics much because in the Northeast and in Vermont, like college sports, wasn’t like growing up in SEC territory.
When I moved to Charlotte, AJ, I became much more [00:08:00] interested in college sports and the dynamics around college sports, which I know you work in closely. So I will say our Intercollegiate Athletics Forum that we’ve done for years, I really am pretty interested in the dynamic nature and changes of the leadership of college sports.
And so that’s been one of my favorites, but they’re all great events and they all serve different audiences.
[00:08:21] AJ Maestas: And I’m pretty passionate about collegiate athletics, but I’ll leave that for another time. Cause that’s a bit of a mess right now. What about sporting events in general? You know, I mean, what is the thing that you really enjoy going to, I don’t even know how often you attend anymore. All-star games, Super Bowls.
[00:08:36] Abe Madkour: Yeah, I mean Super Bowls, All-star games, I just did the Masters. And so, you know, all the big events, I certainly love to see. Cause I mean, if you’re in the business, like you are like, I am AJ, we need to experience the business at where the business does its commerce and that’s at these big events.
And so absolutely. I want to feel, not just like I’m in the business, but also as a fan to experience the events and know what it’s like to attend them, but yeah, Super [00:09:00] Bowls on my role every year. So, you know, NBA all-star games, occasionally an NHL all-star game. You then go into the Masters. I mean, I would love to have gone to the Formula 1 race in Miami.
I can’t make that one, but then, you know, last year I did the PGA Championship and so, you know, the events are out there. It’s just a matter of which one you can fit into your schedule because when you work in the business, it’s incredibly challenging. And time is of the essence and time has a definite priority of figuring out which ones you’re going to hit and which ones you can’t.
But I love to go to the big events because you see, as you know it, AJ, you see everybody.
[00:09:34] AJ Maestas: Yeah. It is so fun. And I don’t know if this is a good or bad, but I’ve massively cut down on that travel. And so far I haven’t been punished for it, but I probably will be at some point. A question about your career, the transition into being, you know, a publisher from a journalist.
I don’t know if there’s anything you can share about your vision and you know what that’s been like for you, because I assume these are very different seats. Yeah, very different perspective.
[00:09:58] Abe Madkour: They are, they are in terms [00:10:00] of overseeing an editorial group of about 40, to overseeing an entire enterprise of about 120 AJ, and as you know, running a business, it draws on different skillsets and different time elements in terms of, you know, having a broader view of the, of the business, I will say I’m less engaged in day-to-day news and editorial decision-making. More engaged on what we’re doing financially, how we’re doing financially, where’s our growth. How are we onboarding our employees? How are we maintaining a healthy and strong culture across the enterprise? You know, where are we doing partnerships? Where are we doing new business ideas?
All of those things take more of my time. And so I love it, but you’re right. I’ve been doing the bigger job since 2019. And so I’m much more comfortable now into my third or fourth year, but it certainly took, the learning was understanding that you have to be there for everybody. Every department head, every person of the staff and that takes a lot more of your time and you have to be present as much as you [00:11:00] can.
And I’m just really fortunate to work with people who are incredibly talented, who are incredibly passionate, who love their work, who loves Sports Business Journal, who are very collaborative in their approach. And AJ that makes it easier for me because we have so many talented co-workers.
We have so much talent on the staff. And I think that really is a total difference maker. And as you know, AJ, it’s about talent and it’s so hard to find and keep really good talent. And luckily we’ve been able to do that at SBJ. You know, we’re building and we’re growing and it’s very exciting time for Sports Business Journal right now. We just did a deal with a company called SportTechie. So it’s great having them part of Leaders Group here, we’re having having a fantastic 2022. And so we are really, really feeling quite bullish about our growth here. And the staff is as well.
[00:11:50] AJ Maestas: Well, I’m really glad to hear that. Actually, I was going to ask you about competition and how business was doing.
Sometimes you think of print, you know, going the way of the Buffalo. What is even being a journalist in the year 2022, [00:12:00] you know, and beyond it feels, you know, an influencer, someone with a good following on Twitter. So I don’t if you’re willing to to opine on that, but I would love to know, is there a dent in your business from all this new competition or how is it that you’re going to move to the future?
And if you’re willing to share with us, how are you going to do it?
[00:12:15] Abe Madkour: Oh, sure. No, I love that question. I mean, we think about it all the time, right? Like you do in your business. How are you staying ahead? And how are you growing? I would say a couple of things to that. First, I mean, yes, we have a print product, but Sports Business Journal is much broader than a print product.
We have a print product, we have a daily digital product. We have newsletters, we have 17 events. We have SportTechie, which has a newsletter and a number of events. So we have a very, I would say multi-platform diversified business model. Yes. Has print softened over the years in terms of advertising revenue in the print product?
Absolutely. Have we translated a lot of those dollars to digital advertising? Absolutely. You know, most of our readers, I would say 65% of our readers get everything we do. That means they’re getting our daily feed. They’re getting our [00:13:00] daily newsletters. They’re getting our weekly print product. They have access to our virtual events and that’s an all access offering that is the best in sports.
And so that’s how we’re continuing to . Grow. We’re continuing also to grow by looking at new products, we can develop, we created a data product called SBJ Atlas, which is a data and analytics offering that has, I would say trends and empirical data trends over 25 years of where the business has been, where it’s going.
We’re looking at sponsorship, we’re looking at media trends and media deals. That’s also a contact directory. That’s a nice, healthy part of our business. We’re looking to increase our intimate type of events sponsors want to do business with us AJ because we reach a very unique audience.
In terms of competition. Hey, I respect all of our competition. I do think there’s a flight to quality these days. I mean, we’ve been doing this, SBJ has, since 1994, 1998. We’re known as an authority that has integrity. That is [00:14:00] fair. That is honest. And so that’s where I think really we stand out as Sports Business Journal because of the product and the quality of our content over the years.
But look, I mean, there’s Front Office Sports. There’s Hashtag Sports. There’s Bloomberg Sports Media. There’s Sportico. I mean, there’s a ton of good competitors out there that I have a lot of respect for. I bet if you went around our newsroom, our reporters would say their competitors are the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the LA Times and the Washington Post.
So it’s just a competitive environment. I also like things that Axios is doing and Puck is doing some really interesting things. So really good competitors out there make us better, you know, so we’re not naive. We stay abreast with what everybody is doing, but we feel like we’re in a really good position because to us, it’s still about like, I’m a Patriot fan.
I’m going to read as much as I can about the Patriots, but there’s two or three reporters who follow the Patriots. I really trust because I feel they are the authority. And so [00:15:00] similar to that, that’s how I think the sports industry feels about SBJ.
[00:15:04] AJ Maestas: Oh, I like that. I love that you’re looking through the windshield versus the rearview mirror, right on competition.
I think we do the same at Navigate. You’re not concerning yourself with some of these things, some of the noise or whatever, but it’s interesting. Since we’re on a podcast, I have to ask how daily Buzzcast
[00:15:18] Abe Madkour: We started this Morning Buzzcast, probably 2019, and we’ve done it really religiously since the pandemic started in March of 2020, it adds an early crank to my morning, AJ, but it’s amazing the growth that it’s had, and the following and that is outside of our paywall. I mean, in case some of the listeners don’t know we’re very premium products. All right. So I mentioned our all access that’s $900 a year. Just to get our print weekly product is over $300 a year.
So yes, we understand there’s a lot of free offerings out there. We’re not one of them and we won’t be one of them. But what we do have outside our paywall is the Buzzcast and our podcasts and our videos. And it’s been fun to see that build and grow. [00:16:00] You know, even in Arizona, I told you AJ that I was at Arizona State and it was amazing how many people like, Hey, I listened to the bus guys every day on my way to work.
So it’s been fun to do. I get up very early to start writing it, but it’s, it’s been gratifying.
[00:16:13] AJ Maestas: Oh, I’m glad to hear that. That’s great. Just a couple more business questions. I promise. I just, I would love to know how you balance objectivity with running a for-profit business, right? I mean, at the end of the day, this is a for-profit business.
You have advertisers, everybody wants to be in the SBJ. Right. It’s good for their business or good for their brand. I mean, I genuinely don’t know how it works in this world.
[00:16:34] Abe Madkour: Well, I mean, we’re a news organization and operation first and foremost. Yes. We’re a trade publication. Meaning we’re a B2B trade publication.
That what trade do we serve? We serve the sports media and entertainment space. No doubt about it, but there’s no question that we are a newsroom first and I can tell you every day, every week, every year. I’ve been criticized or yelled at or chastised, or people stopped doing business with us or [00:17:00] threatened to stop doing business with us because they didn’t like a story.
They didn’t like a headline. They didn’t like a treatment in one of our publications and I get it that that’s all good and fair. But at the end of the day, I stand by what I said earlier. People see us as a respected, fair publication and news outlet that has great integrity and AJ like their thing is.
If we wrote something about Navigate or you that you didn’t agree with and you wanted to call me and vent, I’m going to listen. And I have told all of our reporters, like if you write something that someone doesn’t agree with, you have to at least hear them out. They could change your mind. They have to have their side of the story heard.
Hopefully they get their side of the story heard before the story goes to print, but you know, we’re not picking and choosing what stories we’re doing based on our business objectives. That’s not the way we’ve ever done business here.
[00:17:45] AJ Maestas: I assume not, but still, you have to wonder, I mean, and just think of journalism in general, the idea of a free press when it’s in a for-profit model. Like I think of the tobacco companies, as the example, people usually bring up right where there was a lot of articles that were shelved on the [00:18:00] negative effects of smoking. And, because they were a giant advertiser, so it’s hard, you know, I mean, an economist would tell you if that’s, if that’s where your gravy comes from
[00:18:09] Abe Madkour: It also goes to a point, like, what do you pursue as news?
Right. Cause you and I are in the business every day, we hear so much gossip. We hear so much chatter. Right. And you may tell me something, I can’t report that. I can’t write that. I have to report it out. I have to hear if it’s right. I have to hear if it’s true, I have to have it corroborated by a number of different people.
So I may hear a, a rumor in one ear, but I use that to process it and try to figure out, okay, is that true? Well, let’s go talk to 15 other people and see if they’re saying the same thing or five other people. Because if they say the same thing, we might have a story, but if AJ tells me one thing, and Julie tells me another thing, then I’ve got conflicting information that I need to sort through.
So, you know, it’s all, there’s so much gossip that’s in the industry, but you know, you [00:19:00] can’t, we’re not a gossip organization. We don’t put gossip in our pages. We don’t put gossip on social media. It’s really how you are able to fact check it and confirm it as true.
[00:19:10] AJ Maestas: What do you make of Twitter as a news source then?
[00:19:14] Abe Madkour: I mean, it’s an amazingly valuable news source for us and our reporters. Our best reporters, utilize Twitter, unbelievably advantageous to their brand and to our brand and to being out front on news that they feel that they have confirmed, they can go forward with. So, yeah, I don’t use it. I’m not an active on Twitter. I’m more of a voyer in certain terms of what is out there, but our reporters and our businesses use Twitter very effectively.
[00:19:39] AJ Maestas: What about this, like cesspool of public conversation, you know, anonymous public conversation that takes place, you know, following a conversation. I mean, I’m also not on Twitter.
So this is coming from a place of ignorance. But, you know, our internal company Slack, we’ll talk about, you know, sort of, not just what the news is, but you know, they’ll be reading it through Twitter. I mean, I don’t know. I’m [00:20:00] concerned, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to know if it’s a justified concern.
[00:20:03] Abe Madkour: Well, I think it’s a concern basically cause people cause it’s out there. But again, I can look at that and know that it’s one opinion, one person’s point of view. I’m trying to separate, you know, what is one person’s opinion to actually what’s going on out there. And that’s what the areas that I’d spend my time and energy on.
And that’s where I encourage it within our newsroom certainly.
[00:20:22] AJ Maestas: Do you think regular people can decipher in that same way?
[00:20:25] Abe Madkour: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t know if they can. I think that, you know, there is a lot of I read it here, so it’s gotta be true mentality out there.
[00:20:33] AJ Maestas: I just think the evidence is already out on things like social platforms like that, where someone’s information is unverified or the source is an unverified, or even an anonymous source.
It works. And by work, I mean, it influences people’s opinion, you know, the first to lie or however you want to cite it. I don’t know, we’re always looking at data at Navigate, right. You know, some of the really fun stuff to look at politically is the Pew institute data and what people’s opinions and shifting political views and it’s pretty ugly. And it feels [00:21:00] like, you know, Twitter and social media are a part of that sort of echo chamber and unreliable information. Absolutely false information spreading. I mean, we don’t have to stick on this. It’s just, it’s one of those things where if you were to conceive of this concept and tell someone about it a hundred years ago, people would say, oh, well that will be us.
You know, we will be telling the news, you know, we will be reporting on that and that’s, and that’s not true. Right. Someone completely unqualified could be a source.
[00:21:26] Abe Madkour: Oh, absolutely on that. And I think they’re a source of their opinion and their point of view, you know, you still see it in sports, particularly on personalities and the athletes and people’s opinions of them, or even coaches and athletic directors, of course commissioners.
But, you know, I think that the, to your point, the conversation’s a little bit more dire in the political landscape than the sports landscape, but everyone has an opinion and they’re not afraid to share it are they?.
[00:21:54] AJ Maestas: Not at all. So for more fun stuff what do you think, what are the exciting trends that you’re following in sports business right [00:22:00] now?
[00:22:00] Abe Madkour: I think that I think an exciting trend is the growth of women’s sports. We’re seeing a lot of energy behind women’s sports. We’re seeing investments in sports like the NWSL, $75 million of investment for the WNBA.
You saw a lot of investment into two women’s hockey leagues. So I liked that trend. I think you and I have been in this business a long time AJ, we’ve been on a lot of conferences and events where people keep asking about where’s the support for women’s sports. I think you’re starting to see more corporate support.
Brands like MasterCard has really stepped up to support women’s sports AT&T has, Google has, Nike always has. I like that trend. I’m very fascinated in small discussion groups and in dinner conversations, there’s a lot of conversation, AJ as you know, like to find those slivers of sports fans who don’t follow the big sports, right.
Because you know, the NFL is going to get theirs. You know, the NBA is going to get theirs. NHL. MLB, but like where’s those growth opportunities? That kind of feeds off that women’s sports area, but like the [00:23:00] drive to create almost new sports, new fans, it could be something around Premier Lacrosse League and Paul Rabil, what he’s doing.
It could be around something that you’re seeing a lot of growth and energy. I know it’s small and it’s nowhere near where we’re going here, but like Pickleball. You’re seeing like little things about, I get asked some questions about cornhole. Like where are these small slivers of sport that could grow? And, you know, you attach an interesting media deal to it. High school sports. We had a story in the daily today about some consolidation in the high school sports space.
So that is something that’s an exciting trend. And I guess, the third final trend for me. I mean, we’re just seeing so much money being put into the marketplace. AJ, you know, this between VC and private equity money being invested into sports to buy teams, to fund new companies, to fund agencies, to fund startups that shows the strength and power of sports as an industry right now.
So that’s pretty, pretty interesting. A trend to watch.
[00:23:59] AJ Maestas: Yeah, [00:24:00] I’m invested in some of that stuff and I’m nervous, you know that money maybe flows too easily to sports with, you know, unrealistic expectations, but it’s fun. And it’s what I do for a living. So, you know, we should be engaged and it helps us stay on the front edge of, you know, some of those trends.
But I’m glad to hear you talk about the women’s sports. That’s true. Real money going there. That is really interesting. Pickleball, by the way we have this sort of insights presentation we do with our clients where try to predict, we try to show people in the crystal ball and Pickleball has a slide there. It’s 5 million people right now.
And these derivative sports that make something more accessible, right? Like it’s a dream come true. Right? Top Golf is a dream come true for golf because such a small percent of those people will golf 18 holes. Pickleball is such a gateway for those, right, an access point to those who didn’t grow up, playing tennis, you know, like yourself.
[00:24:45] Abe Madkour: Well, but another one, I mean, AJ, you’ve probably seen this out in Arizona. I mean, the, and I’ll talk to different sources at the collegiate and media landscape but the interest in volleyball, softball and some of these sports, like there’s some real growth. And again I just want the listeners to know, I’m not [00:25:00] saying these are the next NFL’s, no, they’re not, but are they viable growth sports where you can grow a nice business around them?
And if you have a business attached to them, you have a runway where you can do some fun things? I mean, look at Athletes Unlimited. What they’re doing, I think is pretty interesting. So those are the areas that, you know, people are trying to find this new canvas to paint on, so to speak.
[00:25:21] AJ Maestas: Well, I appreciate you mentioning high school as well.
And some of that consolidation, I did read that article that, you know, I spent yesterday with Lorien Parry Luehrs, you know, she’s the President of HomeTown Ticketing. They just took a $75 million minority investment. You know, you look at it’s like blue ocean and I can’t tell you how many interviews I’ve given in the last, whatever, you know, a number of years of people looking to consolidate rights in the high school space, but now it’s finally happening.
It really is happening and that’s impressive.
[00:25:46] Abe Madkour: But you also nailed it that term, which I tried to kind of articulate not as well, where you can go in and consolidate rights. To consolidate the business and then go to market with a broader, stronger offering. That’s what [00:26:00] people are looking to do around a lot of these different sports.
So you’re absolutely right.
[00:26:03] AJ Maestas: Yeah. Well, and I can share some metrics because that’s our world. I think there’s 800 million tickets sold to high school events. You know, it’s maybe two and a half times out of pro sports, you know, it’s, it’s think it’s maybe 200 million in the pro sports world.
Hopefully I’ve got that right in my head. But the point is, is, yeah. I mean, imagine if someone aggregating all those people into a database, you know, potential buyers, selling them streaming all the other options. I know I’m typically skeptical or hopefully I’m not negative, but that’s a lot of our conversations maybe me taking the more skeptical side of our industry.
So forgive me for doing this, but any negative trends you see that really concern you. And if you don’t mind me sharing one for me, we consistently see sports losing the battle for leisure time versus social, digital, mobile, esports, you know, when you look at digital revenue, generation sports is getting its butt kicked.
Is there anything else out there that, and by the way, that affects the pathway to fandom like even though you don’t really monetize a six year old, eight year old, 12 year old, very much as a pro sports league, obviously that has long lifetime customer [00:27:00] value challenges for you. We see pretty much every league having major, major issues with that generation.
And it doesn’t feel like it’s front page SBJ news. It doesn’t feel like the leagues are, you know, ringing alarm bell. Is there anything like, I’d love to know if you agree or disagree. And is there anything else like that, that you would sort of wave a red flag and say why aren’t people concerned about.
[00:27:17] Abe Madkour: Maybe I’ll stand up for our news. I do think that we’ve really looked at, you know, the aging demographic of the traditional sports leages, and we’re seeing that that’s a huge concern. I can tell you my conversations with commissioners and team owners. That’s probably one of the first two things they bring up. Generally it’s the fragmented media market place.
Secondly, is the growth of the next generation of fans or the development of the next generation of fans. So I would agree with you that the red flag is out there. I think that there’s concerns about their participation habits, aJ turning into fans. There’s concerns about whether they actually care about or interested in sports or interested in gaming and other forms of entertainment.
I still like sports’ place, but yes, that would be a concern to me [00:28:00] in terms of that very, very gen gen Z, very young onboarding of a sports fan. Second thing that still concerns me. I’m still a little concerned, you know, I have, you’ve seen more data on it than I have. I’m a little concerned on the live event, engagement and attendance going forward.
I mean, has our society changed where they will be more watchers of the sports events via linear television or just at home rather than give the three to five hours to go to the event? I do remember some softness and attendance at the last NFL season. I think that that’s going to be a trend I’m going to continue to watch, you know, I think sports betting has been fine.
I think it’s been good. I do know many of my, how do I characterize them? Many of my more industry veteran sources AJ, who’ve been in the business longer time. Really still can’t stand the specter of legalized sports betting, and they’re still very afraid of an integrity breach. And they’re still very afraid that like one story about an [00:29:00] athlete or a game that was compromised because of sports betting could really change that dynamic.
But you are seeing tremendous growth in handle. You’re seeing, you know, you could say that ratings, or maybe there’s more engagement with certain sports around that, but I still think that that’s still early in the game on the sports betting space.
[00:29:18] AJ Maestas: Well, I’m thrilled to hear you say that it’s a top two subject for commissioners and leaders in sports when you talk to them, as far as like competition for leisure time and the future of fandom and pathway to fandom. I don’t feel the commensurate response taking place with the actions that would reverse that trend. And then as far as your comments on gambling, I mean, point shaving existed when, you know, when gambling was illegal, right.
So that’s nothing new, but I could get that concern. I appreciate you sharing your opinions on that. We’re in our second year of doing a whole series on all things gambling, and we haven’t put a lot of time and thought into, you know, the addictive nature and, and you know, what it could do to compromise the integrity of referees and athletes and all that.
That’s a very good point.
[00:29:57] Abe Madkour: It’s been so funny to see the changes in gambling [00:30:00] perspective AJ, because you’ve been in this business a long time. And I mean, you remember one commissioner saying that legalized sports betting would turn sports venues and arenas into horse tracks and dog tracks with those types of characters and that type of environment.
And we’ve seen that, that isn’t true. But we also heard commissioners go and lobbied for legalized sports betting and say it was going to increase consumer engagement with sports across the board, ratings were going to almost double. And, you know, we haven’t seen that really. So I think it’s early in the game, but these are trends that are continuing to keep an eye on.
[00:30:33] AJ Maestas: Well, I can affirm those and I think there’s plenty of sources that could too, but just for fun, I think it was about seven or eight years ago. We did a pretty comprehensive gambling study with ESPN on the NFL and college athletics on Saturdays and Sundays in people’s homes, bars. I mean, this is long before it’s even contemplated to be legal and that’s right.
You know, the engagement, social stickiness, you know, cross team viewing. It had all these benefits of, of, you know, connecting people to the sport. So, yeah, I mean, I think we all know this now, so I guess it’s not [00:31:00] that interesting for me to share. But it’s pretty clear that it’s a real win financially and otherwise for fandom and sports, but yeah, that’s been disproven that it’s going to look like a racetrack.
Well, your other comment was about attendance and I probably should have done this with you. I wrote an article with a collegiate publication on that downward trend. And just to share with you and honestly, the audience as well, it’s a global thing. You can point to some very consistent, you know, things competing with alternatives and entertainment opportunity cost to time, all that friction going to and from attending in person.
Prices, you know, way outstripping the growth of inflation. There’s a bunch of things that account for it, but it is a global and consistent trend. So I don’t think that’s going away.
[00:31:36] Abe Madkour: I think it’s an alarming trend and that you’re going to see venues be resized. You’re going to see revenue models potentially change.
I mean, you know, you have a great example in your backyard. When the Coyotes go from a 17,000 seat venue to a 5,000 seat venue, it’s just going to be very, very fascinating to see the changing nature of that experience.
[00:31:57] AJ Maestas: Well, if they were doing it on purpose, maybe that [00:32:00] would be a fun experiment. They aren’t.
But there is something to be said for scarcity. One of our top, you know, we’ve worked on the last five pro team relocations, like new markets, the NFL teams, moving NHL expansion to Vegas and Seattle and stuff like that. And it isn’t the basic demographics you look at in these situations right there, there are factors.
You know, using Vegas as an example, you know, there was, there was no unifying team there for a lot of people who’d moved there over 20, 30 years. You know, there was nothing that was, that made it their hometown and connected them to it. So there’s some real, like psychographic type factors that make people connect.
And, but scarcity is one of those, right? The perceived scarcity, when we, when a team launches like we’ve done a lot of MLS work. You know, coming in with it’s hot, there’s a waiting list. It’s scarce fill the building, but long-term, and I think it was beautiful what they did in Charlotte.
Cause that wasn’t easy having their whole thing delayed by COVID. But yeah, there’s a chance the Coyotes get lucky and it creates a prestige scarcity thing. But I agree with what you’re saying on shrinking venues, by the way, you know, we work with Populous on all their sort of futurism of stadium, future attendance, what it means.
You [00:33:00] know, the trend’s very clear as we have tripled the amount of premium seats we have in our industry, more butts are in those seats on a percent of total inventory than were 20 or 30 years ago. So they’re making more money with more premium spaces with shrinking venues. So it’s a, win-win all over the place, atmosphere, all of that.
I love that you point that out or know that because it feels like a lot of senior executives don’t, especially in collegiate athletics, keep wanting to build bigger.
[00:33:24] Abe Madkour: You mentioned MLS. I talked to an MLS executive just last week and there’s a venue opening with 30,000 seats in Nashville. And that now it’s a rival executive, but he, you know, he flat out said like, I would never build a venue with 30,000 seats right now.
I think my sweet spot is 22 to 25. And so that’s, you know, that is a resizing and reshaping of a venue before, to your point, aJ no one ever thought about having a stadium that would see smaller than what 65? And so, look what the Bills are doing in Buffalo, they’re definitely going smaller.
[00:33:56] AJ Maestas: Yeah, boy, that’s interesting.
There are some examples where they’re [00:34:00] filling, you know, they’re filling big, big, I mean, the trend on MLS since we’re talking MLS specific, I agree 95% of the time, it should be smaller, more premium, more intimate, scarcity, all those factors. And we need as an industry to learn how to make money outside the venue in virtual venues with virtual attendance, you know, it’s not about making that place bigger.
But if there’s a sport you were going to pick it, it would be MLS. I mean, the trajectory of MLS is extraordinary. I don’t think most people realize its growth and popularity, and I can send you some stuff on it so that we take this offline, but my eyes have been opened even by my own coworkers on some work they’re doing. Since we’re talking about who’s good and where people are going.
I know this is a question you will not appreciate, but I would love for you to do some stack ranking for me, or at least call out your favorites. I know you can’t name your favorite child, but tell me some of the leagues, the networks, the teams, the agencies, maybe even people in brands that really stand out to you as rockstars.
I see your face. You do. I apologize, but I still would love to hear the answer.
[00:34:55] Abe Madkour: I mean, that’s a great, I mean, why is the, I know some people are going to roll their eyes, [00:35:00] but we’re talking on the business side of sports. That’s where I spend my day. And that’s where I traffic my information and trade information on the business side of sports.
I still look, everybody, does they still look at what the NFL does. Okay. And what they do. Certainly you can disagree with their approach and the ownership and all of that. But on the business side, they’re very, let’s just look at the buzz around the upcoming draft, look at the buzz around on their schedule release, you know, look at the buzz around some of their tent pole events and how they’re able to put three games now on Christmas day, they’re thinking about a game on black Friday with Amazon.
So I think from a business point of view, they’re able to take these, you know, I think pretty interesting, subtle steps AJ that are quite smart and you know, the people there they’re very, very smart. The NBA has been the crown jewel for leagues for a long time.
Right? Really for the last, I would think 10 years under Adam Silver’s watch in terms of their ability to have great relations with their players for a strong business, have worked together on the product, on the floor. Work together to [00:36:00] grow the game globally, work together in I would say public advocacy. I think that the NBA is seen as a real social leader in that space.
I think that you know, you talk about MLS. I’m a big fan of MLS. I bet we could find just as many people AJ who would love to take us on and challenge our assumption that MLS is a growth sport or a growth property, because there’s a lot of questions about the interest of MLS as a national American sport. I’m still a believer in it.
In terms of teams, I mean, sure. Some people are going to roll their eyes to this. I’m always fascinated by how Jerry Jones and the Cowboys were able to grow their business. Interesting big bold steps, whether it’s around sponsorships, whether it’s creating their own merchandise line and handling their merchandise.
In-house I think what the Cowboys have always been a first mover in that space. again, people may roll their eyes, but I think what Robert. Kraft does. And the Kraft Sports Group has always been a step ahead in terms of business excellence, thinking very [00:37:00] creatively. Kraft has privately financed so many different elements and businesses.
[00:37:05] AJ Maestas: Has nothing to do with you being a fan. Of course.
[00:37:06] Abe Madkour: No, of course not. I’ve been an admirer of him since he’s bought the team. I think what Michael, Rubin’s doing at Fanatics again, some people push back and are chafed by his approach to the business, but I think Michael Rubin’s got very big, bold ideas in terms of, to your point earlier, consolidating areas of sports business.
And I think that’s going to be an incredibly interesting thing to watch. I’ve got a lot of respect for what Casey Wasserman does. AJ I mean, in terms of an agency, in terms of being out front in services and providing consultancy to a number of different people, a very smart organization at Wasserman..
I’m in awe sometimes of Tim and Todd Leiweke. I think they’re very interesting brothers who are a great story who have been successful wherever they’d gone and have a very, very I would say, defined sports business legacy and accomplishments. And [00:38:00] so those are just some, I mean, that I’ve always been in awe of what ESPN does every day.
And I think as sports fans, AJ we may take that for granted.
[00:38:09] AJ Maestas: I liked that list. I like that list. Can I ask just about the NFL? The NFL is driving the interest in those things or how much of that credit is just the popularity of the NFL?
[00:38:19] Abe Madkour: I think it’s a little bit of both. I think the NFL does a good job of driving some of that interest in popularity, but I’ve been fascinated at the growth of interest in the National Football League, really since the mid 2000’s.
And it just doesn’t stop AJ and sure, they’ve had some down years or years where interest is ebbed a little bit, and I can’t really understand it because yes, the game on the field is probably better than ever, the excitement level, but their hold on a weekend and there hold on all day Sunday, I just find unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in sports.
Now we’re seeing some interesting growth areas. We haven’t mentioned Formula 1. You’ve mentioned college football. I do find college football to be very much [00:39:00] a driver of interest in business, specifically in the Southeast where I am right now. So, but the NFL, I don’t know the answer to that question.
I think it’s a little bit of both. They still have smart people there.
[00:39:10] AJ Maestas: Oh yeah. They have smart people. Well, not only is that growth been amazing, but I would argue that a lot of it’s been left on the table as far as global appeal. There’s a Western culture thing. You know, that that is got kind of a cool and interesting factor globally, and they have dipped their toe in the water, but you know, as the NFL and continues to and increases their global engagement, they’ve got a lot of room for growth. So, if you’ve been impressed so far. Boy, I feel like they had not done much as of five or six years ago. Right. Just a few exhibition games. What have you. So I’d love to wrap things up with just a couple rapid fire type questions, just like you do.
I always appreciate those. A lot of information, a short amount of time. Where is your favorite place to travel?
[00:39:49] Abe Madkour: Oh, I love london. I love Paris. I love where you live. I have a brother in Scottsdale. I love to go there. I can really relax. I am going to Montana for my first time ever [00:40:00] in July. I’m looking forward to that.
And on my bucket list would be Cape Town and Vietnam.
[00:40:05] AJ Maestas: Boy, I’ve been to those two and they are very special. There’s no question. If you’re going to go to Vietnam, you might as well see Cambodia and Thailand as well. Right? Cape Town’s exceptional, probably the best city in the world. It’s just not convenient to get there.
There’s some funny things about South Africa, but I love your list. Very cool. We welcome you anytime when you kind of come visit Scottsdale here. What is one thing people need to do if they have 24 hours in Charlotte
[00:40:32] Abe Madkour: 24 hours in Charlotte?
[00:40:33] AJ Maestas: Was that too much time?
[00:40:36] Abe Madkour: No, they got to stop by Sports Business Journal’s headquarters at downtown Charlotte and come see us because we would love to be the host.
I would say, a Sunday Panther home game in Charlotte in the fall in September, October is magical. I give Jerry Richardson a ton of credit. He built a downtown stadium, right walkable distance that has this city just brimming with [00:41:00] energy on a Sunday. If you’re in town for 24 hours on the weekend, it’s a pretty fun, special day.
It’s an easy, fun tailgate. It’s a great experience. You can stay right downtown. Walk everywhere. And that’s of course, after you come visit SBJ headquarters in downtown Charlotte.
[00:41:16] AJ Maestas: And I assume you’ve taken in a Charlotte FC match.
[00:41:18] Abe Madkour: Oh yeah, it was great. And I give Nick Kelly and all those guys, a lot of credit.
They’re doing a great job. They had a record of 70,000 plus for the first game, they’ve settled a nice seat average of about 30,000 a game. And I’ll just say AJ, you mentioned it like, so the feeling downtown or uptown Charlotte for a Charlotte FC. Entirely different than feel for a Sunday, home Panther game.
[00:41:41] AJ Maestas: More diverse, more international or what I’m just guessing.
[00:41:44] Abe Madkour: It seems a little bit more family-oriented it seems much more diverse, different age demographics I’m seeing represented and they wear their jerseys all of them. And so if you’re Ally, the financial institution that’s on that jersey I’ve really seen and understood the [00:42:00] power of soccer jersey advertising.
Cause you could take that with you wherever you go. So, and where for Panthers games, it’s a little bit more maybe of a traditional crowd, hardcore, but a little bit more traditional.
[00:42:12] AJ Maestas: Well, Nick is a pretty special talent. We’re really lucky to get to work with in the organization, and have for many years you know, following him in his career and boy that launch that game when that microphone went out and the crowd sang the national anthem was one of those.
Wow. It’s just one of those, you know, why sports makes a difference in our world. And that was so cool.
[00:42:30] Abe Madkour: That was one of the more emotional moments I can remember being at a live event. Absolutely.
[00:42:34] AJ Maestas: Yeah. I mean, we’ll put a link to that in the, in the notes for anyone who has not watched that. You absolutely have to watch that. It’s the most moving national anthem I can remember ever seeing. And I wasn’t even there.
Last question Abe. Bucket-list sporting event. What is your bucket list sporting event that is still left? You probably don’t have anything left.
[00:42:51] Abe Madkour: Australian Open.
[00:42:52] AJ Maestas: Oh, that’s a good one. Yeah. You’re a tennis guy. And you’ve been to Melbourne I
[00:42:56] Abe Madkour: Oh no. So that’d be, that’d hit too. You know, I’d nail two things. I get to [00:43:00] Australia and see the Aussie Open.
[00:43:01] AJ Maestas: The sports complex that will blow your mind. The people’s hospitality there will blow your mind. Their passion for sports will blow your mind. Please make sure to let me know when you’re thinking there’s a possibility, what a time to go there right. In the heart of their summer in January. I have not heard that answer before, I love that.
Well, I’m so grateful for you taking time like this Abe, it’s so cool to kind of give you the chance to be on stage and ask questions of you. So grateful to be able to call you a friend. But thank you very, very much for sharing your time with us today.
[00:43:28] Abe Madkour: Well, I loved it and keep leading AJ keep up. Proud of you and it’s great to be with you today.
[00:43:32] AJ Maestas: All right. Well, for everybody listening, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to reach out to us. My email is AJ@NVGT.COM. You can also connect with us on my personal LinkedIn page or the Navigate page.
And again, this is AJ Maestas with Navigate joined by Abe Madkour, the executive editor of the Sports Business Journal. Thank you again for joining us on Navigating Sports Business.[00:44:00] .