The Arbiter of Relevance

ESPN has faced criticism in the past for a lack of coverage of certain sports and possible reporting biases.  Maury Brown of Forbes detailed what he considered an “uncomfortable and unnerving relationship” the network has with the NFL in reference to how ESPN reports on and speaks to the National Football League.  ESPN fired nearly the entire National Hockey League division of reporters in the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs in April of 2017, cementing the lack of priority in the sport.  

While the media empire does not have the monopoly on sports journalism, it does carry the lion’s share of responsibility of distributing sports related information to the public.  Forbes values ESPN at $14 billion as of 2016.  Since the inception in 1979, ESPN’s programs have expanded to 47 international stations and a variety of expanded channels such as ESPN Classic and ESPNews.

The framework created by a network as large as ESPN has become is a direct reflection of what is currently popular in the world of sports. To put it simply, ESPN casts the widest net in sports journalism.  By not covering woman’s athletic events, for example, they are effectively de-prioritizing and devaluing that event. With 24-hour coverage on Sportcenter, ESPN can singlehandedly create priorities or elevate narratives.

ESPN is missing an opportunity to educate viewers on the politics of sport and the ensuing ripple effects.  While the dominating conversation of the network is up-to-the-minute sports journalism, in the background of these stories is a larger piece of the socio-economic puzzle of sports entertainment.  Spectators seeking analysis or scores of pivotal games will find what they are looking for on the channel.  

The Calgary Flames of the National Hockey League are currently at a standstill over the future of the Saddledome, the team’s home arena in Alberta.  Built in 1983, the arena will be the second oldest stadium in the league after the New York Islanders move to Belmont Park Arena in 2021.  The facility’s ability to host events and generate the revenue of newer stadiums decreases each passing year.  The future of the stadium, and potentially the Flames presence in the city of Calgary, are in question.

The Commissioner of the National Hockey League Gary Bettman recognized the need for a new stadium in Calgary and supported Alberta’s government in the funding of it.  Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has publicly stated his opposition to putting tax payer money into a new stadium for the team. Nenshi offered a Plan B solution which would ask for partial funding from the team’s owners. President of the Flames Ken King turned down this proposal.

During the mayoral campaign of 2017 when Nesnshi was up for reelection, a series of negative tweets came from the Flames front office group. Sean Kelso, media and communications director called the mayor “arrogant” and used the hashtag #bracefordisaster.  Clearly seeking to elect a mayor that would push for government funding of a new area, the Flames continued the social media onslaught when vice president of marketing Gordon Norrie urged citizens of Calgary to vote for Nenshi rival Bill Smith.

Nenshi was reelected at the conversation between the league and the government have stalled after new funding proposals fell flat.

With both parties still far apart on a stadium deal, the Flames have not put relocation to another city off the table.  While it may be unlikely, a move out of Canada into a U.S. market is still a possibility.  Houston and Kansas City have shown interest in an NHL team during the Las Vegas and Seattle expansion process.

While this issue may not be as vital or socially pressing as racism or a steroid scandal, the Saddledome issue is an example of unethical practices in a front office organization.  A professional sports organization attempting to sway a mayoral race in an effort to win a new stadium would likely send shockwaves in an American market in a sport more heavily covered than hockey.

While ESPN reflects the biggest stories in the world of sports, the visibility generated by ESPN coverage could potentially change out this situation is resolved.  

Moreover, ESPN acknowledging this story as vital would elevate the situation and shed light to a notable issue in one of the world’s most profitable leagues.  Over the last 4 decades, ESPN became the arbiter of relevance in the sports entertainment market.  

Fans have latched on to sports dynasties and embraced slogans like “the Patriots Way” when referring to the operational structure of the New England football team. The popular mythos of sports cultures is reported on and detailed to individuals increasingly hungry for this information. ESPN is missing the opportunity to further educate this growing population.

What does it convey?

In August of 2015, Chicago Blackhawks star right winger Patrick Kane was at the subject of a rape allegation.  Police in Hamburg, New York told the Buffalo News the hockey player was accused of sexual assault after an incident in the suburb of Kane’s hometown of Buffalo.  Kane, slowly becoming infamous for his off-ice incidents, denied the allegations. The player plead guilty to a noncriminal charge of disorderly conduct in 2009 shortly after he and a family member were accused of assaulting a cab driver, also in Buffalo New York.  He was also not disciplined by the league in that instance either.  Kane wasn’t charged with a crime and was not disciplined by the Chicago Blackhawks following the rape accusations.  The accuser did not press charges.

Before the Patrick Kane allegations, another National Hockey League player faced accusations of a different sort.  Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov was suspended indefinitely in late October 2014 after an arrest on misdemeanor domestic violence charges.  Voynov was arrested and plead not-guilty and would later be charged with one felony count of “corporal injury to a spouse with a great bodily injury.” The team was fined $100,000 after attempting to bring Voynov to a team practice following the league’s suspension. And despite only playing six games that season, Voynov was paid a full salary.  In July 2015 was sentenced to ninety days in jail with three years of probation.  He has not played in the NHL since the 2014-15 season.

There have been other public relations problems with hockey players with various degrees of seriousness.  Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche turned himself into police in October 2013 and was charged with second-degree kidnapping and third-degree assault.  The charges against him were eventually dropped after being unable to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.  While he faced felony charges, Varlamov was allowed to travel with the team and saw no suspension from the organization.

The National Hockey League is the only one of the four major sport leagues to not have a formal, written player off-ice conduct policy.  This could turn into a public relations problem if the league doesn’t have a consistent and autonomous way of handling player misconduct. However, the players collective bargaining agreement (CBA) states that a player can suspended while they are part of a criminal investigation as seen with the Voynov situation. It is also important to note that the league or NHLPA does not require the suspension of the player involved, as seen with the Varlamov case.  

Unpredictability cultivates dilemma in complex legal circumstances.  Without a standard by which to handle negative public relation situations involving players, how would the Blackhawks handle the Patrick Kane situation if he was charged?  What if he was on a different team, or less notable?  The NHL has a written action plan written in the CBA about how discipline is executed and includes detailed instructions on how communication on the punishment is sent and received.  What the NHL CBA does not include is specific prohibited conduct that will subject the player to discipline, or explicit guidelines the league will follow if a player violates the policy.  The National Football League has all of this and more detailed in their Personal Conduct Policy.  The NFL personal conduct policy also includes clear definitions for repeat offenders.

Gary Bettman once said regarding league policy, “Our code of conduct is we expect you to do the right thing, and if you don’t, we hold you accountable.” Using the Cynefin Framework, the lack of a rigid conduct policy by the National Hockey League is creating an environment that in itself is producing complex problems.  If the league and players association agreed on a conduct policy similar to the NFL, or reinvented the modern policy on player conduct, the league’s conduct problems would be simplified.  Currently, the league currently handles off-ice issues on a “case-by-case basis.”

Cynefin framework via Wikipedia.

The complex node of the Cynefin Framework defines the outlined system of player conduct formalities in the NHL. Not only is the problem of the lack of clarity on conduct issues a complex problem, but the ripple effects of how discipline is or isn’t established will continue to breed issues.   Collaborative thought to creating a structure that can solve player conduct issues can be a solution to a rigid conduct policy.  

The NHL would benefit from looking to the NFL to mirror their bulleted list of behavior deemed worthy of investigation.  Written commitment on character assessment to rebuild the athlete after a public transgression would cement Gary Bettman’s and the league’s commitment to education and reform.

Reform, education, and clear guidelines for player off-ice conduct would transform into a simple “cause and effect” relationship.  The consequences of violating league conduct policies would no longer be vague.  Eliminating case-by-case basis for league wide problem solving creates autonomy and immediate understanding for the athlete upon signing a contract.  To create simplicity, the players association would need to agree on fair consequences for player actions.  It would be in the league’s best interest have a balance between on-ice conduct and off-ice conduct.  Article 18 of the CBA has eight (8) pages of on-ice conduct polices.  The definitions of transgressions, penalties, appeals and education are among the detailed efforts to curb on-ice injury.  Off-ice conduct occupies three (3) pages.

Using the Bolman and Deal’s Frames of Reference, I would begin the process of reform with the human resource frame. There is an incalculable value to investing in the people of your organization.  Outside of the organization, the human resource frame would show an empathy to those effected by a violation of the off-ice policies.  The support and concern for everyone involved creates a culture of intentional education and growth.  An often-undervalued element of the NFL conduct policy is the importance of reform and education.  The verbiage in the policy doesn’t completely rely on punishment and penalties.

Bolman and Deal’s Four Framework Approach to Leadership. Via

The structural frame would be vital in controlling the creation and implementation of a player conduct policy.  Stressing accountability can be the cornerstone of the new expectations following new regulations.  This frame also implies a strong “right or wrong” methodology.  What is hurting the NHL right now is the lack of clarity and enforcement on this issue.  As seen with the Varlamov accusation, past practice would say he would be suspended. Under a structural frame, options are eliminated, and a rigid structure remains.

Bringing in representatives from other leagues familiar with player conduct policies to create one for the NHL would be a first step to create a long-term plan.

Approaching the Cynefin framework as a compass for how inevitable problems can be corrected and learned from was an interesting exercise.  It appears as if the NHL is built with leaders who assess issues with the political frame.  Compromises and negotiations are the main tools of problem solving; indicative of the “case-by-case” off-ice conduct policy.  

It became clear that not only was the lack of a player conduct policy a complex issue, it was creating further complex issues.  The Cynefin framework helped digest the inconsistencies and lack of framework in the NHL’s CBA. The cases of Varlamov, Kane and Voynov indicate how the NHL can create restrictions on unfavorable conduct and facilitate initiatives that help the player. 

Globalization and the NHL

In September 2017, Bejing hosted the first ever NHL game played in China.  The NHL wanted to commit to the largest market in the world to build interest in hockey.  Bringing a sport into a country without any past precedent gave the league many challenges.  They wanted to build interest from the ground up by generating interest at the local level in public schools.  The league reached out via social media and other sponsorships for equipment and instruction to begin the integration.  The noted success of the NBA to drive interest in this market gave the NHL reason to believe this area of the world would be welcoming to hockey.

The league exercised strong intercultural empathy when they recognized that Chinese sports fans aren’t loud and boisterous like Westerners.  Observing the game, Jessica Guo of the Bloomage International Investment Group was hesitant about the immediate reception of the games.  She noted “everyone was responding to the games, what was going on, and cheering.”

The NHL is seeking to build the infrastructure required to sustain an interest in hockey for the long term.  At this moment, the biggest issue is the details of game play and scheduling.  Players haven’t had an issue with the long flights yet, however the league is unsure what future pre-season schedules will look like.  2018 is the second year of NHL participation in China and the league is looking towards potentially participating in the 2022 Olympics, also in Bejiing, after not participating in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. 

The NHL and NBA are great examples of effective Psychological Capital; the interest in exploring other parts of the world and an understanding how the culture engages.  Both of these leagues were diplomatic in their approach to building on the needs of what the environment needed, rather than what was a success in the past. 

Time, schedule and the interest generated will tell how the NHL navigates it’s way in the China market.  The league has yet to detail if and when a regular season game would be played in China in the coming seasons.  Tension could build as the league breaks new ground in an international market.  Could China be home to an NHL team?  Thibault (2009) asks “What are we willing to give up to promote sport and the sport industry to ensure a more globally egalitarian solution with respect to sport?”  I see this as the biggest question in regards to expanding the brand and interest to the Chinese market.

In Vogue/In Vain

As of January 1st 2019, the Seattle Mariners will play their home games in the recently renamed T-Mobile Park. Forgoing the Safeco moniker as old as the park itself, constructed in 1999.

Cano, Paxton, Segura and AL Reliever of the Year Edwin Diaz were all traded away at the beginning of December, confirming a full rebuild was in effect. Nelson Cruz was also granted Free Agency.

2018 also marked the 17th straight year the club has missed the post-season; ending the season at 89-73 and 3rd in the A.L. West.

The Mariners are doubling-down on their rebranding strategy.  The team announced a total revamp of the exterior color scheme to coincide with the T-Mobile aesthetic.

Individuals who demonstrate strong identity towards the the team are threatened with the lack of distinction when a stadium undergoes a name change. Wann (1997) defined team identification as “the extent that a fan feels psychologically connected to a team.”

Engineering team identification is an important and delicate task, one of the few that is complete control of the organization. Team loyalty, civic pride, perception of the organization as a whole and measurable ‘“fanship” from these fans is directly related to team identification.

Organizations routinely trade players at the height of their value to receive long-term gains. This practice can (read: should) create future sustainable wins. What makes the Mariners’ situation unique is everything is happening at once.

Average attendance at Safeco was highest its been in 10 years in 2018, yet Seattle is still in the middle of pack league-wide at an average attendance of just over 28,000. Time will tell what these major team adjustments will have on attendance levels and fan engagement. While I don’t think anyone is predicting the Mariners to be October bound in 2019; the organization will need new ways to fill the seats. Draining the identity without a coherent replacement will result in less dollars spent and less fans at the park.

Source: Branscombe, Reysen, Snider. Corporate Renaming of Stadiums, Team Identification, and Threat to Distinctiveness. Journal of Sports Management. 2012.

With our own hands

Rocky Wirtz assumed control over the Chicago Blackhawks after the passing of his father, William “Bill” Wirtz, shortly before the start of the 2007 hockey season. Years of poor performance on the ice resulted in a dwindling fan base. The poor play of the hockey team was a result of Bill Wirtz refusing to invest in player facilities and the frequent trading of productive, popular players. Bill Wirtz was also infamous for refusing to broadcast home games on television, never budging from the idea that even less fans would attend games if they could watch from the comfort of their own homes. This reputation garnered Mr. Wirtz as the most reviled owner in sports.

Rocky Wirtz inherited a hockey team with extensive and deep-rooted issues. The Chicago Blackhawks had been under control of the Wirtz family since 1954, and many of the changes Rocky would make stemmed from decades of questionable ownership decisions. Habits and preferences of the previous regime would need to be overturned. The low point of the team came in 2004 when they were dubbed “Worst Franchise in Sports” by ESPN. For the Chicago Blackhawks to become a championship contender, Rocky needed to address financial, marketing and personnel roadblocks.

The Wirtz family had hands in several business ventures in the Chicagoland area for decades. The family’s significant interests in real estate, liquor distribution and banking would become an opportunity to address the financial shortcomings. After learning of the $6 million deficit meant the team couldn’t cover player or management salaries, Rocky leant the team a loan from the family’s financial fund. The was the first issue he was made aware of, and also the first opportunity unique to Rocky. He needed to pump some life into the team, and this was the start of his habit of investing in his product.

By the time Rocky became chairman, ticket prices were at an all-time low. Reflecting the play and perceived value of the team on the ice was congruent with the dipping attendance. In 2007, the Blackhawks ticket prices were 28 of 30 in ticket price and 19 of 30 in average home game attendance.  The team only raised prices when value was increased. For example, after the labor dispute canceled the 2004-05 hockey season the team returned with rebranded lower level seats. These front row “on the glass” seats included a brand new in seat food and beverage service. At this time, the franchise was valued at $179 million, far below the $200 million average league-wide.

Wirtz sought a way to take advantage of one of the biggest markets in the country and one of the most recognizable brands. Wirtz recognized a gap in proven leadership within the organization. He hired John McDonough, President of the Chicago Cubs as President of the Blackhawks. Understanding the value and rarity of the Blackhawks brand and the Chicago market, he put a leader in place who would responsibly plant the seeds for a championship culture.

John McDonough, with the support of Rocky Wirtz, wanted to create a culture that other hockey players wanted to be a part of. Days before McDonough officially accepted the position, he sat down with Blackhawks players to understand their needs and wants. The athletes are seeing facilities year around, and if anyone knew that the team was lacking it was them. Of the impending improvements, McDonough asked “What do you guys need? Because we’re going to get it for you. All of it” (Lazerus, pg 2). To be a world class organization, a leader needs to create an attractive destination for players and the front office. Treating people well and valuing their contributions. Wirtz and McDonough immediately began improving facilities, player travel accommodations, meals and equipment.

Possibly the most efficient way a sports team can market themselves is to simply be on television. The policy of not broadcasting games on television stemmed all the way back to Arthur Wirtz, Rocky’s grandfather. He believed the first period of hockey games shouldn’t be on radio. Philosophies like this, created by an owner and passed down within the family stunted the growth of the franchise and potentially future young players of the sport. Rocky seized on the opportunity to broadcast Blackhawks games, both on television and on the radio. He used his business relations to secure Chevrolet sponsorships for radio broadcasts. For the first time, there were 12 home games on television. His success relied on the goodwill of the fans, which the Blackhawks and Bill Wirtz lost long ago. Insuring the Blackhawks would be in the homes of hockey fans was a crucial step in rebuilding that trust.

There was no need to trade away players or make hasty signings to create a better product on the ice. Star rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews debuted for the Blackhawks that season after being drafted in the first round in 2007 and 2006, respectfully. This dynamic duo elevated the brand of hockey to an exciting, youthful piece of entertainment. The demand to see these two superstars was fueled by the organization focusing their marketing efforts on them. The two players quickly became the face of the franchise, which included making public appearances. To create viable success in the league, the Blackhawks couldn’t hide in the shadows.

The team was creating a vision for long term success. The organization replaced the team’s ad agency and created the “One Goal” campaign. For the first time in the modern era, the Chicago Blackhawks had a distinct vision and made it known what they stood for and what they viewed as acceptable.

The McDonough and Wirtz tandem worked to understand how the organization became so dysfunctional. A critical part organizational leadership is recognizing the groups or individuals in the group who aren’t contributing to the overall success of the team. A total rebrand of the team meant many people had to be let go from the front office and coaching staff. Creating a clean slate allowed Rocky Wirtz to rebuild from the bottom up with new leaders who could support his vision. According to Schein, “Leaders first create cultures when they create groups and organizations. Once cultures exist they determine the criteria for leadership and thus determine who will or will not be a leader” (Scott, pg. 68). McDonough fired 20 of the 35 front office team (Vardi.)

A major piece in rebuilding trust with the fan base was bringing back former players and other fan favorite individuals who were once synonymous with the organization. When Rocky’s father directing the organization, he developed a habit of not keeping former Blackhawks players part of the franchise. Fan favorites and 1961 Stanley Cup champions Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull were nowhere to be found after their retirement from hockey. William Wirtz was also known for making rash decisions on terminations based on personal grievances. Without realizing it at the time, Wirtz was clearing house of the popular personnel that should have been synonymous with the organization.

Bringing back Mikita and Hull into the organization and eventually honoring them with statues outside of the United Center created heroes in these former players. This distinction was invaluable in reigniting the interest of the Chicago Blackhawks for people who remember watching those players play. Reinstating Mikita and Hull as team ambassadors for the team allowed them a public spotlight again. Once the Blackhawks games were televised again, Rocky Wirtz made sure to bring back former Announcer Pat Foley. Foley, a recognizable voice of the sport, was fired without explanation in 2006. The personnel brought back and empowered by the Blackhawks helped create the beliefs and values of the historical franchise. Choices like these brought the Blackhawks back into the minds and mouths of sports fans, not just in Chicago but league wide.

Rocky Wirtz’s action during a time of complete cultural and organizational rebuild can be used as a blueprint for turning a franchise around. What could be considered the greatest turnaround in the history of sports is attributed to taking the temperature of external and external components. Evaluating missing pieces in leadership creates opportunities to place people in roles to allow the group to succeed together. Wirtz also provides an example of the importance of valuing the people around you, while working to make practices that elevates their value.

Moving forward, the Blackhawks should continue to expand on how they build a championship dynasty. While rebuilding successful franchises is feat not often replicated, another president, or Rocky himself, can look to why and how the rebuild created a winning culture. My goal is to work in team operations for a hockey team. If given a situation as dire as Rocky Wirtz, I would intend on creating a similar framework for a cultural turnaround.

If or when attendance at games becomes an issue, bringing in fans and recognizing them anyway I could would be a priority. Rocky has built respect and trust with the once forgotten supporters of the team. This area of responsibility is difficult because it relies on making choices within the leadership framework that may be unpopular with the fans. Understanding when a personnel change is needed in the general manager or coaching position even if those individuals have garnered popularity with the fan base.

The annual Blackhawks fan convention began in 2008. Fans bases get invigorated when they feel the team they follow is integrated into their communities. The inaugural Blackhawks Convention in 2008 proved to be an instant success and was the first of its kind for the National Hockey League ( The team made the commitment to show appreciation for the loyal people who support the team year after year.

Patrick Lencioni provided six important questions that need to be answered by organizational leadership teams. Why do we exist? How do we behave? What do we do? How will we succeed? What is important right now? Who must do what? (Scott, pg 25.). In the midst of Rocky’s organizational rebuild, his moves that made the biggest impacts were the ones that answered those questions. More importantly, however, is to note how the previous leadership did not address those questions.

In the case of the Chicago Blackhawks, carefully building organizational effectiveness created the organizational performance. Scott (2014) defines organizational effectiveness as “athlete satisfaction, organizational citizenship and organizational commitment” (pg 32.). Maintaining up-to-date facilities, infrastructure and game time experience is an example of holding themselves responsible for organizational commitment. Wirtz and McDonough wanted to be the example of how players are treated and how employees are valued. They believed the Chicago Blackhawks had the potential to be a world class organization. Because they made Chicago coveted destination for players and front office personnel, they were able to recruit high level talent and convince others the organization had a path to a championship. It also became much easier to retain players when Chicago became the example of the NHL on the luxuries offered to the team.

The next steps to maintain this organizational commitment is to strive to invest in the facilities for your group. Building relationships with players to understand if their needs are not being met, or if there is a perceived shortcoming in the organization is an invaluable asset. If I was a team executive, I would travel to all of the NHL stadiums to assess what players and front like and don’t like about their work environment. This task should fall on Rocky’s shoulders. To not sustain the reputation the Blackhawks have created for themselves could be in part to falling short of the organizational commitment.

The marketing aspect of the rebuild is a pattern that can be replicable with the Blackhawks and adapted to other franchises. New and young players will always make the roster, and the next step needs to showcase the future leaders of the team. Kane and Toews were highlighted in their rookie year to remind the world of the talent on the roster, with the goal of filling seats and generating new excitement and interest. Keeping the pattern of marketing young talent in the same fashion can make that player a household name, repeating the process of cultivating interest and excitement.

This action prepares the team for what the future leaders may look like. The Blackhawks successfully honored their past, now they need to prepare for the future.

Regarding the history, it is imperative the Blackhawks continue to bring retired leaders and other key personnel into the spotlight. One of the popular players Bill Wirtz famously traded away was Chris Chelios. The native Chicagoan was named a team ambassador in 2018 (ESPN.). Chelios was captain of the team from 1996-1999 before being traded, and it also a native Chicagoan. Wirtz dedicates his work to expanding the Blackhawks brand and building the leadership family. One of the highest honors a player can receive is having their jersey number retired by a team. Considering the way Wirtz has continuously recognized historical role players, it is curious why there hasn’t been a jersey number retired during his tenure as chairman. If Rocky wanted to show more commitment to player legacy, he would retire a player number.

The constant reminder of where the team came from is how Rocky exhibits his emotional intelligence. Sports is a competitive environment, operated and consumed by emotional beings. “The importance of effectively dealing with both their own feelings and emotions and those of the people they interact with and lead” is how Scott (2014, pg 50) ascribes how leaders of sports organizations should recognize the importance of emotional intelligence. In 2018, after missing the post-season for the first time in ten years the Blackhawks rebranded the familiar “One Goal” with “Believe in One Goal.” This campaign acknowledged the team’s shortcomings while encouraging confidence in their future. The team exhibited self-awareness and intellectual growth.

Rocky Wirtz created a roadmap for how a team can heal its wounds and become the example of a well-run sports franchise. The Blackhawks reversed course to eventually become Stanley Cup champions. Answering questions relating to cultural leadership and the purpose of the organization, Rocky Wirtz arranged his emotional intelligence to define the goals of the franchise. He surrounded himself with leaders he trusted and leaned on that trust to build relationships with an alienated fanbase. With minor changes dependent on specific circumstances, this method of a cultural rebuild can be replicated with other franchises. Wirtz ownership outlined how to effectively change inherited problems. The next challenge for Rocky and the Chicago Blackhawks will be how they sustain this success in adversity. The 2018 hockey season began with the same leadership that failed them the year before by missing the playoffs and finishing last in the division ( I believe this will be the test of Rocky’s cultural leadership; sustainability post-success.