“The business of sports has been completely transformed over the course of my lifetime, and Players is a riveting behind-the-scenes look at the beginnings of that revolution. I couldn’t put it down.”
I think Billy Beane nailed it. It's interesting to see that a lot of people out there think I created the sports memorabilia industry. That's not true. We were all collecting autographs way before my company came along. Though, something that I have been an active participant in has been the transformation of the industry. With that, over the last 30 years I have gotten to know and work with hundreds of athletes and I have seen how their lives off the field have completely changed.
The business of sports is booming and after recently getting to know Matthew Futterman, a writer with The Wall Street Journal, I was fascinated by his latest book, "Players." The book is highlights the astonishing untold story of the people who transformed sports, in the span of a single generation, from a job that required top athletes to work in the off-season to make ends meet into a massive global business.
Millions of people literally owe their career and their livelihood to the people Matthew talks about in his book. If you're in the sports business or have a desire to be, I highly suggest you pick up this book AND get a copy for someone you work with and someone you want to build a new business relationship with.
I sat down with Matthew so that he could give me a preview of what the book is all about.
Brandon Steiner: Who did you write this book for and why did you write this book?
Matthew Futterman: I wrote this book for anyone whose life intersects with the the modern sports world, either as a fan, an athlete, a parent, or as a business executive. I wrote it because I have made a career out of showing the connections between what happens off the field in terms of the flow of money through the industry and what happens on it. Money has completely transformed sports during the past 50 years and changed the way we watch and play and experience games. I wanted to craft a narrative that could explain how sports morphed in so little time from a mom-and-pop operation into a $150 billion a year behemoth.
BS: Roger Staubach was one of my earliest clients back in the 1980s. It’s incredible to see how the scope of off-field business endeavors has changed for athletes. Why the change? What started the movement.
MF: Staubach went into real estate, trying to broker deals for commercial space, because he couldn't make enough money playing football to support his family and because he knew he would need a job after football. He was making $25,000 as the starting QB in 1971. Tony Romo has a contract worth $120 million. Athletes now see off-field endeavors as a way to supplement pretty big salaries and build their brands. The big change was the athletes finally realizing that they were the stars of the show and deserved to be paid that way rather than as indentured servants. That forced the sports industry to grow up.
BS: How has McCormack and Palmer’s historic partnership forever changed the landscape of the sports world?
MF: McCormack and Palmer together created the first modern sports entrepreneur. It would never have happened had Wilson Sporting Goods not refused to buy Palmer a life insurance policy at a cost of about $800 a year. That was Arnold's line in the sand. Freed from Wilson, Arnold built an empire that included clubs and clothes, his own logo, a dry cleaners, a design business, and television shows and much more. He became the model for every star athlete that came after him because he controlled his own destiny by taking ownership of his name and image and intellectual property. Once he did that, the biggest stars in every sport, from race car driver Jackie Stewart to tennis great Rod Laver, wanted to do the same.
BS: How much of a role will social media continue to play for an athlete’s commercial appeal?
MF: I see social media as a helpful tool but it can only do so much. At the end of the day, an athlete has to be a winner or a great and loyal member of a team to have real commercial appeal. Fans are too smart to be fooled by Tweets or flashy photos from red carpets. They want their stars to be genuine and to be true to their endeavors rather than famous for the sake of being famous.
BS: With the ways that athletes can connect with fans now, has journalism and a writer’s influence taken a hit?
MF: Traditional journalists face new competition every day, as we should. Competition makes everyone better in any line of work. So we have to work harder to provide what an athlete can't or might not want to provide, which is objectivity and the ability to dig into the areas that athletes and teams and leagues might not want us to dig into. You can say you've taken a hit and see yourself as a victim, or you can see it as an opportunity and a challenge, which is how I approach it.
BS: Before even reading this book, what are the two most important takeaways someone should have?
MF: I think there is a general sense among a lot of fans that money has ruined sports, and I'm trying to make people understand that idea is a little naive. So come to this book with an open mind to consider the idea that money has actually improved sports exponentially. I also think you need to at least understand these athletes as thinking and breathing human beings with real-life concerns for their own well-being and that of their families. Elite athletes work incredibly hard.
BS: Has anything shocked you about what the business of sports has turned into?
MF: I'm surprised that even after Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods, there is still a thirst to believe the legend-spinning that the shoe companies continue to peddle.
BS: What’s the next big thing in the industry?
MF: Someone is going to figure out how to make sure a generation of kids who will never have a cable subscription can consume sports and that person is going to make a lot of money. There is going to be some kind of over-the-top solution for sports consumption because if there isn't there are going to be many fewer fans.
BS: Thank you, Matthew.
Pickup a copy of Players here.