“More than anything else, the one thing I recognised was the why,” says Scott O’Neil, chief executive of Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment (HBSE), reflecting on an 18-month period like no other.
“The why we do what we do, the why we work 150 nights a year, the why we get up in the morning after getting home at midnight and get in the office at eight o’clock. The why we spend so much time on our culture and our people and our talent and character, and the why we build this family. It’s because sport matters. It just matters. We are the one unifying force. We bring people together. We create community and build community and create connection.
“You come to a game or match with a perfect stranger and you high-five and hug and sing and dance and cheer, and we need that right now. We need it. We just freaking need it. It’s been hard. We’re isolated, we’re alone, we’re trying to figure out how to emerge with or without masks. We’ve been covered up and stuck in our homes.
“So I will tell you, going to these games – and I’ve been down in the bubble and been the only fan at a game – I’ve been at our last playoff game where it was full to capacity, and it sent chills up my spine. It gave such clarity as to why we exist.”
Headed up by investors Josh Harris and David S Blitzer, HBSE is the ownership group that controls the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Philadelphia 76ers and the National Hockey League’s (NHL) New Jersey Devils. O’Neil is speaking on the SportsPro Podcast in mid-June, just ahead of what will turn out to be a decisive week in the NBA playoffs for the Sixers – who go from 2-1 up against the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference semi-finals to a 4-3 defeat.
That disappointment will no doubt bring questions and recriminations over the summer as the team bid to close out a decade-long turnaround with a first national title since 1983. Heading into it, however, O’Neil is optimistic about the wider picture at HBSE and in sport.
“The last few months have been the first time we’ve seen a light at the end of that tunnel that we haven’t been convinced is an oncoming train,” he says.
He is palpably excited about both the Sixers and the Devils. The former have been on a long journey since ‘The Process’ – by which an expensive roster was dismantled and short-term performance sacrificed to open up top draft picks – and their progress was underlined by a first-place regular season ranking in the Eastern Conference. The latter are a young team, headlined by prospects like Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, that O’Neil believes have “started to show flashes of the brilliance we’ll expect to see for the next decade”.
“Off the court, it’s been incredible and humbling,” he adds. “We’ve typically outkicked our coverage on the business side, which is fantastic. But I didn’t know what to expect. We were very fortunate. We’re very well heeled, we have plenty of liquidity, so we didn’t have some of the cash crunches that other organisations had. Several of my peers were scrambling to banks to find some liquidity. We fortunately had managed that fairly well.
“We were able to keep our staff in place. I know there were a lot of furloughs and lay offs, and a lot of attrition at a lot of sports organisations in the US through Covid. We kept our team together. We did not replace any of the attrition but we didn’t have to furlough or lay off anybody and that allowed us to keep the sales and that allowed us to keep the sales and marketing machine together. As I look forward to 21/22, it’s a V-shaped recovery.
“We’ll be ahead of 19/20, pre-Covid, in 21/22, which as I talk to my peers and look at the league reports doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case for many organisations. So we’re very fortunate where we are on the season ticket base, on the sponsorship base, on the premium side. We’ve just had a little reset on the local television side. The leagues are flourishing here, despite the sand we got kicked in our face.”
HBSE is a bigger, broader organisation than it was when Harris and Blitzer consolidated their interests back in 2017 and O’Neil’s role was expanded from running the Sixers to running the group. It now has investments in Premier League soccer club Crystal Palace, Elevate Sports Marketing, esports’ New Meta Entertainment, the startup incubator Sixers Innovation Lab, and the Grammy Museum Experience, among others.
Whatever complexity that has brought during the Covid-19 crisis, O’Neil insists that “the coordination is the easy part”.
“Our organisation’s just loaded with talent,” he says. O’Neil rarely passes up an opportunity to give someone credit. He readily namechecks sporting leaders like Daryl Morey, Elton Brand, and Sixers coach Doc Rivers, along with Sixers president Chris Heck and his Devils counterpart Jake Reynolds, HBSE president Hugh Weber, chief operating officer Lara Price, chief financial officer David Collins and general counsel Brad Strong.
“I don’t lose sleep at night,” O’Neil says of that group and those around them. “I don’t wake up in a cold sweat. I know that we’re on it all the time. We’re talking regularly.”
His focus as chief executive has been “prioritisation”.
“Early on,” he continues, “our focus was on health and safety – health and wellness – of our players and our coaches and everybody in between. And then it became, ‘How do we open properly?’ And then a lot of the focus is: ‘How do we come back into the office?’ So we spent a lot of time on health and safety protocols and a lot of time on health and mental wellness. I think that’s the next epidemic in the world if it’s not already here.
“Then, of course, we spent a ton of time on liquidity, financials, scenario-planning. We had a couple of dozen scenario plans just to make sure that we didn’t have a problem looming behind the corner that we didn’t anticipate.”
One thing he did learn through the pandemic, he argues, was that the rapid growth of the last few years has forged a team that is “built for change”.
“We’ve done heavy, heavy turnarounds,” he says. “We’ve got into early stage businesses. We’re not afraid to roll our sleeves up, get our hands dirty and mix it up. And we love each other. We don’t always like each other but we always love each other.”
He adds: “My reputation internally is that I set unrealistically high goals. And they keep hitting them.”
It is clear how much O’Neil reads into people and experiences. They are the basis of a new book – Be Where Your Feet Are: Seven Principles To Keep You Present, Grounded And Thriving – that he has released this summer.
“It’s actually several stories about where I’ve fallen down and tripped, and what I’ve learned,” he explains. “It talks about me running a company into the ground, which was HoopsTV. And it talks about me being fired from Madison Square Garden – me being president of Madison Square Garden, my dream job, working in what I’d argue is the centre of sports and entertainment in the world and then getting fired, and what that felt like and looked like. And what getting a foreclosure notice on your house feels like.
“It also shares several stories about my children and what it’s like being a dad, and what it’s like to come home after a long day. This isn’t just about sports.”
Another trigger for Be Where Your Feet Are is the devastating story of Wil Cardon, a close friend of O’Neil’s from Harvard Business School who took his own life.
“It shook me to the core, and dropped me into a bit of a depression,” O’Neil says. “I suppose it was a depression, or grief – I didn’t really know what it was. I found myself not being able to sleep at night, not being able to get out of bed in the morning, and bursting into tears – I was struggling. I began to write to heal and what I found was, all my lessons, all my learnings, all the relationships I had, my contacts, my friends, the people I loved most in life – all that stuff happened when things were going south.”
While the book aims to strike a hopeful tone, it is often stark, self-critical and deeply candid. O’Neil’s memory of hearing of his friend’s passing is related through to how abruptly he found himself sharing the news with his children. There are other personal memories of family life and fatherhood that are similarly unsparing – the book opens with O’Neil on a retreat, asked by a psychologist to imagine the last conversation he would ever have with his then 11-year-old daughter.
Stories like this are shared throughout by friends and associates from inside and outside sport, and while the goal is to develop the tools to cope with the demands of professional and family life, that open tone serves its own purpose.
“Life is messy,” O’Neil says. “Marriage is hard. Raising kids, raising teenagers. I’ve got three young girls. Boy oh boy, you wanna talk about difficult? We’ve got chaos in here.
“I’ve learned a lot through experience and I wanted to share some of it. I want it to be OK for people who struggle.”
The past year and a half has brought its share of that. The uncertainty and isolation of the pandemic have been felt near universally, and served as strong cause for colleagues to check in on one another. But in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis last May, it has been just as vital for people to relate difficult experiences to those who have not shared them.
“We had three incredible town halls where we opened up to our black and brown employees to share moments where they experienced racism,” O’Neil recalls, “and it was sad and humbling and informative, and raw and authentic.
“There’s a story in Be Where Your Feet Are about Elton Brand, our general manager, saying he accidentally tripped the alarm in his house and said to his wife, Seneca: ‘Hey, can you get the door? The police are coming – I tripped the alarm.’
“And she’s like: ‘You get it! You tripped the alarm!’
“He said, ‘If they see a 6’8”, 240-pound Black man coming out of a house in this neighbourhood, it’s not going to be good.’”
So as proud as O’Neil had been of earlier efforts to make HBSE a more diverse organisation – one that was “95 per cent white men” on O’Neil’s arrival but is now made up of “34 per cent people of colour” and has “13 women who are SVPs or better” – he was struck by how much more ground there was to cover.
“Philadelphia has the second-highest poverty rate of any major US city,” he says. “Camden, New Jersey, where we have our training complex, has an annual household income of US$13,000, and Newark, where we have our arena and our hockey team, is a disadvantaged area. So we understand our role in the communities that we live, work, and play.”
Now, however, HBSE is going further to bring out the potential of those communities. A US$20 million project has been headlined by the ‘Buy Black’ initiative in Philadelphia and New Jersey.
“So we find five early stage companies owned by African-Americans and we give them help,” O’Neil explains. “We give them branding help, legal, financial, and then put them up in the arenas, and then give them a bunch of PR.”
The organisation has also audited its “vendor spending” and has set targets to work more with Black, Asian and female-owned companies.
“Our players are amazing,” O’Neil adds. “To go back, when I came into this business 25 years ago, would those players have done what they’ve done? I don’t think so. Now, they didn’t have social media – social media didn’t exist – but our players, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, I mean, these are leaders of the world. That’s today’s athletes, you know?”
O’Neil accepts that not every sports fan is as welcoming of those public declarations but cites the determination of chief diversity and impact officer David Gould, who arrived at HBSE in September, to “be on the right side of history”.
“I feel proud to be part of an organisation that is willing to stand up and shout out, and not tolerate when things aren’t going right,” he states. “As I say internally, quite a bit, what are some of the people who are arguing against this arguing against? Equality? I mean, that’s a core value that we believe in. Inclusion? Is that not something you can get behind? Voting? Like, do you not want to support voting?
“So I think these are, what we stand for, is undeniably right. And what a platform to have. And what an opportunity.”
As he makes sense of his own career – he describes Be Where Your Feet Are, completed at age 51, as “my version of a midlife crisis” – O’Neil increasingly sees it as his role to nurture the next generation of leaders. He says he finds himself drawn to the millennials and Gen Z staff filtering through the HBSE workforce.
“I love the way they think,” he says. “I love the way they want all access. I love the way they want transparency and they think they should be promoted in six minutes. I love how hard they work, I love how connected they are and how they understand brand, and their brand, and your brand, and that they expect a vision for a company and a mission that’s actually authentic and matters. If you don’t have that, to go and make the world better, they’re not interested and they’ll just walk out.”
Of course, the NBA and NHL that those young people will operate in is yet to emerge from recent trauma. O’Neil puts great confidence in the fact that HBSE has retained so much of its workforce through the last 18 months, but warns that organisations who have had to let more staff go will face challenges in rebuilding relationships and momentum.
“You have to hire, it takes about six months to hire somebody,” he says. “And then you’ve got to bring them into the fold, they have to learn the culture and the place. and then they have to get it into the market and drive business.
“So I think that is the first order of business, and I don’t think there’s enough talk in the business about that. We’ve got to go back to basics.
“The second thing is that we can’t lose what we learned. I mean, only one per cent of Sixer fans around the world will ever attend a game live. What an opportunity.”
HBSE’s biggest bets in recent years, he says, have been on content and data, and he is certain that those will be the bedrock of direct-to-consumer plays that “are going to separate the winners from the losers” in the years ahead.
“If you have an incremental dollar to spend, I’d spend it in one of those areas, if you’re in this business,” he adds.
Inevitably, and especially for the 76ers, much of what HBSE has tried in recent years will be judged in sporting terms. O’Neil, speaking while the outcome of this year’s NBA and the Sixers’ season was still unknown, is keen to keep it all in perspective.
“At the end of the day, I mean, I’m not shooting jumpers or playing defence,” he says. “That’s not my job. I don’t pick players, I don’t draft them. My job is to make sure that the strategy is right for the organisation and that they’re put in a position where they can compete for a championship for a decade. That’s what we created.”
Whatever ambitions are still to be met, there is value in the process.
“In terms of moving a brand, we’ve completely rebranded the team,” says O’Neil. “I think from my end, whether we win a championship or not, boy have I learned a ton. And man, have I met some incredible people. And I’m proud of the deals we’ve done and the business we’ve built, and I think it’s a good question. It’s just, you know, on the court they’ll decide the fate. But the victory’s already been won.”