Scott O’Neil was named the CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers in July of 2013. Unfortunately for him, the team had long way to go in its rebuilding phase. The results speak for themselves:
Finally, last year, the team’s long turnaround (known to basketball fans as “The Process”) began to bear fruit when the team went 52-30 and finished third in the Eastern Conference. The funny thing is, to O’Neil, the team was a 50-win organization three years ago when 50 wins seemed like a pipe dream.
“When we were winning 10 games three years ago, we were a 50-win ready organization. That was the best organization job I’ve seen in my 25 years. Not everyone saw it. Everything was going up but it was a fragile time. When things are good, we ride the wave and enjoy it. When things are badly, we look at it as an opportunity to improve the organization,” says O’Neil, who is chief at Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment (HBSE), the parent company of the Sixers and the New Jersey Devils.
In the fish bowl world of professional sports, you have to take the good with the bad, says O’Neil. The good? People pay to wear your organization’s branding and pay to broadcast your games. Everything the organization does, from its work in the community to its business deals, get disseminated to a wider audience.
The bad? Everything the organization does gets disseminated to a wider audience, especially the actions and lives of its youngest stars, such as 24-year-old Sixers Joel Embiid or 23-year-old Ben Simmons. As CEO, O’Neil says his role doesn’t change regardless of the results or regardless of how the organization makes the news.
“If you are going to step out there when things are going well, you need to step out there twice as often and twice as fast when things are going badly,” O’Neil says to Chief Executive from a quiet corner of the loud Prudential Center, as the Devils battle the Las Vegas Knights.
People, people and people
Before the Sixers, O’Neil was the President at Madison Square Garden Sports and a senior vice president with the NBA. It was at the NBA where he got a “PhD” in sports.
“I had David Stern as the commissioner, who I’d say will go down as the greatest commissioner of all time until his successor (Adam Silver) took over. I’ve had a chance to work with both David and Adam Silver and it’s a true PhD in sports business.”
Later on, working at MSG connected him with David Blitzer, who was a season ticket holder of the New York Rangers. At the same time, Josh Harris was trying to buy a suite at the famous arena. Harris and Blitzer teamed up with billionaire e-commerce mogul Michael Rubin to buy the Sixers and then later the Devils. When they needed a CEO to run the day-to-day operation, Rubin asked O’Neil to take the job. “If you know Michael Rubin, he’s not an easy guy to say no to,” O’Neil says.
Along with the Sixers and Devils, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment runs the Prudential Center in Newark, a number of minor league teams, and an e-sports franchise. When an organization encompasses a diverse range of assets—as HBSE does—it’s important to have the right people in place, O’Neil says.
“Philosophically the core of our success has been about people, people and people. Hugh Weber is the President of HBSE and is as talented of a guy as he is a wonderful person. Chris Heck is the President of the 76ers…this is our third time working together. You could go down the line,” he says.
“We understand what we want to accomplish and we’re committed to making it happen. It doesn’t always go our way…but generally we have incredible people with a world class culture and are aligned in our vision and mission.”
Innovation and more
On same night the Devils (not-so-coincidentally) were playing the Las Vegas Golden Knights, the crowd was buzzing at the Prudential Center for another reason. A few hundred feet or so from center ice, the William Hill sports gambling company was opening a gaming lounge—the first of its kind in the U.S.—for Devils home games.
While bettors can’t place a wager in person, they can do so via a phone app, with the assistance of William Hill employees at the arena. It’s one of three deals HBSE has already made since New Jersey passed the law to legalize sports betting. The Devils expect a revenue of $5 million to come from sports gambling this season alone.
“We were really big supporters of the bill and were really happy that New Jersey was the first state [other than Nevada] to get on board [with legalized sports gaming]. From a business perspective, we think the statistics will tell you it will help the engagement and to the extent we can get more people watching our games…we think long term it’s good for fan development,” says O’Neil. He predicts that in a few short years, sports gaming lounges will be commonplace in arenas and stadiums across the country.
The venture is an example of how O’Neil and HBSE are constantly trying to innovate and engage the audience in different ways. The company also has an “Innovation Lab,” where they incubate early-stage companies involved in sports and other areas. Another example: last year, HBSE executives joined with leaders from the San Francisco 49ers, Ticketmaster and sports facilities company, Oak View Group, to create a strategic planning and consulting enterprise.
“We literally had a meeting after a conference and said, ‘Hey we should do business together.’ Now we have a dozen clients and are starting to build it out. Now will that become a substantive company that impacts all of our businesses? We’ll see. But isn’t the fun in trying?”
Don’t grab a ladder
During the Dec. 14th game against the Golden Knights, the Devils fought back from a 4-1 deficit to win 5-4 in overtime. O’Neil, who says he wasn’t a huge hockey fan before running the Devils, leaps up in the middle of an interview to cheer one of the team’s goals.
The team’s successes—whether on the ice, the court or in the office—comes back to culture, which for O’Neil isn’t something to treat lightly. It isn’t people singing Kumbaya and holding hands, he says.
“Culture is about what we want to accomplish, who do we want on our team to accomplish it and how do we hold each other accountable so we can kind of drive outstanding results and the satisfaction that comes with it,” he says.
O’Neil understands that the people on the court and on the ice are the “stars in this constellation.” To him, part of culture building and accountability is ensuring the players actually want to come play for their organizations.
“In a job like mine, you can never forget that. In many ways, we do our part to support a lot of that. In other ways, we’re trying to grow an incredible company. A friend of mine once said, ‘If you want to go to the moon, don’t grab a ladder.’ I’m not trying to grab a ladder.”