Since the phenomenon of Moneyball , a baseball story of a few number crunchers on small-market teams using statistical analyses to effectively compete with large-market teams, there has been an influx of self-proclaimed geeks — advanced statisticians, engineers, economists, and MBAs with a focus on analytics — who have weaved their way into the very fabric of professional sport organizations.
Perhaps that is why comedian Drew Carey, known for “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and the current host of game show “The Price Is Right,” initially seemed so out of place at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference where he appeared on a conference panel with executives from the San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints, Houston Rockets and Houston Astros. But Carey also happens to be part owner of Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders Football Club, a 2009 expansion team.
And he stole the show.
Not for his one-liners, but for his innovative ideas. After he completed his conference duties, Carey sat down to talk with us about how the Sounders were able to quickly establish a loyal fan base, set MLS records for attendance, and make the playoffs in each of their first three years of existence.
While Carey was on assignment in Spain for the Travel Channel, he caught wind of an idea that he couldn’t shake. He learned that Spanish Premier League clubs (hugely popular soccer teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona) held elections where they voted for club president and members of the board. Essentially, fans voted in key members of the club’s front office.
From then on, it was Carey’s goal to be a part of the MLS in an ownership capacity, “specifically to bring the idea of fans being able to vote on ownership and management.” He pitched his idea to the Sounders’ majority owner, Hollywood producer Joe Roth, and joined the team as minority owner. In the time since, they’ve implemented a version of this system in Seattle. Every four years, their members association holds an election. Fans can get rid of the GM, says Carey, and if that happens the owners “hire somebody they think is appropriate.” The first vote for the franchise will take place in November 2012. Additionally, if at any time25 percent of fans sign a petition, an off-year election will be held where the GM can be removed.
While common in Spain, this is quite the innovation for American sports. Sure, what fan wouldn’t want to have a say in his or her team’s operations? But pitch the idea to sports executives and they become understandably uncomfortable — after all, they might be the very ones on the chopping block. “I’d never hire a sales person who wouldn’t work on 100-percent commission,” Carey says, so why should a sports executive feel any less accountability for performance?
Fan engagement is part of a much larger strategy for Carey and Roth. In each of their first three years in the MLS, the Sounders made the playoffs for the Open Cup tournament, the longest-standing soccer tournament in the United States. And then they went on to win the Open Cup in 2009, 2010 and 2011. “Our goal is to win the MLS Cup all the time, and we’re disappointed when we don’t,” says Carey. But like any savvy businessman, he quickly adds, “we also want to make money.”
The difference, Carey says, is that some professional sport team owners really don’t care about winning as long as they are making a profit. For him, the two have to go hand in hand. “[We not only want to] win the MLS cup, but be competitive worldwide — be the top team in the world.” Carey says the goal is ambitious and nearly impossible with the current MLS salary cap, “but down the road that’s what we’re working towards.”
The salary cap also means something else, according to Carey. It creates a fine line between success and failure in the MLS league. “The advantage in the MLS is with your management — that’s where you beat everybody.” That’s part of why his ownership team and front office have been so open to bucking the standard ‘best practices’ for new ones.
Carey took a similar approach to reimagining “The Price Is Right.” When Carey came in to replace 35-year veteran Bob Barker as host, he often questioned whether things were being done in the best possible way. Those 10- to 12-foot foot photos of vacation destinations, for example: “Why do we use these awful pictures rather than a screen?”
During his second year hosting the show, the producers called a secret, multi-day meeting where “everything was on the table.” Together, the producers and Carey pretended they were starting a brand new show called — you guessed it — “The Price is Right.” In those meetings, they re-created the show, and overhauled the on-set culture. “Mike Richards, the producer, gave everybody a chance. If you bought into it, you stuck around,” Carey says. Nothing is sacrosanct and “everybody’s free to question things”.
Like with “The Price is Right,” Carey and the Sounders’ ownership have strived to create a culture where different opinions are welcomed, new ideas are celebrated and innovative ideas are highly valued. The underlying hypothesis: Their competitive edge will come from questioning league assumptions and taking risks on ideas that aren’t necessarily established.
“For sports, you have to be willing to sit down and be willing to risk anything,” Carey says. It’s a refreshing concept for most sport fans, especially those who want to vote out their GM.
Joe Frontiera and Dan Leidl are managing partners of Meno Consulting and authors of the forthcoming book Team Turnarounds, to be published in July of 2012 by Jossey-Bass. Email them or find them on Facebook.
More from On Leadership: