Blog & Tackle: Can’t listen to the mob …

December 26, 2007 | Chris Pika

Mobtown was an old 19th century nickname for Baltimore, which at the time had its share of unruly uprisings by citizens before order was restored. With the recent struggles of the 2007 Ravens and the shouts of frustrated fans rising daily, I am reminded of the nickname when I think of how management should react to the rising tide of discontent.

“Hear, but don’t listen,” is one of the first lessons you learn when you work in professional sports in any capacity, especially on the team side. Fan is short for fanatic. Everyone who pays for a ticket to a game has the right to cheer, boo or have a combination of the two when it comes to the home team. Trust me, management hears the boos at home, but the smart ones don’t listen to the content. You also have the right to express your opinions publically, like on WNST or in your comments and forum entries on WNST.net.

Now, I am not defending anyone’s job within the Ravens organization. I am not there inside the building watching the daily ebb and flow of player personnel decisions, injury management or behind-closed-doors meetings. I have, however worked for two NFL organizations — New Orleans and Atlanta — which have had their share of troubles and discontented fans.

Here is why I think the Ravens have the right idea based what is currently going on with one of those franchises — the Falcons.

Atlanta owner Arthur Blank bought the Falcons in 2002 from the Smith family for $545 million dollars after he resigned as Home Depot’s CEO as a billionaire. Blank and his partners built HD into a business behemoth based on customer service — refining how the stores did business reacting to the average consumer’s needs. The business needed structure and leadership. Blank gave HD that out-front leadership while pleasing the eventual tide of stockholders and supply companies that the company depended on. Blank changed the business model for “big-box” companies worldwide.

When he bought the Falcons, Blank had never owned a professional team before. The Smiths wanted to get out and Blank gave the city the local ownership needed to keep the team in the South’s most-populous city.

Blank’s takeover meant a huge culture change within the organization. Instead of the “mom-and-pop” business model the Smiths (and other family-owned NFL teams used), Blank installed the HD way of corporate business. Fans and sponsors became “stakeholders” in the Falcons and ownership listened to their concerns. He lowered ticket prices and raised hopes.

Blank’s first head coach was a holdover from the Smiths, Dan Reeves. Reeves was a benevolent dictator when it came to football. He called the shots on the football side and the Smiths stayed out of the way. When Blank came in, he wanted to get hands on with the running of the team as he did in building HD. Reeves rebuffed Blank and the owner decided to dump the coach at the end of two seasons in 2003.

In Reeves’ place came Jim Mora Jr. The fiery Mora was a big change from Reeves and Blank got Rich McKay from a Super Bowl-winning franchise in Tampa Bay to oversee the football operations in late 2003 as general manager.

What McKay and Mora also gave Blank was an opportunity to impose the corporate culture into the NFL world. Blank instilled a structure with himself as the face of the operation. Never mind that most successful NFL franchises have owners who hire a person to run the show and get out of the way. It wasn’t in Blank’s makeup to cede that much control.

The Falcons got to the NFC Championship game in the 2004 season with mostly Reeves’ players. Michael Vick had become the face of the franchise on and off the field. Blank could do no wrong with the fans. His “product” gained traction and an unheard-of waiting list for season tickets grew longer. Blank gave Vick a huge $130 million dollar contract in 2004.

But, as we’ve seen over the past year, a lot can go wrong. Vick’s big contract may have come too early in his career and some of his off-the-field issues — which were easily forgiven by ownership because of a personal relationship — became so sickeningly public this summer; Mora became less popular with the fan base and Blank, who frequently walks the sidelines in the fourth quarter of games, could hear it for himself and see the empty seats in the Georgia Dome; Blank eventually had to raise ticket prices back to the NFL average to keep fellow owners happy; Mora self-destructed with his comments on the University of Washington job that wasn’t open and was fired with two years left on his contract; a coaching drifter — Louisville’s Bobby Petrino — was put in charge to revive the franchise for the long haul that lasted all of 13 games before he bolted back to the college ranks. Blank even kneecapped McKay in rushing to the altar with Bill Parcells, another quick-fix artist.

Blank wanted to make a splash hire and went after both Bill Cowher and Parcells. Both said no, but Parcells kept Blank on a string until he got a better offer from Miami with an owner who will stay well out of the way of football decisions. McKay is out as GM and the franchise must wait for a new GM to decide the new direction of the club.

Blank’s customer service background of listening to his consumers worked in business, but has failed miserably on the NFL level because he listened to the mob. I’m sure Reeves has had a chuckle or two about how it all came crashing down in Atlanta.

How does this relate to Baltimore? Well, the Ravens have had stable ownership from Art Modell and now, Steve Bisciotti. Bisciotti, who built the Allegis Group into one of the biggest staffing firms in the world, was also a rookie when he bought 49 percent of the Ravens in 2000. Unlike Blank, he had a chance over four years to sit back and gain knowledge of how the Ravens worked under Modell and how other successful franchises got that way.

By the time he took over in 2004, armed with what he needed to know, he stayed in the background and let his employees Ozzie Newsome and Brian Billick run the show. From all accounts, Bisciotti listens, has input but leaves the decisions to the men he entrusts with his operation.

It is the same model that brought Pittsburgh a Super Bowl title with Cowher when many wanted him gone as the team struggled. It was also the same model in New England, which had been close to the top, but never there until Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli teamed up and figured out what it took to win as Robert Kraft provided the money and stayed out of the way. Consistency in management and coaching will bring success the right way over the long haul.

There are ups and downs for each NFL franchise. The Ravens have experienced both in the past two years with a division title and a season that ended by late November in reality. Good owners love to win and hate to lose — just like fans do, but they never make major decisions based on the euphoria of winning or the depression of losing. They stay on an even keel and stick with the franchise’s overall long-term plan.

That seems to be the Bisciotti method of doing business and Modell chose his successor wisely. Ravens fans should think about what the opposite approach in Atlanta has brought to a well-intentioned owner and a desperate fan base whose shouts were heard — and listened to — at the highest levels.

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