Stanford Scores with the NFL

A new executive-education program aims to boost the business acumen of pro football's coaches and execs

Stanford University's dismal football record last season -- 2-9 -- hasn't stopped the school's quest for gridiron glory. In June, the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the National Football League launched a one-week, customized program for club executives from all 32 NFL teams, one of the first such collaborations between any sports league and a university.

The goal: To give top team executives and franchise managers -- many of them ex-players and coaches -- an extensive view of the NFL's business strategy and a healthy dose of business basics. The weeklong program brought together club executives, officials from the NFL front office, and three active players. Kicked off by an introduction from NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the eight-hour days were filled with lessons on everything from reading a balance sheet to marketing a team, to the sometimes troublesome task of talking to the media.


  The tone was Business 101 meets big-name glamour. The sessions were led primarily by Stanford globalization strategy and sports management professor George Foster and Hall of Fame football coach and Stanford lecturer Bill Walsh. But some other top-shelf guest lecturers also spoke. Viacom (VIA ) Chief Operating Officer Dennis Swanson weighed in on media issues, and Jeff Jordan, vice-president and general manager for U.S. business at eBay (EBAY ) gave participants an earful about the importance of listening to customers -- and fans. Martin Gold, legal counsel to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, outlined government and legislative issues pertaining to the NFL.

Executive-education programs are something new in pro sports, where coaches and general managers tend to have shied away from going back to school for business brush-ups. But the NFL is a corporate giant that generated an estimated $4.8 billion in revenue last year, despite the weak economy. With the league's annual take expected to increase by $1 billion in the next three years (see BW Cover Story, 1/27/03, "The NFL Machine"), heightened business acumen is all the more necessary as the league faces player-trade issues, stadium financing fights, and salary-cap problems.

The NFL underwrote the program, and neither the league nor Stanford will disclose the cost of the seven-day session, though the school says it was comparable to other weeklong custom programs -- which go for as much as $10,000 per person.


  This mini-education effort for sports managers was born out of another of Walsh's endeavors. The former San Francisco 49ers coach, who led Stanford's football squad in earlier years, first dreamed up a coaching program for minority college coaches 20 years ago. For the past several years, Walsh has also been pushing for management seminars for sports execs. Once Tagliabue warmed to the idea, Walsh turned to Stanford to create the program.

Though Stanford isn't known for its gridiron greatness, the choice was still a no-brainer for Walsh. Both he and Gene Washington, the NFL's director of football operations, have strong ties to the Bay Area, thanks for their stints with the 49ers (Washington was a wide receiver). And both have a history with the university: Walsh was assistant football coach from 1963-65, head coach for the 1977-78 season, and he now lectures on sports management at the business school. Washington graduated from Stanford in 1969, after setting the school's all-time receiving record in 1968 of 1,117 yards.

The program isn't exactly damaging Stanford's sterling academic reputation. The prestigious business school, which is renowned for its programs in entrepreneurship and technology, raked in some $16 million in executive-education revenues for the 2000-01 school year, $2.4 million of which was for custom programs such as the NFL's. However, the school is still building its fledgling sports-management offerings, and the partnership with pro football will certainly raise the one-year-old program's profile.


  In the meantime, Stanford's NFL effort is drawing kudos from participants. "It helped me to grow and understand the business," says Diane Downing, stadium operations director for the Cleveland Browns, who has a background in city government. "We each have our own responsibilities with our clubs and don't have a lot of opportunities to broaden our perspective."

The NFL and Stanford's B-school are already discussing a similar seminar for next year, and Walsh is pushing for it to become an annual event. Team managers often "don't know what's going on in the other side of the building," Walsh says. He also believes the seminars can help increase communication and understanding among business managers and the coaching staff.

After all, in pro sports, profits and losses are as important a marker of success as wins and losses.

By Susannah Chen in New York

Edited by Thane Peterson

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