Sports Business Unplugged: Leadership Challenges from the World of Sports

Image of Sports Business Unplugged: Leadership Challenges from the World of Sports
Release Date: 
July 28, 2016
Syracuse University Press
Reviewed by: 

“Burton and O’Reilly have an important book to write, but this was not it.”

David Stern, former commissioner of the National Basketball League, praised Sports Business Unplugged, a collection of columns by Rick Burton and Norm O’Reilly, in the book’s introduction. “What I have always liked about Burton and O’Reilly’s work is that their commentary is never dated or out of touch,” Stern said.

But columns by their very nature are ephemeral. They capture a moment in time, and that moment invariably gives way to another moment and another column. Relatively few columns stay fresh longer than most of the fruits or vegetable bought at a grocery store.

If a book of columns is to have value beyond an audience of friends and family, it should be a “best of” a writer’s or writers’ work and not a “most of” a writer’s or writers’ work. It should include only a fraction of the published columns, eliminating those that have either outlived their shelf life, repeated what was already said in other columns, or simply did not rise to the necessary standards for a wide audience.  

Those who buy a book of columns are often more particular than those who receive columns with their newspaper or magazine subscription. A book should be far-ranging in its subject matter and exclude references that are dated or writing that is cliché or trite. Each column should stand on its own but also complement the pieces in the rest of the book.

Sports Business Unplugged: Leadership Changes from the World of Sports (Syracuse University Press) is a disappointing book because they are too many columns on too few subjects, too many that are dated, and not enough that are compelling to want to read a second time.

Burton, the David B. Falk professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University, and O’Reilly, the Richard P. and Joan S. Fox Professor of Business at Ohio University, have been writing a monthly column for SportsBusiness Journal, an industry trade journal, since 2009. Sports Business Unplugged is a collection of 50 of those 60 or so columns.

The columnists’ knowledge of and enthusiasm for their subject matter is undeniable and their writing can be crisp and thoughtful, particularly the columns that examined such issues as what the United States can learn from the marketing of Canadian Football league; what sports need to do to compete for the attention of teenagers and younger adults; the effectiveness of television advertisements with female athletes; and what is behind the decline in sports sponsorship dollars.

In these and other essays, Burton and O’Reilly examine the business of sports and offer us critical insight that is woefully lacking on sports pages and sports websites. But there simply are not enough of these columns in the book.

In recent years, some of the most incisive criticism of the state of sports in the United States has come from academia, specifically economists as Andrew Zimbalist, author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics, and Charles Clotfelter, author of Big Times Sports in American Universities.

Burton and O’Reilly would have been better served to have a written a book on the “leadership challenges from the world of sports” than to do so with columns that are poorly selected and often randomly organized.

In their introduction to Sports Business Unplugged, Burton and O’Reilly said they “wanted to use material that felt “timeless or consistently worth discussing.” But they do not do that. They ask a lot of questions and too many of them are either rhetorical or hypothetical.  They raise issues such as the exorbitant seat prices in professional and college stadiums but say nothing more about them.

Their writing is often cliché (“going all in,” “sweet spot,” “let’s cut to the chase,” “secret sauce,” or “chasing the dream) and their references are dated (the television program Seinfeld, Art Linkletter, top ten lists).

Sports Business Unplugged is at times blatantly promotional, including a column on CrossFit that is little more than an advertisement. The book is also self-promotional. We read about their expense-paid trips to southern California, Canada, and Australia but nothing on contentious issues such as public money for stadiums, salary caps in professional sports, privatizing college sports, and the ethics of corporate sponsorships.

Burton and Reilly said they wrote this book for their current and future students to help prepare them for the rapidly changing world of sports. This is a noble objective, but this does not, by itself, justify publishing a collection of columns for a general audience. They could have simply included their columns on a website.

Sports Business Unplugged was not the best approach for the Burton and O’Reilly, who are both knowledgeable and respected scholars in sports business. In short, Burton and O’Reilly have an important book to write, but this was not it.