The Rundown: What Type of Business is This Again?

Brian Bassett,

Last week Jets owner Woody Johnson spoke to the press and answered a number of questions about the Jets, his coaching staff, the stadium, Tim Tebow (of course), and whether or not he was alarmed by the amount of pub his team was getting this year.

On if he likes the amount of interest in his team…

Absolutely. We are in a media business and we want to give our fans an insight and the fact that they’re interested, I think works out well for us. We’d rather have them interested in it rather than apathetic and not paying attention.

I respect that Johnson wants to give his fans more of a window into his team’s daily operations and that he is probably pleased that the Jets are a lazy First Take producer’s dream.  That’s all good for fans who want to hear national outlets to talk more about their team, the Jets.  But … my first reaction was to say, “wow did Woody  really just say that ‘we are in a media business?’ Really?”

It seems like Peter Schwartz of CBS New York was similarly struck by the comment.

Are you kidding me?

The Jets are in a media business?

This is one of the dumbest things that an owner can say, and it’s even more reason that the Jets’ media relations department should never make him available to reporters. How can you possibly tell your fans that you’re in a media business when the team that you share your stadium with has done nothing but win and win and win and win since the last time that your team has won?

Johnson is going to get a pass from the rest of the beat reporters on this, but not from me. A championship team starts with a commitment from the top. I just don’t see that from Johnson.

It is a poor comment for Johnson to make and I get where Schwartz is coming from and I don’t disagree that it comes off as wrong.  But I do think there’s an overlooked distinction.  At it’s worst, the comments make it sound like Woody is just in it for the “Kardashian” of it all – and is prioritizing manufactured drama over getting Jets fans some long-awaited hardware.

I do think that winning a championship is very important to Woody Johnson, as evidenced by his comments in Greg Bishop’s profile of the Jets owner for the New York Times back in 2010.

Johnson pointed at Ryan’s Super Bowl ring from Baltimore and said: “That’s what it’s about, Rex. We’re going to win this thing. And when we do, I’m going wear it every day.”

Johnson wants to win a title badly, but the simple truth is that the NFL is as powerful, lucrative and popular because it is in the media and entertainment industry.  Fans (myself included) never like to hear that it’s just entertainment, but it’s true.  In the United States, there is no broadcast property that brings in more money to license content than the NFL.  Because of the fragmentation of audiences the NFL remains one of the very few broadcast properties that can guarantee a large and diverse audience and do so in a live format.  Mark Cuban wrote about the phenomenon of live TV and why it’s so valuable on his website last January.  Right now, that’s worth about four billion dollars annually and by the time the NFL’s contracts run out in 2022, the NFL will be earning close to twice that figure.

It might be over-simplistic to say say football teams are about winning, just as it’s over-simplistic to say football is a media business.  But for sports fans, the only business that teams should be in is “winning” — that’s what fans want to hear.  Woody Johnson has owned the team long enough to know better and should have known the comment would come off poorly.

So what should he have said?

One of the smartest things that I’ve started hearing owners say recently is to refer to themselves as “caretakers” of teams.  It’s something that John Henry’s ownership group (Red Sox, Fenway Racing, A.S. Roma) talks about a lot.  Here’s something that A.S. Roma’s new CEO Mark Pannes said after the organization was taken over by the Henry group:

“This is clearly a meritocracy,” Pannes said. “If you win, fans are going to be happy. We are caretakers for this club. You can’t own A.S. Roma any more than you can own the Colloseum, right? We’re stewards, and at some point we’ll hand our club on to the next ownership group, and when we do, we hope we’ve left it in a much better position than when we found it.”

There’s no denying that Pannes and Henry will earn a lot of money some day when they sell the famous soccer club, but what fans want to hear is that the owners are looking out for the best interests of their fans … not just the owner’s interests.  Talking about the team as being in the media business essentially breaks the illusion of what professional sports is about, and it generally sits poorly with the very fans.

In the end, I don’t want to hear Woody Johnson just start using the “caretaker” buzzword when he talks about the team solely because it’s going to scratch fans’ collective itch when it comes to their concerns about what’s really important to ownership, but at the same time, Johnson can’t go making half-baked comments like he did either.  The best way to prove that winning is the most important thing to fans, is by actually winning.  Let’s hope that this year leaves no doubt about that.