Different ball games
by Simon Ward
Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment was created last year to provide a collective strategy for the development of US franchises and properties, led by the Philadelphia 76ers. Author
16th February 2018, 09:02

While the North American and European sports markets are very different, not least in terms of the sports that are popular, franchises from the US major leagues are reaching out to the Old World as never before, often in joint ventures in which knowledge-sharing is the goal.

Sporting ties between USA and the UK, in particular, have been strengthened by American investment in Premier League clubs, and the now customary visits of NBA and NFL teams to London for regular-season games.

US-owned English soccer clubs include major powers in Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, and they, in turn, have become more familiar to audiences stateside through pre-season tours and involvement in tournaments such as the International Champions Cup.

The increase in transatlantic links has prompted teams to look at partnerships that could help their businesses to develop, especially when there are counterparts within the same ownership group.

Josh Harris and David Blitzer, the owners of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, also have equal 18-per-cent stakes in London-based Premier League club Crystal Palace, and executives from the two organisations are in regular contact on sporting and commercial issues.

Chris Heck, the president of the 76ers, which played the Boston Celtics at the UK capital’s O2 in January, told Sportcal Insight: “We had one of our sponsors come from half-way around the world to meet us in London to get an introduction to Crystal Palace, so that is a real-life example [of the benefits]. We’re hoping good things come of it, and we’re collaborating to make ourselves stronger.”

Chris Heck: 'We're collaborating to make ourselves stronger'

There will be further activity in the UK as a result of the creation last September of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, a holding company for the sports and entertainment assets of the two businessmen.

In addition to the 76ers, these include: the affiliate Delaware 87ers of the development NBA G League; NHL ice hockey’s New Jersey Devils and their American Hockey League affiliate, the Binghamton Devils; the Prudential Center, home of the Devils; the Sixers Innovation Lab, a hub for start-ups; eSports franchise Team Dignitas; and the GRAMMY Museum Experience Prudential Center.

Scott O’Neil, the chief executive of the 76ers and the Devils, was appointed to the same position at HBSE, which is intended to provide a collective strategy for the development of the franchises and properties, and act as a vehicle for further acquisitions.

It has already branched out by last month teaming up with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and Creative Artists Agency, the US talent agency, to form Elevate Sports Ventures, an operation that will provide consultancy to teams in North America and beyond in areas including stadium licensing, premium ticketing and corporate hospitality.

Asked about HBSE’s ambitions, Heck had said: “They [Harris and Blitzer] are aggressive, smart and thorough, and they placed O’Neil as the CEO, who fits that mould as well, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more ventures popping up very soon, and I would expect those to be beyond the USA.”

Crystal Palace, where part-owner Steve Parish remains chairman, do not form part of HBSE, but offer the US investors an outlet in the world’s most lucrative soccer league, and a platform for collaboration with the other teams.

Heck said: “We [the 76ers] think we are much stronger with our reach, not only with us coming from the United States, but having a home base here in London with the folks at Crystal Palace is a tremendous asset.

“We’re able to reach so many more potential partners and fans around the world when there are multiple franchises and properties. And that includes our eSports with Team Dignitas, which gives us a presence in the UK too.”

Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace's stadium in south London

The 76ers regard themselves as a pioneering force in the NBA having been, in 2016, the first North American professional sports team to invest in eSports teams, with the acquisition of Team Dignitas and Team Apex, and the first NBA team to sign up a jersey patch sponsor, in the shape of secondary ticket exchange StubHub.

However, they see value in the synergies and differentials with Crystal Palace, which compete in a league where shirt sponsorship is much more developed and the clubs have multiple overseas partners.

Speaking at the Leaders Meet Innovation conference in London last month, O’Neil said: “I think we are very passionate about our brands. We both drive incredible change in the communities in which we live, work and play, and I think we both have big eyes for what we think is coming.

“From the business end, and as an American who has spent his entire career in the States, we have so much to learn from what is happening here. We did a jersey patch deal that was unbelievable news in the US, but if only we’d opened our eyes 40 years ago, think of the revenues we could have created and driven.

“I marvel at what our cousins at Crystal Palace have done in terms of international content and driving their brands to heights outside their territory. We’re somewhat restricted in the NBA, so much so that we’re planning a lot of our content investment around the things Palace and a lot of their partners have done.”

Elevate emerged from existing collaboration between the 49ers, which now play at the hi-tech Levi’s Stadium, and the Harris-Blitzer operation, whose Prudential Center is one of the highest-grossing arenas in the world, and conversations at last April’s CAA World Congress of Sports.

Al Guido, the president of the 49ers and the chief executive of the new agency, told Sportcal Insight: “We were discussing quite a lot of this since we opened [the stadium] four years ago, and CAA came to us with an offer, and we felt that it would be an intelligent use of our leadership position.”

Al Guido: 'As broadcasting and streaming change, it puts more emphasis on game day'

Guido is one of the co-managing partners of Elevate, alongside O’Neil, Howard Nuchnow and Michael Levine, the co-heads of CAA Sports, and Paul Danforth, CAA Sports’ global head of sales, and the agency will have offices in Silicon Valley in California, Philadelphia, New York and London.

Guido believes that, with its knowledge of various leagues and stadiums, the group can offer valuable insight to teams, leagues, brands, colleges, venues and owners on new revenue opportunities around games, especially when there is uncertainty over the future of traditional sources of income such as media rights.

He said: “As broadcasting and streaming change, it puts more emphasis on game day.”

On the value of the 49ers’ involvement with the Levi’s Stadium, Guido said: “It’s going through the experience of doing it. With our leadership team [at Elevate] you’re talking to people who have worked with the biggest brands and stadium projects. When you’re involved in something like this, you get one shot to get it right.”

He also sees great potential beyond USA, in sports such as soccer, saying: “I think we have a massive opportunity in the UK, being in this work and having a London office. It’s a totally different fan experience in that the game [day] lasts for two hours rather than six hours, but there’s a lot of learnings we can bring from a lot of leagues.”