Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Vicissitudes of Pro Sports Management - The 49ers in Crisis

Levi Stadium

On the subtitle of this blog, it reads "rumination on literature, art, politics, music, photography, design (architecture and landscape), wine and spirits, &c." It doesn't mention sports, though I've devoted a fair number of posts here to the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco 49ers, the two local sports teams I grew up watching and following since boyhood. I'm old enough to have attended one of the first games the new San Francisco Giants played at Seals Stadium (before Candlestick was built), and I'm old enough to have seen a game between the 49ers and George Halas's Chicago Bears at old Kezar Stadium in the mid-1950's. 

Professional sports fandom is a kind of addiction that feeds off of boredom and little imagination, best suited to people who lack sensible diversions or hobbies. Professional sports franchises are money-making operations, designed to enlarge the fortunes (and reputations) of rich people. Over the last half-century, while mass video media has blossomed, these franchises have gone from barnstorming carnival attractions to big-time corporate management outfits. Pro sports is very big business these days. Player and coach contracts are at astronomical levels, and the cost of attending a handful of live home games has become so expensive that it will easily gobble up an ordinary middle-class family's whole annual entertainment budget in one gulp. 

All of which is to say, in a way, that I take no particular pride in capitulating to the lower common denominator of my taste, by admitting that I still, in my late '60's, follow both local teams with continued interest, and feel minor emotional crises with their periodic rise and fall. My stepfather, Harry Faville, was a devotee of these teams, and a faithful one. He listened to every Giants broadcast for 25 years, and watched every 49ers game on television for the same period. When he died in 1973, he still held end-zone season tickets at Candlestick for the Niners, a purchase he would not have been able to sustain today, in the world of luxury seat-boxes, seat "licenses" and the $12 hot dog. In some sense, my obsession is a continuation of his, though I think he'd be surprised to know that. 

Why care about the fortunes of a professional football team? Players come and players go, and outcomes are often decided by chance and accident. The NFL has expanded from the 12 teams I grew up knowing in the 1950's, to 32 today! There are so many teams now, and so many games, and so many players, you can hardly keep up with all of them. Understanding the odds on any given weekend you'd need a Ph.D. (or a very good computer app) for all the statistical data you'd have to process into the analysis. That makes any local franchise that much more unique for those who may be "supporting it" with their ticket sales and Sunday afternoon television game-parties. 

The 49ers were once a long-suffering organization. Between 1950 and 1980, the team didn't win a championship, and was routinely consigned to the mid-level ranks of the also-rans and might'a'beens. But beginning in 1981, when it won its first Super Bowl, through 1998--a span of some 18 years--it was class of the league, not winning fewer than 10 games in any one year. Beginning with head coach Bill Walsh's tenure and continuing through George Seifert and Steve Mariucci, a standard of excellence was steadily maintained. Dominance by certain franchises in sports is not unusual. In fact, it's more the rule. The Yankees, the Celtics, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Teams frequently have multi-year runs, a testimony to good management, or money, or both. 

In 1977, when little Eddie De Bartolo bought the 49ers, they were still in their 30 year drought of mediocrity. Eddie hired Joe Thomas, previous of the Baltimore Colts (which at that time was a successful franchise), to run the team. Thomas proved to be a disaster, going through three terrible coaches in two years. Then, in 1979, Eddie hired Bill Walsh as head coach/general manager, and things quickly turned around. Eddie spent lavishly on his players, and cared deeply about winning. Following his involvement in a casino bribery scandal in, the NFL stripped De Bartolo of his ownership of the team, which passed to his sister Denise York and her attorney husband, John. John York, knowing nothing about professional sports franchises, and nothing about football, attempted to run the organization, with little success. York tended to be somewhat arrogant, despite his failures. Then, in 2009, the Yorks appointed their son Jed to the position of leading the team. Young Jed knew nothing about sports, or operating a sports franchise. It was all in the family, with meat-head running the show.       

From a historical perspective, the Jed York installation feels a lot like the early days of Eddie's management. A young kid takes control of a large organization, with little prior experience, makes a lot of naive mistakes, blusters and struts his confidence and cheek, and generally makes himself the butt of bad-mouthing humor. The sons of rich men may be humble, or arrogant in their personal demeanor, but in the management of corporations or businesses, even family affairs, it takes more than peremptoriness and bullying to get results. Yes-men and sycophants may survive if they're no more than conduits of power, but a failure to perform, at any level, especially in the service of a tyrant, can be risky.    

Jed York

When John York hired Mike Nolan as head coach (son of former 49ers coach Dick Nolan), they thought they were looking for a tough, no-nonsense disciplinarian, who didn't make excuses and demanded excellence from his players. And that's just what they got. Nolan's take-no-prisoners style managed to alienate his star rookie quarterback, Alex Smith, his personal draft choice--over future and present star Aaron Rodgers--because of Smith's reported "willingness to take commands". When Nolan was fired, he was replaced by former star linebacker Mike Singletary, another "inspirational" disciplinarian, with little strategic managerial ability. Then, when Jed took over in 2009, he hired Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh was tough, but he brought a clear conception of how to succeed in the NFL. Like Bill Walsh--widely regarded as among the geniuses of the game, an offensive strategist, a judge of talent (in drafting), and an inspirational leader--Harbaugh had the capabilities to marshall resources and coordinate players, and his arrival brought an immediate overnight transformation. After nine losing seasons, Harbaugh brought the team to 13-3 in 2011, 11-4 with a Super Bowl appearance in 2012, and a 12-4 record in 2013. The glory days of the franchise had returned. With his big, fast, strong young quarterback Colin Kaepernick, he seemed destined to create another "dynasty" lasting perhaps a decade. Meanwhile, York had hired Trent Baalke, just after Singletary had been fired. Though he contributed little if anything to the team's success during Harbaugh's first year in 2011, Baalke was given official credit by being named PFWA Executive of the Year. Baalke is by reputation another one of those "iron-jawed" hard-liners, a man who doesn't like his authority challenged. Harbaugh, himself known to be jealous of his turf, soon came into conflict with Baalke. When the team failed to advance beyond the Conference Playoff game in 2013, and got off to a slow start the following year, Baalke sought to undermine Harbaugh's authority, surreptitiously spreading rumors about Harbaugh's unpopularity among his players, his rebellious, uncooperative behavior, his unwillingness to cooperate with management. It was entirely clear that Baalke and Harbaugh were locked in a macho stand-off. As Harbaugh's boss, Baalke was the beneficiary of Harbaugh's success, but if Harbaugh stumbled, Baalke didn't want that shortcoming to reflect on him. 

Trying to undermine your coach, as a way of shielding yourself from blame is one kind of stupid executive strategy. It's also a way of laying the ground-work for a future firing--which is exactly what Baalke had in mind. Undermine the coach, fire him, and start over with your own picks. Baalke's failure as a judge of personnel had led to a succession of draft choice flops. Except for Aldon Smith, who was eventually released due to legal and personal problems, Baalke's record of choices has been dismal.    

Trent Baalke

During this same period, the 49ers were attempting to build support for a new stadium--not in San Francisco, but in Santa Clara some 35 miles to the South of the city for which the team is named. In the public relations build-up which accompanied the team's proposal to build the stadium "elsewhere" the 49ers made much of the team's "proud legacy" of championships and suggested that the 2016 Super Bowl, which would take place at the newly completed Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, would probably be a contest between the home team and the visitor. In other words, Harbaugh's team would be expected to ramp up performance, in anticipation of the Yorks' celebration of its ill-considered new stadium.

Levi Stadium turned out to be as fraught with problems as Candlestick had been 50 years earlier. The parking and freeway access is a disaster, and the field itself has been plagued by problems. Fans complain that it's too hot, the turf is uneven and soft. A sensible option would have been to construct a state-of-the-art facility like the one in Seattle, or Texas, ideally within the SF city limits or just outside. But the Yorks had other ideas. 

You would think that with the need to highlight the success of the team, as an adjunct to the new stadium, the team's management would have done everything it could to promote and perpetuate the success it had had with Harbaugh. But the behavior of Jed and Baalke during the 2014 season, suggested that now that they'd gotten their new stadium built and occupied, they could "afford" to let their egos dictate policy.      

Jim Harbaugh

It's been widely reported that Harbaugh was abrasive in person, that he tended to be autocratic and didn't like to be questioned. In other words, he was not unlike his bosses. Setting up built-in conflicts of interest between management figures is a familiar way to create tension in an organization, and this seemed like a classic case.

Relations between head coaches and team managers can be difficult to manage. During the Bill Walsh era, the two jobs were combined into one, eliminating the possibility of disagreement. Some head coaches don't want administrative details to deal with, others see the control over team decisions this allows as crucial to successful planning. Though Harbaugh was clearly not interested in being a bureaucrat for the Yorks, he apparently resented Baalke's interference in personnel decisions, game plans, and drafting. As the two came to blows, the contest became filled with suspicion and resentment. This was not unlike what had occurred when Mike Nolan had openly belittled and criticized his personally hand-picked quarterback Alex Smith for not "playing through pain" (from a serious shoulder injury in his throwing arm), and not "being a man" for the team. As the disagreement between Harbaugh and Baalke blossomed, it became clear that Baalke had the upper hand (Jed's ear), and that he had decided to blow Harbaugh off, by inciting dissension among the players, tarnishing the head coach's image to the fans, and blaming him for the resulting declining performance by the team (which went 8-8 in 2014, a major disappointment for a team that had barely lost the Super Bowl two years earlier). A perfect example of self-fulfilling prophecy in action. 

The whole affair was an embarrassment, and at the end of the year Harbaugh and the Niners "parted ways" in what had obviously been a coup within the organization, "won" by Baalke and "lost" by Harbaugh. If Baalke had wanted to prove that his "win" was justified, you would have expected him to replace Harbaugh with an equal or superior quantity. In what must be among the most counter-intuitive moves in professional sports history, Baalke (and York) picked Jim Tomsula, their defensive line coach, to replace Harbaugh. 

In the history of the NFL, coaches have come in a few predictable flavors. There's the "guru" which would include Walsh, Bill Belichick, Don Coryell, Don Shula, Tom Landry, Vince Lombardi. Another familiar stereotype is the "grunt"--think Joe Bugel, Art Shell, Buddy Ryan. Tumsula was the classic dumb grunt line coach, uncomfortable in the limelight, mentally challenged by offensive X's and O's, clueless and stoned on the sidelines during games. What had Baalke and York been thinking? A return to old-fashioned pile-on football, pre-forward-pass style play? 

No sooner had Tomsula's hiring been announced, than there was a rush to the exits by many of the star players on the team. Patrick Willis retired. Anthony Davis retired. Borland retired. Frank Gore went to Indianapolis. Michael Crabtree, Parrish Cox, Mike Iupati and Chris Culliver left as free-agents. Aldon Smith was released. Mid-year, they traded away Vernon Davis. They traded Andy Lee, the best punter in franchise history, to the Browns. Hiring Tomsula also meant the team didn't have an offensive-minded attitude, which led to star QB Kaepernick's being benched in mid-season--a development that bodes ill not just for the team, but for the Colin's future as well.   

The hiring of Tomsula was accurately perceived by the team as a betrayal of the commitment to winning and providing a quality product. It was as if Baalke were rubbing it in to the team, publicly pouting about his failure (and covering that failure by scapegoating), while at the same time punishing the team just to prove that he could. A pure public cry-baby tantrum in full view. 

In the culture of corporate or bureaucratic strife, tussles like this are very common. Egos compete for position and power in companies and agencies all the time. There's back-biting, finger-pointing, ass-kissing, betrayals and undermining and innuendo and rumors and behind-closed-door deals all the time. We expect that in business. And, after all, professional sports IS a business, no matter how much window-dressing can be put upon it. Public relations and media hype can't conceal the essential fact of commercial entertainments--they are capitalistic enterprises, designed to make money by providing entertainment. Win or lose, the point is selling tickets, and commercial television and radio time. Winning may be one way to facilitate interest and excitement, but it isn't always the ultimate goal. 

Some franchises are operated "on a shoe-string"--especially in the smaller markets where there isn't the big media money. Wealthy owners clearly have an advantage over poor ones, though it's hard to imagine anyone owning a professional sports franchise today without having enormous means. Some team owners will refuse to pursue good players as a money-saving strategy, leaving their fans hung out to dry. 

What was happening in the 49ers organization was plainly a power struggle, gotten completely out of hand, holding the team hostage to petty personal disagreements at the top of the chain of command. Businesses in turmoil may affect the stock price, and may impact the workers whose jobs are at stake, but sports franchises are selling an image and a performance, so failures of intention and strategy have an immediate and graphic consequence in the public eye. 

Why should, then, this be of any concern to you or me or anyone who lives within a 100 miles radius of San Francisco? Because fandom is a regional spirit mover, affecting hundreds of thousands of ordinary people (perhaps even millions). Pro teams are big employers, and they have a large economic impact. Stadia and parking and associated parasite businesses all depend upon them. A sports team can provide some of the social and economic cohesion to a city or area that has little appeal otherwise (think of Ohio or Pennsylvania). People care about these teams, and I think it would be fair to say that the owners have an obligation to present a "product" that bears some relation to the enthusiasm with which they expect "fans" to respond through their support. 

I think Trent Baalke is the villain here, and I'm not alone. Several sports columnists locally have suggested that, along with the recent, season-ending firing of Tomsula, Baalke should also be shown the door. He's shown himself to be a poor judge of draft talent, and he allowed his jealous insecurity to poison the organization, expelling a very talented coach (Harbaugh), leading to a wholesale exodus of star players, and the evident disillusionment of the fans (a half-filled stadium, even a movement by fans to hire a plane-banner dragging a message across the sky demanding that Jed York sell the team or step down as CEO). Having built their new stadium, and locked up the "seat-licenses" and luxury box leases for Levi Stadium, maybe the Yorks think their financial interest no longer dictates paying to have a competitive team. Eddie De Bartolo cared about this team, and worked to make it succeed. His sister, sister-in-law, and son-in-law don't seem to share that same fire-in-the-belly. There've been reports that young Jed is seeking advice and counsel from his uncle, but he may have been doing that all along. Whether his latest mis-steps indicate the petulance of youth, the insolence and effrontery of youthful naivité, is anyone's guess. Eddie learned that the best approach was to hire a qualified candidate, then step out of the way, and let the managers manage, the coach coach, and the players play. At this point, Jed needs to revamp his entire outfit, from top to bottom. The place to start is by dismissing Baalke, if he has the sense (or the courage) to do it. We've seen how bull-headed "iron-fisted" disciplinarians work in the NFL. It's time for a new approach. Pro teams aren't little armies,  in need of punishing drills and unyielding guidance to make them "obey" rules and limits. It takes brains, and savvy, and shrewd intuition to make groups strive and excel. 

Is there anyone out there who could do the job for the Yorks? Stay tuned.  

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