By Emily Bobrow
In the heady days of the late-'90s dot-com boom, when Scott
O'Neil was 28, he and a friend launched an online basketball
network called HoopsTV. They had great content, built a talented
team and in no time were flying around the country meeting Phil
Knight of Nike and David Stern, the then-commissioner of the NBA.
Then, just as swiftly, the business came crashing down. Part of the
problem was that it was "a video-heavy site when we were still
hearing that terrible dial-up sound when you turn on a computer,"
Mr. O'Neil recalls. The bigger issue, he says, was that he was
living out his dream of being a company president but neglected
basic responsibilities like raising funds, driving revenue and
adjusting the product to meet the market.
"If I had spent 90% of my time on those three things, I might
still be there," Mr. O'Neil says over Zoom from his office in
Camden, N.J. Instead, the business shut down in 2000, and he was
stuck apologizing to investors and firing over 50 people, including
his brother. The experience left him broke and "shredded" his
credit for years. Yet Mr. O'Neil says he appreciates what it taught
him about life, love -- "You know you married the right person when
times are bad," he says of his wife, Lisa -- and business. "Failure
is the best teacher," he says. "It's just not a fun teacher."
Today Mr. O'Neil is a top player in the sports business as CEO
of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment (HBSE), a global
company that owns the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL's New
Jersey Devils. But he insists his ascent has not been smooth. "I'm
now 51, and everything that could possibly have gone south has gone
south at some point," he says. His new book, "Be Where Your Feet
Are," which will be published by St. Martin's Press next month, is
a repository of lessons learned the hard way.
Mr. O'Neil began writing the book several years ago, after his
father died and his best friend -- whom he had met decades earlier
at Harvard Business School -- committed suicide. "I was spiraling,"
he says. "I felt like I understood grief for the first time."
Suddenly mindful of his own mortality and the fragility of life, he
began opening up about his struggles to friends and colleagues, who
responded with confessions of their own. Many of these stories make
their way into the book. "Everybody has their own thing that
they've dealt with," he says. "We just don't talk about them
A natural athlete who captained his high-school basketball,
soccer and tennis teams, Mr. O'Neil grew fascinated by the business
side of sports during a college internship at a marketing firm.
After graduating from Villanova, he worked as an administrative
assistant for the NBA's Nets, then in New Jersey, where he fetched
dry-cleaning, worked weekends and earned just enough to share a
three-bedroom Hoboken apartment with six other guys ("What could be
more fun?"). It was also where he met his wife, who was an
Perhaps Mr. O'Neil's most public setback was being pushed out of
his "then-dream job" as president of New York's Madison Square
Garden Sports, where he oversaw the business operations of the
NBA's New York Knicks, the WNBA's New York Liberty and the NHL's
New York Rangers, as well as boxing matches and other events. As a
"New York kid," raised in Newburgh, N.Y., he always saw the Garden
as "the pinnacle" of sports and entertainment. When he got the job
in 2008, he was tickled to shoot hoops on the same court as the
Knicks. His tenure saw millions in new revenue and record-setting
ticket prices, but he got fired in 2012 due to what he describes in
the book as "philosophical differences" with his boss, Hank Ratner,
the CEO. Looking back, he believes that he was too concerned with
being right to be effective. "I was young," he recalls. "I wanted
to fight the fight every day."
Losing the job was a blow to his ego, which he says left him
disoriented and depressed. But after months of reading, learning,
spending time with his family and seeking feedback from trusted
colleagues and friends, he stopped blaming others for his woes and
began looking inside himself. This experience, he says, helped him
get his next job as CEO of the Sixers in 2013. When the team was
folded into the sports-and-entertainment conglomerate HBSE in 2017,
Mr. O'Neil was made CEO.
The value of HBSE's holdings have risen fivefold since Mr.
O'Neil started. The Sixers, once the butt of jokes, are now at the
top of the league in the East. But Mr. O'Neil is most proud of the
workplace culture he created: The Philadelphia Business Journal
named the company the "best place to work in Philadelphia" three
years in a row. He exchanges personal notes with new hires and
gives everyone the business book "Leadership and Self-Deception,"
by the Arbinger Institute, which he calls "the greatest book ever
written." When he arrived in 2013 there was only one woman who was
vice president or higher; now there are 18, he says.
Mr. O'Neil says he takes pains to model the kind of behavior he
hopes to see. When he became CEO he noticed that employees saw it
as a badge of honor to not take vacation. Although his job is
demanding -- between games, concerts and travel, he works around
150 nights a year -- he regularly demonstrates the value of taking
time off. He has coached basketball for his three daughters, who
are now 14, 17 and 21 years old, and he rarely missed a
During last summer's protests following the killing of George
Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, HBSE held a virtual forum in
which Black staffers opened up about their own experiences of bias
and racism. Elton Brand, the Sixers' general manager, talked about
the precautions he takes to appear unthreatening when he goes
running in his affluent Philadelphia suburb, Mr. O'Neil recalled.
"The whole thing was heavy," he says. "I thought I knew more than I
did." Last year HBSE hired a chief diversity and impact officer and
committed $20 million to support Black-owned businesses and invest
in the mostly Black neighborhoods of its teams and fans.
The pandemic forced hard choices in the face of plummeting
revenues, and HBSE suspended bonuses and promotions for executives.
The sacrifices made by top-level staffers, including Mr. O'Neil,
meant the company did not have to lay people off. Now, as HBSE
looks ahead at a season that may "shoot past '19 and '20 in terms
of results," having everyone in place to scale back up "looks
Amid the strain of a job in which a lot rides on "what happens
this second, this minute," Mr. O'Neil takes comfort in the "longer
view" granted by his religious faith. At 46 he was baptized as a
member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the
religion of his wife and children. He tithes 10% of his earnings
and is active in the church.
Mr. O'Neil also finds solace in the role sports play in bringing
people together. "This is especially important right now, coming
out of the pandemic. We need connection," he says. "This is why we
do what we do."
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 07, 2021 10:19 ET (14:19 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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