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 enough."

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 intern.

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 parent-teacher conference.

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 smart."

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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