Valley executives talk future of pro sports

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BOB McMANAMAN
The Arizona Republic

PHOENIX, MARCH 19, 2010 — The chief executives from all four of Arizona’s major professional sports teams met in downtown Phoenix on Friday to discuss the economic situations of their respective franchises, and although each agreed times have been tough, they also see brighter days ahead.

That especially was true when the participants – Suns President Rick Welts, Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall, Cardinals General Manager Rod Graves and Coyotes President Doug Moss – were asked about possible upcoming lockouts or work stoppages in each of their sports within the next couple years.

The NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball all are nearing the end of their respective collective-bargaining agreements. And with the global economic climate still in peril, labor negotiations in each sport figure to be facing more challenges than usual.

“There has to be adjustments. I think everybody knows that,” Welts said. ” . . . How smart we all are is if we can avoid a stop in play, which is incredibly daunting. . . . It’s something we’ll try to avoid at all costs, but all systems are different and complicated. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Team executives typically refrain from making specific comments about league-wide labor issues, but Friday’s Arizona contingent felt mostly positive about upcoming negotiations.

Hall, for example, noted that this is the first labor accord attempting to be reached by baseball’s incoming union leader, Michael Weiner, and possibly the last one overseen by Commissioner Bud Selig, making successful talks “a legacy move for both.”

Graves reminded that negotiations already have commenced in the NFL and added that historically, “in the 11th hour we’ve usually always found a way to keep things going for the good of the game, and I anticipate we’ll do the same going forward.”

The panel met during a forum of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers conference at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Moderated by Josh Mills, a professor from Baruch College, the sports executives discussed a variety of subjects ranging from attendance issues, the globalization of their sports and the future of where the digital age may take them.

The Cardinals have sold out every game played at University of Phoenix Stadium. For the Diamondbacks and Coyotes, attendance mostly has been a disaster, although the hockey club’s amazing playoff push has re-energized ticket sales at Jobing.com Arena.

Reminding that the Coyotes “spent the summer in the courthouse” dealing with bankruptcy hearings, Moss said things finally are looking up, even if the team’s future in the Valley is uncertain.

“If you put a good product on the ice or on the field or on the court and you treat people with respect and give them great value, they’ll be there,” Moss said, noting the Coyotes will play before a sellout crowd tonight against the visiting Chicago Blackhawks.

Hall said the Diamondbacks were hit by the economy harder than any team in baseball perhaps other than the Detroit Tigers. He puts Arizona’s season-ticket renewal rate at 77 percent, which is higher than the club anticipated.

“We’re starting to recover,” Hall said.

Unemployment remains a serious problem in the state, and sports fans are more selective than ever at how they spend their discretionary dollars.

“We have a long time until we have the same level of recovery as other parts of the country,” Welts said, “but some of the fear has been removed. . . . People are not as afraid that there’s going to be another cliff out there we’re about to fall off of.”

One way pro sports leagues may soon start generating new forms of revenue is through the digital age and a potential mass concept of mobile technology for video and merchandising.

Hand-held devices can order up everything from live and archival game footage to refreshments and jersey sales.

“I can’t think of how it could be bigger in any other industry,” Welts said. “Mobile is a huge opportunity going forward.”

So are 3-D broadcasts on television, a concept ready to be served up in European movie theaters for soccer fans during the upcoming World Cup. ESPN is planning 3-D broadcasts as well.

“That’s going to be next,” Welts said. “What drove HD (high definition) more than anything else? Live sports. It created a huge adoption rate for HD very fast. So will 3-D.

“A movie once in a while is going to be nice, but when it comes into your home, it’s going to be driven by sports first.”

Globalizing their sport to the digital world is a key component to what lay ahead. The Coyotes will play against Boston in Prague, Czech Republic, next season. The Cardinals have played in Mexico City. The Suns could be asked to play in China.

And Hall suggests that someday baseball will have a “true” World Series.

“But we’ll probably need a worldwide draft first,” he said. “It would be good for teams like ours, where just because you don’t have a Green Monster at your stadium or it’s not in the Bronx, you can still afford to go get one of these players. We need to make it a more level playing field.”

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