Where sports meet entertainment

Friends, this will be my last regular column for Variety. I will be returning full time to my “day job” as an executive recruiter. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to serve up viewpoints and interviews with many industry leaders and opinion makers this past year. It’s been a pleasure.

An acquaintance of mine tells me that back in college, he took a class called, “Sports as a Metaphor for Life.”

That seems a bit much. It’s absurd to compare the travails of a baseball player like Jason Giambi to, say, being homeless.

But comparing the business and management of professional sports clubs with that of similar big businesses — Hollywood and otherwise — does make sense. That’s where Jeffrey Lurie comes in.

Lurie is the principal owner, chairman and CEO of the Philadelphia Eagles National Football League team. He’s also a former movie producer (“Sweet Hearts Dance,” “V.I. Warshawski,” “I Love You to Death”). Since Lurie bought the club in 1994, the Eagles have averaged nine wins out of 16 games per season and reached the playoffs seven times.

That isn’t by coincidence — particularly not in a league known for parity. Success in business starts at the top. And even in unforgiving Philly — where fans once booed Santa Claus during a halftime show — Lurie’s Eagles have painted the town green.

On the heels of the recent NFL collegiate draft, I phoned Lurie and asked him: What’s easier: producing a hit movie or developing a championship football team?

“I would have to say they’re both difficult,” he said. “They both take a lot of teamwork, a lot of hard work, and they both involve a significant amount of luck.”

I inquired about Lurie’s football mission plan. “The blueprint for the success we’ve had,” Lurie said, “has been identifying a vision of what’s needed to become a marquee football franchise, and then surrounding myself with terrific people who can help lead the change and implement that vision.”

A Ph.D in social policy from Brandeis, Lurie identified a handful of core business values, each transferable to other enterprises. Lurie said, for example, employees should be able to take pride in their workplace facilities. Under Lurie’s watch, the Eagles christened a state-of-the-art practice and office facility, and quit grim, loathed Veterans Stadium for contemporary and attractive Lincoln Financial Field.

Lurie said having terrific talent and character evaluators is crucial. In his business, that means the player personal department; in others, the human resources staff. He also underscored the urgency of succession planning. With the average football player lasting maybe four years in the league, constant turnover means more than a fumble-plagued game.

“The draft is a perfect example of (succession),” Lurie said. “You have to have a curve for every player that you have. What’s going to happen in 2007? 2008? What does your graph look like? What is your distribution of resources under the salary cap going to look like? So this is your replenishment time two years ahead of schedule.”

Lurie stressed the importance of superstars as well as tremendous organizational depth.

I asked Lurie who in the NFL — players, coaches, executives — would make a successful CEO of a non-football entity? Lurie cited his own head coach, Andy Reid, and New England Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick. That pair, along with several others, Lurie said, know how to motivate; consider short-, mid-, and long-term factors. They also know how to cooperate with football, financial and marketing colleagues.

“Being able to cross-discipline and try to maximize the entire organization, those are real good elements for potential CEOs,” Lurie said.

“And they’re usually pretty good chess players, too,” he said.

Last season, the Eagles lost the Super Bowl by the equivalent of a field goal. That means: four points to checkmate. Lurie and his solid organization are likely to get there soon.

(Stephen Unger is a leading exec recruiter. At various times, he led the media and entertainment practices of the world’s three largest executive search firms. He can be reached at sa.unger@verizon.net.)