As Super Bowl XLIX approaches and the nation gears up to support either the New England Patriots or Seattle Seahawks, or simply celebrate the Super Sunday holiday, FleishmanHillard TRUE sat down with Shahid (Shad) Khan, the self-made billionaire who closed on the purchase of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012, to discuss what it’s like to own an NFL team and how the business of sports is changing.
TRUE: You are in a unique position, owning both the Jaguars and the Fulham Football Club in London. How would you compare the experiences?
Khan: You might say that the NFL is larger than the sum of its clubs. The NFL is a partnership, so when a person is looking to acquire a club, the price of entry is very high – and not just in money. The other members of that club, other than the one who is selling, are looking at the new partner coming in and making sure that person can carry the weight. The NFL has control over a lot of aspects of the clubs. In English soccer, somebody is making up your game schedule and you’re sharing in the TV revenue. But otherwise, it’s very decentralized.
There also is a difference beyond the structure. The Fulham club was started in 1879, so there are many generations of fans. You’re born with the loyalties in English football, and you die with them. The passion, it’s tribal.
The Jaguars, on the other hand, were only formed in 1995. In American football life, the event itself is a big, big part of the experience. The game is very important, but the whole event, the extravaganza, the grandness is something very unique to America. So there are fans in love with the game as much as a team.
TRUE: Any desire to buy more sports franchises?
Khan: After the Jaguars, I thought I was done. It took me a couple of tries before I was successful buying a team, but owning an NFL team has turned out to be everything and more I thought it would be. But when the NFL and the Jaguars made a commitment to play games internationally in London, I thought owning an English football club would make for a nice synergy, a good partnership. Fulham seemed an ideal choice, given its history and its dedicated fans. But owning the football teams in both the U.S. and England is something driven by my love and passion for the sports. I would never acquire just for the sake of acquisition.
You’re born with the loyalties in English football, and you die with them. The passion, it’s tribal.
TRUE: How do owners view the Super Bowl when their teams aren’t in it?
Khan: Obviously, the ultimate thing would be to be in the Super Bowl, but out of 32, only two can be. For the rest of us, it’s still an exciting opportunity, especially for someone like me who has a day job in the automotive business, to connect with sponsors, customers, suppliers and other partners in a great, great venue. The Super Bowl is really something special to be able to share with them.
TRUE: It almost seems a little bit like a business conference for owners, a place where everybody who’s interested and involved in the business of football gets together to socialize.
Khan: Well, I think it’s that. It’s a setting in which we can exchange ideas, discuss the state of the art, how we can make it better, what the new trends are. Football is no different from any other business: If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. If you’re not moving forward, you’re going to fall behind. And what better place than the Super Bowl to start thinking about the future and where the game needs to go?
TRUE: You mentioned your day job. How is running the football team similar to and different from heading up an automotive parts manufacturer?
Khan: Any business has a lot of common aspects to it. It’s about the people who make the business run, and it’s about the customers and sponsors who supply the revenue to make the business sustainable. Your goal in any business is to find the revenue, but first you have to find the kind of employees who will be able to satisfy your customers’ needs – and then you have to retain them. All businesses have a lot of common elements to it, and football is no exception. They all revolve around people and money.
TRUE: Do you feel like players and the people in football are under too much scrutiny, or are they held to higher standards than the rest of us?
Khan: Almost 50 million people watched one of the playoff games recently. That was off a little from last year, but still the biggest television audience since the Super Bowl in 2014. You look at the next biggest event on a network, and you see it’s only a fraction of that. Football is a very successful enterprise in this country, but that also means people expect a lot from the people enjoying that success.
God has given players a lot of talents, and they’re making a lot of money. A lot of the young people and sports fans look up to them. Being held to a higher standard is part of being a professional athlete today – just the way athletes today have to be willing to communicate with their fans on social media. Whether they like it or not, they’re role models, and they need to act like one. I think if somebody was not aware of that reality, they certainly have become aware given the events of the last six months.
And not just the players. The public has high expectations when it comes to owners, and in fact any stakeholder in the sport. It’s really important for all of us to a) recognize that, and b) make sure we live up to that expectation. Otherwise, you’re going to disappoint people.
TRUE: Do you feel the NFL has handled the scandals of recent months appropriately?
Khan: In general, yes. In hindsight, there are always things the League could have done better. I think the important part to remember is that there’s a lot more to do, and I think the real tragedy would be if some of these mistakes get repeated in the future.
Photo credit: Shad Khan (Jacksonville Jaguars)