Gary Belsky talks sports, media, and being human

For those of you who are college basketball fans, you know that the term “March Madness” originated from the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament—a single-elimination tournament played each spring in the United States.

To pay homage to this popular sports-related event, we sat down with ESPN the Magazine’s former Editor-in-Chief, Gary Belsky, to learn a few things about a few things. In addition to having a deep knowledge of sports (he also co-authored On the Origins of Sports), Belsky is also a well-known and highly respected business leader, having held leadership roles at organizations like ESPN, and now as the co-founder of his own consultancy, Elland Road Partners. We prodded him about everything from the evolving media landscape to why March Madness has such a hold on us, sports fans or not.

 

Here’s what he had to say:

RG: Today’s media landscape continues to evolve. New “channels” are appearing every day. How does an incumbent organization stay ahead of the curve: what trends do they buy into and what do they ignore?

GB: This is, of course, the million-dollar question for any brand – media, sports, or otherwise. Would that it were a simple answer. Aside from the obvious answer – mine and sift data consistently and rigorously – the more difficult challenge is about culture. Change is unavoidable. Disruptions are unavoidable. But what is most definitely avoidable is having to overcome an organizational culture that is resistant to change, that misses disruption signals. The best organizations are not prescient so much as hyper-flexible, so they are able to change course with such speed that most of their competitors believe they can read the future.

No one can do that. But you can hire diversely – across gender, age, race, ethnicity, socio-economic background, sexual orientation, geographic region – and empower people to speak up without fear of consequence. Any organization I just described will have the right answers to all your questions, and all you need then is to encourage risk-taking and allow for failure. It’s not a coincidence that the leaders of ESPN during my time there were also people who have been in charge of some of the biggest brand failures. But they had buy-in and they weren’t punished when things went wrong. In fact, they were eventually rewarded. That encouraged other people to take risks, too.

 

RG: It’s important for publishers to “market” their content/material/products to their audience, which is similar to how brands need to continually engage with their customers. How is this done? Is it different than a brand? What is similar?

GB: The first key is to meet people where they are, regardless of media or platform or device. The second key is to share smartly, giving away what’s commoditized, gating what’s original and unique. It’s a myth that people don’t want to pay for content. They do and will. What people don’t want is to pay for content that’s available elsewhere for free at the same or nearly the level of quality.

 

RG: What’s exciting about March Madness? How do sports publications generally decide what stories to cover, who to feature, and what information is readable/digestible?

You know how little kids can hear the same story over and over again without getting sick of it? Curious George, Goodnight Moon, whatever? Adults are actually the same, and March Madness offers familiar and comforting stories with new characters to spice things up – in a concentrated dose. Almost all of those stories, by the way, are variations of David & Goliath or the Tortoise and the Hare because we respect greatness and root for pluck. We admire excellence and encourage ambition. March Madness is the human experience over and over again, in short form and in shorts. What could be better than that?