When we’re moving at 115 MPH, we rarely see the wall coming. But it comes for all of us and when it does, we grasp for lessons, for meaning, for purpose. Each moment (good or bad) and each win or loss, provides us an opportunity to learn, and if we choose to take it, that opportunity can change our lives-and the world- for the better. The human spirit craves connection. Authenticity. Belonging. Touch. Gratitude. Purpose. We need to make our interactions count. Whether it’s the death of a friend, loss of a job, a bad break-up or the isolation of Covid-19, those who manage to be where their feet are will grow, stretch and emerge stronger, smarter and more prepared as we find peace and gratitude in the pause. (Amazon)
Scott O’Neil is the CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils. He helped found TEAMBO (the Team Marketing and Business Operations Group) in the NBA which helped teams build their business operations, marketing and game presentation. O’Neil now has transformed the Sixers into a model franchise at the top of the NBA on and off the court. The Sixers have been named “best place to work in Philadelphia” three years in a row from Philadelphia Business Journal.
Scott’s book Be Where Your Feet Are has great stories from the rise in Philly, lessons from David Stern, and the importance of leaving your phone at the door in meetings. We spoke to Scott on the June 2021 Party in the Back Podcast and part of that interview is transcribed here.
The book is tremendous and full of great sports stories and life lessons from Scott.
Editor Jon Cudo: We are joined by the CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Devils, Scott O’Neill. Scott helped form TEAM BO, which is a team business operations in the NBA, which help teams build their business operations, their marketing and their game presentation. They shared insights and provided tools for teams all around the country, which is something that not every league does or at least does well.
He’s now in Philadelphia, where he’s transformed the Philadelphia Sixers into a model franchise at the very top of the NBA on and off, the court in the Sixers have been named the best place to work in Philadelphia for three years in a row from the Philadelphia Business Journal. In his spare time, he’s now penned the book, Be Where Your Feet Are, about how he turned some of his own personal challenges and conflicts into victories. Now, Scott, I’ve put my phone down and I’m ready to be all in the moment to talk with you, the Great Scott O’Neill. So welcome, Scott.
Scott O’Neil: Jon, I can’t tell you what an honor and a privilege it is to be with you on your podcast. I love your work and a big fan for a very long time. And good to be here. Happy to be here. Happy and healthy and ready to go.
Cudo: What did you take from from the pandemic about slowing down life, taking more family time while being restricted to one place?
Scott O’Neil: Well, I think that the great pause, as I was calling it for a while, the pandemic of while tragic on many levels, and I don’t mean to make light of those who lost their lives or those who went through really difficult illnesses. But for the rest of us, it was an incredible time in our lives to recenter, reconnect and for those of us who work in this crazy business. I mean, I found out what a family dinner is, so I had one in twenty five years and that was wonderful.
I have three daughters, all very different and all in different phases and stages of life, all going through some incredible ups and some difficult downs. So just being there and present was wonderful. Going on long walks and connecting with my wife Lisa was incredible. We just turned 50 recently, so we’re kind of rediscovering, what, 2.0, 3.0, or 5.0 looks like together and then getting into routine. I talked a lot with my team about what I think the kind of the five keys to mental health and wellness are.
One is the first three are simple, but not easy to do something for your mind, something for your body. It’s something for your soul every day.
And so I think in this business, you just go and you don’t step off. You might read SBJ or Front Office sports, but you’re not reading about life science or world history or a geopolitical crisis going on. And I think we’ve got to learn outside of our bubble once a day. In terms of the body. It’s probably the simplest, at least during the pandemic. I mean, I’m just still pick up hoop player. And that was gone. So I bought a peloton and I became one of those lunatics. So for forty five minutes every morning, I just go put on a bad movie and go and a while that’s not for everybody. I get the heart rate going in terms of my body soul and then the soul is always complicated to talk about in a work context.
And you might not read scriptures or prayer or be into traditional religion, and that’s OK. But you do have to find stillness every day, in my humble opinion. And you’ve got to meditate or you’ve got to listen to birds chirp. You’ve got to find that five minutes of peace and quiet and then the last two are at once counter-intuitive. And that’s sleep, because when I was growing up, everyone told me, like, don’t sleep just for the weak. Money never sleeps.
All those crazy comments that people made. And the reality is and research will tell you, you need to sleep. Your mind has to recover and your body has to recover. And then the fifth one is my most favorite, and that’s gratitude. And I found a lot of healing and solace being grateful. I see this sign in my house that says. “It’s not happy people who are grateful, it’s grateful people who are happy”, which I absolutely love.
It’s right in our kitchen. And and so oftentimes when I’m talking to groups, I’ll have them start the session by just writing a note of gratitude, appreciation to their moms, because I think the moms are the most under-appreciated class in the history of mankind. And while not everybody has a mom, it’s that’s OK. We might have a mother-figure in our life. And and it’s really it’s not about your mom, although it’s wonderful. More importantly, it’s like, how can we then apply that to people we work with? Like what about a boss, a former boss, a mentor, a coach or teacher, how about that works for you and someone did an extraordinary job. You don’t really know that well, but they keep popping your head and you don’t know why. And so I think I think if you do something for your mind, body and soul every day, get a good night of sleep and practice gratitude.
You start to take what we learned during with the good parts. And I think we can stretch that out and impact our lives.
Cudo: I think you really forward the idea well that that you can’t do two things at once. One of those is you’re getting there with budgeting your time and discipline. And once you make that decision about what’s important to you, how are you setting yourself up for success?
Scott O’Neil: Yeah, it’s a great point, I will say a couple things came into my mind as you were talking and asking the question. One is that we have this notion that we think something and say something, right? This is the notion we have and there are all those jokes when you were growing up about your mouth moves faster than your brain. It’s actually really interesting. It’s like you can impact and influence your subconscious by what you say. And so if you’re a product of the 70’s and 80’s, like I was, and you had your parents teaching you and instructing you to be positive affirmations and say positive things about yourself, it actually works.
It’s for real. And so I think my my biggest disappointment in terms of the world today is the impact that social media has on teenagers, because in many ways it’s a wonderful way to share good messages and connect with people and stay connected and see see their kids and see what’s happening in school and sports and all this wonderful stuff. And on the other hand, there’s another side that’s a little darker side, and that’s a cesspool. A cesspool for negativity.
On one side, I want people to kind of see the world as it is, but to connect and be around people who give them positive energy and positive messages and make sure that they’re shining their light for others to shine as well. And the second thing is, I don’t believe that the brain can actually do two things at one time. And yet how we take in the world, I mean, at work with the Sixers and Devils, I’m talking my marketing team about creating a second screen and third third screen experience during games.
So that means that you’re watching the game. And I want to provide two other screen experiences for them because as if I don’t provide those two or three experiences, they’re watching “The Office”, you know, or making a TikTok video or they’re playing a video game. It’s kind of amazing how we’re operating in this world. And I think if we can center ourselves and focus, truly understand what I call WMI, what’s most important, I have a little bit of a longer lens than the 15 seconds that we have now and just say, OK, what do I want to accomplish in a year? What do I accomplished in two years, three years, five years, and then set the course and OK, am I willing to put an hour a day into whatever I want to accomplish? Am I willing to do the work? Because if you’re not, then you should stop dreaming, stop setting unrealistic goals and just move on and be like if you’re in and be OK, that’s OK. But if you want to achieve something great, how about actually setting a goal or plan and executing it with real focus?
Put your phone down, put your iPad down and spend that hour from working on what you want to accomplish and achieve. And it’s harder than you think at first, especially for people like me. I’m like, look, a bird!, what is that? Is it the wind blowing ? Sometimes I have to actually sit on my hands and focus, because I know it’s not easy for everybody. It’s not easy for me. I have complete ADHD, complete.
And so but what if I don’t focus? If I don’t if I’m not disciplined, I don’t understand what I really prioritize and I don’t stand a chance.
Cudo: In Philadelphia, you recently ran a promotion where you’re giving away tickets for people who would get the vaccine. Just one example of how the Sixers are taking a leadership role in Philadelphia. Sports teams can be central to the fabric of a community. Now, what did you see as the role or what do you see as the role for teams like the Devils in the Sixers as we dig out of the pandemic?
Scott O’Neil: Such a great question. I was playing hoops the other day at our church and there was a new guy there, I don’t know who he was and he said he said, I understand you work for the Sixers. I said, I do. We said, well, why don’t you tell your players to to stop bringing politics into sports? I said, OK, thanks so much. Such a pleasure to play with you. And then I said, you know, after I talked to him nicely, I promise you, I said, you know, I would be so disappointed if we had these global superstars like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, and they collected a paycheck to play basketball and went home.
That that would be my biggest disappointment. Instead, they understand their brands, they understand their platform, and they understand the impact and influence they have on millions of people around the world. We have players from four continents on this team alone. Think of the opportunity and I don’t think that’s lost on our players. It’s certainly not lost on our organization. For us, we’ve done quite a bit in terms of social justice, pledging 20 million dollars and a pretty incredible and intense platform to drive change in terms of COVID Ben Simmons set up a platform called Philly Pledge.
So this is a player who’s twenty four years old, setting up a platform that allows people to donate to the right causes for the right reasons at the right time. Joel Embiid gave half a million dollars and not like blindly giving. He actually gave it to the University of Pennsylvania and so they can help develop processes, protocols and vaccines for health care workers to save lives. These guys they’re just different level thinkers. And so in many ways, we are taking their lead.
And I hope to be considered leaders to what we do and how we do it. But, man, we are blessed with incredible players and then Doc Rivers, who I think is not only an elite leader on the basketball court, but he is the gold standard, in my opinion, for driving change in the world. And that’s inevitably like you think about the value of what we do and why we do it and cope with it more than anything else. It cemented the reason for the why we’ve been isolated, we’ve been alone, we’ve been disconnected, we have division in our cities. We have division, our state division of our country, but sports is the great unifier. Sports is the place you come, you sit, you stand, you cheer, you yell, you high five and hug perfect strangers. And we become one. And that’s what we do. That’s what we do and why we do it.
And if we can use that platform to also drive social change fantastic. If we can make the world a better terrific. But I think our core mission is to bring people together to unify and become one.
Cudo: I understand the book is about centering yourself and not splitting focus and a lot about interpersonal growth. But this is a renowned sports executive on my podcast. And I wanted to make sure that we connect this back to game operations and entertainment in some way. You’ve touched us a little bit earlier, but is there a lesson about how we run events?
I think we’re all looking for that second screen experience. You’ve mentioned that third screen experience and the app that connects us to events that we’re sitting at now is that whole focus wrong-headed? Should we instead be looking to create boundaries, signals like you talked about in your conference rooms and finding ways to encourage fans to put down their phones and just become immersed in the moment and like you said, have that free hand high five their neighbor.
Scott O’Neil: Well, that would be wonderful. That was actually Mark Cuban’s plan a few years ago, that he was very strong on that media and social media saying like, hey, we need to get their head up phone down. And I love the notion of that. I don’t think that’s a tie we’re willing to fight or swim against. The salmon are going one way and we’re going to hop with them. We have the gift of knowing that only one percent of fans will ever attend a game live. One percent!
Every experience is one hundred percent consistent with who we want to be and who we are.
\We have to figure out how to not only drive incredible content, but also know who our fans are so we can reach them in an arena, though. And for those that have either good fortune or bad fortune of working with me. They know that I’m acutely focused on the show and making sure that that brand fits who we are and that everything we do and every touch we have in every instance, every song, every dance, every routine, every experience that one of our entertainers can provide is one hundred percent consistent with who we want to be and who we are.
And that is a special, special, special skill. We happen to have Derrick Hayes (Sixers) and Ben Broder (Devils) and a whole host of people across our properties that are a world class at that. Like I, I love nothing more than to go to a show and laugh out loud. And I do when we when we had no fans. Obviously there are some of us will go about twenty five of us. We go to games and they were putting on game entertainment and shooting our employees as like the foils in skits.
And it was literally and no one ever saw it, what it was like us and real players. And and a couple of times I would check, shoot our GM you get up and wave during like the Drip Cam. And I just thought, man, you can’t forget what business we’re in when the business of having fun. We’re in the business of escapism. We’re in the business of creating a home court advantage and and making sure that this is a community that you can get behind and engage.
You can listen to the full interview on the June 2021 Party in the Back Podcast.
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