Chicago's Big 5 — The Windy City's leading sport executives talk community outreach, appealing to millennials & recruiting

Written by Mary Rechtoris | October 13, 2016 | Print  |

Almost every day of the week, dedicated sports fans from around the city of Chicago divert their attention to a sporting event; whether it's watching the Chicago Cubs in the playoffs or tuning in next Sunday to see the Chicago Bears play against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Sports are a bonding experience that often brings a city together, and a lot goes into a managing a sports franchise aside from what happens on the court.

During Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush's inaugural sports medicine summit, a panel of experts who work for Chicago teams including the Bears, Bulls, Fire and hometown rivals, the Cubs and White Sox, highlight what makes each team unique and the nuances of managing a sport franchise in the Windy City. Athletico was the title sponsor for the summit. NBC5's sportscaster Peggy Kusinski moderated the panel that took place on Oct. 5 titled "The View from the Top: How the Highest Level From Professional Sports Franchises In Chicago Impact the City of Chicago."

 

Community outreach
Professional athletes play a vital role outside their role as sports stars: giving back to the community. Ted Phillips, president and CEO of the Chicago Bears, has been with the team since 1984 and has seen how the team has continually prioritized its civic obligation with initiatives such as its charitable foundation Bears Care that targets youth football.

 

"It is not just about playing games on Sunday," Mr. Phillips said. "Having our players involved too is critically important. Most players on our roster will show up on a Tuesday, their one off day, to talk to students about what it is like to grow up in a difficult family environment and expand on being a good person — not just a good football player."

 

Similar to Bears Care, the Chicago Cubs gives back to underserved communities through its Diamond Project, which aims to bring baseball back into the inner city by building fields and offering college scholarships to high school students. The team's players and staff members also are dedicated to community outreach. For the Cub's 100th anniversary, team employees completed 100 hours of community service, which Crane Kenney, Cubs' president of business operations, said was "embraced and worked."

 

"Everyone here has had sports touch our lives. Many life lessons are learned on the field," Mr. Kenney said. "It is about trying to give inner city kids the opportunity to learn these life lessons."

 

Bulls' executives ask players what is important to them when serving community members, allowing athletes to connect with their fans.

 

"The team has the opportunity to have their voices heard and connect with people in the community," Michael Reinsdorf, president of the Chicago Bulls, said. "Sports is a great connector and players having voices is the most important thing."

 

Going digital: What does that mean for attracting new sports fans?
The digital age has changed the way fans watch games and obtain information, and successful franchises have had to utilize many mediums to connect with fans, especially millennials. YouTube allows young fans to watch highlights and focus their attention on a certain player, as opposed to an entire team.

 

"With the Internet, fans can watch any game, anywhere," says Brooke Boyer, vice president and chief marketing officer for the Chicago White Sox. "The Internet has changed the game in how we consume and how we follow our favorite teams, or even favorite player."

 

Compared to the other sport franchises, Chicago Fire Major League Soccer team is relatively young in its 19th year. Therefore, a large portion of the team's fans are millennials and the team has devised an appealing strategy to this cohort. Atul Khosla, COO for the Chicago Fire Soccer Club, said the team utilizes all social media tools so fans feel like they are a part of the team.

 

"We put a lot of focus into creating avenues so fans can hang out with us and experience soccer. We want these avenues to let them be a part of the larger community," he said.  

 

Sports teams can engage with these younger fans through mobile apps and provide a wealth of content that allows fans to interact with teams in a variety of ways. Through these digital tools, dedicated fans can stay connected to their teams if they aren't physically at the game.

 

"For us [when attracting millennials], the competition is outside interest — millennials don't really turn to sports anymore," Mr. Reinsdorf said. "However our fans want to experience the Chicago Bulls is good with us — whether that is watching the games on TV or following us on Twitter."

 

Handing athletes with superstar personalities
Whether shooting a basket or signing autographs across the globe, athletes represent a brand, making recruitment a vital part of a team's success. When seeking players for the Chicago Bears, the team looks for players that meet five criteria — football intelligence, competitiveness, passion, toughness and a good teammate, the last of which Mr. Phillips noted is the hardest to find and the most important.

 

"The more you can capture the right fit, the better your locker room is and you can handle the one or two players that go off the reservation and become more of a 'me' versus a team guy," he said. "When you have strength in the locker room, you can overcome adversity."

 

The Bulls also seek players of high character, and Mr. Reinsdorf said players increasingly understand the importance of representing a brand.

 

"They don't make rash decisions and when they speak up, they are speaking up for a reason," he said. "We want players to have a voice as we know they can impact the community."

 

More articles on sports medicine:
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