Scott O’Neil is the Chief Executive Officer of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment (HBSE) who oversees the Philadelphia 76ers (NBA), the New Jersey Devils (NHL), Prudential Center, a top five-ranked performance venue in the U.S. located in Newark, New Jersey; Dignitas, an internationally renowned esports organization, the NBA 2K League’s 76ers Gaming Club and the Sixers Innovation Lab. Mr O’Neil is a well-respected sports industry veteran who has accumulated many accolades along the way.
Mr. O’Neil recently went on a China trip to share sports business insights with the Chinese business community and was interviewed by Yutang Sports.
Yutang Sports: NBA China Games are a great way for teams to connect with Chinese fans and increase their exposure and influence in China. The 76ers played their first China Game last October. What benefits have the China Games brought to the Sixers?
O’Neil: I think it’s wonderful. Our team came together to go half way across the world, to be able to spend that kind of quality time together, as a unit, as a team, that brought unity in our organization. Our coaches loved the experience. For the rest of us, what an eye-opening experience to be able to spend time with the incredible basketball fans in China.
Also, it gave us a chance to learn. What blows me away most is just the overall size and scale. Everything is big here. When you talk about numbers like 100 thousand courts being built in a year, or 300 million people playing basketball, you can’t help opening your eyes and getting excited about the possibility.
The last thing is the passion and knowledge of the fans. To see the actual games and the passion of the fans, it’s a special moment in my sports history, and I can say I was really glad to be here.
Yutang Sports: Will you try to get the Sixers to play in China again?
O’Neil: We would love to, but the league office, commissioner Adam Silver and Derek Chang decide which teams go. What we can do is raise our hands and say ‘hey, we want to come over’. If we continue to raise our hands, maybe we’ll come over.
Yutang Sports: Philadelphia is a great basketball city, and the Sixers is a traditionally influential team. However, since 2003, the team fell in a slump and struggled for many years. But since ‘The Process’ started, the Sixers has now become a 50-win team. It has been quite a turnaround. What have the front office done in the past few years that has produced such a drastic change for the Sixers?
O’Neil: We believe in basketball, just like in business, that patience is the last great arbitrage in sports to the extent that you can have a long-term view of everything, from developing players to putting a team on the court, to relationships, to business, the more effective your outcome will be over time. For us, that’s what the Process represented.
It’s about making the right decision for the long term over and over, which doesn’t mean we made all the right decisions. We’ve made several mistakes like anybody would, but we kept that long-term horizon, ‘let’s go win a championship’. That was our hope. Hope we can do it.
Yutang Sports: The core players of the team are still very young, and the team has shown great potential. Are you going to keep the lineup intact?
O’Neil: The way we think about the business, this team, is that the best way to build a team is acquiring young stars whether that be through the draft or free agency or trade. We are very fortunate to draft Joel Embiid No. 3 and Ben Simmons No. 1. And then you add Tobias Harris at the deadline last year through a trade and be able to resign him for five years. This core is intact. And then with a sign-and-trade with Josh Richardson, you have another young guy.
And then we need some veterans around this team, or it’d be like having a family without parents. We need some veteran players around to provide some leadership and guidance and strength. That’s when you see guys like James Ennis or Kyle O’Quinn, Mike Scott, Al Horford, guys to really solidify the line, so we have a nice healthy plan.
We’ll continue to try to get better. We are very single-minded right now. We are focused on getting this team a championship. So, we are doing everything we can to put the best team on the floor to do that.
Yutang Sports: The Sixers is the first team to sign a jersey patch deal among the four major American professional sports leagues, and the first team to buy eSports teams. Why would you want to be the first?
O’Neil: The jersey patch deal, that was revolutionary in America. Our teams have played in Switzerland, in London, Bilbao Spain, Manchester UK, Shenzhen and Shanghai. It’s not exactly revolutionary there, having something from a jersey. So, that is more a sign of us, when we go into new markets, that we are always learning. This is an organization that loves to learn, and loves to grow.
For us, we have to keep our eyes open and our ears to the ground about what’s actually working around the world. I think sometimes in sports, despite how flat the world is, we focus on what’s right in front of us, and for us, getting the opportunity to travel, it’s not only a good experience for the New Jersey Devils or the Philadelphia 76ers or Dignitas, it’s also a good experience for the organization to see what’s actually working out there.
We do love being first. We say we have innovation in our DNA, in our soul, so for us, we spend a lot of time as an organization recruiting and developing really innovative leaders, and also trying to drive that as an organizational priority. Again, we like to be first, we like to try new thing and grow the business.
Yutang Sports: The popular mobile game League of legends has nothing to do with basketball. Why would the Sixers acquire League of Legends esports teams?
O’Neil: We are in the NBA 2K league, that’s eSports. It’s very much like a team. whether it be League of Legends, or NBA 2K. We have coaches. We’ve run through a development camp where we talk about health and wellness, nutrition and psyche. We talk about sleep patterns, and having enough water and not eating Doritos, and actually preparing the right foods to optimize the performance. Coaches really matter, communication matters, teams matter.
I think there are more similarities than differences when it comes to eSports and sports. I also think from our perspective as a businessman, we’ve learned a lot about audience, player participation, audience generation, interacting with fans during play, and streaming. I love the concept of players streaming and you can imagine NBA players streaming with audiences. I love that it builds on the things we care about, winning, teams, building community, all the stuff that’s fun.
To be continued here.