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: You were an NBA senior vice president for 8 years, overseeing teams marketing and business operations. Would you tell us what you had to do in that role?
O’Neil: It’s an incredible time in my career. My job was to on behalf of the league go to the teams in the NBA, the WNBA, which are the women’s league, and the G-League, which are the minor league, called D-League at the time, and help consult with them. Can you imagine having a job where you have to go to each of the 51 teams, talking to everybody from the receptionist to the CEO and figuring out what they are doing really well? I think that the executives in that league are the most incredible in the world. They are forward-thinking. innovative, smart, and driven.
What I think differentiates that league from any other league I’ve been on, is that while we fight like mad on the court, we consider ourselves partners off the court, to the extent we can share ideas, concepts and strategies that work in one place. For the league, it’s a complete competitive advantage that you are actually sharing your ideas. It’s a different philosophy that doesn’t exist in many places around the world, and it happens to exist in the NBA. At the time David Stern was the commissioner. He was a huge proponent of that, and I was the beneficiary. Adam Silver drives the same exact message, so what an education as a young executive coming in and getting to learn from the top executives in the NBA every day. That’s a great job. I loved it.
Yutang Sports: You worked closely with Mr. David Stern, the then NBA commissioner. You said during a previous interview that you felt like you got your ‘PhD’ during that time. Could you tell us why?
O’Neil: David Stern is an extraordinary leader. They say the best leaders in the world leave the organization in great hands. Look at the best leaders, that’s what they do. So, PhD for sure.
Yutang Sports: You later took on the role of the President of the Madison Square Garden Sports, and you got some of the largest sponsorship deals during that period, including JP Morgan Chase, Anheuser Busch, Coke Cola, Delta Airlines, Kia Motors and Lexus. All are giants in their respective industries. How did you manage to get the recognition and trust from these companies?
O’Neil: At the time, I was overseeing the New York Knicks, and the New York Rangers, the hockey club, and the New York Liberty of the WNBA, and some other incredible businesses there.
We invested over a billion dollars into the arena. It was an old arena, right in the center of the city. The structure projects in the center of a city are very complex. We never shut down the building. We did it at night and in the summer, so we could keep playing in it. It was unbelievable.
It’s a complete redo of the building. MSG is one of the most beautiful building in the world. It’s called the World’s Most Famous arena, and it is the World’s most famous arena.
So, to be able to take the New York platform, those great brands, that great arena, and be able to go to the leaders of the world, whoever you know in New York, just like the incredible business leaders in Shanghai, it’s just easier because they are at your games, they are your fans, they could become your friends. So, we were able to establish great deals and great partnerships. And those still exist, which I’m really proud of.
Yutang Sports: As the CEO of HBSE, you also are overseeing the New Jersey Devils. Two different sports, two different leagues. Have you faced any challenge managing two different sports teams at the same time?
O’Neil: We face challenges every day. Managing two different sports, that’s the fun part. I think this is an organization that I will continue to grow. I don’t think we are done growing.
I look back to the first day I was there, I think it was July of 2013. And this is the Philadelphia 76ers playing in arena. Since then we’ve bought the Prudential Center and the Devils. We built the most beautiful world-renowned training complex for the 76ers. We bought Dignitas, merged it with Clutch Gaming from the Rockets, which was awesome. We got back in LCS (League of Legends Championship Series), started an investment fund called the HBSE Ventures, where we invest in early stage companies, opened an Innovation Lab where we bring in early stage companies, accelerate them in our business. We founded an agency with the 49ers that helps stadiums and arenas around the world optimize their revenue. That’s just a handful of things we’ve done.
I think we will continue to grow at this pace. When you work for guys like Josh Harris and David Blitzer, we are accustomed to growth companies. We are building two incredible companies in Apollo and Blackstone, and want to grow a third. I’m the beneficiary of their vision, resources and guidance. That is a gift beyond what I can imagine. So, when you talk about are there challenges, yeah, but I work with I think the most talented group in sports. We have an army of executives, a dozen of whom could be running sports teams on their own right now. Having all that talent in one place, it’s pretty amazing. My job is to get out of the way and let them do the incredible work.
Yutang Sports: We know you are very focused on building a great corporate culture, and you are overseeing both the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Devils. Do the two teams share a similar culture under your leadership?
O’Neil: As an organization, absolutely. We talk about things like accountability, and grit, and trust. We talk about core values that drive an organization.
The teams are different. NBA is much more of a superstar type of a league, and we talk about having a constellation of stars, with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Al Horford. They are their own brands, and they are out in the market. Joel was in China two weeks ago with Under Armour. I think that defines the NBA. You still can’t win with just the stars without having a team, but their brands and their personalities are definitely star based.
But hockey, we say it’s about the front of the jersey. It’s a ‘we’ sport, not a ‘me’ sport. And that’s a hundred percent about we call it brotherhood. So that is different. But the core elements of sport, if I’m running a football club in China, the principles would be the same. The leadership principles would be the same. The principles of the business would be the same. That’s part of what makes this fun.
Yutang Sports: Why are community services so important to you?
O’Neil: What I’ve read, and what I’ve learned is that the millennials, they are the next generation to come up through the workforce, and they want certain things. I think this is the same whether it’s in Shanghai or Philadelphia, or Newark, New Jersey. They want to believe in something bigger, they don’t just want to work for a job, they want to have a cause, they want access, they want to know the CEO or they want to know the general managers personally. They want to know that they are cared for as people. They actually want to know that do we have relationship, and they want to believe that all this matters. All this stuff we do, working 80 hours a week, does it matter?
We have a lot of Millennials in our culture, probably 80% of our workforce. So, we spend a lot of time thinking about can this be the greatest place to work in the world, and what does that take? It takes time and effort, and one of the things we do that I’m very proud of is that we serve 76 hours from the 76ers to make the world where we live, work and play better. Leave it better than we found it. We shut down the office about once a month to go serve. That can be mentoring children, coaching, or it can be a beautification project at a park. Our role in our job is to make sure that we are part of the fabric of the communities where we work.
Most NBA teams do this, but where we distinguish ourselves is just the amount of time and the commitment. Our players, both hockey and basketball, are the same. It’s unbelievable to see our players out there, to see them leading the way, leading the charge and doing good at both the New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia 76ers.
Yutang Sports: Sports betting is also becoming a thing now, with some states legalizing it. What do you think sports betting will bring to sports?
O’Neil: In the United States, there was a lot of betting going on. It just wasn’t legal betting. So, when you have the opportunity to legalize betting, it also comes back to regulation, and with regulation comes transparency, with transparency comes comfort. I think that’s a really good outcome philosophically.
From a business end, what the betting has provided is engagement. When people bet on sport, they are more likely to watch the games. They are more likely to engage online for longer and offline in an arena. Our thought is how do we work alongside the gaming companies to make sure that when our fans are betting on the game, they are locked in and engaged for longer. We think that bodes pretty well in the future for business.