"Sports teams can inspire and spur change in ways that are unique from all other businesses" - Scott O'Neil, CEO, Philadelphia 76ers.
Scott O'Neil, the CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers, has seen sport change lives in more than one city. As president of Madison Square Garden Sports he led the transformation of that famous arena, but they pale in comparison to the transformation of so many New York lives by the city's sports teams (you can see my conversation with Jean Afterman of the New York Yankees for more on that). And now, back in Philadelphia, he leads one of a group of teams making a real difference on a daily basis in their communities.
O'Neil, you sense, believes that is not a choice for a team like the Sixers, but a responsibility and an opportunity. His vision, shared by so many of those leading the city's sports teams, is of genuine change in the community led by those teams. "I firmly believe that we have an obligation to give back and make the world and our cities a better place," he says.
Watch this space - the Philadelphia 76ers have big plans.
When you were announced as the new CEO of the 76ers, you said: "Philadelphia is a city built on hard work, grit and the strongest sense of community that exists anywhere in the country. We will work every day to live those values, integrate ourselves into the fabric of this community, and make our fans and business partners proud to be part of our continued resurgence." What role does social change play in that?
Sports teams can inspire and spur change in ways that are unique from all other businesses. Our players are role models for Philadelphia's youth. Our games provide a positive outlet for families, friends and coworkers. And the spirit of supporting a team can unite a community, breaking all cultural, personal and economic boundaries. In Philadelphia, you're going to see the Sixers focus on working with our fans and corporate partners to effect positive change in the city, integrating ourselves in the community to improve it. And the hard work and grit that's an integral part of being in Philadelphia are values we will embrace to help us push forward and achieve our goals.
How has the Philadelphia sporting landscape changed since your time at the Eagles in the 1990s, and how has that been reflected across the city itself?
From an infrastructure perspective, everything has changed. You have the Wells Fargo Center, where we play our games, which was built in 1996. Lincoln Financial Field replaced Veterans Stadium, where I worked. Citizens Bank Park is new, and the Philadelphia Union's stadium was built just a few years ago. It is incredible to be a part of a city that has world-class facilities.
On the team side, you have Major League Soccer here with the Union, lacrosse with the Philadelphia Wings, the Philadelphia Soul from the Arena Football League and so many other sporting events throughout the city.
What hasn't changed, though, is the sense of tradition and celebration of sports in the city. We still have mainstays like the Penn Relays and Dad Vail Regatta, and the best college basketball arena in the world in the Palestra. Even with new teams and events in town, Philadelphia never forgets its past, and that is pretty special.
At Madison Square Garden you led on a major redevelopment of one of the most famous venues in sports. How important is it to find that balancing act between tradition and innovation given the long history of the sports teams we all follow?
There is nothing more important than embracing history and connecting with the memories of fans in a market. New amenities come and go, but tradition and history are the 'secret sauce' to sports success.
Maintaining the balance between tradition and innovation is critical. You have to stay up-to-date with the demands of technology and business as a whole to be competitive as an entertainment venue, but also have to treat tradition and your fans with absolute respect.
What sports for social change programs in the wider sports world have impressed you?
Here in Philadelphia, the Eagles have done an incredible job of incorporating green initiatives throughout their operations. Lincoln Financial Field uses wind turbines and solar panels to run the building every single day. They use recycled paper in their offices, environmentally-friendly cleaning products at the stadium and beverage cups made out of corn. Beyond walking the talk, they also encourage fans and their employees to take steps with them to preserve the environment.
Another program is Nike's P.L.A.Y. initiative from back in the '90s. Through the years, their initiatives have evolved, but they still consistently leverage their global brand to help better the lives of youth in particular, but also the health and activity levels of people across the world. The Nike Foundation, which brings sports, education and mentoring to young girls in developing countries, is especially meaningful to me, having three girls of my own.
You will be joining a wide range of teams, programs, businesses and organizations at the Beyond Sport Summit in Philadelphia in September. What value is there to teams and the major leagues in a gathering like this, and how can it benefit your work? And what does it bring to the city of Philadelphia?
First of all, teams gathering together to further social change speaks to the importance of that work. I firmly believe that we have an obligation to give back and make the world and our cities a better place. We strive to weave ourselves into the fabric of this community. For the leadership of sports teams to be under one roof discussing social change shows we're serious and will come together to accomplish that mission.
In Philadelphia, our teams are all working hard to improve our impact on the environment and the city. The Philadelphia Eagles use wind turbines and solar paneling to power Lincoln Financial Field every day. Comcast-Spectacor - which runs both the Phillies' Citizens Bank Park and the Wells Fargo Center, where the Flyers and we play our games - introduced compostable service ware at concessions and in premium seating areas. Both Citizens Bank Park and the Philadelphia Union's PPL Park have purchased renewable energy credits equal to 100 percent of their electricity use.
Scott O'Neil will be speaking at the Beyond Sport Summit in September. Find out more about Beyond Sport at www.beyondsport.org and @BeyondSport
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