Dennis Mannion Q&A

Dennis Mannion, new president of The Palace and the Pistons, sat down with editor Keith Langlois

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Dennis Mannion, newly installed president of The Palace and the Pistons, sat down with editor Keith Langlois this week to talk about what he sees in the future for the Pistons and the NBA and how his varied background will benefit him and the Pistons in their new partnership.

Keith Langlois: You’ve worked on both coasts and in all four major sports. What appealed to you about the Pistons and about Detroit at this point in time?

Dennis Mannion: There are a few things. For starters, ownership. I was very cued in to the next opportunity I was going to take, I wanted to be with someone that was forward thinking. Having a passion for the sport was first and having a track record of using data to make decisions – that’s where the world has gone – so it’s a combination of finding someone with his passion and data. And Tom (Gores) clearly found that. It was easy to research his style of business because of the number of businesses that they’ve purchased. What I loved about their modus operandi is that they build relationships with the businesses they purchase. They don’t just buy them, put new management in and walk away. They stay very familiar with them.

The second part I really liked about Tom was I could tell the man thinks in a 360-degree manner. A lot of passion, a lot of rhythm, thinking in all directions and was a fantastic listener. On that basis I was sold. I also enjoy their format with an operating committee, all people with different personalities that seem to complement each other. I thought this is a group that gets how to fire on all cylinders as a team and how to appreciate each other’s differences. So that was one very, very good part – tip of the iceberg.

The second piece, frankly, was the success that both The Palace and the Pistons have had from a branding standpoint. I know about the winning. But when you think about big entertainment brands and you think about big sports brands, both of these entities measure out pretty darn well. Everyone knows The Palace; everyone knows the Pistons.

And the Pistons have a core reputation from a branding standpoint that is never going to go away. They will always be the team that leaves it all on the court. That’s really the genealogy of the team – we give it everything we’ve got on every level. Now, whether that happens every season or not is a different story, but from a brand standpoint that’s what you think about. I really enjoyed that part of it.

A third part of it was the NBA. I like all the leagues. I’ve always gotten along fabulously with all the leagues I’ve worked with and for. But in my short stint in the late ’90s with the Nuggets, the NBA showed me a new level of information sharing that I’d never seen before. You really do feel protected on one level, pushed on another level and challenged. That’s a fabulous way to run a league and I’ve always admired the progressiveness with which they go after their business, whether it’s the move internationally, the broadcast moves they’ve made, the freedom they’ve afforded their teams with the Internet, the guidance they’ve given them on ticketing – they just have this thing wired in a way the other leagues either haven’t had to do or haven’t wanted to do.

And then there’s Detroit. I love sports. I’ve been in towns like Pittsburgh, that can get rabid – around the Steelers, anyway. Philadelphia was fairly rabid but really big. It was spread out. Denver played the hot tickets and the hot teams and Baltimore was completely rabid over the Ravens. What I knew about Detroit I knew through my parents. They said there are six teams they’re rabid about. I thought, that’s pretty cool.

This is not a knock on LA. LA is an unbelievably wonderful, outstanding place to live. The quality of life is much better than anybody really ever lets you know about. It starts with the weather, but it goes into the people, too. There are really some very nice people there.

At the same time, it’s not a dominant sports town. It is a high-end, celebrity, recreational town. It’s balanced. It’s got all that going on. But in any given restaurant, tavern, country club, car wash you walk into, you’re not necessarily going to see sports on the television. You’re probably going to see TMZ.

I knew from many visits I had made here, everyone is talking sports. Red Wings, Lions, Tigers, Michigan, Michigan State, Pistons – that part of it was a huge attraction. I thought, I want to be in an area where what you do actually matters, that the people care. They’ll put you on the hot seat – that’s fine, but let’s get into it. Let’s have some fun. And I was also thrilled about at least trying to be as collaborative with those five other teams. It’s silly not to. This market, if it hasn’t proven anything else, it sure as heck has proven it supports its sports teams in a big way – in a really big way.

You can look at short little windows of time where there’s a downturn in Pistons attendance, or maybe way back when there was a downturn in Tigers attendance or maybe the Lions didn’t sell all the way out. But the minute the team clicked into any semblance of competitiveness, right back up.

KL: You had other opportunities in other sports before taking this job. There is obviously some uncertainty at this time about what the future of the NBA is. What do you see in the NBA’s future?

DM: You’ve got to look at the long continuum of where they are and where they’re headed. I just see them as a business that is extraordinarily forward thinking. Whether it’s from a technological standpoint or a fan-development standpoint or a merchandise standpoint, they get lifestyle like nobody gets lifestyle. They’ve been true to their brand in terms of providing high-end entertainment and true to their business by constantly re-evaluating where are we in media and media distribution, where are we in ticketing and how that’s being promoted, where we are in entertainment and how we’re delivering that, where we are in terms of our commitment to being international.

They’ve never waned. They keep driving it. So my expectation is they will accelerate that growth as we move forward. They’re just getting better at what they do. And they are the league, in my opinion, that will watch the trends as closely as anybody to see if there is a move from full-on season tickets, beyond partials and into subscriptions. They are the forward-thinking league that always has the idea before the other leagues either need to or have to.

It’s a real coup to be with them. As a point, I hadn’t even been here a day before they were contacting me to say hello. “Why don’t you come out to New York to visit with us or we can come there. You tell us your pace.” That’s pretty well-organized. You immediately feel accepted. I’d say probably a half-dozen presidents of other teams either immediately wrote e-mails or sent notes. I just think that’s remarkable.

KL: What insights do you think you take to this job that you might not have had if you had spent your entire career in the NBA?

DM: They all give you a little something to think about. What baseball gave me to think about was it’s a complicated game that needs to be taught before people realize how interactive it is. The game is not passive. But you have to teach it in interesting and innovative ways that are entertaining. So baseball gave me an appreciation for taking the passive and making it very interactive, if you break the game down the right way and use technology to help you teach it.

Football gave me an appreciation for the “everything matters” concept. There shouldn’t be any wasted time. There should be efficiency. Everything you do matters. And everything you do either contributes to winning or contaminates your chance of winning. There’s no in between. Football gave me this sense of accountability and home-field advantage and how to work that and a little bit about team play.

And that’s where hockey gave me the greatest appreciation for teamwork, mostly driven by the GM, Pierre LaCroix. Hockey gave me a deep understanding that you have to have everybody work with everybody – the players gelling, the coaches gelling, the front office gelling, right down to game-day operations. For them to survive, they have to be wildly team-centric without any individual superstardom.

Those three leagues, that’s how they contributed to me: accountability, teamwork and creativity.

KL: The Pistons obviously have a new owner. What have you come to believe in all of your experiences about the qualities of strong ownership that put a team in the best position for success?

DM: Ownership – good, solid ownership – demands accountability in three areas. One is, obviously, for the play on the court. A second one is for commitment to community. And the third is servicing of its fan base.

Everyone talks about this now, all the time. An ownership position, for sure, is a civic responsibility and stewardship. Nobody’s fooling themselves anymore that these folks who buy the teams, who have the money to do it, are doing it as an investment.

It’s clearly in there somewhere is a passion for your community. Community, court and fans – those are the three things where ownership has to demand an accountability. Do they have to micromanage it? Absolutely not. They have to oversee and they’ve got to get in the broad strokes, the vibe, are we going in the right direction or are we going in the wrong direction? Progressing or regressing?

KL: When you were in the interview process or the process of getting to know Tom Gores, was that something the two of you discussed at length?

DM: We didn’t have to discuss it at length because their track record has shown this is how they work with other companies. They give you the administrative support you need to analyze the way in which you’re running your business and they give you whatever resources you say you need up front, and on down the road, to create the most success.

That was obvious, so we didn’t have to talk about it a lot. Tom made it very, very clear that he intends to be here, but he also intends to run his business in LA, as well. So you knew by that, alone, that you weren’t going to be dealing with an owner that’s on top of Joe every minute and on top of myself every minute. Frankly, I think everyone has seen that ownership groups like that are usually not very effective.

From what I’ve heard about Mr. Davidson, whose office was right over across the parking lot, he didn’t meddle. Not with Tom Wilson he didn’t meddle and not with Joe or the coaches, he didn’t do a lot of the meddling that some owners have done and learned the hard way. It’s a tricky business.

KL: In the most extended interview I had with Mr. Davidson, timed to his first nomination to the Hall of Fame, I asked what his most basic rule for success was in business and owning the Pistons. He said, “Hire good people and let them do their job.”

DM: Tom Gores says the same thing. (Steve) Bisciotti with the Ravens will tell you the same thing. They sit back and make it sound very easy. They know it’s very hard to hire good people and analyze whether they’re doing a good job or not, but that is pretty true. They understand accountability.

KL: When you talked to Tom and discussed priorities, did you come to conclusions about the things you want to tackle right away?

DM: Right away we want to work on a three-point plan to thrill our fans. Boiled down, it’s entertain our fans, service our fans and play well on the court.

They’re pretty big, broad categories. When we talk about entertaining our fans, there’s a whole media piece we want to deliver, a whole experiential piece we want to deliver. When you talk about servicing, there are all kinds of things – from food and beverage, to parking, to retail – that’s pretty broad. And the play on the court thing, it has a lot of dimensions to it: what type of player are we going to put on the court, how are they going to be coached and managed?

There is a lot that goes into those three things. It’s just like “hire good people and let them do their job.” Entertain, service and play sounds real easy, but that little ESP is not that easy. It takes a lot of work.

KL: For Pistons fans who might wonder what your hiring means, how does your role fit with Joe Dumars’ role?

DM: I have a gate-keeping role to play on things like when does our zealousness to grow our market share and make money cross over into a place where it could hurt the players’ chances of winning. There are things like, how do you run your game ops? Is it going to contribute to a home-court advantage or not? How are you going to run community relations? Are you going to overuse your staff to service the community or are you going to be more efficient and clever about how you do that?

I think to some degree there is a commitment to make sure we put our players in the best possible position to win. Another part of that is a commitment to creativity so we get as much player contact as possible for our community and our fans. That’s a lot easier to do in this day and age of technology.

So when you ask what it means, I think I’ve had a track record of helping GMs do their jobs better, and then on the fan side of it, it means that you’re most likely, hopefully, going to see more insider access by virtue of media and more access by virtue of experiences even beyond the game, and hopefully you’re going to see improved services from where we are now to where we’ll go. That’s the main push.

KL: What are the things you can do in your role that will help Joe field a better product?

DM: I think that everything from physical improvements – whether it be the training facility that benefits the players directly or at the arena that benefits the players directly – that helps him win. So it’s physical.

There’s also family, there’s also relocation, there’s also logistics for the players. The whole family piece, in and of itself, I think they have to have comfortable environments to put their family in and comfortable programs to help their families feel collaborated with. I think there’s a responsibility not to allow for one player to dominate all the campaigns in marketing we have and not foster any type of negativity on the team. We’ve got a responsibility to, if there are ways to do it, better nutrition and training through other entities, to provide that to Joe.

Ways to travel more smoothly and get better rest on road trips – that all comes into play. If there are analytic tools that we’re using on the business side that might be valuable tools for the team side to use, we’ll do that. If we have video production tools that can be additive to the players’ side to do a better job of scouting or teaching, we do that.

If the players have foundations they want to really stretch out, our community end of things has to help them. You can’t have a winning franchise, appropriately, unless you have this plug-in in both directions.

On Joe’s end, he’s a gate keeper to our opportunity on the business side to grow market share. It’s one thing to say you’re going to come out with insider access and experiences and media, but you can’t do that very well if the GM and head coach aren’t really willing to work with you. You have to have this bond where you will never do anything to cause them to lose a game or embarrass the team.

That’s the dance. It’s a really, really importance dance. That’s how you win. The idea that there’s a wall or some type of barrier between the two worlds is over. The fans are demanding insight. TV ratings come and go – they’re generally pretty flat. The Web traffic is through the roof. Everyone is getting their content in new and different ways. So if they can’t feel like they are getting some sort of an inside viewpoint, they’ll just go to another source, or they’ll go to another sport.

KL: In the past, as I’m sure you know, the Pistons have ranked very high in various metrics for fan experience and in attendance. That likely fluctuates naturally with wins and losses, but when times are lean is it still possible to shine in those areas?

DM: That all depends on what you’ve put in the emotional bank account of your fans. So the answer would be, if the organization hasn’t done the relationship-building type of things it should do during the good times, then when you have bad times you’re probably going to see a faster fall-off than you otherwise would.

And that’s unbelievably common in sports. Franchises have had winning seasons and either took for granted or got too busy doing other things rather than building relationships with their fans. When you lose, you’ll see a very rapid downturn in your business.

Now, the perfect storm is you get a little of that going with an economy here and you’ve got a straight line down. It becomes more a matter of earning their trust back and doing the right things, being better, and there’s no magic bullet. It’s little by little, doing the right things, and fighting your way back to the top.

But it’s also the natural cycle of winning and losing. In the end, things will always have the tendency to go down, and you just use the organization’s humility as a positive to get better. You can either quit or get better – I think we’re committed to getting better. I think it really will take one fan at a time to literally know we are really committed and convicted to getting better.

KL: Besides sending fans home with a win, what else is critical to creating a positive fan experience?

DM: The logistics of being a fan have to be pretty good – your ingress and egress and the parking lot itself. No doubt, you have to feel like you’re appreciated when you come into the facility and give your ticket up. There have got to be attractive food offerings and managed lines and the host and hostesses have to be hospitable to you.

And then I think the game entertainment has got to be coherent and it’s got to mold itself to the game. It’s got to go with game flow. Game entertainment becomes really critical to fan experience. When you’re on a roll you’ve got to play that game entertainment for the home-court advantage. When you’re not, you’ve got to stop the negativity and move into another mode.

I also think part of the experience, beyond just straight-up game entertainment, the play on the court is critical. It doesn’t just mean being driven to win, it means being driven to 100 percent effort, all the time. Generally, I’ve found that in every market, when you leave nothing out there, that’s a pretty satisfied fan base – that’s attended, not necessarily that didn’t see the game but just saw the score.

The other piece of it, too, is we’re moving into a place now with the fans where so much of how they view you and the experience they have with you is not on game day. The way in which we approach our fans, with our media, with the value that we offer them – whether it’s value that goes to sponsors, deals or special experiences we offer for your lifestyle – that’s going to be a big, big part of growing the business. That’s really hard work. That’s where you have to use your Palace assets and your Pistons assets, sometimes in conjunction with each other.

KL: Since Tom bought the team, he’s talked consistently about the need to not just win but to do it the right way and to be a positive influence in the community. In all of your stops, what have you learned about the power of a professional sports franchise to be a positive influence in the community?

DM: It’s interesting. To be a positive influence in the community, that is an example of where everyone is looking toward players and coaches to be the lightning rod. Often, organizations forget the day-to-day job those players and coaches are being paid to do, which takes a lot more than just showing up for the games.

So it’s incumbent on the business side to put these celebrities in the right places at the right times in the most efficient manner so that when they’re available, they do it in a passionate and fan-serving way. But don’t overload them so that no human being could potentially handle it.

In terms of creating positive feelings in the community, one is the way in which you manage the player’s time. The second one is, I think it’s time we get inside the world of the players and show fans a little bit more in-depth the amount of preparation, both physically and mentally, that goes into putting one foot on the court.

I think we’re going to be able to do that. We’re also going to be able to show, from an inside viewpoint, how much it takes teamwork to make things happen. Those things, work ethic, and accountability and positive attitudes and basic willpower to win, I think that’s going to impact the community in a big way if we present what’s really going on the right way. That should be our commitment – to get that out.