Working with athletes, their agents and the sportswriters who cover them has taught Dave Checketts to deal with conflict head-on.
Checketts, president and CEO of New York City's Madison Square Garden, delivered the keynote speech at Brigham Young University's Marriott School of Management conference Thursday. The Bountiful native and former Utah Jazz president told fellow Marriott School alumni not to avoid conflict when it presents itself in their professions."Confront your problems boldly," he said. "We allow problems to fester, and we think maybe they'll go away."
Besides Checketts, scheduled conference presenters included Utah billionaire industrialist Jon Huntsman, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin and Fisher-Price CEO Gary Baughman. The conference was slated to conclude Friday evening with an address by Elder David B. Haight, a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of Twelve Apostles.
Checketts told conferencegoers how he tried to teach former New York Rangers coach Colin Campbell to deal with conflict after one of the hockey club's star players, Mark Messier, made disparaging remarks in the media about the organization.
Checketts told Campbell to bring Messier into his office, fine him $50,000 and make it clear that the club that paid him $6 million per year would not stand to have its public relations efforts destroyed by a few offhand comments from a player.
Campbell couldn't do it, and that inability to confront problems contributed to Checketts' decision to fire Campbell earlier this year.
Besides learning to deal with conflict, Checketts told managers that to be successful they should be honest, instill values in their organizations and remember that everything they do will come back to them - either for good or bad.
As president and CEO of Madison Square Garden, Checketts oversees operation of the Rangers, New York Knicks basketball team, Radio City Music Hall, cable television systems that reach 10 million homes and several other sports and entertainment ventures. In all, Madison Square Garden is a $3 billion-a-year industry.
In helping to build the Madison Square Garden empire during this decade, Checketts said, the most important and difficult groups to interact with have been players, agents and writers. He calls the notoriously problematic trio "sports' Bermuda triangle."
For the most part, professional athletes are an insecure lot, Checketts said. "They always feel like at any minute they're going to get cut or traded away."
Agents, meanwhile, are tough to deal with because "their job is to put team owners against the wall." Agents also conspire with sportswriters to wreak havoc on a team's unity, he said.
The sportswriters are generally resentful at being underpaid, they sometimes engage in blackmail to get information and they all "relish the role of tormentor," Checketts said. Those factors combine to "create crisis" and "get people hired and fired."
Despite those obstacles, which are magnified in the huge fishbowl that is New York City, Checketts believes that professional sports clubs can still do a lot of good in their communities.
Properties held by the Garden, for example, have started raising money for underprivileged children and hosted a Christmas dinner for the homeless.
"There is a deep need in this country for a discussion of values in America's companies," he said. "The power that we have in organizations to return to the community and make a positive impact is staggering."
Checketts cited the example of LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley's fireside address at Madison Square Garden in April. Checketts invited reporters from New York-area newspapers, athletes and other power brokers to the fireside and the positive publicity for the church was impressive, he said.
Checketts, who until recently was considered a candidate for commissioner of Major League Baseball, said that most pro athletes are good citizens, although the ones who aren't get the most publicity. Knicks point guard Charlie Ward, a Heisman Trophy winner while playing college football at Florida State, is one of the most quality individuals in the NBA, Checketts said.
One night after a Knicks victory, Checketts stepped into the locker room to congratulate the team. Ward asked how Checketts' family was doing, and the 42-year-old executive replied that his wife, Deb, had been feeling ill.
"I'll pray for her," Ward said.