Wharton’s Ken Shropshire keeps his eye on the business of sports.
By Robert Strauss
When Kenneth L. Shropshire was growing up in Los Angeles, he and his friends were always playing sports. Even though they mainly played in loosely organized after-school leagues, some were quite good at it. “Marques Johnson and Butch Johnson had the most success from those days,” said Shropshire about the U.C.L.A./Milwaukee Bucks basketball star and the former Dallas Cowboys receiver.
“But it wasn’t like it is now. My kids are in a multiplicity of organized sports with coaches and schedules and everything. I didn’t – and I don’t think Marques and Butch even did – play high-level organized sports until we were in high school. Kids have the opportunity to be involved in many more sports now and at a much more intense level. The increased intensity at that level is mirrored on the business side of big-time sports as well.”
Shropshire, who is the David W. Hauck Professor and Chairman of the School’s Legal Studies Department, has taught everything from negotiation to real estate, diversity issues to general business law. But his passion – and the place where he gets quoted in every major journal in the country – is sports in law and business. He is the author, co-author or editor of six books on the business or culture of sports. (His next co-authored book, The Business of Sports, is due out in March 2004.) He was an executive with the organizing committee for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, chaired the Philadelphia Stadium Site Selection Committee, has been a sports agent, and is part of a project to assess whether Philadelphia should bid on the 2024 Olympic Games.
Shropshire is kind of a two-way player when it comes to consulting. He has not only helped Major League Baseball educate team executives on how to deal with negotiations, but has also aided the National Football League Players Association in explaining to new agents their role with players. He has given seminars on sports to the South African government and on negotiation to Fannie Mae; talked about the need to continue affirmative action programs to the American Civil Liberties Union; and testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on professional sports franchise moves.
Yet he remains most passionate about the role of race and diversity in sports.
“There has certainly been progress,” said Shropshire. “I would defy any casual sports fan, say, to name every black coach in the National Basketball Association or every black quarterback in the National Football League. Ten years ago, maybe even five years ago, there were so few that it would have been easy.”
He said that even his 1995 book, In Black and White: Race and Sports in America, is somewhat outdated in that some of the issues there have been resolved.
“But just because there has been some progress, does that mean you slow down? Does it push you to do more?” he asked. “If people have set up a system to interview more minority candidates for front office jobs, don’t you have to make sure the system works correctly?”
He pointed to a recent controversy in Detroit, where the general manager, Matt Millen, was fined because he hired Steve Mariucci, white head coach, without sufficiently interviewing minority candidates. Millen, Shropshire said, seems to be chastened by the fine. But the team’s ownership – primarily the Ford family – may well not remember the next time the issue comes up, because they were not held accountable like Millen was.
“On the field, yes, there is more acknowledgement that you get the best player out there – Donovan McNabb or Michael Vick – and don’t worry about race,” he said. “But the front office – general managers and the like – still abounds in an old-boy network.”
Negotiating at Home and Beyond
Organized sports these days, said Shropshire, begin awfully young and, as his own busy family life proves, negotiations seem to start not with a pro contract, but at home.
“My wife, certainly, had a much more intense sporting life than I did, but even she did not start organized sports at age eight,” Shropshire said about Diane Morrison, who is now an anesthesiologist, but back when they both attended Stanford University in the late 1970s, was the NCAA doubles champion (with partner Susie Hagey). She later played professionally before going to medical school. “I did play Little League baseball and assorted sports in the YMCA,” Shropshire said, but unlike his own kids (eight-year-old Samuel and ten-year-old Theresa), “it was one sport per season – not trying to figure out how to get from hockey, to soccer and then to tennis. It gives you a perspective of how things change.”
Shropshire’s father was a physician in Los Angeles, and while he enjoyed seeing his son play football and become all-City and all-State as a 6-foot-1, 210-pound center, he was more interested in his college choice.
“I was looking at Stanford because, at the time, they seemed to be a football power,” said Shropshire. “Those last two years I was in high school, they won the Rose Bowl over Ohio State and Michigan. They beat the hometown powers, Southern Cal and U.C.L.A. both years. In my mind, it was Stanford, Oklahoma, Notre Dame – football schools. To my parents, it was Stanford, a future.”
Sure enough, Shropshire went to Stanford on a football scholarship and proved his parents right. He played all four of his years there, but after two years of playing it was clear to him that he was not going to make it into the N.F.L., as his teammates Tony Hill and James Lofton seemed destined to do.
“All right, so now I was not going to be in the N.F.L., but I still wanted to do something in sports,” he said. “A bunch of the guys on the football team were talking law school, so I started heading in that direction. Sports agents were just being talked about, so maybe that was something worth considering.”
Shropshire came east to go to law school at Columbia University, but after graduation headed back to California to practice law and eventually landed a job helping negotiate sponsorship contracts for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games.
“But then that was all finished about a year before the games, and they had to figure out something for me to do. They moved me to be the committee member in charge of the boxing competition. I was a 27-year-old lawyer, and it was the already the best job in my life,” he said.
Shropshire got to travel the world, talking to various countries’ Olympic boxing committees about how the sport would operate in Los Angeles. He had to make sure the East Germans were coming and entreat the Chinese – who had not been to the Games since 1952–to get interested in boxing as well. He met with Cuban sports officials to see how their country’s boxing federation worked and traveled to Europe to make sure each country there got its fair hearing. He worked closely with Danny Villanueva, the former Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Rams placekicker who had made a fortune as a founder of the Spanish television network Univision, who was the business executive working most closely with Olympic boxing.
“My experience and time with Villanueva served as a foundation for what ‘minority’ and ‘diversity’ could mean,” said Shropshire. “Certainly today, with Arturo Moreno, the new Latino owner of the Anaheim Angels, and Yao Ming in the National Basketball Association, and the Latins and Asians in baseball, just talking about black and white is no longer appropriate in professional sports.”
After the Olympics were over, Shropshire for a short time partnered with Anita L. DeFrantz, who worked on the Olympics with him, in a sports agency, but soon afterwards, she was tapped to help run the Los Angeles Amateur Athletic Foundation and to serve on the International Olympic Committee. He chose not to continue running the business.
“Now I was nearly 30, with a lot of experience in the sports business, but no sports teams or leagues were banging my door down offering employment,” he said. He also thought about getting into TV or print journalism, but had no stomach to start shooting videotape of fires in Fresno or reporting on high school baseball in Bakersfield. But he enjoyed teaching a night course in sports law at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. So, he went to an annual hiring conference for prospective law professors in Chicago, in hopes of finding a full-time teaching gig.
“I didn’t have a traditional prospective law professor’s resume. I had been in practice for a while, had not clerked for a judge, and having no prior teaching ambitions had not labored on a law review in preparation for the profession. I went to about 20 interviews, and none felt like the right fit,” he said. “Then I was at an end-of-the- day cocktail party when a guy with a Wharton name tag came up to me and struck up a conversation. As he learned more about my background, he said that I might be the kind of person who would enjoy teaching law to business people. I tried to turn him down, but he insisted on my coming to an interview. I never wanted to return east, but when they offered me the job, I thought, okay, let’s try. Now I have two kids who know nothing but Philadelphia, and it has turned out far better than I could imagine.”
A Complex Field
Certainly, the field of sports law has changed immensely in the 17 years since Shropshire came to Wharton. It has grown to encompass many fields, from real estate to municipal law to antidiscrimination law and, to be sure, contracts. Along the way, Shropshire has been able to soak up expertise by practicing and consulting, rather than just studying.
“The great thing about Ken is that, as bright as he is, he is able to present things in layman’s terms, especially to us sports guys who aren’t used to hanging around academics,” said Larry Needle, the executive director of the Philadelphia Sports Congress, an arm of the local tourism bureau that tries to interest sporting events and teams to come to the Philadelphia area. Shropshire has been a consultant for the Congress on several projects and is on its executive board. “He can see it through the legal and business end, but also through the sports prism with all that experience he had at the 1984 Olympics and as an agent and teacher.”
Shropshire has written two books on the evolving business of sports agentry, one critical – Agents of Opportunity: Sports Agents and Corruption in Collegiate Sports (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992) – and the other more a primer for agents themselves – The Business of Sports Agents (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003). He wrote The Business of Sports Agents, as well as edited an anthology Sports and the Law, with Timothy Davis, another Stanford graduate and a law professor at Wake Forest University.
“I didn’t know Ken at Stanford, since he was one of those football players and I, well, was one of the academic crowd,” said Davis with a chuckle. “But he sure isn’t just that football player any more. It’s sort of a fraternity of us who are in this field that crosses academia and sports and business, and Ken is the star. Many of those who write about this are merely academics. It’s only a few like Ken who can deal with it in both an academic and practical way.”
Shropshire strictly wore his practical hat a couple of years ago when he helped negotiate the sale of the sports agent practice of his college teammate, Ray Anderson, to the mega-agency, Octagon. Shortly after Shropshire put that deal together, Anderson was offered the job as Chief Operating Officer of the Atlanta Falcons, perhaps the highest front-office job offered an African-American in modern National Football League history, but Anderson didn’t know which way to go.
“Ken negotiates in the win-win philosophy, which is extremely difficult,” said Anderson. “I had recently been the agent for Tyrone Willingham, who was offered the chance to be the first African-American football coach at Notre Dame. Tyrone was secure as a coach at Stanford, but he knew this was a landmark opportunity. I told him to go for it.
“So when it came to my offer, Ken said, ‘Look in the mirror. What did you tell Tyrone? How can you not do the same thing?’” said Anderson. “Ken came to Stanford as a scrapping little lineman, always in the midst of the action, never thinking about giving up and giving in. In negotiations, he gets focused and sticks to it. I’m sure he teaches in the same way.”
Ironically, Shropshire did not even think teaching negotiation was something that could be done. Now it is one of his favorite courses, and he even travels to the Wharton West campus in San Francisco to teach it.
“Part of me was just a believer that you either were able to negotiate or you weren’t, that there was little to teach,” he said. He sought the counsel of Wharton professor Richard Shell and went to a week-long executive negotiations course at Stanford and found that not only was negotiation teachable, but fun as well.
“It’s not about teaching people tricks, but giving them a way to focus and develop a road map to what they want that they can achieve,” he said. “It’s vital to people in sports these days. Almost everyone has an agent, but even finding an agent can be a negotiation.”
His consultation on stadium issues burgeoned with another of his books, The Sports Franchise Game (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), where he was critical of the economics of municipal stadium building. In 1950, he noted in the book, there was only one major league sports franchise playing in a government-built arena, the Cleveland Indians in Cleveland Municipal Stadium. By 1970, 53 of 73 professional stadiums were government-built or subsidized. Today, it is a near-certain reality that government will shell out just to keep or attract a major sports franchise. Given that, Shropshire tries to advise clients – be they governments or teams – that building a stadium downtown, rather than in a suburb, is the best policy.
“Philadelphia is unique in that they have a sports complex of several arenas and stadiums in a single location, but there is little economic benefit to surrounding businesses, simply because there are so few businesses in that section of town,” he said. “The sports complex is convenient, or at least it will be once parking is in place, for people to come into Philadelphia to go to a ball game and to get out without spending any additional time in the city.
“One factor I really liked about a Center City ballpark location, had they decided to build there, was that you had the opportunity for great beauty shots of the city on television. One fear was that people would not use public transportation to come to a Center City ballpark, and traffic would be at a standstill on game days. That has not been the case where people have had to adapt in other cities,” he said. “In San Francisco, Pacific Bell Park is right off of downtown and people who otherwise didn’t use public transportation do so to come to the park.”
Sometimes, Shropshire does like to drop the academic and practical for a little fun writing and editing. He and Dr. Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California school of cinema and television, edited Basketball Jones (New York University Press, 2000), a series of essays explaining the rise of basketball and its consciousness in the current culture. There were essays about Islam and basketball, the lonely white guy on a National Basketball Association team, and basketball in the movies. The seeming comparative frivolous nature of this book, compared to his other instructive tomes, was deceiving, though.
“We got together through a mutual friend and discovered we were two of few people who were studying sports in a serious way,” said Boyd. He said that he and Shropshire searched for something to do and found that the combination of a Wharton business professor and an L.A. film critic would bring the proper myriad of voices about basketball together.
“It was like putting together a basketball team,” said Boyd. “There is this one guy who takes the ball to the basket, takes the chances and tends to draw the ire of the fans, like Allen Iverson, and that is me. Then there is the guy like Tim Duncan – who I actually criticize in the book – who isn’t flashy or flamboyant, but at the end of the night, you look at the stat sheet and he has 28 points, 14 rebounds and 8 assists. Every night. That is Ken. Dependable. The solid, consistent one. That makes all our discussions the best of both worlds.”
Boyd’s analysis seems right on when Shropshire talks about his latest academic leanings. He wants to do more with the negations area, even contemplating a sports-specific course on the topic. “But I will never be able to ignore race and the business of sports,” he said. “It is the big issue.”