McCormack Executive in Residence Brian Burke Casts Light on Contemporary Sport Management

April 12, 2013



"The business model [for professional sports] has changed 100% since I got in," emphasized hockey uber-executive Brian Burke in a lecture to the UMass Amherst community on April 9. "We're looking for [corporate] fits, not checks," he continued. "Less on dollars, more on long-term corporate sponsorships/relationships that match our own ideals."


Burke's lecture was a highlight of his week-long visit to Isenberg as this spring's Executive in Residence with the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management. During his residency, Burke met with students and faculty both inside and outside the classroom. He also participated in the Sport Innovation Oral History Project with the McCormack Department, the Department of Special Connections, and the University Archives at the UMass Amherst Libraries.


Burke has been general manager of four NHL teams: the Toronto Maple Leafs (2008-2013), the Anaheim Ducks (2005-2008), the Vancouver Canucks (1998-2004), and the Hartford Whalers (1992-1993) [now in the WHL]. He was general manager of the U.S. men's ice hockey team in the 2010 Winter Olympics and the NHL's Executive Vice president and Director of Hockey Operations (1993-1998).


As one variant on the new model, Burke offered his own approach, with three value-based pillars: run your operation like a business (because it is); make entertainment integral to your value proposition; involve your organization and its members (including its best-paid players) in compulsory community service. "I'm in the entertainment business," quipped Burke. "My competition is not just in sports; it's with movies and the opera." Long before the Canucks became a winning team, fans grew to love them because they were fun to watch and because they were involved in the community, Burke said. "Players can do so much for kids in a hospital bed, for kids in need," he insisted.


Another critical trend in professional sports management is the recent emphasis on player health, safety, and other non-monetary issues. In the NHL and the NFL it's not just about money now; it's about working conditions, about mandatory days off, emphasized Burke, after sketching a forty-year history of player-management milestones in bargaining, litigation, and walkouts. A graduate (J.D.) of Harvard Law School, Burke has also been a player agent, which he described as offering "a great learning tool for working [in management] with a team. In negotiations, you get to see [as an agent] which teams are well managed and which are not." The NHL, he said, has been in the forefront among professional sports in injury prevention and compensation. Unlike other sports, hockey and martial arts have no out-of-bounds, no safe place. In sports, "every new level of protection [especially helmets], become offensive weapons," he added.


"You have the best Sport Management program in North America," Burke told his Isenberg McCormack audience. All the same, he cautioned: "This industry is hard to crack. People who get these jobs fight like wounded tigers to keep them." After all, he said, a career in sport management is exciting-"better than selling life insurance."  You can bisect the industry, he continues, into the "talent" side and the business side. The former, which involves the glitzy world of high profile team/player relationships and general management, comes with more risk and "juice" than the latter. For women, the talent side "is the last door to be kicked in." he remarked. "It's time to knock down that door."[1]

[1] Last year, Burke and his son, Patrick, launched the You Can Play project, in honor of his late son, Brendan, which combats homophobia in sports.


View a video of Brian Burke's lecture here.