“It’s awesome to thrill people,” observed Isenberg sport management graduate Dennis Mannion ’81. “The ingredients that make that happen—winning, access, value, and great, nonstop entertainment—I’ve dissected them all,” Mannion told students during a recent visit to Professor Mark McDonald’s Sport Leadership class. In his own leadership roles, the Isenberg grad has raised the performance bar as a change agent with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Ravens, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and Philadelphia Phillies.
In his hour-long presentation, Mannion offered pragmatic advice: The team’s brand, he said, should match the organization’s. Purpose should ultimately trump procedure. And organizations should place a premium on adaptable employees who are “fast on their feet.” Mannion also recommended financial transparency so that employees remember “it’s all business.” Sports teams, he said, tolerate too much complacency in both employees and players.
There’s a seductiveness that accompanies high-profile professional sports, he added in an interview after class. It’s easy to talk yourself into being “super busy” without strategic purpose. “There are so many points of contact. And there’s a rhythm in your head.” Fans and employees alike identify with their teams tribally, he continued. “People are prewired to join, brag, and belong,” he told the students. And he advised his audience that a team’s success and failure are cyclical. “Teams like the Patriots get so good,” he remarked. “But ultimately they get humbled.”
Creating and Sustaining Change
To illustrate his approach to fostering change, the Isenberg graduate shared his own multivariate models with the students. Developed and refined over the course of his career, the constructs addressed purpose and vision, trust and ideology, adaptability and order, and other concerns. To illustrate how a model’s interconnected variables articulate throughout an organization, he demonstrated the adaptation/order construct applications for revenue, creativity, communications, operations, and other objectives. The model-building process, he added, should be both bottom-up and top-down. “We ran endless focus groups,” he said.
Baseball, Hockey, Basketball, Football
Mannion began his career with the Philadelphia Phillies, staying with the team for 15 years. To land that first job, he leveraged industry ties with Harold VanderZwaag and Bernie Mullen, both architects of Isenberg’s sport management program. “I thought I was going for an internship, but the Phillies said, You have a full-time job,” Dennis recalled. By the time he left the team for Ascent Sports in Denver, he had become the Phillies’ vice president of marketing and sales. As a senior vice president at Ascent, he oversaw business operations for the Colorado Avalanche and the Denver Nuggets.
Two years later, Mannion began a ten-year stretch as senior vice president of business operations with the Baltimore Ravens. “It was a smash-mouth team culture, based on toughness and defense,” he told the students, emphasizing that the organization worked to make its brand live up to that team reputation. Mannion’s next stop, in 2007, was with the Los Angeles Dodgers, as its chief operating officer. Seventeen months later, he became the team’s president and CEO. Under his leadership, the team led the league in game attendance and twice reached the National League’s championship series. After the Dodgers, the Isenberg alum joined Palace Sports & Entertainment, lending his experience to the company’s four entertainment properties. Today, he runs his own sports consulting business.
In 1998, Isenberg’s sport management program honored him with its top alumni award, named after his former mentor, Harold VanderZwaag. “It has been fantastic,” Dennis remarked, “to chart the department’s progress from its promising foundation to its current national stature.”