Checketts comes to Yale

When David Checketts, the chief executive officer of Madison Square Garden Corporation from 1994 to 2001, was asked about the recent misfortunes of the New York Knicks, he kept his on-the-record comments short: “Oh boy,” he muttered.

But Checketts had more to say on the subject of the sports industry as a whole at a talk sponsored by the Yale Sports Entertainment Society at the Ray Tompkins House on Monday. Before an audience of 30, Checketts discussed the essential building blocks of sports business — live events, broadcasting, and merchandising and concessions — and his own career, which he said has given him insight into the tensions between players and owners. The industry, he argued, will be forced to confront increasingly tense management-labor relations as the economic downturn worsens.

“You think that the players would say, ‘It’s a rough economy, we’ll take a hit,’ but that’s not the way it works,” Checketts said. “They think the owners make a lot of money, and they know their careers are so short.”

Checketts did not start his career in the sports industry, however.

After finishing business school, Checketts said, he worked for two years at a consulting firm “trying to remove costs from Bridgestone tires.”

But an unexpected call from a friend from Brigham Young University, the future Celtics star Danny Ainge, changed Checketts’s career trajectory, he said. When Ainge decided to transition from Major League baseball to basketball after being drafted by the Celtics, he asked Checketts to be his agent.

When asked why he would want Checketts as his agent, Ainge responded, “Because you’re not like any of the other ones.”

In a conversation with future National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern, Checketts said the Utah Jazz — whose name only applies to their former home in New Orleans — was the worst-run team in sports. Stern told Checketts to fix the problem; Checketts became president and general manager of the Jazz at age 28, making him the youngest corporate executive officer in NBA history.

“When I got there revenues were $3 million a year,” Checketts said. “By the time I left, the revenues were almost $100 million.”

After his stint with the Knicks and Madison Square Garden, Checketts founded Sports Capital Partners, an investment firm that now owns the National Hockey League team St. Louis Blues and the Major League Soccer team Real Salt Lake, in 2001.

While at Madison Square Garden, Checketts said, he was able to observe the differences in cultures between the NBA and the NHL. The NHL players are more family-oriented, he said, while he described many NBA players as “absolutely wild.”

“After games, I would come back at 12:30 or 1 a.m., and I’d see players just leave because they didn’t have a curfew since there was no game the next day,” Checketts said.

The response from the crowd — mostly composed of male varsity athletes — was largely positive.

“The talk was easy to follow and easy to draw lessons from,” Avinash Chak ’11 said. “There was a lot of good advice.”

Ike Wilson ’11 said that while he enjoyed the anecdotes from professional sports, he would have liked to hear more “off-the-record dirt.”

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