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Sunday, Sep 24, 2023

SPEAKERS — Motivation and Money

Hey Phil Jackson! You’ve just won your seventh NBA championship! Where are you going?

To General Motors, to make a motivational speech!

Actually, Jackson isn’t going to GM, or if he is, he hasn’t said so. But at least part of his off season will be spent regaling rapt corporate audiences of his success in blending Zen Buddhism with the triangle offense to guide the Los Angeles Lakers to their first title in 12 years.

Like an increasing number of sports figures, Jackson is part of the motivational speech touring circuit, going to events and telling CEOs and their staffs just what winning is all about. And in his case, capturing the recent NBA crown is likely to vault up his already-impressive speaking fee considerably.

“Phil Jackson is about to go sky-high because of demand,” said Marc Reede, president of Beverly Hills-based Nationwide Speakers Bureau, which books coaches including Jackson as well as athletes and professional motivators at corporate functions around the country. “Somebody wins a championship, the phone starts ringing. I just got off the phone with one very anxious customer with an event in Phoenix that would love to have him.”

Jackson already does quite well for himself as a speaker. His current fee is about $40,000 an hour, or slightly more than the $35,000 commanded by Dick Vermeil, who in January coached the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl victory and promptly retired, or former L.A. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.

The sports celebrity talking circuit is estimated to be a $500 million industry. And having become only the second NBA coach to win a championship with two different teams, Jackson’s stake in it is sure to rise.

“Potentially, it could get close to the Lance Armstrong level,” Reede said.

Armstrong, who overcame advanced testicular cancer to win the 1999 Tour de France, stands at the pinnacle of inspirational sports speaking, and commands $125,000 for a one-hour appearance. That’s as much as motivational guru Tony Robbins, who makes a living telling audiences they should strive to be all they can be.

For corporations that sign sports speakers, it provides the dual opportunity of rubbing elbows with someone famous and hearing war stories of how winning the big game can be applied toward more productivity and higher profits.

“We want them to share some of their insights,” said Ken Iriart, vice president of human resources for In-N-Out Burger. The fast food chain has hired ex-Laker and current Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, former Laker star and current Laker executive Jerry West, and Lasorda to speak at various events.

“Some of these people went into good detail about what went into building a winning team, and some of these same things apply to business,” Iriart said.

But $125,000? That’s a lot of money for an hour of inspiration. So some corporations, even as they bring sports figures in to talk about overcoming obstacles, are careful about whom they book.

Getting bang for the buck

The Southern California division of Bank of America hired Dr. Dot Richardson to speak during the middle of a grueling day of strategy meetings last February. Richardson, along with being a practicing orthopedic surgeon, was captain of the 1996 Olympic softball team that won a gold medal in Atlanta. Though she’s one of the few women sports figures on the speaking circuit, she commands less than $10,000 an engagement.

“We were so impressed by her energy,” said Nancy Keith, the bank’s vice president for corporate events. “We needed somebody to lift everyone in the middle of a long day. She talked about her sports life and her dedication and passion, and weaved it into the business world. One (BofA) officer said afterward that she was going to be more careful about allocating her precious time.”

Despite BofA’s decision to book an Olympic softballer, Keith is skeptical whether all sports figures bring real value to a speaking engagement.

“They can be great at motivating people in the moment, but if you ask people two months later what (the sports figure) talked about, they don’t remember,” she said.

For that matter, even some of those who give such pep talks are dubious about the effectiveness of trying to translate success from the court to the boardroom.

“I very seldom mention basketball,” said former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. The “Wizard of Westwood” used to give as many as 60 speeches a year, but at 90, he has scaled back his schedule. “People like Pat Riley and (basketball coach) Rick Pitino are very motivational. I don’t get motivational in that sense.”

Philosophy and coaching

Pitino and Riley have both written books that talk about success in terms of winning and losing, which Wooden eschews. Like Wooden, Jackson has a less black-and-white philosophy. In his book “Sacred Hoops,” Jackson writes that “our whole social structure is built around rewarding the winners at the perilous expense of building community and compassion.” He is famous for telling superstar Michael Jordan that “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team.'” (“There is in win,” Jordan replied.)

But Jackson’s more measured and inclusive approach appeals to the business community as well, in this age of casual dress and stock options.

“The fact of the matter is, it takes all types to win, and some companies maybe don’t want to say (to employees) that you have to be a win-at-all-costs sort,” said Reede, whose company takes a 20 to 25 percent cut of the fee from the speakers it books. Its annual revenues are about $3 million.

Jackson will be especially in demand because, now that he’s coaching the Lakers, he only has a few off-season months available for the speaking circuit. Which means he’s commanding a price that makes it hard to maintain a sense of Zen equanimity for those paying.

“We all need motivation, that’s what’s really going on,” Reede said. “Talk isn’t cheap.”

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