A bit of a jack-of-all-trades, Woodie Dixon, Jr. has knack for problem-solving. He says it’s his key role—and it’s fun.
By Kara Lawton
Welcome back to 2010-11 and the to-do list of Woodie Dixon, Jr., General Counsel and Senior Vice President (SVP) of Business Affairs at the Pacific-10 Conference (now the Pac-12 Conference). It’s May: Expand the conference by adding more exceptional academic and athletic universities. Create a football championship. Support the redefinition of the basketball tournament. Help create national brand recognition and develop media strategies that push beyond any collegiate model to date, resulting in the largest media rights deal in the history of college sports. What’s next?
Why not negotiate the formation and distribution of Pac-12 Networks, with one national and six regional networks, the only collegiate media network and company 100 percent equity owned by its member institutions? It’s exactly the kind of landmark venture for which Dixon was brought on board in 2010. Add the fact that no one on staff had any experience working for a media company with the whirlwind pace of launching a national startup network and groundbreaking international initiatives, and you’ve got the same enticing formula that led Dixon to in-house sports counsel.
“I love the fact that sports changes every day,” Dixon said. “Every season is a new year; every game is a new game. Player issues, coaching issues, media, television, the weather—everything about a week or a day is different, and what you’re trying to do is turn that chaos and ever-changing environment into a very successful and dependable operation.”
Getting Into the People Biz
After earning his master’s degree in Sport Management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the Harvard Law School graduate left behind four years in law firms to work for the National Football League (NFL) in New York. Dixon wanted the opportunity to understand and shape business, just as much as getting to understand, shape and know people. His next move was in 2004 to Missouri as General Counsel and Director of Player Compensation for the Kansas City Chiefs. There he encountered the unforgettable leadership of General Manager, President and Chief Executive Officer Carl Peterson.
“Carl is unique in that people truly loved him and revered him,” Dixon said. “He just cared so much about people, who they were, their families, their personal stake, and how that all worked in concert with defining the Chiefs team and brand. Most employees responded incredibly well to this approach, and as a result became Chief lifers. They wanted the team to succeed in every way.”
Peterson’s all-in team culture matches what Dixon, Commissioner Larry Scott and other execs want to cultivate in the new Pac-12 Network—a culture that Scott was able to clearly establish at the conference. It certainly wasn’t easy integrating everyone into the Pac-12 culture in the middle of hiring 150 employees, choosing architects and designers, negotiating contracts, creating a distribution plan, hiring talent, building a studio and hustling to get the network launched in one year. Defining the perfect blend of culture is still a work in progress for the network, and something Dixon hopes the executive team stays patently focused on.
Like most good leaders, Dixon strives to build an environment in which people can succeed. He emulates what he’s learned from mentors such as Peterson and Scott: Hire really good people, empower them, trust them, build a lot of confidence, and most importantly create a team environment where people buy in as a team. And Dixon sets a high bar as a macro-manager by taking risks, demanding creative thinking, looking for opportunities to let employees take credit and embracing mistakes.
The Sports Business Journal 2013 Forty Under 40 Award winner says he’s a realist: “I realize people make mistakes. If you’re going to push the envelope and try to do it the best you can, you’re going to make mistakes. I think people that can get through a career or even a year or two without making a mistake are the people who play it really close to the vest, and they’re dodging mines and being political, trying to play the middle of the road. That’s not what we want; that’s not what I want.”
One risk that paid off earlier in Dixon’s career was selling people on an unconventional choice for the Chiefs’ Director of Human Resources (HR). He interviewed a candidate from another professional sports team, among other high-profile candidates, and one from Nike, whom the President and Owner wanted to hire. Yet it was the HR Director at a garage door manufacturer working in Lawrence, Kansas, who impressed Dixon with her complete understanding of the business, including her willingness to be out on the production line “solving issues with employees and getting to know the whole staff.” He knew she would excel because she knew people, and she proved him right. Today she’s still with the Chiefs organization as the VP of HR and Administration.
In-House Is the Right Fit
In his current role, Dixon is an in-house jack-of-all-trades who handles the legal work and oversees HR for the Pac-12 Conference and Pac-12 Enterprises (the conference’s network, digital, advertisement and sponsorship arm), general business affairs, new business initiatives, Pac-12 football—the conference’s top revenue-generating sport—and student athlete health and safety initiatives. He’s at his desk maybe 20 to 25 percent of the day, with the rest of his time spent at the conference or network, traveling, speaking, bouncing from various meetings and solving problems across the entire company.
How does an action-junkie like Dixon decide on the right reaction? Easy. Be decisive; don’t overact; don’t underact; get perspective; assemble a think tank; and make a consensus decision.
Recognizing that the sports world is anything but predictable, organizations must react quickly to whatever happens. “You’ve got 10 to 15 new issues every day of the week,” Dixon said. “You may find a couple hours every week to work off your to-do list. The rest of it is reacting to something that happened. When you have a team that you like and hopefully a team that likes you, it’s fun solving those problems.”
The conference has a football championship game model that rewards its best team with the honor of hosting the conference’s championship game. This means that the conference does not know which institution, and therefore which city, stadium and campus, will be hosting the game until six days or so prior. As a result, Dixon’s team has to prepare multiple sites and have contingencies in place for up to six potential host venues, including security, transportation, signage and media. During the one-week rush to pull off the real event, they experience a “boatful of problems every day,” according to Dixon. His staff says it’s the calmest he is all year. He calls it one of the best and most rewarding weeks of the year.
In 2012, Stanford was the last-minute conference championship host. Unfortunately the weather forecast called for an uncharacteristic 5 to 8 in. of rain, and the weather wreaked havoc on the entire planning and operations of the game. One very notable problem was the field. The new (and first) tarp for Stanford’s football field was stuck in Mississippi. The conference called every pro, minor league and college team in surrounding states to no avail, and finally ended up patching three baseball tarps together to cover the field.
“It took 30 to 35 people running around crazy all week to pull this game off,” Dixon said. “Trusting your employees and kind of being a realist, respecting what they do both inside and out of the office, I think it helps and pays dividends when stress does hit.”
His team knows they’ll need to pull an occasional all-nighter, make an emergency trip or take the red eye and leave their family for a week—things he believes they’re more willing to do because they’ve bought into the process and been given leeway all year.
Sports Leadership 2.0
To Dixon, leeway builds confidence. It means finding low-risk learning opportunities for new employees early on, and letting them run with it. Something he did with Maggy Carlyle, a rare first-year law student he hired to intern with the Chiefs.
“From the first day, [Dixon] was giving me involved projects,” Carlyle said. “He really did practice learning by fire, trial by fire—sort of indicative of how he treated everything. Give me something or give anyone else something, see how they do and then go from there.”
In her interview, Carlyle told Dixon that she didn’t know much about sports law but was more than willing to learn. After she over-delivered on salary cap research for the team’s draft picks and worker’s compensation projects, he extended her internship from three months to a year. The exposure to many different aspects of the Chiefs’ operations led to her next jobs with the NFL and San Francisco 49ers, and as Assistant Counsel for the San Jose Sharks, the Bay Area’s professional hockey team, where she currently works.
Today Carlyle considers Dixon a close friend and a mentor who now happens to live within driving distance. “One of the things I admire about him and try to emulate is his capacity and great ability to organize and bring people together,” she said. “It’s something he’s always done and continues to do.”
The Reality of Halftime
The Monday before Valentine’s Day 2014, Dixon was a third-time guest speaker on sports law at the University of California Davis. A summary on the event organizer’s blog said Dixon was “an amazing speaker.” Dixon himself said, “I think it went well, but driving there I wished I had another hour to prepare.”
Being married to another lawyer and the father of two young children makes work, family and everything else a constant balancing act. Dixon understands that his staff deals with similar challenges and that he needs to embrace this. It’s a simple equation: Happiness and success outside of the office equals more happiness and success at the office.
“You’ve got to find the right balance, and that’s hard,” Dixon said. “There’s not a day or week that goes by that I don’t think, ‘Man, I should’ve spent more time with my kids or my wife or my parents, or I wish I had more time to spend at work or on this presentation.’ You’re constantly doing that.”
“We’re charged with a mission of succeeding for our schools and succeeding for our conference, and we’ve accomplished that at an incredibly high level, but work cannot be the most important thing for everyone, every minute. It can’t be. It’s imperative that I understand that for myself and my staff.”
Kara Lawton is a freelance writer based in Boston, Massachusetts.
Woodie's Key Partners:Cooley LLP (IP and Employment Law) | Proskauer Rose (Media Rights Agreements) | Seyfarth Shaw (Employment Matters)
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