Product Management and Sports Broadcasting: Connecting two distant worlds

If I pause and reflect on the experiences that have shaped where I am today, it can be very inspiring. The future is exciting and changing at warp speed – and I am just as psyched about the future as the road I’ve already traveled. 

One ‘connection’ I’ve recently discovered is my career as a product manager is a microcosm of my many unique experiences. Ten, twenty, thirty years ago – long before the product manager role was a thing – I was planning, thinking and acting like a product manager. 

In my college years, one of my highlights was serving as one of the ‘play by play’ voices on WVUR-FM (90.5) for the Valparaiso Crusaders Division 1 Men’s Basketball team. Yes, for you sports nuts, that’s the ‘Valpo’ team that would make a deep March Madness run in the late 90s. In fact, the little Lutheran school from small-town Indiana was just a few bounces away from advancing to the Elite Eight – a level normally reserved for basketball’s blue bloods (Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA, and Kentucky). 

WVUR-FM was an incredible learning ground for communication students like me. Students wrote and read news reports, debated topics on-air, and played edgy music on weekly shifts. Additionally, we learned the challenges of managing a staff and a budget. Being a college athlete (futbol/soccer) and a sports junkie, I was drawn to the sports department. Culling through wire stories and newspapers, I gathered and synthesized the sports news of the day (NFL trades, ground-breaking baseball signings, college football coaching hires) for the Valpo student body.

Our product was information and we were packaging it for a customer who was busy, overworked and hungry to learn about the world. And think about it – personal computers and mobile phones weren’t even a thing. The sources for information for college students of that era were: TV (a couple of channels if you were lucky), newspapers (local and national), and radio. 

The highlight of the sports department was undoubtedly the opportunity to broadcast sporting events: Basketball (Men and Women), Football and Baseball. A spirited crew of communication students, including myself, reported on all the action live for the Valparaiso area listening audience. It wasn’t a powerful radio signal. If you ventured one mile off campus in any direction, you’d get static. We were, however, determined to paint the picture for anyone who tuned in. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but being a sports broadcaster does have some stark similarities to the world of product management. 

  1. Know your audience: Valparaiso was a small town and WVUR-FM had a small, but important voice to play. Our audience numbered in the ‘thousands’. My fraternity brothers would give me feedback on my announcing prowess as they listened on their Walkmans during study time or campus walks. The feedback wasn’t very deep, but it was insightful: “Too much talking, Naden.” “You need to tell us the score.” “Can you interview the coaches at halftime?” 

    Local men and women (longtime season ticket holders for the Brown and Gold of Valpo) would sit courtside with headphones on and tuned into the broadcast. After the game, they’d visit our broadcast table and give us pointers on how to better communicate the game action. News Alert: The people of the state of Indiana really know the sport of basketball. While broadcasting the games was a blast – probably one of the highlights of my college years – it was imperative I thought and acted like a PM, listening to my customers to deliver the best product. 
  1. Dive into the data: Product managers and sports broadcasters must rely on and master the ‘right data’ to help best deliver and quality product for their audiences. 

    Oftentimes, basketball games are won because of who ruled the rebounding battle or who had the better shooting percentage. The listening audience would love to know which stat or stats is going to affect the outcome. Which player’s performance is critical to seeing their team become the victor? 

    The parallels to product management are evident. Today, PMs are awash in data and it’s most critical to know which data points signal an upturn or downturn in your product space. Which data changes should point to a product pivot or doubling down on your current approach? Relying on hunch or intuition isn’t a consistent strategy. This approach won’t put you, your team or your company in a position of competitive advantage or differentiation. Lean into the data and it will be an important ally to help guide the direction. 
  1. Teamwork: The best product managers work well with many functions across the organization (engineering, design, legal, marketing). They are able to influence and motivate without the authority even when deadlines are tight and the pressures are evident. 

    The best ‘play by play’ voices (broadcasters) are also team-first. The teamwork starts with the person next to you – the color commentator. This person is your complement – the expert who fills in the blanks. He or she goes deep into the game to highlight trends, hot (or cold) players, and shares the keys to getting a team stuck or unstuck. 

    The more you work with your ‘co-pilot’, the closer you will become. The best color commentators know when to fill the empty spaces with insight versus letting the crowd noise. ‘Play by play’ success isn’t just tied to the person alongside you. There are additional teammates who help ‘make’ the broadcast: the producer in the studio pays the bills (commercials) and keeps the sound pristine. The sports information (SID) can’t be forgotten. The SID provided the broadcast team with halftime stat rundowns or plugged us in with players or coaches for interviews.

    Similarly, the best product managers need a community to succeed. The engineering team builds the product. The ‘testers’ ensure the product is free from bugs and can scale to meet demand. The sales team provides vital feedback on new features or roadmap considerations from customers. If stuck in isolation, a product manager will make rash, short-sighted and irrational decisions. Even worse, he or she will get burnt out. 
  1. Tell a story: Listeners and customers alike love to hear stories about people and the challenges they face. It’s true we don’t remember facts, figures, specifications. We remember people and their unique path. 

    Product managers know that an promotion campaign starts by qualifying and qualifying the customer pain – and then – showing how you uniquely qualified to solve it. This is true if you are a PM for testing software or Gillette razors. What job does your customer need done and how and why are you the only and best option to consider? 

    If you’ve watched any sporting event, you’ve heard stories of athletes or coaches who withstood struggle to reach their sport’s pinnacle. It could be the young athlete who lost a brother at a young age or a coach who battled through a crippling period of abuse or depression. Like today’s Joe Buck or Mike Tirico, the Valpo announcing team used the power of story to draw in an audience. We told stories of a young freshman who shot 200 free throws every day for one year. Or the undersized forward who punished his body over the summer to add 25 pounds of muscle. Now, no one outmuscles him in the paint for a rebound. 

It’s surprising to see the commonalities between effective product management and sports broadcasting. 1. Know your audience 2. Dive into the data 3. Teamwork and 4. Tell a story. I wasn’t thinking ‘product management’ when I put on the headphones to broadcast my first Valparaiso Crusaders game on WVUR-FM. Now, over the passing of time, it’s amazing how the two disciplines are connected. They won’t teach you broadcasting techniques in product management training and vice versa, yet it’s amazing to draw the parallels between two divergent roles. Product management can be an extremely rewarding career drive and own four common themes. 

Until next time, 

Dan Naden

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