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As a new leader, how do you honor an established brand while trying to shepherd it into the next era? Las Vegas Raiders’ president Sandra Douglass Morgan took the helm amid a front office scandal and a team new to the desert. Morgan talks about prioritizing customers over all else, taking risks at the beginning of a new venture, and why to bet on yourself from the moment you apply for a job.

“You have to have some faith in yourself. Be willing to take a chance, take a risk.”

— Sandra Douglass Morgan
About the guest:
sandra_morgan

Sandra Douglass Morgan is the President of the Las Vegas Raiders. She is the first African-American woman to lead an NFL franchise. Prior to her tenure with the Raiders, she was a city attorney for North Las Vegas, served on the Nevada State Athletic Commission, and was the chairwoman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board. During the pandemic, Morgan worked on the Nevada COVID-19 task force.

About the host:
bob_safian

Bob Safian is the host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, and the editor-at-large for Masters of Scale. He’s the founder of The Flux Group, a media, insights, and strategic advisory firm. He was previously editor-in-chief of Fast Company, where he won the National Magazine Award for Magazine of the Year in 2014.

Sandra Douglass Morgan took on an enterprise in the midst of a dramatic transition.

— Bob Safian
Transcript of Masters of Scale: Rally a team in turmoil

SANDRA DOUGLASS MORGAN: When people say, “Is this your dream job?” it wasn’t even in my realm of possibility to dream about. 

You have to have some faith in yourself. Be willing to take a chance, take a risk. 

My second week, I was in the stadium, and there was a gentleman that had a family, and he said, “We were season ticket holders in Oakland, and we came to Las Vegas. And when we announced you, my daughter said, ‘Hey dad, I can be the president, and then I know my brother can play for the team.'” 

And even though he’d been a season ticket holder for so long, that was his first time his daughter said something like that. And that really resonated with me, and I realized this is bigger than me. And if it can help inspire anyone really, not just even limited to women and girls, then I’m all for it.

BOB SAFIAN: That’s Sandra Douglass Morgan, President of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders.

When she took over the $5 billion franchise last summer, she became the first black woman in the history of the league to run a team.

I’m Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of the Flux Group and host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response. I wanted to talk to Sandra because she took on an enterprise in the midst of a dramatic transition.

Since moving to Las Vegas from Oakland just a few years ago, the Raiders organization has seen a wave of executive turnover, the scandal-tinged departure of its head coach, and controversial allegations about its workplace.

Sandra’s early game plan has focused on steadying the ship, while also instilling an optimistic spirit, both on the field and for the business.

She is a former city attorney for North Las Vegas — where she reigned as a Fantasy Football champion. 

She talks about the importance of meeting fan expectations, as well as the gratification of getting support from her quarterback. 

Safeguarding the Raiders brand, Sandra says, requires both risk and steadiness. Leading an NFL franchise wasn’t something she was planning on, but that doesn’t diminish the responsibility and pressure that she feels.

[THEME MUSIC]

SAFIAN: I’m Bob Safian, and I’m here with Sandra Douglass Morgan, president of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders. Sandra, thanks for joining us.

MORGAN: Thanks for having me.

Chapter 1: Sandra Douglass Morgan’s love for football

SAFIAN: So you became president of the Raiders this summer. Heading a sports franchise is always something of a fishbowl. In your case, maybe it’s been perhaps even more so — first Black woman to lead an NFL franchise and a franchise that’s been in a bit of a transition. I’m curious, are you an avid sports fan? I know you ran track in high school, and your husband played in the NFL, but your background is more as an attorney than in the sports business. So have you always dreamed of being part of professional sports? Do you play Fantasy sports?

MORGAN: Now with the NFL, no, I’m not out playing Fantasy, but yes, I ran track. You forgot the cheerleading though, since you’ve clearly done your research on high school activities. And my husband did play in the NFL for about four years, and he was a college athlete, and that’s when we met at the University of Nevada. But yeah, I’m an avid sports fan. Went to several Raiders games even before I joined the team; was on the athletic commission for Nevada, that’s boxing and MMA. And so I’m just happy that my regulatory and legal background has kind of given me exposure and opportunity to kind of get to know the sports world a little bit, but nothing compares to being on this level of professional sports than the NFL and of course the greatest team in the NFL, the Raiders.

SAFIAN: Now, before the Raiders moved to Las Vegas, did you have a team that was like your NFL team?

MORGAN: I’m focused on the future Bob.

SAFIAN: Not trying to make trouble.

MORGAN: So my husband played for the Vikings, and he played for the Cardinals for a year. But we knew, when there was the vote in Nevada to talk about creating the Las Vegas Stadium Authority board, I remember him looking at me and said, “We’re Raiders fans now,” because being from Las Vegas not having a professional sports team, people here really didn’t understand what that does for the community and just what that does just for just visitation and economic development. So we’ve been on linen since the Raiders even announced they were moving to Las Vegas.

I’m still learning what to expect on game days. Let’s say I’m hosting someone at a suite at Allegiant Stadium, and you may have a sponsor, maybe some executives. And then a Grammy-award-winning entertainer says, “Hey, can I meet you and take a picture of you and put you on Instagram?” And I’m trying with a straight face just to say, “Sure,” my kids are freaking out in the background, and then they put them on the big screen. Six months ago, I’m looking into whistleblower regulations in the European Union and kind of the privacy implications. And now there’s a Grammy-award-winning artist in my suite.

Chapter 2: Stabilizing the Raiders franchise post scandal

SAFIAN: It has been quite a time of transition, for you and for the franchise. When some leaders join a company, they’re afforded a hundred days or so to find their bearings. But in the NFL, you can’t press pause — you have to be off and running when the season starts. You were brought in by team owner Mark Davis on the heels of two president departures and other turnover in the executive ranks. The Raiders were in the news for allegedly fostering a tumultuous and even dysfunctional workplace. How much did you think about stabilizing and addressing the organization’s culture from the very beginning? 

MORGAN: I definitely wanted to come into this position, not eyes wide open, but also ears. I had an opportunity to chat with Mark, and it was incredibly refreshing when he just says, “Look, if there’s something that needs to be fixed, let’s fix it. I want you to talk to people — current, former, present — do your due diligence.”

And that gave me the comfort of knowing that he was an open book and understood, that “look, in order for us and the Raiders to be good partners in the community, we’ve got to do things the right way. So Sandra, I expect you to help us do that.”

For him to give and instill that confidence in me to do that for this team that has been a part of his family’s legacy since the 60s is something I don’t definitely don’t take lightly.

It was really important to him that I meet with the employees, and they hear it from him first and then hear directly from me, that I don’t have a history of sidestepping issues and problems. I believe the people that I worked with before expect me to tackle that head on. I want the Raiders to do that. I’m going to hold people accountable. I expect them to do the same for me.

We are in an amazing transition period that is just ripe for so much opportunity. I announced a general counsel that’s going to start next week, a new chief sales officer that was promoted this week. We have a CFO and a chief strategy officer that have been new to those roles.

So there’s a lot of opportunity, and I think abilities for this leadership team to grow together. Obviously we want to be as successful as we can on the business side to bring in enough revenues that the football team can do what they need to do and support them however we can. But it does kind of coincide with each other.

SAFIAN: I can imagine you came in with certain goals, and how far along is that process?

MORGAN: It’s an ongoing process. I’ve been on the job for two and a half months, so I still think it’s in the early stages, I don’t have a checklist that says when I do these five things, I’m done dealing with the culture, now I can focus on something else.

This is going to be an ongoing process that we’re going to have to continue to grow and adapt, get to know each other. The business is going to change. We have to continue to grow. We have to continue to push each other and do better and build that culture.

Derek Carr reached out and said that that feeling of having each other’s back of winning, that can do, let’s win at all cost attitude that we have on the field, we have to replicate that on the business side. He’s been complimentary of that and understands the need to communicate and collaborate and do the best, so that the business side should never be a distraction for football. I’m trying to replicate that winning attitude on the business side.

Chapter 3: Refounding the Raiders culture

SAFIAN: When you go into a new culture like this, is your starting point to be everybody starts fresh today. I’m not looking back, or are there stakes you put in the ground, so that everyone knows that maybe the way some things worked before aren’t going to wash in the future?

MORGAN: I am pretty open with sharing with the team that if you’ve heard no before, you heard that you heard someone else said no, you heard this was an issue in 1984, someone kind of said not to handle things that way, let’s go ahead and start fresh. I’m happy to address issues or concerns with maybe other leaders or with Mark or maybe even with stakeholders here in Nevada, whether they be elected officials or other corporate sponsors.

Not necessarily starting fresh for the way things have been done, because I do think it’s incredibly important with the Raiders having such a really storied, rich legacy that we honor that. Part of being a Raider, when you walk into this building in headquarters, you see commitment to excellence, you see pride and poise, you see the greatness in our future. So, that is our history. We cannot erase that.

But I do feel like for day to day issues, new ways of maybe engaging fans or attracting new fans, imagery, and what does being a Raider mean? Those are all, I think, new fresh things are going to change over time and change because we’re in a new market.

SAFIAN: The Raiders are a powerful brand with a long history. Are there things about that brand that you say “this we’re definitely going to keep,” and are there some things about that brand that you say, “this is what we’re going to update?”

MORGAN: I think we keep it. I mean the history, it is, look … We’re bold. We are a team that is not afraid of going against the grain.

Raider Nation comes in all sizes, shapes, colors, all 50 states. We have season ticket holders from all 50 states. If you want to be a Raider, we’re going to show you how to do things the Raider way. And I think it’s that inclusivity and just willing to maybe accept those maybe weren’t accepted somewhere else.

This is a team that has celebrated diversity and inclusion before it was something that people just like to talk about on social media. Whether it be Al Davis’s decision to move the AFL championship game in 1963 from New Orleans because the Black players weren’t being treated appropriately. That wasn’t something that he did because he was getting #movetheAllStargame. He did it because it was the right thing to do, and he was listening to his players.

Some of the historic hires that he’s made weren’t because he was getting pressure from the public to do it’s because he thought that those people were the best qualified to do their jobs. Whether that be Tom Flores, the first Latino head coach, Art Shell, first African American head coach, or even Amy Trask as the first female.

So these things aren’t new to the Raiders. And that is another reason why I knew it would be an amazing opportunity for me to serve as president here.

Chapter 4: Juggling local community imperatives with global business initiatives

SAFIAN: The Raiders are still new to Las Vegas, and so part of your task is anchoring them in the community, but the NFL is also a global community. So how do you juggle the local community imperatives with this more expansive global business opportunity?

MORGAN: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive, but I think that the fact that I’m a local here, and my ability over the last 20 years of my professional career to meet and engage with members of the Convention and Visitors Authority or mayors or honestly gaming companies that I used to regulate, I think that helps to show that I’m here, and I’m willing to listen, and I’m going to have stability to the business office operations.

This is already an international brand. Mexico is one of our international home markets where we have a very strong Latino fan base.

And so knowing and explaining that Raider way and giving more people access to it, which we have an ability to do now more than ever, not just because of the international games that the NFLs now embracing and investing in, but also through social media. I think we have tremendous opportunities that lie ahead.

SAFIAN: You were city attorney for North Las Vegas when it was the fastest growing city in the U.S. You chaired the Nevada Gaming Control Board during the heat of COVID. Are there experiences from those roles, challenges that you hark back to and draw lessons from in this new post?

MORGAN: Some of my friends have joked that every time I go to the public sector there’s a recession or a pandemic. And so I think through those roles, I’ve had to kind of deal with a crisis. And whether it’s in the city of North Las Vegas where, as you mentioned, fastest growing to having a foreclosure on every block. And having multiple judgements, whether it be with unions and collective bargaining agreements and even with other community stakeholders. And then being the chair of the Gaming Control Board in Nevada, that’s one of our largest industries.

I was focused on finding ways that people could game and do things on your phone through cashless wagering, and then boom, the pandemic hit.

And then having to be responsible for finding a way to close these properties. Some are small cities of the in and of themselves and we’re not just talking about the ones on the strip. We have thousands of gaming licensees throughout the state and then reopening them in a way that people felt that they would be safe again.

So I think that ability to deal with crises, being able to sustain businesses, communicating most of the times, not good news, but doing it in a way that the people were being informed, and knowing the why behind the decision making process — and I plan to do that at the Raiders as well.

SAFIAN: Going through those crises, though, it wasn’t like you knew or hoped that it would lead to an NFL gig, like this wasn’t part of your plan.

MORGAN: No, and I’ve often said, when people say, “Is this your dream job?” It wasn’t even in my realm of possibility to dream about, if that makes sense. Growing up in Las Vegas, we had the 1990 UNLV basketball team that we held onto desperately, right? There were no professional sports when I was growing up. To be able to lead an NFL franchise, in the city I was raised in, no, this was not on the dream meter at all. But now that I’m here, there’s no other place I’d rather be.

[AD BREAK]

SAFIAN: Before the break we heard the Las Vegas Raiders’ President Sandra Douglass Morgan talk about making the leap from a city attorney to leading a sports franchise. 

Now she talks about the complex world of state betting regulations, and how being the first black woman President of an NFL team has its pressures.

Plus she shares lessons about taking risks at the beginning of a new venture, having faith in yourself, and why it’s important to keep learning new skills. 

The NFL structure is interesting because while the teams compete on the field, the franchises sort of collaborate as a business. I’m wondering whether when you were named president, there were other executives around the league who reached out to you with guidance?

MORGAN: Well, I don’t know if this is a deep, dark secret that I’m sharing, but I have been pleasantly surprised with the very warm welcome that I received from multiple presidents. Every region reached out to say, “Welcome aboard. You never know what’s kind of going to happen next. Obviously on Sundays we’re competitors, but on the day to day on the business operations, whether they be for stadium or just traditional front office or business issues, we’re here to help.”

Chapter 5: The complex world of state betting regulations

SAFIAN: Fantasy Sports is a $20 billion business now. It’ll be a $50 billion business within a few years. The sports betting business is even bigger like $80, $90, $100 billion a year. And so from your point of view, when you look at your business and you look at the future, do you think about: how do we benefit from those kinds of revenue streams?

MORGAN: The NFL has certain partnerships with certain gaming companies, but every single state’s gaming regulatory structure is different. Some states will allow you to have a racing sports book at or near a stadium within certain feet. Some states restrict betting on certain college athletics.

In Nevada, for example, in order to have a racing sports book, you have to be attached to a resort hotel that has a certain number of hotel rooms and a 24/7 cafe. We’ve seen 31, I think, of 50 states now have sports betting as legal. And in those states that includes more than half of the country’s population.

So I think how you can either monetize or get percentage of those is really going to differ on a state by state basis. Which is why I believe the NFL has a much broader approach on sports betting and just focusing on specific partners and sponsorship agreements, not necessarily tied to gaming revenue.

The team already has existing gaming, commercial casino gaming partners and one betting partner, and there are certain categories of sponsorships that we can have. The NFL is aware of my gaming background, and I definitely hope to do whatever I can to help them and other teams kind of understand more about the gaming regulatory structure and sports betting.

Chapter 6: Playing the long, long, long game

SAFIAN: A lot of the listeners to this podcast, they’re entrepreneurs. And I’m curious how much running a business like the Raiders is an entrepreneurial exercise? It’s sort of like how much risk and what kind of risk you take with the business?

MORGAN: I don’t think of it as a startup. I mean we have incredible resources. And so it’s not as if though, every single decision you make is going to make or break whether or not you’re around the next month.

But I think with the NFL and with any other team, we’re in it for the long, long, long game. Mark Davis is dedicated to the fan and thinking about everything from the fan’s lens and how they’re treated and making sure they grow that fan base. The dollars may not be the number one thing at the forefront of his mind. Of course, we all want to make money and make sure the team is valued, but his number one concern is always going to be the fan. And he reminds me of that daily.

Chapter 7: Being the first Black woman to lead an NFL franchise

SAFIAN: You’re the first Black woman to lead an NFL franchise. That could carry its own pressures maybe as a role model. Is that stressful? How much does that weigh on you? How much do you think about that?

MORGAN: Any position I’m in, I want to go in and do a good job, and I want to make sure that I’m meeting my own targets and my own goals. But it’s not lost on me that I’m the first.

I try not to dwell on it because I don’t want to cloud my judgment and my desire to maybe take risks and try different things in different situations.

But my second week I was meeting with some of our suite holders in the stadium, and there was a gentleman that had a family, and he said, “Yeah, we were season ticket holders in Oakland, and we came to Las Vegas. The stadium was amazing, and when we announced you, my daughter said, ‘Hey dad, I can be the president, and then I know my brother can play for the team.'” And even though he’d been a season ticket holder for so long, that was his first time his daughter said something like that. And that really resonated with me, and I realized this is bigger than me. And if it can help inspire anyone really, not just even limited to women and girls, then I’m all for it. So yeah, it’s a responsibility, but it’s not one I take lightly.

Chapter 8: Building Las Vegas into a sports capital

SAFIAN: You have this aspiration about making Las Vegas like a sports capital, not just for the Raiders but for sports in a larger sense?

MORGAN: The Raiders have now this amazing stadium. We have 400 million visitors that come through Las Vegas, so we want to make sure they’re able to see that stadium, obviously for a Raider game first and foremost. But it could be a concert, another tour, another sporting event.

And we’re the best in hospitality, and that’s why we’re hosting the Super Bowl in 2024. Formula One that’s coming in November 2023.

We have the Raiders, we have soccer, we have the WNBA World Champions, Las Vegas Aces, and these arenas have been full. And I think as a native Las Vegan, never given the opportunity to show that yes we can support professional sports; this is a great time for our city. So I’m proud of obviously first and foremost as being a Raider, but also as a Las Vegan.

SAFIAN: Many businesses sometimes struggle with how they prioritize their stakeholders, shareholders, employees, customers. If I hear you right, the fan is the top stakeholder. How do you think about what that hierarchy or that priority list looks like?

MORGAN: Everyone is equally important. Isn’t that what we say to our children? But I think the priorities may change based on the circumstances. When I meet with Mark, he’s going to say, the fan is the priority. Before I was announced, he said, “you have to talk to the employees first.”

I think that people internally wanted to know and understand more about me and what my vision and my goals were and why Mark chose me for this position. But obviously external stakeholders are just as important. And I think a lot of people that I probably underestimated wanted to understand more about me outside of Nevada and what I’m going to bring to the Raiders.

I did not calculate that as far as my time allocation, but I’m realizing if I can do that and give people an opportunity to learn and understand more about the Raiders and why we do things the Raider way, then that’s great for the organization as well.

SAFIAN: And do the fans expect you to be on social media like you should be responding to them?

MORGAN: That is a skillset that I need to grow, put it that way, Bob. I’m not really good at social media. I have kids, one a preteen and one a tee,n and everything, I say, “Well, if I say this?” They’re like, “It’s lame. Just stop. Don’t do it. Don’t you have someone that can help you do that?” That’s the kind of response I get.

I don’t think they expect to, but I feel a responsibility to connect with the fans at every game that I attend. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. And the fans that travel to every game and have made permanent impressions on their body with Raider Nation and that are there through thick and thin, you can’t not meet them when they’ve just given and dedicated such a part of their life to it.

SAFIAN: Are there other things that you feel like, “I didn’t realize I would need to do this quite as much?”

MORGAN: Those things change every day. I’m definitely someone though that kind of leans into challenges. I’m not afraid to ask people who may work for me, “What do you think?” I’m very collaborative, put it that way. You can tell me, “Yeah, this worked in 2010, but maybe the circumstances are different so we should try it again.” I definitely want to hear your opinion. I may not agree with you, but I want to hear you, and if I don’t agree with you, I promise I’ll tell you why. And after that decision is made, then we’re going to move on to something else. You’re not going to meet that many people that say, “Yeah, I ran an NFL team.” It’s not beneath me to acknowledge what I don’t know.

But being able to make decisions is part of what’s required of a leader. Definitely not afraid to do that.

Chapter 9: Lessons of starting a new job

SAFIAN: For our listeners who may be starting a new job, starting a new task, starting a new initiative, is there a lesson that you’ve taken from this that, this is the place that I have to begin, the thing that I have to think about at the start?

MORGAN: No, I think it would be more of: don’t be afraid to take risks and to try something different. When you asked me about was there something that, oh, I didn’t know I was going to have to do this often, if I focused on that, I probably wouldn’t have accepted the job, or I wouldn’t have been in a position to even be offered the job. And so I wouldn’t focus on that. You focus on what you can do, you focus on what you know and just know and trust in yourself that you can grow that skillset.

A study that I read said, when there’s a job application or a job opening, and let’s say there’s 10 requirements or 10 recommended skills, men will look at maybe three of them and say, “Oh, I got three of those things. Let’s go. I’m going to apply for it.” Whereas some women, and I don’t want to overgeneralize, but I used to do this, If I didn’t meet all 10, I wouldn’t apply.

You have to have some faith in yourself. Be willing to take a chance, take a risk. And if it doesn’t work out, you pivot, you adjust, and you try something else. Every single thing is not going to be a win, right? How many perfect records do we have right now in the NFL? But you have to push yourself, and you have to have that same mentality, in my opinion, on the business side as well.

SAFIAN: Sandra, this has been great. Thank you again for doing this.

MORGAN: Thank you.

Masters of Scale’s mission is to democratize entrepreneurship. Launched in 2017 as a weekly podcast featuring Reid Hoffman, we’re now two weekly podcasts — Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman, and Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, hosted by Bob Safian — as well as an award-winning daily learning app, a best-selling book, virtual and live events, and more, serving a global community of founders, funders, and leaders looking to innovate at scale.
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