Earlier this year, the Philadelphia Phillies signed superstar free agent Bryce Harper to an eye-popping, thirteen-year, $330 million dollar contract, setting a (temporary) Major League Baseball record. A day after Harper’s signing, his number 3 Phillies jersey became the top-selling jersey of all-time for any player in any sport in North America within 24 hours. With less than 20 games remaining in the regular season, Harper has already belted over 30 home runs, posted a personal best in runs batted in(RBIs) and has the Phillies in contention for an NL Wild Card playoff spot.
Amid Harper’s monopoly money contract, moon-shot home runs and storybook start (two home runs in a series sweep of the defending division champion Atlanta Braves), it’s hard to recall that this almost didn’t happen.
The negotiations between Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, and the Phillies, dragged on for several months. Many pundits felt that Boras would convince Harper to sign the biggest deal, without regard for organizational culture or ability to win now.
It’s About Conversation
After the contract was inked, I listened to the Phillies General Manager of Baseball Operations, Matt Klentak, do a radio interview on Philadelphia sports radio, to explain how it all went down. The size of the contract mattered, of course, and it hit me during Klentak’s interview that was simply table stakes. It was the price of admission to even be in the conversation of landing Harper in Philadelphia.
Klentak noted that the Phillies’ Managing Partner, John Middleton, and his wife flew out to Las Vegas to meet with Harper and his wife at the end of February. Klentak said, “No baseball operations people to go with them. Really that was, I say recruiting, but it was really just conversation and connection and education.” Middleton’s pitch was simple, it’s not about the money, it’s about winning, and having Bryce Harper play for the Phillies provided the best opportunity to win now.
The contract terms were close to the mark before Middleton’s trip to Vegas, and that was simply table stakes to be in the conversation with Harper and Boras. Numbers-crunching didn’t close this deal, and judging by Klentak’s response, the numbers alone would not have landed Harper in a Phillies uniform. What made the difference was two people having a conversation, sharing what really mattered to each of them and aligning on a vision of the future.
Sports is an apt, if not overused, metaphor for business. There is competition, governing rules, regulatory bodies and clear-cut metrics to determine the winners and losers. When you step into the world of management and operations in professional sports, the same laws of business apply as in any industry. Behind any great accomplishment in business, there are relationships which are foundational. These elemental relationships form the bedrock upon which towering achievements are built, whether it’s developing a game-changing new product or bringing an all-star slugger to the Philadelphia Phillies.