Peter Guber is not the type of person who keeps you guessing. He’s used to giving direction, and he rarely leaves things open to interpretation.
“As you drive up, you’ll see my office on the right,” says the low-vowel Boston accent through the entry gate intercom. “You can’t miss it. If you do? [chuckle] Well, then ya don’t deserve to be here.”
You know that you better not look left and possibly miss that office on the right. Passing through the stone-lined massive wood gate, to your right is a Spanish stucco-like structure that, in your life experience, has been at least a three-bedroom home in a suburban, gated community. Today though, it must be “the office.”
“Hi guys,” says Guber with a smile as he enters promptly at 5:00 p.m. He’s dressed West Coast casual – Golden State Warriors ball cap, Blue T-shirt (long sleeve, Los Angeles Dodgers silk screened on the front), black jeans, and black loafers.
“Will this be alright?” Guber says, motioning to his attire.
Guber is in fan mode, or more accurately, über fan mode. The logos emblazoned on his cap and shirt are not just homages to his favorite teams – they are the teams he owns. Guber is owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers along with the Guggenheim Baseball Management Group and Magic Johnson, which purchased the team for $2 billion in 2012. Guber is also co-executive chairman and owner of the Golden State Warriors. In addition, he owns a slew of professional minor league teams and venues across the country, including A, AA, and AAA farm teams of the New York Yankees, Texas Rangers, Detroit Tigers, and several others.
“I did the suits for years when I was at corporations. I don’t do those anymore. I’ve got 40 minutes and then I’ve got go. Mike’s running late. How about we start with me.”
Mike is Mike Tollin, Guber’s partner in Mandalay Sports Media (MSM), not affiliated with Guber’s film production company, Mandalay Entertainment Group. MSM is a sports-media-production company, the expressed purpose of which is to further define sports-entertainment programming through program development in all current aspects of visual media.
Prior to MSM, Tollin was a partner in Tollin/Robbins Productions. He has produced sports documentaries such as the Emmy Award—winning Let Me Be Brave and Hardwood Dreams, as well as popular television shows (Smallville, One Tree Hill, Arli$$) and hit movies (Varsity Blues, Hard Ball, Coach Carter).
“We look and think that sports entertainment is a rich environment for our talents and energies and capital, so we’re totally committed to it in the right way…”
The duo’s partnership could not come at a better time. The sports entertainment industry and the platforms that air such programming are growing exponentially. Each major league (the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, and NBA) has its own network supported by league owners and television deals with the major broadcasters. In addition, the public’s increased desire for sports entertainment has motivated other cable networks to get in the game. Even NBC’s business channel, CNBC, airs sports such as PGA tournaments and the Equestrian Games – and numerous online websites also produce and air sports-entertainment segments.
“When I grew up, ‘your team’ had [to be] in the city you [lived in],” recalls Guber. “Now you can watch any game online.” Earlier that day, Guber was watching his Dodgers play the New York Mets on the MLB Network on his Smart TV. Tiring of the local broadcast, he flipped to the Mets’ broadcast to hear the opposing perspective. Following that, he went on his Samsung Galaxy Note II to connect to fans before rewinding his Smart TV to watch a controversial play for the second time.
Guber is not unlike many a purveyor of sports entertainment. Not only does he watch the games, he also appreciates well-crafted stories about sport legends while tracking current prospects who show the promise of becoming tomorrow’s stars, viewing them at any time of his choosing. His “now” is the past, present, and future all rolled into one.
“You have to find a way to satisfy that addiction that is commensurate to what is happening,” he explains. “We look and think that sports entertainment is a rich environment for our talents and energies and capital, so we’re totally committed to it in the right way – our feet, tongue, heart, and wallet are all going in the same direction. We’re not throwing money against the wall and trying to see what happens,” says Guber, whose energy and vitality show no signs of slowing after 71 years. In addition to owning sports franchises, he is a producer of films and records dating back to the early 1970s.
“People say to me, ‘What do you know about making a sports-media product?’ Well how about that I’ve made a movie about nearly every major sport?” counters Guber, going on to enumerate them, from Rudy (football), to A League of Their Own (baseball), to 2010’s Soul Surfer. “I can go on and on,” says Guber with no-nonsense efficiency. The reach of his success includes Shampoo (1975) and Taxi Driver (1976) when he was studio chief of Columbia Pictures. In the mid-1970s he left Columbia and launched Casablanca Filmworks, merging it with Casablanca Records, which prospered from marquee artists KISS, Donna Summer, and The Village People. He later became the chairman and CEO of Polygram Entertainment and eventually became Sony’s CEO where he oversaw the production of several seminal films including A Few Good Men and Basic Instinct (both in ’92); Philadelphia and Sleepless in Seattle (both in ’93).
The door to the office opens and in walks Tollin. At 57, he’s 14 years Guber’s junior, yet his manner is more reflective and his energy tamer. As he settles in, the duo coalesces into a singular unit, each touting the other’s contributions toward their collective vision. You can tell, Mandalay Sports Media is a true collaboration.
“And everyone there knows him … he walks into the stadium and all the stadium workers know him. You realize that this is a guy with many colors in his palette.”
Tollin recalls a recent afternoon when the two met for a post-lunch meeting in Culver City. As they were wrapping up, Guber checked his Blackberry for a confirmation of his next appointment. It was canceled.
“Do you want to go to the game tonight?” Guber asked.
“Sure,” said Tollin. “Do you want to leave the tickets at Will Call?” Tollin thought Guber was referring to that night’s Dodgers game.
“No,” Guber replied. “Meet me at Van Nuys Airport in one hour. We’re going to the Warriors game.”
“And everyone there knows him,” recalls Tollin with a laugh. “He walks into the stadium and all the stadium workers know him. You realize that this is a guy with many colors in his palette.”
Likewise, Guber is effusive in his praise for Tollin, calling him “the heart and soul” of MSM. “Mike has a feel for the cloth, in terms of understanding the fabric and connection between players, product, and fans.”
Born and bred on Philadelphia sports, Tollin is a, “dyed-in-the-wool, Phillies, Sixers, and Eagles fan.” His exposure to the heart-tugging drama of sports – all its anguish and adulation – came early in life. It was 1964, and his beloved Phillies were on the verge of going to the World Series. (This was five years before the advent of the divisional playoff system.)
The Phillies were six-and-a-half games up with 12 games to play (7 of which were at home). Then eight years old, Tollin would go to bed with his transistor radio and ear plug, pull the covers over his head, and listen to the games. The World Series seemed a foregone conclusion. Tickets had already been printed, and Tollin’s dad surprised the family with a set.
Today, those tickets are framed and hang on his office wall, a memento of one of the most colossal collapses in professional sports history. “They’re the tickets to the World Series that never happened,” he says wistfully.
Tollin got his first shot at the big leagues as a producer with Major League Baseball Productions before he flexed his production chutzpah in 1983. It was then that he bid on and won the rights to be the exclusive production company for the United States Football League (USFL), beating out television production giant Aaron Spelling. Although the USFL folded within three years, Tollin kept producing and won a Peabody Award for writing, producing, and directing Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream (1995). That documentary led to a great friendship with Aaron and the launch of the Chasing the Dream Foundation, which has raised millions of dollars for inner-city kids.
Recently, Tollin finished his executive-production consultant duties for ESPN’s highly successful, 30 for 30 documentary franchise. His own contribution to the 30 for 30 library, Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? is a revealing documentary that shines a light on Donald Trump’s hubris and how he sacked what could have become a legitimate spring rival to the National Football League. (The USFL did, after all, triumph over the NFL in draft signings of Herschel Walker, Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Steve Young, and other notable stars in its early days.)
“The sports-entertainment landscape is exploding … Every day, there’s a new platform [on which to tell a story] and opportunities are growing.”
After completing his 30 for 30 project, Tollin approached Creative Artists Agency with an idea for a sports-entertainment company. They suggested he partner with Guber. The two knew of each other’s work and after discussing the partnership, went to the 2012 NBA All-Star game in Orlando where they met with sports executives. “We had a nice courtship,” says Tollin, adding, “CAA has been a big piece of the equation. They made the shidduch – were the matchmakers.”
Tollin explains that their partnership comes at an opportune time. Sure, the film and television industries are receding but at the same time the demand for sports-related programming – from documentaries, to lifestyle shows, to scripted fare and everything in between – is increasing. Moreover, the number of outlets buying innovative content has grown exponentially.
“FOX Sports 1 didn’t exist when we started this company and Microsoft wasn’t buying original programming when we started this company; there was no House of Cards on Netflix; no eight pilots on Amazon; NBC and CBS didn’t have their own dedicated sports channels; and AOL wasn’t buying their own content for online,” Tollin points out. “The sports-entertainment landscape is exploding,” he adds. “Every day, there’s a new platform [on which to tell a story] and opportunities are growing.”
They’re producing a half-hour comedy project with NBA All-Star Dwayne Wade based on his book, “Father First,” a comedy pilot for Disney about a young BMX rider and they have a digital series with AOL called “My Ink.” They are in advanced development with the NBA and the MLB Players Association, and the company has several sports movies in the pipeline.
For Tollin and Guber, MSM is a storytelling source that is more than a simple production house. “In this business today you have to be both a buyer and a seller,” says Guber, explaining the breadth of MSM’s footprint. “You’re buying other people’s ideas and working to help them execute it. And you’re a seller – you’re helping to purvey the product into the marketplace and you’re a producer – you’re making it.”
While Tollin and Guber did not specifically name the companies in which they’ve invested or with whom they have production deals, Tollin did describe their sports-related productions. One company is a social media initiative, a second is a statistics-based service, a third is an “American Idol-type” of network event, and a fourth is a video-sharing opportunity for fans to capture and post their memories.
“We’re creating a media company that is more than just TV shows and movies,” says Tollin. “And the non-sports purveyors – the [small] networks, digital platforms, websites that you don’t think of as outlets for sports programs, are clamoring for it because, how do you reach a young male audience?”
Says Guber: “You have to engage the audience in unique and purposeful ways that are consistent with the sport, the players, and the tradition … if you’re not taking risk, then you’re taking the biggest risk of all.”