The business side of sports is as much about team building as it is in the court or field. Kristin Bernert has been on both sides of the court. Now finding herself in a top leadership position, she understands the value of effective leadership in empowering teams that make an organization great. In this conversation with Lance Tyson, she shares with us how that dynamic plays out in the Columbus Crew, where she is the President of Business Operations. She also tells us of her journey in sports, sales and leadership and some compelling stories that teach us the keys to effective leadership, the power of team building, and more lessons on running a successful sports franchise. Tune in and learn the simple truth about leadership that so many people have to learn the hard way through years of experience!
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The Keys To Effective Leadership With Kristin Bernert
I am so excited about this episode. This interview has been in the throes of the pandemic and then it got switched. I’d like to introduce the President of the Columbus Crew, Kristin Bernert, who you’ll read in this interview KB because she is on my phone as KB so that’s what I referred to as.
Kristin Bernert, welcome to the show. I appreciate you being on.
Thank you. It’s a long time coming. It might have been two jobs ago for me.
We were talking about this. We had planned to do it. Kristin has a very special spot in my heart because, in the throes of the craziness of the pandemic, everybody is fighting for their jobs. Pro sports might have been the worst place ever to be in the pandemic because everything was getting canceled. Kristin was running a big side of the business from Madison Square Garden. That’s when we started to do business right in the throe. We have been in the fire together for the last couple of years. Kristin, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell everybody what you do now? Let’s start there.
I am reporting live from Lower.com Field, the home of your Columbus Crew. I am the President of Business Operations for the club. I’ve been here since January 2022. It’s been an awesome experience. This building is spectacular. I would say it rivals anything in American sports, not just soccer. I’m proud of it. I wanted to make sure we showed it off a little bit.
I would say it’s probably one of the best backdrops. I’ve seen a lot of great backdrops. Some are not so good when we’re doing interviews during the pandemic. Talk about the Crew and the new stadium because that was the only stadium that came online during the pandemic. It was getting sold during the pandemic and it was in the throes. The world was turned upside down and now it’s online. Talk about it a little bit.
Let’s go back a little bit to how we met. I was at MSG at that time and the time that we spent together with the sales team was about personal development and honing their skills. We’re digging in on who they are as salespeople, their strengths, and their weaknesses. I learned a ton from that. A lot of people talk about the pandemic and what they learned. I learned how to be a better seller.
It was through you and the sales management team. That was time well spent. Fast forward to my new life and what they did during the pandemic, it was probably even more impactful. They built this beautiful new building in a new part of Columbus called Astor Park, a new neighborhood here. There’s a development happening right next door. It’s a growing city taking off.
They built this beautiful new building in the middle of the pandemic and the club spaces and the premium spaces are off the charts. Once people in Columbus got to see what this is going to be coming off the heels of the Haslams and the Edward family saving the crew. This is a big story in sports in 2018 where the team was going to move to Austin or go away completely. Dee and Jimmy Haslam, who also won the Cleveland Browns swooped in and saw what an opportunity it was to get a Major League Soccer team in a city like Columbus that’s growing by leaps and bounds.
They’ve done it right. As I said, this building couldn’t be more stunning. The club spaces and the suites are spectacular. They brought in legends who did a tremendous job selling the premium spaces and also selling the partnerships here and the founding partners to get us off to a great start. My role now is taking that strong foundation of an unbelievable building. We also have an unbelievable training center.
We’re building new office space for the business team right here next to Lower.com and taking this franchise to another level in terms of developing our fan base. We’re figuring out how to best integrate our partners so that we level up our fan base and the fan experience in general, what we do in the community, and the impact we have in the community which is so important to our ownership group.
It’s also important to the city. You’re probably aware they talk in this business community about the Columbus way. The Columbus way is we’re in the center of Ohio. Ohioans are known for hard work, but they’re also known for being extremely charitable and wanting to give back and help each other. It’s very neighborly. The business community comes together in a profound way here.
I’ve seen no other business community in my career and this has become the business epicenter in addition to the epicenter for American soccer. All these things together and the people. I didn’t know about this. I grew up in Ohio and was here for grad school, which we’ll probably get to. It’s also the heart of American soccer in many ways. There’s a history here of the US Men’s National Team winning pivotal games in particular against the Mexican National Team.
The mystique of those originated in Columbus. Marrying all of that, we’re part of American soccer. There’s a docu-series coming out on it and we’re working with the producer of that to preview it here as part of the World Cup on our screens. This is such a big part of American soccer history and such a fertile market for soccer. It’s a strong business community in the diversification of the marketplace with businesses. Intel is moving here. They’re building a $20 billion semiconductor facility. It’s growing and diversifying by leaps and bounds. Coming here, to me, wasn’t planned but it ended up being a no-brainer. I couldn’t be happier with where I am.
There’s a lot to unpack there. I want to go down a couple of these paths as we talk. Number one is that I believe in synergy and the Laws of Attraction. Interestingly enough for everybody that’s reading, the Haslams, the Browns, and the Crew are extremely good customers of our groups for years. When Kristin went from Madison Square Garden to here, we instantly had that connection.
For everybody’s sake, she and I were having drinks not long ago. There’s no issue there with us having drinks. Number two, I was pretty involved in the project with Legends. I have an affinity with the Crew stadium because our team does so much coaching and training. When Kristin was at MSG, we were doing it there. There’s such an affinity.
Columbus is home for me. I’m from Philly originally. The other synergy Kristin mentioned is that she’s an Ohio gal. She’s from the great State of Ohio. She’s back home at some level. Bring us back. We’re going to talk about how competitive the business side of sports is but where did you start? How did you even get here? How did you land here? Let’s start at the beginning. Are you a kid out of school? What’s your first job? What’s that look like?
It’s a good story. I was a student-athlete. I played basketball at Siena in Albany. When I was a student, I focused on my studies and classes. I focused on basketball and then on my social life and having a good time. I didn’t think about what was next. I’m a very much in-the-moment person that I try to make the most of wherever I am.
People talk about old-time students figuring out early on what they’re going to do in their careers. It’s a hard thing to do. You’re so immature and have so much life to live. That pressure is unnecessary. I said it to a staff member about doing the best job that he possibly can and the job that he has and that’s what’s going to bring what comes next versus trying to chart that path yourself. I’m such a believer in it.
Doing the best job that you possibly can in the job that you have is what’s going to bring what comes next instead of trying to chart that path yourself.
I graduated from college and I had no idea what I was going to do. At one point, I thought I was going to be a physical therapist. I loved sports. I graduated in 1996 and back in the Stone Age. I was talking to my athletic trainer and I’m like, “They don’t make enough money. What makes more money than an athletic trainer?” He’s like, “A physical therapist.” “Let me take a look at what it takes to be a physical therapist.”
I was majoring in Biology and Psychology and then I did an internship with a physical therapy company. I did it for six weeks. I’m like, “This is terrible. It’s a bunch of old people. What am I doing? I can’t do this.” By then, it was a little too late and I was like, “I’m going to plow through and I’m going to get my degree,” which I ended up doing. In the meantime, all throughout high school and college, back in the day, and I’m from the Cleveland Akron area, there was a SeaWorld in Aurora, Ohio. I don’t know if you remember that, Lance.
I’ve driven past where it is. It’s not far from the ice rink. My son used to play some ice hockey so I know exactly what you’re talking about.
It was awesome. Growing up, it was like 90210. Everybody was young and hanging out. It was so much fun. I graduated from college and I went back home. Once again, I was like, “What is the job that is seasonal and pays the most?” They’re like, “Security.” I’m like, “I’m going to be a security guard.” I graduated from college summa cum laude and my parents were like, “What are you doing?” I’m like, “I want to be a security guard.” I was a security guard for the full summer. I had a blast. I wasn’t the best security guard but they still wanted to bring it to come on full-time. I was like, “That’s probably not a good idea.” I also needed to get out of my parents’ house.
My brother was living down in Columbus. He was going to law school at Capital. I’m like, “My brother is down here.” I found a job at Schneider National. I was working with a trucking company in the South part of Columbus. I was working with the truck drivers. I was on the seres and on-site. It was terrible. Everybody hated me. I was like, “No way you could win in that role. What am I going to do?” I was in a bookstore and I saw this book. It was called How to Get a Job in Sports. I opened it up and I’m like, “It’s all this stuff you can do in sports. I had no idea.”
I went back home, did the dial-up internet, and I looked in Ohio State which had a Master’s program. I applied and ended up getting in. I got a graduate assistantship under Jim Smith, who was the director of marketing at that time. He ended up being the President and GM of the Crew in Seattle. It was an awesome career. He’s now with the Braves. He’s been an awesome mentor throughout my life. I worked for him and it took off from there. I found my thing. He was passionate about it.
How long were you at Ohio State?
I was here for about two and a half years. They had me full-time. They brought me full-time as assistant marketing director after GA then Paul Krebs, who was a senior associate AD at that time got a job as AD at Bowling Green. I followed him there and I was the Assistant AD of Marketing Communications at Bowling Green.
I didn’t realize he had all this college side team.
Yes, at a young age. It was one of those things too. You’re asked all the time when you’re in a role like this, “What do I need to do to get to where you are?” I didn’t know Paul very well at all when I was at Ohio State. I was, quite frankly, afraid of him. Jim would go into the senior-level meetings and he would talk about me. One Saturday, I was in there early because there was a field hockey game the next day.
I felt like we didn’t do enough. It’s like, “Let’s do a last-ditch effort.” I was in there making a bunch of flyers in the copy machine. Here comes Paul and he’s got his baseball hat and his sweatpants on. He looks at me and he’s like, “What are you doing here?” I was like, “I’m working.” He nodded and he was like, “It’s good,” and he walked away. He talked about that moment later on about seeing it in himself in terms of work ethic. He knew he was going to need somebody with a motor going in with him at Bowling Green. That’s what got me that opportunity.
It sounds like in both roles, you were starting to get a little bit of a reputation. Jim was talking about you and then over time, Paul starts to recognize you. You’re four years in college sports. What’s the next move?
The interesting thing is I got a call from the Cleveland Indians because David Brown, who I also worked with at Ohio State and now with IMG for a long time. They called him saying, “We’re looking for a corporate partnerships salesperson. Who would you recommend?” He was like, “I don’t know if she would ever do it.” He recommended me. I got the call from the Indians and I went through the process. Back in my time with Jim, he exposed me to sales. He said to me, “If you ever get a chance to sell for a living and that’s what you do, go do it. If you can sell sponsorships for a living, go do it.”
You’re going to learn so much. It’s going to benefit you your entire life. When they call, it’s my hometown team. I love the Indians but that moment, that decision was a hard one. I was leaving college sports but it was an easy one because I was doing what somebody I trusted told me I should do with my next opportunity. I was able to go home and work for my hometown baseball team.
The biggest difference between college and going to the Indians, now the Guardians, what was the biggest thing you realized?
In pro sports, you eat what you kill. In college sports, you couldn’t get compensated for being a salesperson. As part of it, you did it because you wanted to achieve but there was no financial benefit to the individual. I was like, “I can make good money doing this. That’s great.” Also, it was a bigger infrastructure and it was more of a sales marketing machine. It’s so much for college. Back then, it was different.
Now, it’s going more toward the professional environment, given the dollars that are attached to it. It was very much about the student-athletes. A lot of student-athletes support smaller marketing and sales groups. Now you have the leader fields, the IMGs, and everything has changed. The sales and marketing infrastructure and the focus on the fan versus the student-athlete was the biggest change going from college to pro.
What was the hardest thing for you? What did you get stuck on? It’s because that is a leap there. The partnership sales are complex sales as opposed to going to premium sales or something around hospitality.
It’s going to sound funny. The biggest thing was struggling with my why. When I was in college sports, I loved the impact that you could have on student-athletes even in the marketing department. If you got a great crowd there, it made them feel awesome. It’s the connection of being a part of a team. I was brought into a lot of situations where they would ask me to travel with the team because it was fun. They felt like I was part of their team so they wanted me in it with them. Also, developed relationships with student-athletes.
Is that because you could empathize? As an athlete yourself, you had that empathetic side. You knew what they were going through and stuff like that.
I tutored some of them on the side. Any experience I had is usually an immersive experience for better or for worse. What I struggled with was finding my why. I hit a point in time where I got a call. It was great. I loved the experience and learning how to sell and close deals. My why became more about my own development at that point and also learning about the professional sports environment. For me, that wasn’t enough. My internal why and making myself better are always going to be a part of what I do. I need something else that drives me, which is what I found throughout life.
What was that timeframe there?
That was in the late 1990s, early 2000s. The team was good. It was back in the day of Albert Belle. I’ve had the opportunity to be part of some awesome sports environments and it’s cool for me. For a lot of people, that’s what drives them. It’s not what drives me. A lot of people that grow up in the Akron-Cleveland area would’ve died in that job. For me, it was cool and awesome but it wasn’t overall what I wanted to do with my career.
The journey continues. You probably connect that fun piece of being in college sports with your experience. You saved the experience at SeaWorld where you were a security guard, having a great summer, and then you get into a job that you’re smart enough to say, “I learned from it.” It encouraged you to start another journey. Where did you go?
It did and the things that I learned as a teammate and somebody in sports are what made me successful as a seller. I did it differently. Going in there, they’re like, “What are you doing?” This is back early. I would go in and I’d listen to a potential partner say, “It’s Wendy’s.” I’d come back and grab a bunch of people and I’d say, “Guys, this is what I heard.” It was the game presentation person and the radio person. Nobody was doing that before. Wherever I go, I love to create a team environment. There are so many people who are smarter than me. What I found was that they were then invested in helping to get the deal done.
I used to sit in the radio booth with clients and prospects with Tom Hamilton. I’d be in there with clients and eat my popcorn. It was like, “What are you doing in there?” I was like, “I don’t know.” It’s because they were invested. The people who are around me were invested, which is always something that I tried to translate to any partnership sellers that I worked with. Moving forward is like, “Get other people involved. They’re involved from the beginning. It’s going to make it a better experience for you and more importantly, a better experience for the partner.”
With that concept of collaboration, you talk about when you doing that. I wouldn’t say it has become more of the norm but it was more like, “What do they want? Let’s give it to them. Here are some media. Here’s some of this. Sprinkle some of this on top.” That’s interesting. What was the stint there?
It’s funny that somebody told me, “Buffy Filippell lives in Cleveland in TeamWork Online.” I didn’t know anything so I was like, “What’s TeamWork Online?” “Go check it out and you should reach out to her.” I reached out to Buffy and I ended up driving out to her house in Shaker Heights. I met with her in her living room. I still remember all of this vividly. We had a nice conversation. She said, “I have some thoughts. There’s a guy named Scott O’Neill. He works for the NBA and he’s looking for women to run WNBA teams so you may hear from Scott.” I heard from Scott but he didn’t have my phone number.
He called the general line at the Indians back in the day asking for me. He told people he was calling from the NBA. I was like, “Really?” We ended up meeting. He came into town. He was meeting with the Cavs. If anybody knows Scott, you’ll know no surprise. We went to a steakhouse and we had a great conversation. We hit it off and he said, “I’d like you to look at a job in Detroit. There’s a team called the Detroit Shock. It’s a WNBA team. Also, it’s the Pistons. You’d be a great fit there.”
At what year? This is what, ’03 or ’04?
2002. Buffy was close to Tom Wilson, who was the president at that time. Buffy wanted to go to see him. She picked me up and we drove to Detroit together. On the car ride home, we got in this massive storm. We had to sit somewhere. It was crazy.
For everybody who doesn’t know, Buffy is one of the most known executive search people. She’s first in class that way. She owns a company called TeamWork Online. It’s a platform that causes connectivity for jobs and things like that. It’s a great platform. Scott O’Neill, comment-wise, it sounds like in pro sports, that’s one of your early first connections. To be honest, it was one of my earliest first connections with Scott O’Neil when he was with the Eagles right before he went to Villanova Mafia. You go up there with Buffy and you meet with Tom. What happens?
They were looking at me in two ways. It’s either to sell sponsorships for them for the Pistons or to run their WNBA team. It ended up for both of us that the WNBA position is what I wanted to do. Their sales proposition was interesting. It was, “We don’t know if this thing can work. We may get rid of it. Can you try to see if you can make it work?” I’m like, “If it doesn’t work, what happens?” “Don’t worry about it.” “I’m in.”
I have a question for you because this is important for everybody. Let’s take it for the younger crowd because I got two crowds at the part of the audience. She’s making it sound like it happened to go here. What makes you more sticky when people want to talk to you? Each time, you didn’t have the best-laid plan out. You were on a search. What makes you so interesting?
For me, there’s authenticity and I don’t take myself seriously. I want what’s in the best interest of the organization and the people involved and I will work my tail off to make it happen.
I would say my interaction. If you’re saying, “He’s kissing up, I’m not because I already have the business.” At the end of the day, I would say that authenticity goes to, and I look for this in people all the time, great leaders. People that are successful have the ability to be coached or take advice from other people and not be offended. I would say from the minute I met you, you and I hit it off because I was direct with you. You were direct with me. You go, “That’s valid.” Whether we agreed or not, you were listening. That’s the attraction. That’s the friction too. Friction is always good.
Great leaders and successful people have the ability to be coached or take advice from other people.
To this day, I love to debate. I always get the best result and there’s no ego involved. You’re not going to hurt my feelings. I try to create that environment wherever I am.
I never felt it with you. One of the times, I was trying to soft pitch you some bad feedback I had. He goes, “Tell me. It’s fine.” I go, “Fine.” He goes, “I appreciate that. I think the same thing.” I thought I was delivering massively bad news to you. I go, “This is it.” The reason I mentioned that is because that’s what’s genuine and that genuineness causes attraction to most people that are successful or rise through the ranks.
That’s fair. People generally like to be around people with whom they feel comfortable around and like. As a salesperson, I say that all the time too, “If somebody is not likable, I’m not going to hire them because that’s sales and business.” I do that in any executive-level position. You have to be a good person and be likable. The coachable part of it is a big part of it too. You always want to be learning and get better. Part of what’s attracted me to Major League Soccer is that growth mindset. You’re in it. You’re not hitting around the margins. You’re trying to grow something. I do think people are attracted to that.
There are two types of people in the world. There’s a type of person who walks into the door and the room lightens up. There’s also the type of person who walks out the door and the room lightens up. Make a choice of how you are going to be. You land the job at the Shock. What’s the position and what’s the trajectory there?
I was VP of Business Operations. It became my thing. It was an unbelievable experience because I had no idea what I was doing until this day. He didn’t know how old I was. I was 27 years old when I go in there. He gives me the keys to the car and the second week on the job, I’m sitting there and I get a call. This guy says, “Kristin, it’s Bill Laimbeer.” I’m a lifelong Cavs fan. “Hi, Bill.” Bill said, “Where’s your office?” I was like, “I have the fifth floor.”
Here comes Bill Laimbeer in my office. I kid you not. He’s 6’11 and comes in hulking. He comes in and I was like like, “Bill Laimbeer, how can I help you?” You talked about Scott O’Neil, Buffy Filippell, and Jim Smith, and now here’s Bill Laimbeer. He was a consultant for the Palace and at that time, he was trying to learn the business and didn’t know what he was going to do with it. Bill Laimbeer played for a long-time in basketball. He played for the Pistons and was part of the Bad Boys. You remember the enforcer. Maybe he’s the most notorious basketball player in history.
He says to me, “I’m coaching my daughter’s basketball team. I’ve watched this team and it needs help. I want to help so how can I help?” I was like, “I don’t know.” He looked at me and he said, “Do you have a budget?” I said, “I think so.” “Let’s go get it and take a look at it.” We went and we tour in and he’s like, “This number looks wrong. Let’s set up a bunch of meetings. Let’s go find out about this budget.” I said, “That’d be great, Bill.”
We set up meetings with every single department head and we went through the budget. I have Bill Laimbeer as my heavy in the meeting. He’s asking all the hard questions. Bill was like, “This is great. I’m getting all this information.” That’s how we cemented our relationship. Fast forward, he’s alongside me and this person in my ear was like, “We need to dig into the basketball side.” I said, “We do too.”
At the time, we’re 0 and 5. He’s like, “I’m going to start going to practice.” I said, “Great.” He comes back and a few weeks later, he calls me over. He said, “Why don’t you come over to my house? We’re watching a game in the kitchen.” I’m like, “Who watches the basketball game in the kitchen? I’ll go there.” We go there and he looks at me. He is like, “We need to make the coaching change. They want me to do it.” I’m like, “What?”
Bill Laimbeer is going to be the Head Coach of the Detroit Shock. It evolved over the next week or so. We finished the season. We were the worst team in the WNBA. Lo and behold, I learned so much from Bill about team building and how to do it. I learn so much about basketball from him. That next year, we went from about 2,000 people in the stands that year before to winning the championship in front of a sold-out Palace crowd in one year’s time. Talk about the career highlight, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Bill is out of the helm and coaching.
We had so much fun. It was simply awesome.
How many people in pro sports get to say that they were involved in the sports side of it?
He had me making trades.
You’re back to your roots because you play college basketball. You’re freaking trash.
It was so much fun.
That is so good. I never even heard that. You’re the VP of Business Ops at Shock, which is part of the Pistons. For folks who are reading, the WNBA has been around for a while and the NBA has put a lot of time into it. WNBA has been a work in progress and a lot of work for years. How long are you there?
I left in 2005 and there were a couple of reasons why. This is again a learning moment for what’s next. I love my job there. It was awesome. Two things that I realized. Number one, I had a lot more to learn. Scott O’Neil came into my life and said, “I’m looking for an account manager in Timbo.” He had taken over Timbo at that time, which is the team marketing business operations group, an internal consulting group. It’s the best in class at this point. It was built by a few key people that were over a period of years grew into what it is now to come in and do that. Also, I figured I was gay.
People now are figuring that out early on. At this point, I’m like, “Detroit is not a good thing here. I’m not feeling comfortable. There’s an opportunity to learn a lot more. Go live in New York City.” I remember this conversation for the rest of my life too. This goes to show who Scott is. In the last conversation, I said, “Scott, I got to tell you something. Before I accepted a job, I want you to know going in. It felt like I had to do this.” This is back in 2005. “I want you to know that I’m gay.” He’s like, “I don’t care. Why are you telling?”
Had you been out at that point to friends and family? Was that the first first time you made the announcement with business?
Barely to my family and close friends.
To put people in perspective with everything that’s going on in the world, in 2005, people are clandestine with business. You’re not putting stuff out at that point because, as you said, you don’t know what the reaction is going to be to come out and bite me. I didn’t realize that. You talked to him, you’re going to be his account manager, and you’re going to New York. Was the attraction to Timbo, New York, or the whole thing?
It’s the whole thing. When I was at Siena, I was a basketball player. We were in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and Manhattan was a school that played and I went to the city. I remember the first time I went to New York City. I never left the state of Ohio until I was in fourth grade and took a bus trip down to Tennessee for a national basketball tournament. I didn’t travel much. We didn’t do it much.
We don’t need to leave Ohio.
You go to SeaWorld for vacation and you go to maybe Kings Island.
We hit Lake Gary for a minute. We got it all. We’re like the North Coast.
There’s no way we’re going to New York City. When I was in college, I went there. I was like, “I’m going to live here one day.” It was one of those. When the opportunity presented itself, it was the right time, the right place, and the right thing to do. It was right in the middle of hindsight. From 2005 to 2008, the NBA was taking off at that point. David Stern had the opportunity and Adam Silver was building this incredible machine. I’m having the opportunity to spend time with both of them and be under the tutelage of Scott O’Neil and surrounded by a great group like Tom Glick, Chris Heck, Chris Granger, Stacy McWilliams, and Donna Daniels, now GM at Chase Center.
It was such a special time and a special group that served me in the relationships and what I learned. I got to know a ton of different team people. My job was to travel around the country and learn best practices, what people did well, and what they didn’t do well, whether they can improve, and learn how to develop how to deliver that feedback. You’re dealing with executives.
I was younger so learning how to deal with, how to deliver hard feedback, and things they didn’t want to hear in a way that they could accept and be able to do something with it was a valuable skill. I also learned the power of data and analytics. That’s what was getting started. We’re using numbers to tell a story. Scott is a Harvard Business School grad. I didn’t go to business school. I was taught business school throughout my career. It was an important moment.
Quick summary. You go from called athletics in being part of a marketing machine to pro sports sales, which is the partnership side, which is pretty complex. You then go to running a WNBA franchise. Now you become part of this. The best way is if you’re not in sports, Timbo is the Accenture, the McKinsey inside of the NBA. As Kristin said, it’s probably the crème de la crème. It’s an elite force at some level. What did you realize the gap was for you and what did you realize you did well?
The gap so much of it was the data and analytics part of it, understanding numbers, how numbers inform strategy, how data informs strategy and being able to develop a strategy as part of it. Those skills are honed at the NBA. Also, understanding the importance of people. I got to see different organizations. Every time when an organization was successful or not, it was because of the people. It’s not that it was a gap. It hit you over the head of there is nothing more important than people.
Whether an organization is successful or not, it’s because of the people every single time.
For me, that was super important. What I was missing and why I left the NBA, I loved being part of a team. I want to compete. I keep going back to it. I came back to it again after starting my own business. I love building teams. I love to compete. I love that there’s coming up with MLS. Wednesdays and Saturdays, we’re going to compete and go out there. You feel part of something larger than life in creating these incredible experiences for families, friends, and people to gather. I love that.
It’s the impact. I was missing that again at the NBA. I’m glad you brought it back around. I didn’t feel it because it was a lot of personal development for me at that time. Different points where it’s been about me. I felt that urge of that impact. I had the opportunity to be President of the LA Sparks. There were two women who were owners at that time. I had never worked for a woman. That was appealing to me and I loved their spirit of like, “We’re going to buy this team and go do it.” I also love the WNBA. The women and the athletes are incredible.
It’s so awesome to see the league where it is right now. It’s starting to take off. To be a part of that change in terms of women athletes creating value for themselves, I got to say nobody has handed it to them. They’ve created value for themselves and now the world is recognizing it. To talk about being unafraid and unapologetic, there’s a group of athletes who have been. You talk about authenticity and all those things that people are attracted to. Once people could open up their minds to it, you’ve seen the league take off and it’s been awesome to see.
People don’t realize about the WNBA. It’s not a flash in the pan at all. They don’t know that this has been around for many plus years and it’s been a fight to sell tickets. It’s been a fight to position and market and brand it. Do you take two years at Timbo?
Three years at Timbo from 2005 to 2008.
You’re back and now, It’s a different KB. It’s like, “I have experience doing this. I know how to give advice and build strategy.” I’m going to ask you a question about confidence in a few minutes because I keep writing that word down. I have never observed anything about you yet that you’re afraid of many things.
I’m thinking about my conversation when I was at Martha’s Vineyard with you and you and I were laughing in the face of things. It’s funny but I don’t ever sense that you lack confidence. I don’t know how you feel internally, but you certainly don’t come off that way. You’re different when you get to the Sparks. What’s the biggest headwind in your face at this point with the Sparks? Is it female ownership or leadership?
Lack of resources. This is women’s sports in general. If you look at what is happening in the NWSL right now, we’ll talk a little bit about that as we get there, but there’s been a lack of governance and investment that results in not the best results. If you’re trying to build something, it’s got to be an investment. Part of the challenge of women’s sports all along is people that own these teams that don’t have deep enough pockets and God bless them for doing it well.
Everybody has the best intention to do it.
You can’t go into a lot of what happened there. I don’t want to do that but it ended up being a situation. I learned a ton. I loved developing that team. I sold some big deals. I sold the Jersey naming rights, which were new to the WNBA. I got to learn a lot about myself in the process of values, what makes me tick and what doesn’t, and that’ a real turnoff. I hit a point where I was not in line with leadership. As somebody who’s running a franchise and not being on the same page as ownership, it’s their team. I am going to step to the side. It is so important in any organization that you have the business side, the sports side, and you have ownership and there’s this executive triad that needs to exist.
I oversaw both. Basketball over here is a whole another story. If everybody is not in lockstep and in sync, you can’t be successful. If you’re not on the same page, you can try your best to get there. To me, I’m the type of person that I’m going to recognize. I’m going to say we’re going to talk about it and it hit a point where it was not for me anymore. The first time I quit something, I flat-out said, “I’m out.” It was humbling. If you talk about confidence, I was over-confident going into that. I didn’t ask the right questions. I didn’t look at signs that I should have because quite frankly, I was arrogant. It was one of those things.
One of the things I do know about if I were going to make an observation as a type of coach, you’re stubborn and that’s made you successful. Most of the people that I know who are successful are stubborn to the point where I’m going to force my will. You said something that comes up all the time. I know you know this because we’ve talked about this. What a lot of leaders and young folks don’t realize, whether it’s sales or leadership, it’s not about the agreement.
What you said in that triad, it’s about alignment. We need to walk out of the room and be aligned. Whether we agree or not does not matter. When I started to work with you at MSG, you had a great guy working for Mark Jackson. I knew there were things that you guys weren’t in 100% agreement but Mark was always in alignment with what you wanted because he knew the why with you.
There were maybe two different things, but it’s well said. You leave the Sparks. I’ve learned about myself. It’s part of the journey. Where did you go?
I went on Mary at that time. We took an RV trip around the country for a couple of months. What a great time. It was before everybody did it during the pandemic. It was pretty awesome.
How long was the trip?
It was a good 45 days.
That’s a big vacation. Did you have a Winnebago, a big RV?
It was a big RV with dogs and everything. We ended up in Philly at some point. I came back around and it was pretty wild.
I love that. You go on the journey. We’ll call the Joshua Tree journey like you go out. Where do you land? What’s the next job?
I went back to Detroit. I still had my house there and didn’t have a job. I went back there and lamb’s kids were living in there, so I’d kicked them out. It’s a whole other story. I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do. I was talking to a lot of people. It was like rebuilding my house. There was work to be done. I did a lot of physical work. Even the foundation of the basement, probably a metaphor there where it was get yourself back because I was broken. You build yourself back up and get yourself into a good place. Here comes Scott O’Neil again. He was like, “I need help.” I’m like, “What are you looking? What do you want?” He’s like, “The liberty here. We need you in here to take a look at it.”
Was Scotty at that point at MSG?
He was at MSG.
Scott moves to Madison Square Garden at this point.
He was at the Madison Square Garden. He’s president of MSG Sports. I didn’t want to do it, but he talked me into doing it. I said okay. I was a consultant and then I left ten years later.
Scott is a good salesperson. Let’s call it what it is. There are several podcasts where Scott has been a part of getting a deal done.
He’s a good salesman. I was like, “No.” I then said yes then I left late ten years later.
At Liberty, you come on and take over. At this point, you have tons of experience. You’ve been in three different franchises with WNBA. This is an interesting part if I remember correctly. You then work your way through Madison Square, MSG. Describe for everybody, MSG is a public company.
MSG is a big company. It’s mass for the Garden. The building is also owned by Radio City Musical and Beacon Theater. Now they’re building another place in Vegas called Sphere Rockettes, the Knicks, the Rangers, the Liberty eSports, and now Counter Logic Gaming. It’s a big publicly traded company in the heart of Manhattan. If you’re in sports, it’s the place. It’s the Madison Square Garden. Everybody wants to play at Madison Square Garden. If you’re an athlete or you’re a music artist, that’s where you want to be. It’s pretty freaking cool.
Let’s talk about the trip. You said you take over the Liberty then your next move inside MSG. I want everybody to understand this. To be politically savvy enough to make moves in an organization like that, I’ll leave it where it is. In political savvy, execution, leadership, and persuasion, you better bring it all. You better do exactly what you said you were going to do. It’s not for the weak of heart.
What I’ve found at the Garden is that if you’re always honest, you’re fine. If you’re honest with people, with yourself, about the business, and you know how to do your job, for the most part, there are different things that’ll trip you up in terms of the political piece of it. You’re not a jerk. It’s an awesome place. It’s a magical place. When you walk into that building, it drips with history. When I took over Liberty, they were playing in Newark. Scott is one heck of a job. He’s like, “Let’s go run the Liberty in Newark for three years.”
It was one of those experiences where we had a blast doing it. I had a blast doing it. I had a great team. It was there and Doc O’Connor took over as CEO at some point. At that time too, they brought in Isiah Thomas to run the Liberty. That was also one of those moments. Isiah and this is the Pistons Isiah again. It was somebody that was a lightning rod. I took it as an opportunity to be open-minded about him and work for him. He was somebody I called to this day when I need advice. He’s always looking out for me in different ways. He’s not the person that I thought he was.
That open-mindedness and open-minded about people and letting them be who they want to be to you versus what you may hear about them are two different things. Doc O’Connor came in as the CEO of MSG, who’s now cofounder of Arctos. He came over from CAA. He brought in Jordan Solomon, who was working at the NBA, who’s now with him at Arctos too to run MSG sports. Jordan quickly realized that he didn’t have anybody doing what I did for the Liberty for the Knicks and the Rangers. He knew I knew MSG. He knew I knew sports business and we quite frankly enjoyed one another. He asked me if I wanted to run the Knicks. That’s not something you say no to. What an opportunity.
How much time between then and there?
It’s about five years that I’d been with the Liberty. When Isiah came in, he had me oversee basketball too, which moved me to oversee business and basketball. That again was fun and competing. We built a great team. He could’ve won a championship in 2015. if we would’ve made a trade that I’ll never talk about. I’m so mad about it.
I sense that you hate to lose more than you like to win.
Probably. Jordan and I developed a nice relationship. He was running the Knicks. You’re running a sports team, but add multiple zeros at the end of it. It’s a complex brand. There’s so much history and controversy but it’s such a big brand. If you’re a basketball lover, which I am, to be able to run that franchise was awesome.
In that five-year period, you hit that. Now the ticket side of the business is reporting to you on the next side.
Not yet. Jordan ended up leaving the organization and then they asked me to take over MSG Sports. It was the Knicks and the Rangers. We also had the Rockettes from a ticket sales perspective in sports. Again, what an experience and an opportunity.
Tell everybody because this is big. You’ve had teams of maybe 15 to 20 reporting to you up until this point. You take over MSG on that side of the business. How many people are reporting directly to you?
At MSG at that point, there were about 300.
For anybody reading, that is a big, medium-sized business from an employee standpoint. It’s a publicly traded company from a revenue standpoint. That is a lot of people. What do you have to change about yourself because it’s a quadruple size?
This was an important time also. Number one, I needed to learn how to handle myself in an executive boardroom. I had some good people to help me with that. From a coaching standpoint, as you talked about before, I’m coachable. I would be very literal even down to body language that I was taught and the boardroom piece of it and then how to scale leadership. The importance of communication and being thoughtful about the meetings that you hold and the email communication that you have in being accessible. I learned the hard way of being almost too accessible.
Your door can’t always be open. Your door has to be closed.
That’s exactly it. I also learned how essential that layer of management underneath me was. Make sure that I had my flanks covered in terms of what weaknesses are in bringing strength and to cover those weaknesses. Also, being on the same page with that next level of leadership is so incredibly important because they are what scales everything. That next level of leadership and then they need to scale the philosophy of leadership and values underneath that as well.
Being on the same page with the layer of leadership underneath you is incredibly important because they scale everything.
Perspective-wise, I’m curious for myself here. You’re saying that before that point, maybe you had the top 50 to 60 people reporting to you. Now you have 300. Not an incremental but a quantum leap. It’s a company that grew for you. For you personally, knowing your competitiveness and how reflective you are, request and see where you go. Was it harder to manage in the boardroom? Was it harder to manage this group underneath you and then you got your peers on your side? Was it harder not to show your card hand or not to show your frustration, as you said?
I would say the management down was probably the easiest part of it. I made a mistake by not having at least 1 or 2 people senior enough that I didn’t have to do so much of it. I found that I spent too much time on that and not enough time managing up and being cleaner and crisper because you only have so much time in the day. I knew what I was doing at all times and what my team was doing for the most part. There were some surprises that happened, but I didn’t do a good job communicating that to leadership as much as I possibly should and the way that I should and learning how to hone those communication skills at that level.
As long as I own my own businesses, my board came back to me and said, “The biggest thing you’re lacking, and I spent the last six months, is you have this group underneath you. You have nobody that could be a right hand.” I didn’t have a strong enough lieutenant and I finally am there, but to me, you flashed your mirror in front of my face. I didn’t even realize until the past three months how critical that was. I almost felt stupid because I’m like, “I got it.” After all these years I’ve been in business, now I didn’t. I’m smart enough to have a board but they’re not there every day with me.
You’re not pulling on them the way that you should then. It would work and make you better.
They’ve pushed me and that right-hand lieutenant can play ball. It’s so well said. As we start to land this thing, I want you to tell this piece. I’m going to lead the witness here. You decide to land another plane because you guide MSG. You’re part of the business through the pandemic, especially through the hardest part of the pandemic.
You are the OG part. I remember being on calls with you where we were talking protocol for the stadium, and I was sitting there going, “I’m getting a double dose of this.” Remember that? I remember those calls. You were multiple. You decide to say, “I’m going on another trip.” You went on another trip too, by the way. Did you go to Seattle? You did.
If somebody has patterns, it’s me.
It’s funny. I know you because of the second trip. I remember the second trip.
I was like, “I got to get out of here.” I hit a point where I climbed an impossible ladder and I didn’t mean to, let me say that. There was never a point where I said, “My goal is to run MSG Sports.” Not once was that a goal for me. I don’t operate that way. You’re at the epitome of sports in that role and on top of the mountain. I looked around and more importantly looked in the mirror and I said, “Do you want to be doing this?”
It comes at a big price. Is this you? I knew it wasn’t. Once you realize that, at least for me, the top two things in that job, and I do miss some of it, but I say all the time, “It’s not the job are money and prestige and they’re not my top five.” Again, it’s my why. I tried to move it toward the people. The coaching was important to me, but it was so mixed in with so many different things that I couldn’t see it.
I knew at that point that it was time for me to leave the Garden and have a different experience. In that recognition, it was a hard period to go through. Once I made the decision and landed at a place where they felt good and I felt good and I was able to transition out, they hired David Hopkins, who’s done an amazing job.
If I remember correctly, you spent a ton of time prepping him.
I genuinely care about that. I was there for ten years. Many people became my family. Being able to do that and then giving me the opportunity to do that made it a lot easier to leave.
I didn’t mean to lead you there, but I wouldn’t even think about that until you shared that other part about the Sparks. Even going back over to the Liberty, all those moves to me, the theme is this why and that why comes from looking in the Greek mirror, the ethos pathos logos. It’s that examination of who you are. It’s not cliché. Successful people do that. It’s a hard look at you. We’re here now and you had a part of your trip where you got back into consulting for another hot minute.
I started a business with my best friend, Karen Bryant, KB2 Sports. We again felt the inflection point in women’s sports. We’ve helped four WNBA teams and ended up working with Gotham FC and NWSL teams and a couple of startup sports leagues and women’s sports. Using everything that we know, helping them develop strategy, what their orgs should look like, recruiting talent, and creating these orgs to stand up. All four orgs are doing extremely well at WNBA, which I’m super proud of. It’s so important. When I started working with Gotham, it opened my eyes up to what’s happening in soccer. Fast forward to now, I’m part owner of Gotham FC and NWSL.
It led me to be open to Major League Soccer. When I got a call from Len Perna about it, it made a point in my life where it’s constant. What can you do next to challenge and reinvent yourself? This opportunity was interesting to make the soccer piece of it. It’s Major League Soccer. The World Cup is coming in 2026, but more than anything else, it’s the why. Going back to it, I love to build and loved it, but it’s also about family. My sister is here. So are my nieces and nephews. My mother is two hours away. I talked to Scott about this. He was like, “Finally, thank you.” My career moves for me and I started to do it for my family.
What can you do next to really challenge yourself? To reinvent yourself?
It’s important and I love how you got back to that. It’s like a big circle.
It totally is. It’s awesome. I come to these matches and you’re able to enjoy all the things that sports bring to it. You see everybody coming to the games. If you’re here in Columbus, it is awesome. It’s a right of passage to be able to do it. My youngest nephew is 4 and my niece is 14. Being with them and coming to every match is so cool.
To give you all perspective, she may be less than four miles from her first job right now. When I’m talking a circle all around the country to get back to this journey. KB, I love the conversation and I was excited about having this. There are so many nuggets here. As much as you listen to Simon Sinek’s The Power of Why and understand your why, you probably did as much to help people understand that why is not cliche.
I was working out down the basement. My wife and I built this gym and I have this rower. I could see my reflection in the rower and I kept staring at myself, and I go, “Are you that old or are you that old?” I’m thinking and looking at myself in my reflection and thinking about whom I have to be, whom I have to become, and who I am. You demonstrate that each move you made was a hard reflection on yourself.
The other thing too is you’re around people you trust and you name 4 or 5 people on this list from Scotty to Bill to Jim Smith, and you kept coming back to those people. It sounds like you have a core group of folks that are important to you as mentors and internal board. I love that because that always helps with the why. Having a history of people, they know what your why is. That’s so important to the legacy. They understand who you are.
As we bring this down the line, I have three questions. You could answer more. One, in a nutshell, your leadership philosophy is X. Before you answer that, I want you to go right into the next thing. To your niece and nephew, what’s success? I want an answer to that question then I want to know the song that defines you. I’m going here with you. Since you went this far, in your wake, what song do you want everybody playing? What song do you want playing when everybody walks in to come to visit? Here you got all three. You got a package all together.
To me, leadership is simple. It is bringing the best out of people, getting the most out of people, and inspiring them to get out of the most out of people that they influence. You got to have the right strategy. Getting the most out of people and getting them to do things that they didn’t think they were capable of is the power of leadership. That’s number one. For the second question, success is defined in different ways. You have to define success for yourself. Nobody can say what is successful for you.
Leadership is simple. It’s getting the best out of people and inspiring them to get the best out of the people they influence.
I don’t mean to be but let’s go to the end. What song?
I got to get you my entry song first. I’m fired up, it’s Lose Yourself by Eminem. It’s such an iconic song. If you like, “What are going to play in my wake?” you go back to Detroit and they’re Giving You The Best That I Got by Anita Baker.
People are like, “Why do you ask that question?” I said, “It’s because that makes people think about what their life is about. It’s good.” If you got to give one book away, we all know that you give my book away, but what book do you give away if you have to gift the book to somebody?
A friend recommended the latest one that I am totally into. By the way, I’m going to give you a little story. When I left the Garden in addition to traveling, I also asked my closest friends, people that I respect, what their favorite book and then I read all of them. Tanisha Wright, who’s the Head Coach of the Atlanta Dream now played on the team in New York told me to read Born A Crime by Trevor Noah. It’s one of those things that I didn’t expect to learn so much about what happened in South Africa during apartheid. I had no idea what Trevor Noah was all about and where he is from.
Nobody can say what success is for you. You have to define it for yourself.
Is it Trevor Noah, the guy that does that talk show?
He’s a comedian. It’s a fascinating book. For me, if you know Trevor Noah, you don’t know Trevor Noah. It’s the same thing as you’re dealing with people. You think you know them, but you don’t know them. That’s walking away from that. There are so many great lessons in the book but also that overarching lesson.
Kristin Bernert, the President of the Business Operations in Columbus Crew. Journey upon journey, I can’t wait to give you a hug and have drinks with you.
It’s going to be fun.
Thank you so much for being on this show.
You’re the best, Lance.
- Columbus Crew
- Lower.com Field
- MSG Sports
- How to Get a Job in Sports
- TeamWork Online
- KB2 Sports
- Born A Crime
About Kristin Bernert
Kristin Bernert serves as President of Business Operations for the Columbus Crew. Bernert is an Ohio native who, after 10 years in executive roles with Madison Square Garden Sports, co-founded and served as principal of KB2 Sports. Bernert joined the Black & Gold in January 2022 and directs all business endeavors for the Crew, including fan engagement and marketing; community partnerships and impact; game experience and facility management; ticket sales and services; corporate partnerships and overall revenue generation; and organizational administration.
Prior to establishing KB2 Sports, Bernert spent 10 years with Madison Square Garden Sports (MSGS), ultimately rising to Executive Vice President of Business Operations in 2018. In her role, she led business initiatives for all MSGS teams and affiliates, encompassing the New York Knicks, New York Rangers, Westchester Knicks, Hartford Wolf Pack, Knicks Gaming, and Counter Logic Gaming.