Gary Stokan: ‘Chase something you love to do’

Sports business leader followed his passions.

Stokan’s remarks were edited for length and clarity.


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Gary Stokan has been lucky. Not many people get the chance to combine two passions into one career.

Stokan, 58, has spent more than three decades melding his love of sports and business. He started out working for Adidas and Converse, getting shoe endorsements or developing marketing campaigns for basketball stars like Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant. Stokan also was involved in one of the biggest marketing blunders in the history of sports business.

Then, as former president of the Atlanta Sports Council from 1998 to 2009, he brought high-profile events to Atlanta, including the NCAA Final Four. Stokan also has been CEO of the Chick-fil-A Bowl for the past 15 years, building it up from an after-thought game to one of the six bowls that will host the new college football playoff starting next year.

Stokan was instrumental in bringing the College Football Hall of Fame here from South Bend, Indiana. The $80 million project opens downtown next year. He talks about his roots, how playing and coaching basketball shaped his approach to business, and the infamous, penny-wise, pound-foolish mistake.

Q: Who influenced you early in life?

A: I grew up in the Pittsburgh area above the bar that two of my uncles ran. Another uncle, Fritz, was the welterweight champ of the world in 1940.

My dad left Carnegie Mellon University to work in his corner. He ended up working three jobs. He had an unbelievable work ethic. He retired when he was 82. He taught me if you’re not going to do something right, don’t do it at all.

My mom taught me to dream.

I wanted to play big-time college basketball. I was captain of my high school team. I sat at the typewriter and wrote a letter to about 100 big schools in the country, telling them about my dream. Then a friend of mine told me about a summer basketball camp run by Norm Sloan, the coach of North Carolina State, which had just won the national championship in 1974.

I became a counselor at the camp and played with some of the NC State players, who also were there. I said to myself: “I’m going to transfer here.”

Who in the heck believes they can walk on to a team that just won the national championship? Well, me.

When I got down there, I said to myself that I must be crazy. But I practiced my butt off and the next year I made the team and got a scholarship. I learned you can make anything happen. You have to have a goal, a work ethic, and you’ve got to execute your plan.

Q: After playing for NC State, you became an assistant coach there before combining what you learned from basketball with your business degree. You worked for Adidas, Converse and your own sports marketing firm. What did you learn?

A: You build a team through trust and empowerment.

I learned from playing and coaching basketball that if you recruit the right people to the right roles, and you let them play the roles, you have a chance of winning more than you lose.

I learned in business that you have to build strong, deep, lasting relationships. Business is a marathon, not a sprint.

I also learned you can have vision and leadership, but you also have to have a process. I learned AIM — asset integrated management. It shows you how to take an asset, like sponsorship of an event, and put it into a integrated plan to get a return on investment.

For example, you can create a marketing campaign, but it won’t work if the sales guys don’t buy into it. I learned that marketing, advertising, PR and sales all have to be in the room. They all have to work together to get the best return.

Initially, I’ll put them in a room for three hours to discuss the goals of a particular project. You try to build teamwork during the process, where everyone discusses their goals. But you can’t have 10 goals. You have to have three. So after you list the 10 goals, you work on narrowing them down by building consensus through discussion. As people participate, you build equity in the process.

After we reach a consensus on goals, we take a week to digest it. Then we get together again for strategies and tactics, using the same approach.

Q: You were part of one of the biggest marketing mistakes in sports business? What happened?

A: I was working for Adidas when Michael Jordan was playing in the 1984 Olympics before starting his pro career in Chicago. I had a good relationship with Michael. He was willing to sign with Adidas when he went pro.

I drew up a big marketing campaign, which would have involved giving Michael a $2.5 million endorsement contract. But Adidas’ headquarters in Germany said, “we don’t have that kind of money to put into the U.S. basketball market.”

The Germans didn’t realize that the shoe wars were going to be fought in U.S. basketball. Nike was in financial trouble at the time, but they offered Michael the $2.5 million contract. He told me, “If you get close to Nike on the shoe and apparel deal, the annuity and the poster program, I’ll sign with you. Just get close.”

The Germans didn’t want to do it, so we passed. That year, he did $126 million of Air Jordan products. That alone would have made him the third largest basketball shoe company in the world, behind Adidas and Converse.

The lesson is you have to dream high and have a vision. I knew Michael was going to be great. But at some point in business, you don’t make all the calls. You have to fight as hard you can, but you don’t always win.

Q: You’ve had many successes, including building the Chick-fil-A Bowl into a top-tier game, starting the Kickoff Game at the beginning of the college season and landing the College Football Hall of Fame. What’s the key takeaway?

A: Sports business is very fraternal. It reflects supply and demand. A lot of people want in, but not a lot of people leave on the backside. So you typically deal with the same people, who move around.

Build great relationships when you’re young because the same people you meet on their way up are the same people you’ll want to do business with when they’re CEOs or leaders of organizations.

For example, in 2000 (coach) Nick Saban wanted his LSU team to be selected for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. But my board was against it because LSU did not do a good job selling tickets in the past. Ticket sales are critical for bowl revenue. Saban and the LSU chancellor committed to selling a large number of tickets and I recommended that we select them.

Then, when we were launching the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the start of the college season in 2008, I went to Nick, who was coaching Alabama, and asked him to play in the inaugural game. He did. Alabama has played in three games and will play in a fourth next year.

Q: What’s your best career advice for younger people?

A: I always believed that if you can find something that you passionately love to do, then you'll never work a day in your life.

If you’re passionate about it, you’ll be successful because you’re going to learn everything about it. You’re going to get really good at it and people are going to want to hire you.

Don’t chase the money. Don’t chase the title. Don’t chase the lifestyle.

Chase something you love to do.