Burke Nihill’s Exciting Challenge of Running a 60-Year-Old Startup

Audio Description

Can a scroll through LinkedIn change the course of one’s entire life? President and CEO of the Tennessee Titans, Burke Nihill is living proof. Burke shares details on his unique entry into the sports world, how inflation is impacting his business, and the future of Nashville with a new Titans stadium in the works.


This transcript has been generated by an AI tool. Please excuse any typos.

00:09 - 01:04

Hi everyone and welcome to The Big Stage where we talk to athletes, artists and entertainers about their legacy and impact. I'm your host, Adam Sansiveri, managing director and co-lead of sports and entertainment at Bernstein. Our guest today is the president and CEO of the Tennessee Titans, Burke Nihill. This is Burke's sixth season with the Titans and his second as the team's president and CEO. Burke originally joined the organization as general counsel in 2016 and was promoted to senior vice president, business operations and chief legal officer in 2020. Before joining the Titans, Nihill held legal and management roles at VMware, an international software company based in Silicon Valley and served as Associate General Counsel at OfficeMax, having previously been a private attorney in Chicago as a fellow Nashville. And I'm especially looking forward to this conversation. Thank you so much for joining the big stage, Burke.

01:04 - 01:05

I should be here, Adam.

01:05 - 01:21

It's always good to see you, my friend. So let's dive into your background. Some having never before worked in sports. You transitioned from a career with the Silicon Valley Tech Company to being general counsel for the Titans. Is it true that you actually found this job on LinkedIn?

01:21 - 02:11

I found the job on LinkedIn, Adam. It's I get phone calls quite a bit from folks that are trying to break into sports at an early age. And one of the first things I tell them is my path is probably not the template. I was perfectly happy being a lawyer and I bounced around a couple different industries. You named them and was was very satisfied, was doing great in Silicon Valley, a really exciting company, great colleagues. And I was scrolling through LinkedIn one day and there was a job posting for the general counsel position at the Tennessee Titans, which is to me bizarre that that would pop up. I was I wasn't living in Silicon Valley. I was living in the Chicago area, but still a job posting for the NFL team in Nashville that would pop up on my LinkedIn. So it was unusual and certainly caught my attention.

02:11 - 02:32

And I clicked on the ad and it was it was more attainable than it seems from the surface of it having no sports experience. I figured I was clicking on it just for general interest, but it said right at the outset that sports experience wasn't required and I went through the individual bullets of things that they were looking for in that role.

02:32 - 02:55

And, you know, I had had a really diverse legal career up until that point, and I kind of started Johnson things down and cobbled together a case that I kind of had done a lot of the things that they were looking for and threw my hat in the ring and didn't really expect much to happen. But to my surprise, got I got a phone call back and, and kept working through the interview process and landed in Nashville.

02:57 - 03:21

Looking back, you know, I started and once I got to build relationships with the people I was interviewing with, I did ask them why was my candidacy something that was actually considered? And then ultimately why when I know that they had a lot of great candidates from the sports industry, why did they choose me? And I think it's a credit to what Amy Adams Strunk has done since she actually took over as controlling owner.

03:21 - 04:00

Just we would been about two years before I started she's really started to think outside the box and sports can be a little bit wash rinse repeat and you know there's no question they took a chance on me and my family is very grateful that that's true. But it was somewhat intentional. You don't have that many opportunities in a business like ours to to bring in new fresh blood and fresh thinking. And there was an intention to trying to find somebody that didn't have sports experience that would be able to bring some different insights and different perspective. And and there was apparently an attraction to the technology background and some of the other experience that I had, and we were very fortunate to land here in Nashville.

04:00 - 04:05

What do you think is the most surprising part of transitioning from the tech world to professional sports?

04:06 - 04:40

You know, at the time, I think we're really making strides. By the time one of the biggest surprises was, you know, you think NFL, the pretty impressive and well-known logo, the NFL team here and going from VMware where every quarter you were trying to break things and do better and innovate and whatever technology you created in one year was going to be antiquated, the draft or you just had to continue to grow and it was an innovator die right attitude and coming into the team, you know, there were lots of things that had been the same for 25, 30 years.

04:40 - 05:07

I'd tell people when I started, quite literally, there was a photocopy of a photocopy of a blank calendar that every employee in the business had to complete as a time card before you could get your paycheck. And that included the head coach who was putting in 19, 20 hours a day in many cases. And it was just that there hadn't been a lot of outside thinking and refreshment on whether that was still something that was necessary in 2016.

05:07 - 05:39

So that was maybe the most surprising thing. I made certain assumptions about what what it would be like working in this business and what's been really, really fun. It's certainly much, much more than me. We've hired some really incredible people and innovative thinkers. But to be able to be offered this challenge by Amy, of taking the business from a place where there were places where it was getting stale and the industry was passing us by, the city was passing us by. And Amy has challenged us to innovate and do things differently. And that's that's been, I think, a unique experience in sports.

05:39 - 06:10

We have started to identify ourselves as a 60 year old startup, and we've got the benefit of 60 years of tradition and experience, and we're not starting over. It's not like we're starting in the garage. But she's authorized us to counter .4., whether it's something mundane like timesheets or whether it's something like from a business planning perspective. She's allowed us to think like a startup and go for it in ways that certainly wasn't the case ten years ago. Within this organization, I think is actually in many ways unique to sports.

06:10 - 06:17

Okay. So lawyer to lawyer, right. To general counsel, maybe people say, okay, that makes sense. But let's take it a step further.

06:18 - 06:36

In 2021, at the start of the pandemic, you received a call from Titans Majority Owner Amy Adams informing you that the former CEO, now Steve Underwood, had retired. She then asked you to step into the role. And I'm curious, did that at that point come as a surprise to you? And did you feel immediately up to the task?

06:37 - 07:29

It did come as a surprise. And, I mean, it was surprising to me that our president and CEO was retiring. It was about a month into the pandemic. He's from Houston and he had already retired once. And Amy had brought him out of retirement to lead the team when she first stepped in as controlling owner and he had just gotten pretty comfortable, he moved back to Houston with his family when the pandemic started the beautiful ranch down in Houston. But it was it was somewhat sudden that he had decided to step aside. And so I was surprised to get that call. Obviously honored. And I think a lot of people, you know, whatever part of their career they're in, you know, you do question whether you're ready for whatever's next. And I certainly did. I felt in many senses, like I was up for the task and and many others just felt like this was going to be a really tall order, especially the fact that it was in the middle of a pandemic.

07:29 - 08:11

So to step from one role and another without the ability to connect them personally with the team and and with the colleagues that we're working through all of this, this crazy time, and we're a live events business in the middle of COVID, we run a football team that was unable to practice in person and a lot of challenges. And to be doing that from I was doing it from my screen porch. I had three kids that were taking up, you know, different parts of the rooms of the house trying to do their online classes. And we were trying to stay away from each other. It was a really hard environment to be stepping into that role that I've described that like I think a first time parent who has twins, you don't really know the difference. It's hard no matter what.

08:11 - 08:51

And just again, so many, so many, so many talented people here that we really don't have, I don't think, a traditional structure and approach to to meeting this business. We're in it together. We've got we've got a whole bunch of chefs, cooks and bottle washers that, you know, I'm just I'm honored to work with. And we muddled through together and figured it out and are very proud of how we manage that first year. And now it's been quite a bit of fun over the last, say, six or seven months as the cloud is starting to lift and to start doing some more traditional, you know, attack the opportunities, attack the business opportunities that that are in this increasingly post-COVID world.

08:52 - 09:40

Well, I know I speak for all of Nashville when I praise the work that you've done and how excited we are all of our Tennessee Titans. So let's move on to something completely different. And I warned you we were going to talk about this because it is the topic of the day, or as many people may say, the dirty word of the day, and that's inflation along with America at large. We've been really focused on inflation over here at Bernstein since last September. It's been one of the biggest topics we write about that we discuss with our clients, and it's on everyone's mind. So, Brooke, given your role, I'd love to dig in to how inflation is impacting your business. First, let's start generally inside the Titans organization. Can you tell us where are you seeing inflation rear its head or the most acute cost pressures, if you will?

09:40 - 10:32

Yeah, I think I think there's some really practical things. I mean, trying to buy a house in Nashville is very hard. And we've been growing over the last year and a half, even through the pandemic. We were hiring because we knew that startup mentality there. Businesses we wanted to get into, the areas we wanted to expand and recruiting has become much, much harder. Nashville's a really attractive place, and you're offering the opportunity to work at a really exciting business. But, you know, a lot of. People are pulling up Realtor.com or Zillow and recognizing that it's going to be really, really hard to plant their family in an area that they want to live in Nashville with the compensation, that would be standard for a position like that. I mean, I've personally jumped in and tried to help people navigate those waters because it's much, much harder than it would have been two or three years ago to land somewhere in Nashville.

10:32 - 10:57

We also I mean, everything related to our game days has become more expensive. The supplies and food and beverage and those sorts of things are more expensive. And the labor, we end up scaling up to over a thousand people on a game day and it's costing us a lot more to bring in quality employees to come in and do that work. So it's just become more expensive to do what it is that we've been doing.

10:57 - 11:04

So what has been your strategy in terms of where to pass those costs on in prices and where to absorb them in your margins?

11:04 - 11:36

You know, the strategy for now has been a lot of the additional expense on game day labor. We've just written it off to having a customer obsessed mindset. We need a certain amount of good trains employees to come in and do a great job of getting people through security gates and to get them to their seat and to give them a welcoming environment. And that's just cost more. We're not going to skimp on customer experience. And so it's just a cost that we've absorbed.

11:36 - 12:01

And then we're doing an analysis at this point, looking forward to the next year of, you know, other places where we potentially have gotten bloated as a business, where we can cut back so that we can absorb that additional cost without impacting the business and the long term output of a game day. So we have not pass that along to anyone else. We've just absorbed it.

12:01 - 12:55

And in some cases we just as a very specific example on getting people in and out of our building, we've actually turned to technology as well to try to reduce the number of staff that we need. We ended up purchasing some very new generation security technology that rather than having to go through magnetometers where people are taking things out of their pockets and going through security magnetometers. There's a system called Evolv that's quite expensive, but it allows people to flow right through while scanning for specific prohibited items in someone's pockets or in a bag. That allowed us to actually have less people working those security gates, and it's a better customer experience as well. But it also was driven by the fact that it's harder to get labor and it's costing more for labor. It was helpful to justify that expense by offsetting the labor cost with the technology costs.

12:55 - 12:59

Well, that's a great example of, as you said, customer focus.

13:00 - 13:05

I'm curious, what other factors do you think matter most to keeping your customers happy?

13:05 - 13:59

That's a great question. I mean, it's something that we're asking ourselves all the time. Clearly, I think the 1999 fan and the 2022 fans have different expectations. It was just a matter of putting seats in that had a decent view of the game and a hotdog wrapped in foil from a concession stand that was about what people expected. And I think, you know, the HD experience is pretty great at home. And so if someone's going to give their time to come to a game, we're grateful that they would consider doing it. We want to be sure that when they get there, they have a delightful experience. We're looking outside of the traditional NFL venue. We're looking to the Masters. You know, we're looking to Ritz-Carlton and Disney World and understanding what they do from a fan experience and a customer experience perspective. What principles can we bring to our games so that they have the same delightful experience?

13:59 - 14:36

We are at this point in an aging stadium and there are things that are harder to accomplish within that infrastructure. But we're doing everything we can this this year. We will be introducing some grab and go concessions technology. That was something we could drop into our concourses without needing any sort of infrastructure changes. With the idea that I know when I go to a game, if I'm going to go get some food or drink. My expectation is I want to go get it and I want to get right back to my seat without missing any of the action or missing as little as possible. And so we found some technology that will allow that to happen.

14:36 - 15:13

We are always challenging ourselves. A lot of it is people credit, it's looking people in the eye and it's being well trained to be helpful and to surprise and delight. But there are these other opportunities through technology, through kind of thinking, through things on the front end that we can offer a delightful experience. From our perspective, we're trying to make that a driveway, the driveway sort of opportunity. We feel a stewardship of that experience for our fans, and we are just challenging ourselves to think outside the box, not necessarily look at other NFL venues and what they do. Look to these these greatest in the world experiences and saying what we can bring over to Nissan Stadium with.

15:13 - 15:20

A technology focus. I think it does excite the 2022 fan. It's great to hear those innovations. All right. So for our listeners.

15:20 - 15:43

Time for some Nashville centric news. Last month, after drawn out negotiations, the Senate and House passed a state budget that will include 500 million in bonds for a new Tennessee Titans stadium. But this conversation is about much more than the stadium. It could mean great opportunities for the future of this city. So, Berke, can you outline for us some of the opportunities that this might bring?

15:43 - 16:16

Yeah, it's almost intimidating. The number of opportunities that have done well could create a generational opportunity for Nashville in again, I guess, set the stage for for the folks outside of Nashville. Our stadium is in a really unique place. So a lot of NFL venues, you'll take the highway and get off of an exit and pull into a big parking lot. Our stadium is on about 100 acres of parking lots, but it's right across from downtown. So there's the scenes of Broadway. Maybe you would have seen the 2019 NFL draft scenes.

16:16 - 16:55

Our stadium is literally right across from the Cumberland River, and we are also bordered by a highway. And then on the other side of that highway are some of the most dynamic neighborhoods in Nashville. The area between the river and the highway is referred to locally as the East Bank, and it is in all about 300 acres of industrial space. And it's been an opportunity for a long time that Merrill administrations and local leaders have looked at it as an opportunity to be kind of Nashville's next growth area. So to be sitting on 100 acres in probably the most central area of the East Bank has been something that we have felt like we need to think about it really critically.

16:55 - 17:23

We've gotten phone calls for years, long before I've been with the Titans, where developers would call and look to put a roller coaster in the in the parking lot or to do things that are very basic, you know, bricks and sticks, sports bars and that sort of thing. And we've rejected that with with the notion that there's a much, much bigger opportunity that can deliver on needs for the city, that can be something that is truly Nashville's next great neighborhood.

17:23 - 18:19

So the things that we have been talking to the city about this won't necessarily be, quote unquote, our development if we follow this path. But it's the idea of making sure that the stadium is in a position that, you know, 30, 40 years from now, it's still in great shape. It's flexible, too, to adjust to the changing sports and entertainment landscape. But then these parking lots are ultimately developed to create something of a new town center for Nashville. So using this opportunity to create a great public experience for for families and all generations on the river, and to be thinking about the sort of development that is less about, you know, developers are alive, building the tallest buildings possible and and just thinking about the hardware in that respect, thinking about how locals and Nashville will use this area. And so we're thinking about plazas that would support farmers.

18:19 - 19:06

Markets are moving, right? We're talking about making sure that there's as many local kind of Etsy style businesses as there are national chains dropping in to make what will probably be a pretty decent rely on a business in a central location. We have spent as much time quite literally getting into the neighborhoods around the stadium and around Nashville, saying, if you had this opportunity, what would you do here? And and we bring those ideas to the city planners, to the mayor, and everyone's thrown in the same direction on this and seeing this as as a great opportunity that 50 years from now, if done well, people will be kind of shaking their heads, saying, what sort of forethought did it require to create something, you know, so, so beautiful and wonderful.

19:06 - 19:43

And I think about Central Park and Paris. There are these places that clearly they had city planning behind it. And now hundreds of years later, whether it was preserving Central Park as open land or whether Paris had height restrictions, you know, people now enjoy what people hundreds of years ago thought to put in place. And, you know, that might sound dramatic and hyperbolic, but we feel like it's that sort of opportunity. And again, while it may not be our development, we do have a seat at the table and we are trying to represent Nashville in that. And to go back to what, you know, how your question started and.

19:43 - 20:22

Yes. And having a stadium solution in there, too. Right. And that's that's ultimately, you know, where we play football games and where we help to deliver other cultural opportunities for the city and for the region. But we want this ultimately to be a building that has a great relationship with its surroundings and the neighborhood around it. To think about this a little bit more like a centrally located Wrigley Field and Wrigley. Where that baseball stadium and the neighborhood, they they interact so well. Like, it's hard to kind of think about one without the other. That's the challenge that we've given ourselves and working through with the city, and we feel like there's some really great opportunities to deliver on that.

20:22 - 20:27

Yeah, it's so exciting to see all of this unfolding in front of us for those of us that live here.

20:28 - 20:48

Back to my inflation questions though. I'm thinking this is a massive undertaking and prices have changed drastically on building materials and all the different things that it would take to build a new stadium, etc.. So how are you thinking about the inflationary impact that this market has caused on this big project over the next couple of years?

20:48 - 21:24

Yeah, no question. I think we would have rather have been doing all of this three or four years ago. Looking back in terms of the construction costs and pre inflationary environment, with lower interest rates on any sort of financing that would be involved. And it's something that we're having to guard against. I think it's driving a sense of urgency. To be honest with you, Adam, because if inflation continues, then you're talking about needing to find dollars that are not actually adding any value to anything that's being delivered, whether that's the stadium itself or the rest of the project, it's just going to increase costs for the same same deliverable.

21:24 - 21:51

So that is why the state and the city have and the team have been engaging with such a sense of urgency is understanding that costs may continue to rise and we're having to pay a lot of attention to looking at and measuring twice, cutting once on what we believe a two day budget will be, and then also agreeing with everyone involved about, you know, what's what's a reasonable contingency in this environment.

21:51 - 22:18

To give you one example, Minnesota's U.S. Bank Stadium, which is a beautiful facility, was built for about $1.1 billion. That building would be potentially twice as much today. And again, for no additional value, just the deliverable cost that much more given given inflation. So it's something that we're keenly aware of and and trying to do everything we can to plan accordingly and to move with a sense of urgency to help mitigate.

22:19 - 22:56

And the other big news on this point for the East Bank development is actually the largest economic development deal in Tennessee's history, which is for those that may not have heard or don't live in Nashville, is paving the way for the Austin based software company Oracle to build a $1.2 billion campus in Nashville. Six acre new hub on the East Bank of the Cumberland River, planning 8500 jobs in Nashville and spending 175 million or more on infrastructure. A pedestrian walk, bridge, a greenway, all that good stuff. So Burke, as your new neighbor, is planning to come to town, I'm curious how closely you are in conversations with Oracle.

22:56 - 23:23

We've had a couple conversations. I'm actually having a meeting later today with with someone from Oracle. I mean, it's really exciting. Adam It's like I said, this East Bank concept has been around long before you or I moved to Nashville. I was actually reading something recently about the idea of putting the team stadium on the East Bank back in the nineties. The idea was this is going to spur development of the East Bank finally. And it and it hasn't happened yet.

23:23 - 23:57

And so to have kind of this first tangible marker and it's a big one, I mean, a Fortune 100 technology company coming and planting a flag in this area. The momentum is is huge. And so if this stadium campus piece, we can align on a plan and start marching in the direction of a plan there. It is now kind of within sight that what has through generations of Merrill administrations been talked about as a possibility is something that is is actually steadily now marching towards reality.

23:58 - 24:11

All right, Burke, we're coming to the end of our show, but I have a few more quick questions. I want to make sure we get out there. So let's start with a few personal questions and nothing too hard hitting, I promise. What are you most excited about for the upcoming season?

24:11 - 24:42

Every single year is a fresh opportunity to get excited about a team that's a little bit different than the year before. And our general manager, John Robinson, has has built a consistently winning program. We are one of two teams in the National Football League that has had a winning record for the last six seasons. And so I think there's reason to believe that we are a consistent program that is going to continue to win football games, and it's just exciting to get after it and let a new season unfold every year.

24:42 - 24:52

I also hear you love barbecue, so here's some quick rapid fire questions for our listeners. Pork or beef? Pork. Sausage rubbed, rubbed. Tomato paste or vinegar?

24:53 - 24:54


24:54 - 25:03

Love it. All right. We do ask this final question to all of our guests and we find it very important. So, Burke, what's the best piece of financial advice you've ever received?

25:04 - 25:54

I learned from a school of hard knocks, Adam. So I. Came out of law school and had a little bit of supplemental income. And I mean, like I had about $1,000 in the camera and I opened up an E-Trade account and put that that $1,000 into a couple of different things and was very proud of myself for the first six months or so as I watched that money grow. And then 911 happened. And very suddenly that thousand dollars, which was pretty important to me, was less than $1,000 and quite a bit less. And so from that point, I have trusted advisers like yourself to help guide those decisions. And the advice that I take from them is to actually not pay attention month to month, given the volatility and and just trust the wisdom of the plan and play the long game.

25:54 - 26:01

Great advice, Burke. It's always great seeing you. Thank you so much for joining us on the big stage and I'll talk to you very soon.

26:01 - 26:03

Thank you for having me. It was pleasure.

26:04 - 26:13

Thank you all for listening. This has been the big stage. If you enjoyed this episode, if you'd like to subscribe, please go to Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

26:13 - 26:22

Please email us your thoughts, questions and any feedback to insights at Bernstein dot com and be sure to find us on Twitter and Instagram at Bernstein p w m.

Adam Sansiveri
Senior Managing Director

The information presented and opinions expressed are solely the views of the podcast host commentator and their guest speaker(s). AllianceBernstein L.P. or its affiliates makes no representations or warranties concerning the accuracy of any data. There is no guarantee that any projection, forecast or opinion in this material will be realized. Past performance does not guarantee future results. The views expressed here may change at any time after the date of this podcast. This podcast is for informational purposes only and does not constitute investment advice. AllianceBernstein L.P. does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice. It does not take an investor’s personal investment objectives or financial situation into account; investors should discuss their individual circumstances with appropriate professionals before making any decisions. This information should not be construed as sales or marketing material or an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any financial instrument, product or service sponsored by AllianceBernstein or its affiliates.

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