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  • Writer's pictureMark Olivito

The Hail Mary: Rarely Works in Sports OR Business

The term “Hail Mary pass” has become generalized to refer to any last-ditch effort with little chance of success. The origins come from football that denotes a long, low probability pass at the end of the half or game. Picture 5 wide receivers sprinting to the end zone while the QB scrambles, buying time while he launches the football with all his might 50+ yards, while 7 or more defenders greet the sprinters in the end-zone.

It’s certainly a captivating play, and thrilling when it works. But the facts are not on its side in terms of success rate…..which is hard to find but if it’s greater than 10% I’d be shocked.

All too often businesses try their own version of the Hail Mary.

It could be the struggling brand in a cash-strapped company that tries a flashy new ad on the Superbowl. Or the high profile “white knight” CEO hired from the outside, paid huge $’s to save a highly leveraged, declining company. You get the idea: Big, bold, low probability moves trying to be a catalyst for success.

I couldn’t help but think I watched one this week on the premier of one of the most successful TV franchises of all time: AMERICAN IDOL

Fox’s American Idol kicked off its 12th season on Wednesday night with a 19% decline in viewers. Many reasons have been given for the decline, from greater competition of similar shows, more channels, and a general “tiring” of the brand. 19% declines are huge when you’re at the top of the ratings heap, this translates into 4 million+ fewer eyeballs. AI brought in 3 mega stars (joining Randy Jackson) as judges in Nicki Minaj, Keith Urb

an and one the top female recording artists of all time, Mariah Carey Hollywood Reporter cites their compensation: Minaj @ $8mm, Urban @$4mm and a staggering $18mm for Mariah Carey to Judge for 1 year.

Hail Mary sign #1: Splash Big names with even bigger compensation.

“Big compensation” is always relative, and with AI pulling in north of $750mm in ad revenue, one could argue that $30mm on 3 new flashy judges is small potatoes. I can understand the argument.

What’s the bigger risk? I see 2 flaws.

1) The assumption that great singers can all of the sudden be great judges of singers, which is a major difference. How many star athletes went on to become great coaches? Very few.

2) The belief that these mega personalities can not only be effective judges, but the chemistry between them will not be toxic. Building on the sports analogy again, if very few star athletes can be remembered to be great coaches of a team, can you think of 3 star athletes become coaches on ONE team! Enough said. This is what American Idol is trying to pull off here with this judging panel.

The great Casey Stengel famously said: “Finding good players is easy. Getting them to play as a team is another story.”

Teamwork matters in business. It’s an Old-School “fundamental.”

So for me to call the judging decisions on AI a Hail Mary is not that big of a stretch.

Regardless of where you stand on that argument, businesses are always well served to understand their customer base, and what strengths they have that generate its foundation for success. If you’re a fan of AI, many come to mind, but a few I would consider are the “bedrock” of its success.

  • It feels like the “American Dream” playing out on TV- The unknown, everyday person gets discovered and hits it big. They are given a shot, and they make the most of it. Its aspiration playing out on the TV, kind of like ROCKY.

  • The stories were never-ending. It’s not just the discovery of talent. It’s the talent + the unique STORY. People love a great story behind the talent (substitute talent for BRAND), and AI told the stories with great skill.

  • The Water cooler factor is huge. How many times do you remember the conversation of last night’s episode being carried over the next day at work? It could be the great performance or bizarre audition, but chances are people were talking. The buzz factor matters.

  • The CUSTOMER matters. They matter SO MUCH that they determined the next AI. Long before social media took off, AI recognized the power of the customer, they put it front and center so much that it’s the foundation of the name and the show itself.

  • The judges mattered. It is undeniable that the show has discovered great talent, and the judges deserve great credit for this. Simon often comes to mind as the greatest, albeit most critical judge.

I think of the above 5 as the American Idol’s “Success Formula.” You can argue which one of these formula elements are most important. I personally feel that the “judging” factor, while important, is last on the list of importance.

Every successful business has their formula, or recipe. Some spend years tweaking, honing and modifying their formula. But once it’s found, it should be protected and strengthened.

Hail Mary Sign #2: The Business is not just being bold (ie the Hail Mary move) but may actually be abandoning their success formula.

I love American Idol and I’ve followed nearly every season. But I turned off this year’s premier after 45 minutes. I simple couldn’t stand the bickering between Maria Carey and Nicki Minaj. While Mariah demonstrated more class, seeing the two snipe at each other when I wanted to see the stories and auditions was borderline un-watchable. I watched 15 minutes on night 2, wouldn’t be surprised if I tune out permanently.

I don’t think I was alone. After reviewing their Facebook page comments, there seems to be more aggravation than excitement.

Here’s an interesting American Idol 4 minute video, from the ninth season of American Idol. It illustrates the main elements of the success formula outlined above. And most importantly, the “judge element”, while important, does not seem to carry the day in my opinion.

So the question for the executives at AI, and any business is pretty simple:

Do you go for the Hail Mary? Or do you understand and embrace your success formula?

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