Sarasota sports pro returns to promote his latest endeavor
When Mark Neifeld realized there wasn't a big league for the sport of fishing, he accepted it as a challenge. After two years, the Sport Fishing Championship has 15 events to its name.
| 5:00 a.m. February 3, 2023
The day Mark Neifeld, the CEO and commissioner of the Sport Fishing Championship, helped bring in a 400 pound blue marlin on a fishing charter, his entire career changed.
Neifeld's passion for saltwater fishing stemmed from growing up in the Sarasota-Bradenton area. Out of college, he went into the sports and entertainment industry starting out with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Since then, he’s gone on to work for the Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers.
In 2020, when the event world came to a grinding halt, he had the opportunity to take a step back. “For the first time in my career, I had something called time,” he says.
Evaluating the sports and entertainment landscape during that time, he wondered why fishing didn’t have a big championship league. He spent time walking around his backyard with headphones on, calling every organizer, sponsor and media person he knew as he attempted to put together what is now the Sport Fishing Championship (SFC).
“We’re creating the PGA tour of fishing,” he says. “That’s our goal.”
By August 2021, SFC had completed the first phase of business with 10 tournaments set up. Soon after, he signed a multi-year partnership with CBS Sports network. SFC’s current portfolio includes 15 events, and a 40-event portfolio is in the works. Neifeld expects to hit that target in 2024.
All of this goes back to a fishing charter he went on in 2019 to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and that 400 pound blue marlin.
“I’m a big golfer,” he says, “but catching that marlin will be 1,000 times more exhilarating than hitting a hole-in-one.”
Neifeld was recently in Sarasota to promotethe Tarpon Championship Series, a multi-event tournament that will end in Sarasota.He spoke to the Business Observer about his career, lessons learned and advice he'd give the next generation.
How did you build the Sport Fishing Championship to this level in just a couple of years?
Right person, right place, right time, right partners. A lot of things have to happen. Prior to 2021, I had never worked in fishing. I was calling tournament directors and saying "Hey, I’ve got a vision for what this could be, do you trust me?" Fortunately for me, we had the right people get on board.
I did a 90-day discovery period (in January 2021). I said to myself, "If I get through 90 days and this doesn’t coalesce then I’m going to drop it. I can’t spend any more time on it after April 1." By the third week of February, I’d heard five times, "This is something that should have been done 10 years ago." So when I heard that, I took a leap.
What are some of the key elements to planning and executing a top sporting event?
Well, you have to have the top competitors. Our formula from day one has always been championship towns, experiences and competitions. We’re going to go into towns where fishing is sewn into the fabric of the community. We build an experience not just for anglers and competitors, but also for the community to come out.
What obstacles have you faced in your career to get to this point?
I don’t really look at it as an obstacle. They’re learning experiences. I’ve been (a part of) the National Hockey League, National Football League, Major League Baseball, college sports, fishing and championship events. Whenever there’s an obstacle, I enjoy it.
What we do is very hard. I’ve got 15 tournaments all across North America. I’m raising capital and sponsorships, doing media and event deals, getting competitors on board and that’s very difficult. But you can’t do what I do if you don’t enjoy the grind, because I know what the end result is and can be as we continue to grow. All the hurdles don’t bother me; it’s all worth it.
What advice would you have for a young professional who wants to advance in leadership in sports?
You have to get out and get experience. Go volunteer at Gasparilla (Pirate Festival) or the bowl games. Go learn. There are professionals out there that are eager to help. The one thing you’re going to see across sports and entertainment is that everybody in the industry is passionate. We love what we do. Most people that I’ve come across are more willing to help the next generation, but they have to go do it. They have to go make the introductions and learn.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from other leaders?
Always hold yourself to the standard of the brand that you represent. These are big organizations. Whether you’re on or off the clock, hold yourself to that standard professionally and personally. Some of the best lessons I’ve learned weren’t necessarily taught from the leader or mentor. They were observed. Nobody is ever going to sit you down and tell you how to be commissioner of a sports league. You have to observe leaders you admire and go apply yourself in the same way.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I’m good for a locker room speech every now and then, but for the most part it’s lead by example. Anybody who works with me, whether it was 13 years ago with the Tampa Bay Lightning or today, they’ll say, "Mark, your work ethic is incredible." But I enjoy the work. It’s not really work for me.
What do you mean by locker room speech?
I’m going to "rah, rah" them up. I’m going in (as) Vince Lombardi and will stand on the cooler. It’ll be good stuff. We’ll celebrate the day. But I’m also the guy that if we’re down 60-0 at halftime, we’re going to have a heart to heart. We celebrate as a team and when we’re struggling, we get through those things as a team.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career?
I’ve been wrong a lot of times with what I thought the vision or strategy might be. You adjust. You take feedback from your peers, adjust and keep rolling. Do you want to know about how we painted the field wrong during the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl or painted the wrong logo in the middle of the field on ESPN? I’ve done that. But you know what? Did they fire anybody for that? Nope. You learn together as a team.
Who are the leaders you try to emulate?
My wife Danielle for her ability to lead a family when I’m on the road so much. I would say every step of the way, I met someone who checked that box. Even my staff inspire me to be better. (Teall Sports & Entertainment CEO) Ben Sutton Jr. and (Georgia Dome General Manager) Carl Adkins — I learned so much from them. Carl gave me an opportunity to run the 2013 NCAA Final Four. When he believed I could do it, I was in my mid-20s and frankly I’m not sure I knew, but I wasn’t afraid to fail. That was really a big turning point for me in my career just to have that confidence. Ben Sutton Jr. for the Xs and Os of the business. Really having the opportunity to learn from someone who had built big sports and entertainment empires and was well-respected among his peers. Ben was not going to be the type to sit you down and tell you how to do something. You learned from observing Ben and listening to the stories.