Graduate Alumni Spotlight

Ryan and Strong – Connected by Annenberg and Sports

In the late 1940’s Bob Ryan and Bill Strong grew up within shouting distance of each other on Valley View Road in Merion Station, PA. Both graduated from Lower Merion High. After high school their paths temporarily split; Bill attended Amherst in a pre-law program, while Bob went to Gettysburg College to study English and History.

The two men caught up with each other in a way after their undergraduate studies. They both received Master’s Degrees from the Annenberg School for Communication (Bob in 1964 and Bill in 1967). Their paths continued on a similar vein after college when both men went into the business of sports. Bill Strong has enjoyed a long career in sports marketing, while Bob Ryan spent nearly 40 years with NFL Films. Their stories follow:

Bob Ryan (ASC ’64)

One little nickname …

When Robert Ryan (ASC ’64) coined the nickname “America’s Team” for the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League (NFL), he thought the moniker might have some staying power.

Boy, oh boy did it have staying power.

Twenty-nine years after Ryan came up with the name, virtually every team in every organized professional sport, pines to be known as “America’s Team.”

And to think it all started because Ryan needed some extra copy on a package for a video highlight reel.

In 1979 Ryan, then the vice president and editor-in-chief of NFL Films, wanted to come up with a title for a highlight film of the 1978 Cowboys team, who had just won the National Football Conference championship and had lost an exciting Super Bowl to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

According to a Ryan quote in Wikipedia: “I wanted to come up with a different twist on their team highlight film. I noticed then, and had noticed earlier, that wherever the Cowboys played, you saw people in the stands with Cowboys jerseys and hats and pennants. Plus they were always the national game on television.”

The package for the highlight video was called “The Dallas Cowboys: The Complete History of America’s Team.” The term was used by a television broadcaster for Dallas’ first game of the 1979 season, and it stuck.

Google the term “America’s Team” and you get just under one-million entries. Other professional sport teams lay claim to the name or have had it conferred upon them.

“Whenever the Cowboys are playing well, the nickname comes up again,” Ryan, now retired from NFL Films (but still consulting with them) said. “It’s probably one of the most high profile nicknames for a team in history.”

Ryan, originally from Lower Merion, PA and who now lives in New Jersey, says he does not mind being associated with the name. “I’m fine with it, really. I love the name.”

While Ryan has been interviewed countless times about the nickname, he admits it is not the one thing he would like to be remembered for. Rather than the name, Ryan would like people to realize he is the winner of 18 Emmy Awards, the most recent coming in April of 2008, when he was recognized by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for a series of films he did called, coincidentally, “America’s Game,” a history of the Super Bowl.

Ryan came to Annenberg by way of Gettysburg College, where he majored in History and English. “I always thought I’d write for a magazine or go into advertising,” he said.

It was after graduating that he took a job with NFL Films, which was being run by a lifelong friend, Steve Sabol, and his father. “I had to learn how to become a film maker, but found I had an aptitude for it.”

Ryan currently provides consulting services to NFL Films. “I find I get to do what I love most, which is making films.” He spends his time between his home in Moorestown, New Jersey and the Jersey Shore.

Bill Strong (ASC ’67)

Although he may not have known it at the time, Bill Strong’s father’s dream of seeing his son become a lawyer ended the summer before Bill ever set foot in law school.

It was during the summer of 1963 when Strong (ASC ’67), fresh from receiving his undergraduate degree from Amherst College, went to work at the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in Washington, D.C. as a summer intern.

“It was an amazing experience,” says Strong, who had the opportunity to manage a news desk and rub elbows with luminaries like Edward R. Murrow, the former CBS newsman and first head of USIA.

Two months later, Strong found himself in a classroom full of potential lawyers at Penn Law. “I was a fish out of water,” he says upon reflection. “After working for USIA, this just wasn’t for me.”

Still having nearly three years left on a scholarship, Strong decided to build upon his experience at USIA by obtaining his graduate degree from Annenberg. After graduation, he joined Westinghouse and worked at Westinghouse broadcast properties in Philadelphia (KYW), San Francisco (KPIX), Pittsburgh (KDKA), and in advertising sales positions in Chicago and New York.

In 1982 he became the vice president of communications and sales for the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League. “I was attempting to obtain their broadcast rights for the company I was with at the time, and they instead asked me to work for them.”

The Penguins weren’t a particularly successful team at that time, but new ownership helped create a core of hockey stars that not only propelled the Penguins into the upper echelon of the NHL, but helped raise the profile of everyone in the organization. That, in turn, led to an opportunity in 1993 to join the Dallas Stars NHL franchise, which was relocating from Minnesota.

His professional time in Dallas has been spent between negotiating and managing broadcast and advertising rights for several professional sports operations; the Stars, the Texas Rangers of Major League Baseball, and Mesquite Championship Rodeo.

“There aren’t a lot of people in the sports marketing business who are my age,” he said. “It’s a crazy business that defies logic in a lot of ways. Many professional sports teams don’t make very much money, and become increasingly dependent on advertising revenue. But with technologies like TiVo, sports operations have had to continually think outside the box as to how and where they place their sponsorship messages. “

He noted that, in his early days with the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was almost unheard of to place a sponsor’s advertisement on the skating rink ice. Now, entire arenas are festooned with sponsorship messages. He talked about a television interview he watched between a sports reporter and a NASCAR driver. “The racer kept changing baseball hats during the interview,” Strong said. “Each hat had a different corporate logo on it.

“A NASCAR marketing official once said ‘less is more’ when it comes to advertising. That gave me a laugh; I want to do less is more like they do!”

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