Each year, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) publishes its Racial and Gender Report Card for professional and collegiate sports leagues and institutions to grade each organization on the diversity of its workforce. These grades not only provide a snapshot of where each organization is at a particular moment, but looks at year-over-year trends to find areas where each organization is performing well and where improvements can be made.
In 2020, the NBA received a grade of A+ when it came to race, a grade of B for gender and an overall grade of A-. Although the marks were good by any industry standard, the NBA, who regularly tracks this data independent of TIDES to ensure diversity across the league and create more inclusive programs and processes, wasn’t satisfied. Instead, the league recognized that there is still more work to be done and launched a trio of new efforts – the Future Sales Stars Program, the Executive Highlighting Initiative and the NBA Mentorship Program – to continue to prioritize recruiting, developing and retaining diverse talent.
“Collectively, these programs are part of an ongoing, comprehensive process to increase the diversity of our talent across our entire league,” said Oris Stuart, Executive Vice President, Chief People & Inclusion Officer at the NBA.
When it comes to having a diverse work force not only in the league office but across the league’s 30 teams, Stuart says it’s not only an advantage, but a necessity, and essential to the NBA’s overall success.
“We are in a business and a game, that No. 1 requires understanding our fans. That means as an organization, we have to have people in the organization that represent the diversity and complexity of those fans so that we can understand and build relationships with them,” he said. “No. 2, we work for a league in a business that requires innovation; we’re in our 75th year, and one of the reasons that we’ve not only survived but succeeded and thrived is because we’re constantly looking at opportunities to grow the game, looking at opportunities to do things differently, challenging ourselves, and striving to reinvent ourselves on a regular basis.
“What are the ingredients for innovation: diversity and inclusion – different experiences, different backgrounds, different ways of thinking, different ways of solving problems. Because we’re in a complex business, it’s essential for us to have diversity and it’s essential for that diverse talent to be positioned where their ideas are included.”
That overarching philosophy led the league to launch these three programs to find new candidates at the entry level (Future Sales Stars Program), nurture existing employees and provide opportunities for growth (NBA Mentorship Program) and seek out qualified candidates for opportunities at the executive level (Executive Highlighting Initiative).
In case those goals weren’t lofty enough, the NBA decided not to wait, and launch these programs even though it was in the middle of a global pandemic that essentially shut down the traditional business of basketball and halted hiring nearly across the board for months.
While there was much uncertainty regarding when and how fans would return to arenas, teams were going to need talented sales representatives, marketers and leaders to get them back in the building and be innovative in reimagining the future of the game.
FUTURE STARS SALES PROGRAM
While the games paused this past year, the recruitment efforts did not. The first-ever Future Sales Stars Program tipped off in October 2020 and welcomed 50 participants who are early in their careers in corporate partnerships and ticket sales, with a goal of providing real-world sales training and a fundamental understanding of how the NBA generates revenue.
The six-month virtual program gave the participants access to mentorship, networking, and development opportunities, as well as real-world insights. It also connected the participants with current leaders in these fields with representatives from over 20 NBA teams serving as guest speakers and trainers.
Sergio Martinez, the Director of Talent Acquisition with the Golden State Warriors, was one of the first team representatives to get involved with the program as he embraced the vision of the program and what it was trying to accomplish.
“I was very interested in the program because it was a new idea, a new program, something I hadn’t seen before, and the purpose where it’s targeting women and people of color not only within the context of a historically white male dominated industry, but also within revenue generating roles,” Martinez said. “I think that’s a challenge for every team in that we definitely have limited people of color in those roles, so why not just address that challenge head on and say that this program is for you.”
Martinez led multiple training sessions with the candidates and shared his experiences in talent acquisition, giving them tips on what could make them stand out from others, but also what common mistakes to avoid during the job-seeking process.
“I want to share learnings that I’ve had throughout my career working toward this position, and also talk about the mistakes that I personally have made in my job searches early in my career,” he said. “Learn from my mistakes, and also learn from the mistakes that I see people continuously make, who are either entry level or very senior and experienced in their careers.”
John Ferguson, Vice President of People & Culture for Monumental Sports & Entertainment (Washington Wizards and Mystics, Capital City Go-Go), was another of the many team leaders eager to participate in the program.
“My passion is working with the young people, because I once was in their seat, I moved to DC with no job, first generation to attend college, so I didn’t have that sort of base of life, someone saying these are your next steps,” he said. “So anything that I’ve learned, if I can give it away for free to make their time and their path easier, I definitely want to do it.”
Ferguson said the fact that the program was virtual made it easier for him to participate and give of his time. He envisioned that in a pre-pandemic world the participants would have likely convened in New York for a week-long training and the number of team executives in a position to be away for that long in order to participate would be limited.
“To me it’s the silver lining of the pandemic because it allowed us to see that physical distance and location does not have to determine our ability to connect, teach, engage and share information,” he said. “Now we can do it virtually. I can get online from home at 8 p.m. to talk to the students and we can go through these recruiting best practices and steps and give them all the information that we want to share.”
Paul Bee, Vice President of Ticket Sales with the Milwaukee Bucks, was impressed by the level of engagement that he saw from the participants despite that training was being done virtually and there was much still unknown due to the pandemic.
“It was just making sure they understood, there’s going to be a point, whether it’s next month, whether it’s four months, six months down the road, that we should be getting back to where the new normal is going to be, and the whole preparation of the course was to make sure they were ready and prepared,” he said. “I told them kudos to you for still preparing yourself, because how many people kind of pause because the rest of the world did, but you were still plowing forward, you were still trying to make yourself better, make yourself more marketable.”
The students took that message to heart and when restrictions began to be lifted and fans were once again allowed into arenas on a limited capacity, Bee was able to hire four participants from the Future Stars Sales Program to join his team in Milwaukee. And the Bucks aren’t the only team that has been hiring; at the time of publication, 18 participants from the initial Future Sales Stars Program class have been hired by NBA teams.
With the success of the inaugural Future Stars Sales Program, the NBA is already looking to expand this future stars concept to other pillars of the business of basketball – such as analytics, basketball operations and more – in the coming months.
NBA MENTORSHIP PROGRAM
While the Future Stars Sales Program focuses on finding entry-level talent, the NBA Mentorship Program was established in late August 2020 as a way to develop diverse talent by connecting young professionals with mentors across the league to offer advice and share experiences.
Mentees were nominated to participate by senior leadership from each of the NBA’s 30 teams and were then matched with the right mentor. Over 175 leaders across the league volunteered to serve as mentors, including Ticketing, Partnership, Marketing and Business Operations executives as well as all 30 NBA Team Presidents.
Once the mentor/mentee connections were made, there would be three conversations between them over the course of four months to share knowledge and help the mentee grow in their career.
One of those connections was between Leah Emmons (Vice President, Partnership Engagement, Detroit Pistons) and Gillian Zucker (President of Business Operations, LA Clippers), and both found the experience incredibly valuable and rewarding.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today, if it weren’t for other people guiding my career and sharing their experience and knowledge with me in a really honest way,” said Zucker about her desire to serve as a mentor in this program. “That helped me see the things that I needed to do, to improve in order to continue to advance my career. And I feel like if I’m in a position to offer that to someone else, I want to do it.”
Zucker took a circuitous path to the NBA. After applying to the NBA while she was in college and not being accepted, Zucker began a 25-year career in professional sports before joining the LA Clippers in 2014, with experience in Minor League Baseball and NASCAR.
“I feel like a good mentor/mentee relationship has a level of honesty and trust that you can’t find anywhere else,” Zucker said. “It’s someone who really has no other ulterior motive other than helping the mentee to become better. And if that’s the case, and you’re really open to hearing honest feedback about things that you can do differently or areas where you can continue to improve or advance or reposition yourself, there’s an enormous opportunity for you to advance your career in remarkable ways.”
Emmons fit in a professional tier where she qualified to both serve as a mentor to younger talent, but also as a mentee and jumped at the opportunity to be paired with one of the five female Presidents in the NBA in Zucker.
“I’m lucky to have a few mentors in my life, both male and female, but somebody like Gillian, who sort of has been on the same path and be able to learn and hear about her experiences, has been such a blessing,” said Emmons.
“Being able to see somebody in a career that you want and how they got there, and being able to listen to those experiences helps build that competence within yourself. Gillian is such a great mentor in the sense that she asks a lot of the questions that I think people don’t think of, and she’s shared some personal stories with me that relate to what I’m going through day to day. A lot of times when those things are happening to me or I’m doubting myself, I can hear her voice in my head. And if something comes up, I know I can lean on her. And that’s not something that everybody gets, and I think seeing that and knowing that it’s possible is so great for the NBA and for women in the NBA.”
In the first conversation between Zucker and Emmons, the first question that Zucker asked was “How honest do you want me to be?” Emmons did not want Zucker to hold back and was ready for her mentor to be brutally honest with her when needed.
“I appreciated that she took that approach, because sometimes when you meet people for the first time, there’s a get to know you phase and she sort of led with like, ‘Alright, what do you want me to tell you?’ And hearing her opinions and then helping me figure out how I was going to grow in those areas is something that I wouldn’t have thought of, as I mentor people that has been such a great experience.”
EXECUTIVE HIGHLIGHTING INITIATIVE
When the NBA launched these three programs, the goal was to engage and promote candidates at all levels of a career in professional sports – from the entry level, to the mid-tier and eventually to the executive level.
“It’s really touching every stage of the talent life cycle,” said Stuart, “From those entry level positions, where people are starting their careers all the way up through and including more senior talent that’s had experiences elsewhere, and can bring those skills into our business and into our league.”
The Executive Highlighting Initiative began in August 2020 when the NBA published the first bi-monthly executive talent newsletter. Each newsletter features around five external executives that have expressed interest in working with the NBA across business disciplines, including revenue, marketing, digital, strategy and analytics, and more.
In addition to highlighting their career accomplishments and skills, the newsletter also contains contact information for each executive and teams are encouraged to engage these executives for possibly employment and networking opportunities. And the calls have happened as approximately two-thirds of the candidates highlighted so far have interviewed either with the league office or with teams since the initiative launched.
In his July 2020 report, Richard Lapchick, the Director of TIDES, stated, “The NBA has found a way to continue to lead the way when it comes to diverse and inclusive hiring amongst men’s professional sports leagues.”
With the launch of the Future Stars Sales Program, NBA Mentoring Program and Executive Highlighting Initiative, the NBA has expanded on those ways in 2021 and beyond.
“The good news is that there is already evidence, even in a challenging hiring environment, that these programs are delivering value and that teams are identifying talent and they’re excited about bringing them into the organization” said Stuart. “So, our expectations were lofty, but they’re being exceeded.”