Rick Welts, president of the Phoenix Suns basketball organization, can be credited as partially responsible for making the NBA what it is today. In 1982, Rick, inspired by a Cracker Jack old timers baseball game, began to seek corporations to sponsor the NBA, which at the time was not the product that it is today. This search resulted in what is now called All-Star Weekend, a corporately sponsored weekend celebrating the storied history of the NBA, and rejuvenating the ABA tradition of the Dunk Contest. The resulting works established Rick as one of the innovators of the new brand that would become today’s NBA.
When asked for sports marketing advice, Rick speaks poignantly enough to merit block quotes.
“All the marketing in the world can only do one thing, which is shine a brighter light on your product. Now if the product can’t hold up to the scrutiny, it’s not a good idea.” And that scrutiny, Rick says, takes place in nothing short of a “fishbowl,” observed by a media far-evolved from the generally supportive beat reporters of the past. Rick has succeeded at his post, supporting one of the finest and most exciting franchises in
“People forget what makes them happy,” says Rick. “If you’re happy going to work each day, it’s probably a good start.”
I was the first person ever hired by the NBA to go out and try to find corporations to invest in sponsorship. Sounds a little crazy today but there was no one serving that function. I thought that would be a pretty easy thing. Turned out to be that anyone who had money to spend in sports, whether it be a company or agency didn’t feel that the NBA was a place to invest in. We were a property that wasn’t really respected at the time and we had a long way to go before we were.
One of those nights I was sitting there watching the news and I saw a Cracker Jack Old Timer’s baseball game being played in Washington D.C. Some old sixty-five year old guy got up and hit a home run. I noticed that, “hey, that’s pretty good.” Lots of Cracker Jack signage on national television. It got a lot of news coverage. That got the wheels turning.
We were going to Denver for the 1984 All-Star game. David Stern had been elected commissioner but had not yet taken office. He was taking office at the end of the All-Star weekend. Or All-Star game at that point. One of the things that he said was going to be different was that he was going to run the NBA by getting back in touch with the history of the game. We had some great players, but we hadn’t really done anything to capture that history.
So the dots kind of connected there that what the All-Star game had been in the past was everyone in the league would come in on Saturday night and have a nice banquet. They’d play the game on Sunday and go home. We were going to Denver- Denver had a great All-Star heritage in the ABA.
A couple of months before the All-Star game was to take place we sat down with the general manager of the Denver Nuggets. He was very proud of their ABA heritage. He wanted to figure out a way to honor the ABA heritage that they already had with the NBA All Star Weekend.
In 1976 there had been a Slam Dunk contest where Dr. J, Julius Erving had done something that no one had ever seen before. He ran to one end of the court and ran down the court, took off from the free throw line and dunked the basketball. No one had ever seen a human being do that before. Still, today, if you go to Denver, at least five million people were in McNichols Arena that day. Because everybody you meet says I was there that day.
So we came up with the idea that we could do our own old timers game because that would bring back players that were very responsible for the history of the game. That would fulfill Stern’s initial desire to reconnect with the history. And then, maybe we can stage this Slam Dunk contest again for the first time in the NBA. Then, we’d have our All-Star game. The real motivation for me, because I was trying to keep my job, was I needed to sell some sponsors. I thought all these things were really sponsorable ideas.
I went to David Stern, he liked the idea. We visited Larry O’Brien who was a great guy, very politically savvy, but didn’t have the same marketing sense that David Stern has. He looked at me like I was crazy because this was the finale of his reign as commissioner and he just wanted to go out nicely. He didn’t want to be taking a lot of chances on his final weekend as commissioner. He came around and gave me the basic pat on the back that if it didn’t cost the league any money and it wouldn’t embarrass him, that we could try it.
Sometimes it’s a lot better to be lucky than it is to be smart or good. We sold out McNichols arena at $2 a ticket. There was no concept of having live television, but there was a startup network you may have heard of called ESPN that agreed to at least tape it and maybe use it for something in the future. What unfolded that day was really magical. It was spectacular to have the Oscar Robertsons, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West to come back and be honored. It wasn’t quite as good when you had to watch them play basketball, at that point, but eventually that disappeared.
Slam Dunk contest we had a young upstart, Larry Nance, who challenged Julius Erving, who came for one more contest. They were the two finalists. Julius slowly walked to the end of the court for his last dunk and probably took off about a foot inside the free throw line and dunked the ball. But he was upset by the new guy, Larry Nance in the first slam dunk championship.
David Stern became commissioner that weekend to rave reviews of the weekend by the media, the players, the former players. It really set the tone for what has obviously been one of the most successful runs ever as commissioner of a sports league.
A lot of things happened that were lucky. But a lot of things were by design to try and create something that was very different than what they NBA had done before.
Did you get your corporate sponsors?
Yeah. The first one, who is still a sponsor of the slam dunk contest, Gatorade. They stepped up as a sponsor of the league. We were able to make a deal with Schick, which I don’t think exists any longer. And American Airlines paid for all the players who were coming in for the old timer’s game. That was really the start of the sponsorship program for the NBA which has grown into something much bigger now.
You’ve helped create the WNBA and the marketing behind the Dream Team. What goes into making an effective marketing decision?
It may not be the same in all industries, but in sports, what you really have to figure out is what you have going on in the field or on the court. That’s special. Figure out a way to present it in a light that would be favorably viewed. All the marketing in the world can only do one thing, and that’s to shine a brighter light on what your product is. That can be a really bad idea if the product can’t stand the scrutiny or the exposure.
The NBA was such an undermarketed property at the time. There were just amazing personal stories and athletes and athletic achievements in place, but we just weren’t shining a bright enough light on it. The test was always, “What does it do? Does it enhance the experience of the game? Does it enhance how people feel about the game?” If the answers to all those questions aren’t “yes,” then it doesn’t matter how much money you can make, it’s not a good idea.
You have to be true to your brand. Everything should stand the test of “does this put things in a more positive light?” If it does, that means you’ve accomplished something. If you can’t pass that test, it doesn’t matter how much money you make, it’s not a good idea.
How important is passion in your position?
I’m one of the luckiest people in the world. I get to do “this” every day and somehow get paid for it. My passion comes more out of when I was a kid. We used to gather all the cousins and relatives almost every weekend in a town north of Seattle called Mount Vernon. All the cousins would use my grandparents driveway and garage as a stage. The garage door would be the curtain. We would put on shows for all the family every weekend. Because I was the oldest cousin, I got to be the director and help put the show together and see the results of what we did.
I really think there’s as much as that drive in what I do today as there is my love of sports. My greatest thrill is walking into an arena filled with 18,000 people and watching it all unfold. I can’t control what happens on the court. I can control how people feel about the experience of being there. For me, that’s where the passion really comes from.
That never gets old because it’s live every time. We have to redo it 82 times a year. There’s always ways to do it better than we’re doing it. I’m lucky enough to be doing this, but you really have to understand the amount of hours and amount of time and nights and weekends that you spend when you have a job like this. If I didn’t have a passion for it, I think the fun of that would wear off pretty quickly.
I think if you can honestly think back about what experiences led you to where you are, there’s big influences almost always in your childhood or early teen years. You probably found something that you were drawn to or incredibly interested in or got great joy from. If you’re lucky enough to parlay that into your career, you’ll almost inevitably be successful.
You need to think about what makes you happy. I think people forget that being happy is the biggest part about really enjoying their jobs. What really, truly makes you happy? Because if you’re really happy when you go to work every day, you’re probably going to be successful.
People have a hard time distinguishing the things that make them happy and what they think they should be doing. There are a million ways to be successful in life and the only people in the end who really feel like they accomplished what they want to are the people who were lucky enough to get up every day and follow something that made them very happy. It’s not complicated, but not that easy to uncover what those things are that truly are significant to you in your life that you will judge yourself by at some point in terms of whether you were successful or not.
We all go to school and we think we are going to do certain things and we probably change our minds four or five times along the way. We shouldn’t be afraid to do that. You shouldn’t be afraid to do something that truly is just a passion. Because who would have guessed that hundreds of the careers that exist today, or people who have been phenomenally successful, are doing things that people really wouldn’t have imagined could be careers. You couldn’t have a career in the NBA when I started doing what I’m doing right now.
Literally, there were ten or twelve people who worked in a NBA front office when I started. And it was never viewed as a career path. I don’t know if anybody could have predicted the growth from an economic perspective and the scope and scale of what professional sports has become. There’s no way you could have really seen that coming.
But if it’s something that you really care about and something you are passionate about, and you follow it, you’re going to find a path that’s going to allow that thing to be important in the world which we live. And you’re going to be a significant contributor to making that happen.
One of the difficult things in this business, as opposed to lots of other businesses, is that our product is human. We have turned through a lot of product managers at Proctor and Gamble in the sports business because it’s such a frustrating transition for them to go from knowing what a product is, knowing how you’re going to market it. It just comes down to execution and running your plan right. And you know the quality of your product because it’s very predictable.
We have a human product. That’s what makes it both frustrating and such as source of interest for people. Depending on what happens when players all get together on a court, that completely changes plans you’ve made for months and months and months. No matter how could the plan is, or how it was planned out, it just doesn’t work anymore. You have to constantly adjust to that.
We look at ourselves a lot like Disney in that we have characters. We have theme parks, which are our arenas. We have movies that come from that. We have consumer products. We have television. We have all those same things, but the difference is Mickey Mouse never retires. Mickey Mouse never misbehaves and never holds out for a contract. It’s a very different kind of person that it takes to do something that you know by definition is going to throw you curveballs all the time.