On November 7, Dan Reed (HBS ’04), President of the NBA Development League, spoke to HBS students about careers in sports and life in the NBA.
While many students consider themselves huge sports fans, HBS has not traditionally been a breeding ground for sports executives. In fact, outside of making fortunes in other industries and later buying their own professional sports teams, few MBAs have made successful careers in the business of sports. According to Dan Reed, President of the NBA Development League, that bias may be changing.
On November 7, Mr. Reed addressed a packed classroom in Aldrich on behalf of the Business of Sports Club as part of the HBS Sports Industry Week. His speech centered on how to approach the job search in sports as well as his rise through the NBA just three years after walking Aldrich’s halls for the last time as a Section C student. Mr. Reed noted that though they are highly competitive and difficult to find, opportunities for MBAs in the sports industry are emerging. Leagues such as the NBA are seeking professional management practices to centralize strategic planning, improve operations, enhance customer service, and achieve growth, both domestically and through international markets. As a result, teams and leagues have become more receptive to recruiting MBAs into leadership development programs in their front offices.
Mr. Reed discussed some of these budding opportunities for MBAs and offered advice to students interested in pursuing careers in sports. Because opportunities are limited and are not part of traditional campus recruiting, Mr. Reed stressed the importance of patience, networking, and humility. “The sports world is scarily small, but this can be an advantage.”
With success driven as much by relationships as by performance, Mr. Reed suggested using classmate connections and the alumni database to begin making contacts in the industry. “Talk to as many people as possible. When hard-to-find opportunities arise, you want your name to spring to mind.” Mr. Reed also suggested subscribing to the Sports Business Journal to stay current on the sports business and to monitor the job board on www.workinsports.com for available opportunities. If opportunities for a specific team, league, or sport don’t arise, Mr. Reed recommends targeting a desired function and finding the best possible company for which to work. Developing the right functional skills, if not for the sport for which you are passionate, will help you achieve your dream job somewhere down the road. “I’m living proof that following your passion, despite the pain of getting there, despite the murky prospects of advancement, pays huge dividends.”
The NBA Development League, or D-League, is the NBA’s officially sponsored and operated developmental basketball association, where NBA hopefuls can train in a highly competitive atmosphere and be scouted by NBA teams. With the ambition of becoming a true minor league farm system for NBA teams, the D-League began with eight teams in the fall of 2001. The D-League has since expanded to 14 teams, with each team being affiliated with between one and three NBA teams. Highlighting the D-League’s significant growth potential, Mr. Reed hopes to more than double the organization to 30 teams over the next two years.
The D-League was not designed solely for player development. Sam Vincent, the head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats, came through the D-League, as did roughly one quarter of the NBA’s current referees. The D-League also offers a pool of front office for the NBA and its teams, training employees in management, operations, public relations, sales, and marketing.
Mr. Reed’s path to the NBA was circuitous. While he loved his years of consulting with A.T. Kearney before HBS and his summer internship with Amazon, he knew his true passion was in basketball. Despite the risk and uncertainty surrounding careers for MBAs in the sports industry, Mr. Reed decided to forgo other opportunities and pursue his dream. During his EC year, Mr. Reed wrote a case on the NBA for Managing Human Capital, a class taught by Professor Tom DeLong. Through a sectionmate’s connection, Mr. Reed met and interviewed several senior executives at the NBA, including Commissioner David Stern.
While his casework did not lead directly to a job at the NBA, Mr. Reed’s relationships later paid off. Just weeks shy of graduation from HBS, Mr. Reed got a call from one of his contacts at the NBA regarding a position with the NBA’s Team Marketing & Business Operations division, or TeamBO, which acts as a liaison between the NBA League Office and the teams of the NBA, WNBA, and NBA Development League. Due to the impression he made during his casework and the strong relationships he had developed throughout the league office, Mr. Reed was first and only candidate considered. He accepted on the spot.
Mr. Reed initially focused on ticket sales and retention. After 18 months, he moved into an account management role where he consulted nine NBA teams on various operations such as ticket sales and service, sponsorship, and customer relationship management. “This was the best possible way to learn the business. I had the credibility with the teams to fully implement my ideas, and I truly felt like anything was possible.”
After another 18 months with TeamBO, Mr. Reed got the call from Commissioner Stern run the D-League. Mr. Reed noted that he draws daily on the management lessons he took away from his two years at HBS. In addition to overseeing a 20-person staff directly, Mr. Reed has general management responsibility for the owners and 12-player rosters of the 14 D-League teams. He also closely manages his relationships with the higher-ups in the NBA, namely Commissioner Stern. Just three years out of school, Mr. Reed is fulfilling his HBS dream of being a true general manager. “Our players dream big, and we help them get there.”