Standing in the Shadows
The Charlotte Bobcats begin their fourth season this month, twenty years after the once-beloved Hornets introduced the city to professional basketball. After dismal attendance the first couple of seasons, team owner Bob Johnson brought in a new crop of executives, including one Michael Jordan. We followed them around this summer to see if they have what it takes to make Charlotte fall in love again
Written by Steve Goldberg
Photographs by Chris Edwards
Web Exclusive: Q&A with Steve Goldberg
Way up in the corner of Charlotte Bobcats Arena, up in section 231, another bright orange cardboard "3" is hoisted over and tied to the railing as the arena announcer's voice spirals upward as if discovering puberty once again. "Matt Car-roll … for threeeeeeeeeeee!"
Fred Whitfield, who has years of executive experience with the NBA as well as Nike, has been charged with the task of turning the Bobcats into a profitable business.
It's three nights before 2006 becomes 2007 and it's one of the few sellout crowds the Bobcats will enjoy this season. For the 19,561 here tonight, the game against the Los Angeles Lakers is one they still talk about.
The parking lots along Brevard Street are far more crowded than usual. Inside, Kobe Bryant is in the process of dropping in 58 points. A road game for the Lakers, the seats are nonetheless heavily peppered with gold jerseys adorned with the numbers of old Kobe 8 and new Kobe 24.
If there was any game that was going to define the character of the third-year Bobcats franchise, this was it. First, second, now into the third overtime, it was one heroic performance versus many. Gerald Wallace, the Bobcats' fearless frequent flyer and best defender, had fouled out in the first extra period with 28 points. Emeka Okafor, the NBA rookie of the year two seasons earlier, had 22 points and 25 rebounds. Raymond Felton, the team's future leader, had 22 points and 15 assists. Coming off the bench, Matt Carroll, second only to Bryant in Pennsylvania high school scoring records, was responsible for four of the six orange 3s hanging up in section 231, and had 27 points. Such a team effort propelled the Bobcats to a 133-124 victory.
For good measure, the Bobcats would beat the Lakers again, this time a month later in front of Jack Nicholson and all of the Hollywood types at the Staples Center. It was a game immortalized on the HBO series Entourage in the words of superagent Ari Gold, who, when asked why he skipped a Lakers game, replied, "I didn't go to the game because they were playing the f@#%ing Bobcats."
In Charlotte, where locals were once avid fans of professional basketball, many are responding the same way to the home team.
Message from the President
A hundred miles and eight months away from that December night, Fred Whitfield, the Bobcats' president and chief operating officer, is directing a couple of players back to where they belong, admonishing them to pay attention to their coaches. These aren't Bobcats players, but Whitfield believes that if he does his job right, they will want to be. More importantly today though, he wants to make sure that they know their vocabulary words.
In a few minutes, Whitfield, who has traded his usual sharply tailored attire for a roomy, bright red Jordan Brand polo shirt and comfortable khaki shorts, will be surrounded by several hundred kids. They're attending the Achievements Unlimited Basketball Camp he started twenty-four years ago in his hometown of Greensboro with a staunch antidrug, pro-education message.
If anyone knows firsthand the influence something as simple as a basketball camp can have on a life, it's Whitfield. It's responsible for getting him to where he is today. One of only five African-American presidents of a major professional sports team, he's the man whose leadership and personality will help determine whether Charlotte can fall in love with professional basketball again.
As a young boy, it was the basketball camp Whitfield attended at Campbell University in Buies Creek, just south of Raleigh, that helped him realize the work he had to do to become a college player. As a player and later a coach at Campbell, he worked those same camps, along the way meeting a tall, skinny senior from Laney High School in Wilmington named Michael Jordan.
"I wouldn't call it an instructor," Whitfield laughs modestly as he recalls that first encounter with the man who is now one of his bosses. "I was one of his counselors. He happened to be a camper in my group and we hit it off and became friends."
When Jordan was playing at the University of North Carolina, Whitfield got him and other ACC players to speak at the camps. That relationship would continue as Whitfield earned a law degree and MBA before going to work for Jordan's agent, David Falk. Later he managed Nike's basketball relationships. He then worked with Jordan and new Bobcats General Manager Rod Higgins for the Washington Wizards before becoming director of business and legal affairs for the offshoot Nike label Jordan Brand.
Team majority owner Bob Johnson brought them together again last year, first selling an interest in the team to Jordan, whom he had chased as a partner for years, and then hiring Whitfield, whom he knew from Washington, a month later.
A Lot of Turnovers
Fans expect turnover in a new franchise, especially one whose first players are picked in an expansion draft from teams who thought them expendable and others thought not good enough. Going into this season, only four—Wallace, Carroll, Primoz Brezec, and Okafor, the team's first draft pick in 2004—remain from the roster that finished the first season.
To widespread surprise, the team off the court has also changed dramatically as Johnson decided he needed a different approach. In the face of that change, team President Ed Tapscott resigned and a significant number of high-level employees and other staff members were let go.
"It's always difficult to do that, but it had to be done and it was done," Johnson says. "It's never easy to ask people to leave who have been a part of helping you build something."
Just three years and two seasons in, Johnson felt that a more strategic approach to the business effort was needed. "That was the principal issue. It just didn't quite have that level of marketing and business strategy to generate the sales."
Attendance at the cavernous Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road, where the Bobcats played in 2004-05, was tepid, averaging 14,431, next to last in the NBA, only ahead of the New Orleans Hornets. It increased by about 2,000 the first year in the new arena to 16,014, twenty-second in the league, but fell to 15,683 and twenty-seventh place last season. Whitfield says that the second-year numbers were inflated by vast numbers of complimentary tickets that may have run as high as five thousand to six thousand a game.
Hence, the changes.
"They're all good guys, they're all hard workers, and I just think they were playing out of position because the needs at the time and the various skill sets did not match up perfectly," says NBA Commissioner David Stern about the executives who were let go. "Though they worked harder and harder to dig out of the hole, it just didn't work the way they wanted it to."
Tapscott, who in August was hired as director of player development for the Wizards, was one of nearly a dozen Bobcats front-office execs with a vice president title or higher who have left or been replaced since 2004, with most of those changes taking place last year.
"I think Ed had a very difficult position he was put in," says Felix Sabates, a Bobcats minority owner, citing the issues the team had to deal with—the residual ill will toward the Hornets leaving, the league, the arena vote, the sharp rise in ticket prices going into the new arena, and a restrictive TV deal. "He was put into a position to fail going in."
The straight-shooting Sabates, who helped land the Hornets franchise twenty years ago, told the Charlotte Business Journal last January, "I wouldn't have invested a damn dime if I thought it would be this kind of struggle." At that point, he was ready to donate his shares in the team to charity, a move blocked by Johnson. But Sabates seems to be feeling differently about his investment as the new season approaches.
"I'm very happy to see the progress that we're making," says Sabates. "I wasn't too happy a while back. I wasn't happy with attendance, and no one likes to lose money."
Johnson, who knows about making money (he founded cable channel BET in 1980 and twenty years later sold it to Viacom for $3 billion, making him the nation's first African-American billionaire), isn't second guessing the decisions he made in restructuring.
"Those guys did a credible job in getting us on to the jump start," Johnson says. "You start a business and some people take it to level one and you need some other people to take it to level two, three, and four, so that's what we've done. "
The previous management came in with experience from cities like New York and Washington. Johnson says now that local knowledge and experience is the critical factor, a fact echoed by the league office.
"With Fred you really get somebody who's got the roots and the depth of knowing the Charlotte and North Carolina market," Johnson says. "He understands how to sell product and build a team." Whitfield lived in Charlotte for five years while working for Nike.
"I think Fred Whitfield is a spectacular operating executive," adds Stern. "He brings an intensity and a familiarity with the community along with a loyalty from sponsors and stakeholders."
With Stern's blessing, Whitfield then raided the league office to first bring in Greg Economou, a branding expert who was the NBA's senior vice president for marketing and communications, and later Jared Bartie, the team's new chief administrative officer and general counsel.
With more changes off the court than on, fans are ready to see results. "I think at the end of the day, it's the product on the court that matters," says Gavin Hay, owner of the local Red Bull distributorship and a season-ticket holder since 2004. "The changes happen, but if the team ends up having a better record this year and vies for a playoff spot, I think the average fan isn't really concerned too much about it."
Though Johnson agrees that the issues voiced by Sabates may have and perhaps continue to be a factor on some level, he doesn't shy from the challenge. "From a business standpoint, that's just like starting a business called BET. No one had carried cable before. No one had ever carried minority programming before. Nobody knew if we could sell into the minority community.
"At the end of the day when I think about that, to me it's like looking at life in the rearview mirror—you'll never know where you're going. So I don't do that, I just look ahead. And I guarantee you, when this team starts going deep in the playoffs and contending for a championship, that people won't even think about [the past]."
Chief Marketing Officer Greg Economou's office has the mixed feel of a physicist's lab and a sports memorabilia shop. The only view from the high, wide window is the bit of blue sky that's not blocked by an industrial air conditioning unit. A growing collection of jerseys, balls, posters, life-size player cutouts, bobble heads, and other items line his desk, tucked in the corner of the L-shaped room. A massive whiteboard covers the remaining wall, etched with scribblings, lines, arrows, and charts. All those Einsteinish scribblings are part of Economou's master theory to make the NBA relative to Charlotte again.
"We're such a young brand and born under less-than-ideal circumstances, kind of a re-expansion, so we really have to get out there and earn their trust," he says.
While the language on the court consists of phrases like "pick and pop," "weak-side help," and "match-up zone," the vernacular throughout the nonbasketball-ops side of the office is dominated by terms like "brand," "value," and "equity." "This day and age in the sports industry, we have to treat our assets as we're a brand, actually many different brands," Economou says.
Winning has taken on even greater importance for the Bobcats than it had for the Hornets at this period in their existence. Even though the team has increased its count every year—the thirty-three wins last season being the most for a third-year team in the last thirty years, seven more than the third-year Hornets—it's not enough for a jaded market.
"I think in any market, especially one where the Hornets had a great deal of success, people would expect that same success and for it to be mirrored immediately," says Bartie.
Short of winning enough to be a playoff team, the Bobcats have pushed hard to change public opinion. The community relations effort led by former UNC-Charlotte and Charlotte Chamber executive LaRita Barber started well before there were any players and has been active in the city ever since.
"It's central to all that we do," says Barber, senior vice president of community relations. "It creates relationships by which you conduct the business of the organization. It allows your organization to be very relationship based versus transactional. I think it helps to define when people say I'm going to invest in a company or I'm going to invest in your product, they're not just investing in whether or not they are going to come to a game, they buy into you, they buy into what you represent."
Some things have been big and public. In partnership with Presbyterian Hospital, the team committed $500,000 to support a mobile clinic, called the Community Care Cruiser, to provide primary and preventive care to children at risk. Other things have been personal and private. Sean May met a young boy through the Bobcats' Make-a-Wish-style program and has since taken him under his wing like a little brother.
So far, the partnerships and community involvement haven't led to one particular objective: convincing a corporation to buy naming rights to the $265 million Charlotte Bobcats Arena.
"It's on top of my list every day," says Economou. "It's got to fit with this town and our brand and our vision and values. And that takes time. I like to use the analogy, though my wife doesn't like it, that it's like courting."
While Economou says securing a naming-rights sponsor takes time, no one expected it would still be on the block four years later. Of the thirty NBA teams, only four play in arenas without a corporate name, and two of those, Madison Square Garden (New York Knicks) and the Palace of Auburn Hills (Detroit Pistons) are unlikely to change. The others are the Rose Garden in Portland and the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.
The arena opened without a sponsor name attached because, says Don Muret, who covers facilities as a staff writer for the Sports Business Journal, the original asking price was considered too high for Charlotte and that questions regarding the team's acceptance in town may have made potential sponsors wary. The realistic value for a market like Charlotte is estimated in the $2 million-to-$3 million range per year, which would be a significant revenue generator for the team. Naming-rights agreements among professional sports arenas range from ten to thirty years. Bank of America pays about $7 million a year, in a deal that runs to 2024, to place its name where the NFL Panthers play.
Next to ticket sales, partnership marketing is the team's second-largest source of revenue, and the pursuit of a naming partner, Economou says, has led to other deals.
"We live and love the brand, so we want to have that opportunity to build the relationships because we might try to cultivate a hundred [potential] naming-rights partners and if we have four that have interest and two become founding-level partners, we've done our job."
Business Is Personal
Walking into a conference room at the arena, Whitfield is back in his game uniform, a dark pinstripe suit, pressed white shirt, orange tie. As he begins his second season with the team, he believes he knows what he's up against.
"Greg and I didn't think that our Bobcat team had a brand identity at all or really stood for anything that we could put our finger on when we got here," says Whitfield. "We were just sort of existing and playing basketball games and hoping people would buy tickets. Now, everything we do is strategic, and it's strategic through a brand-building process.
"We're making progress but we have a ways to go," he continues. "Our strategy of focusing on our premium products has been successful. We've sold thirty-two new courtside seats, five new suites, five new royal boxes. Our revenue is up from where we were last year." According to Economou, during the same point of the sales season last year, the team hadn't sold any suites or royal boxes, which run from $7,955 to $12,500 a seat.
Though the team sold 3,000 new full-season ticket packages last year, a league-leading 37 percent increase, revenue was still only up about 2 percent because most of those sales came in lower-priced sections. Economou adds that those numbers reflect the ticket sales the NBA tracks, which doesn't include suites and royal boxes. He says the revenue increase is closer to 6 percent.
"Our goal this year was to create some scarcity amongst our most premium products and we feel great," Whitfield says. "Basically, our floor seats are sold out."
Ticket pricing has been an ongoing issue for the team. The bang of the new building wasn't enough to offset a steep hike in prices, and it's been a feeling-out process ever since.
"What we're trying to do now is get to a steady state, make sure the price is fair and reasonable and they're getting their value," says Whitfield. "What we've really done is [position] our building to where we feel we have it priced the right way."
According to Team Marketing Report, the average price for a Bobcats ticket was $29.10 last season, a drop of 25.6 percent from the year before, making it the third-lowest average cost in the league. By comparison, the Knicks, who also won thirty-three games last season, had an average price of $70.51 and the Lakers were at $85.38.
In cities such as New York and Los Angeles, it is customary to see hometown celebrities sitting courtside at games. While Charlotte's celebrities—Panther players and NASCAR drivers—are often seen at games, they are likely paying for their tickets. It's the result of the no-comp rule Whitfield put in place, something he says the Panthers have done all along.
"Mark Richardson [president of the Panthers] is a close friend, but I've never gotten a free ticket over there and don't expect to, 'cause I know they have to drive revenue to pay their payroll."
There's one celebrity in particular fans get excited about the prospects of seeing at home games. Right now the team's biggest star is the guy whose name is synonymous with basketball—Michael Jordan. It's not a particularly good thing when the most popular guy on the team doesn't play. But it's also not bad having Jordan attached to anything you do. Yet the Bobcats have been very careful with this particular brand management.
"For us to come here and do something philosophically different and start plastering him out there and being the spokesperson for the team, even the face of the team, would be counterintuitive to what makes him what he is," Economou says. "It is his desire to build a basketball operation. He has been clear from day one with the media. He's been clear from day one with us."
And he was clear to us. Several times we asked for an interview with His Airness. Several times we were told no. The ultimate scorer has now become the elusive passer. Jordan expressed through Whitfield and Economou that he preferred to have new General Manager Rod Higgins speak about basketball matters.
While fans and the media clamor for Jordan and are left wondering just how involved the managing member of basketball operations is, team execs and players say he is in Charlotte far more than people know. They say Jordan, who Johnson appointed as the final word on all basketball issues, attended at least half of the home games last season and all of the predraft workouts this offseason. And they say he's frequently on the phone with Bernie Bickerstaff, executive vice president of basketball operations, and Higgins when he's not in town (we did see his office, which is right down the hall from Johnson's and is about a third of the size). As Johnson emphasized when announcing the partnership, Jordan is not an employee.
When Jordan did meet with local media in person prior to a game last season, he stated bluntly, "I don't want to sell myself to the fans, I want to sell the program."
But first he has to continue building the program, and to do that, he's organized a basketball brain trust that includes Bickerstaff—who was the team's coach and general manager for the first three seasons—Higgins as GM, and new head coach Sam Vincent. Bickerstaff had been the chief architect in building the team and getting it to this point, a role that has been clearly ceded to Jordan on one end and now Vincent on the other. It was only intended for Bickerstaff to be the coach for the first few seasons, and many thought he would then focus on his duties as general manager. But now, with this new position, his role is less clear.
The New Guy
While it may not be to the fans directly, Jordan will still be the team's biggest salesman. In "selling the program," his most important audience will be the high-level free agents and trade prospects that he must convince to come here.
That work started in earnest shortly after the NBA Draft in June. Jordan placed a call to a disappointed Jason Richardson, whom he traded for with the eighth pick of North Carolina Tar Heel Brandan Wright.
Although Richardson told the San Jose Mercury News several days after the trade that he would prefer not to go through the young-team-learning-how-to-win experience again, his opinion changed when he took a look at the Bobcats' roster. He also may have realized that the Bobcats only won nine fewer games than his Golden State team last season.
"I didn't know M.J. wanted me like that," said Richardson of the call from on high. "There's no better feeling to me than winning, and he's the same way. A lot of people can't take that [pressure] from him; that's why I think other players have had problems. I know I'm not close to his level, but how many people would turn down the opportunity to learn from the best that ever played?"
"I've seen it firsthand," says Carroll. "You watch a practice when Michael is there—the intensity level and competition level of our team and players just naturally goes up another notch, another level."
When the season opens at home on November 2 against Milwaukee, Vincent says the team will play "a fast-paced, very aggressive style, both defensively and offensively. I think it's going to be fun to watch, and entertaining basketball."
Higgins, who also comes to Charlotte from the Warriors, says that Richardson will fit in to the work ethic that Bickerstaff created for the team. "He's a player that brings it all the time, whether it's an informal workout, whether it's a practice, whether it's a game, he's putting his heart and soul into the work."
Bob Johnson quieted those who thought he wouldn't spend what it takes to put a competitive team on the court by signing Richardson and re-signing Wallace and Carroll to lucrative long-term extensions.
"Our theme for this year is going to be all about accepting challenges," says Vincent. "And the challenge is to reach excellence."
Johnson waxes poetic about the upcoming season. "Every year it's a different story that unfolds," he says. "David Stern is right; sports are the greatest reality show on television."
It remains to be seen if the NBA in Charlotte will be a Survivor. The sellout win over the Lakers is what the NBA story used to be in Charlotte—and that's what it can be again.