SBJ/November 10 - 16, 2003/Forty Under 40
Published November 10, 2003
The NBA is loathe to release financial information, but that's not stopping Sal LaRocca from publicly touting that the league expects merchandise retail revenue to reach a record $3 billion this year, a noteworthy number given that the market was dead in the water just a few seasons ago.
"This will be the biggest year in our history," said LaRocca, who as senior vice president of global merchandising for the NBA is charged with running the league's licensed merchandise business. "We will have doubled the sales since 2001."
LaRocca, 38, has worked for the NBA since 1990 and has seen its merchandise cycle range from today's explosive growth to the lockout year in 1998 when sales all but stopped. He knows that the current double-digit annual growth won't last forever, just as he knew that the business eventually would recover following the lockout. The key to the business, he said, is that the NBA must be willing to work with its licensees during both good times and bad.
"We won't always see the growth that we are seeing now, so we are working to maintain the same relationships [with licensees and retailers] to benefit from the ups and to manage the downs," LaRocca said.
The NBA's strategy to grow its merchandise business hinges upon its ability to introduce new lines of products into the market while taking advantage of the continued retro-inspired trend of apparel, which has sent sales skyrocketing.
The NBA this year unveiled new lines such as the nba4her collection, the NBA Big & Tall collection and the retro NBA Rewind by Nike and Reebok's dFunkd line. This season, LaRocca will oversee a new merchandising push aimed at the children's market called NBA for Kids, and a new international focus that the NBA hopes will be the catalyst for continued growth. He also will be a key player in Reebok's move in becoming the NBA's exclusive licensed merchandiser. Reebok, which signed a 10-year deal with the league in 2001, has shared the NBA's licensed merchandise business with Nike but takes over the entire licensed apparel business in 2004.
"He is largely responsible for the long-term deal with Reebok, and he's worked at virtually every level of the business," said LaRocca's boss, NBA Entertainment President Adam Silver. "The international side has been more recent to Sal, and we are seeing business booming in Europe and Asia."
LaRocca may travel the globe selling NBA merchandise, but he's a full-fledged New Yorker.
He grew up in Brooklyn and attended St. John's University. His father is a retired steelworker who became a doorman in a commercial building in Manhattan. His mother still works as a sewing machine operator and also chaperones special education students on city school buses. His brother is a firefighter with the New York City Fire Department.
"I guess you'd call my childhood a middle-class, concrete experience," LaRocca said.
LaRocca began his merchandising career by happenstance. As a commuter student at St. John's, where he majored in business, LaRocca also worked full time at Paragon Sporting Goods.
After six years of working his way up to a buyer position at Paragon, LaRocca caught the eye of a member of the NBA's merchandising group, who recommended LaRocca for a sales opening. He joined the NBA as a regional sales manager in 1990 and began climbing the ranks.
"It's not where you are from, it's where you are at," LaRocca said. "I had no direct connection to the sports industry other than just liking sports. I didn't intern for a team or a league or anything. It was by the virtue of my business relationships that I got to the NBA and it wasn't anything I planned."
From 1992 to 1995, LaRocca was director of licensing for adult apparel, then worked as a group manager in 1995. In 1996, he was promoted to vice president of apparel, and in 2001 was named as senior vice president of global merchandising, where he reports to Silver.
"It's the classic rags-to-riches story," Silver said. "Sal has a unique ability to relate to people on all levels, from clerks to chief executive officers."