SBJ/March 10-16, 2014/People and Pop Culture

Heidi Ueberroth, former NBA International president

She’s seen the world, as well as the future

Photo: COURTESY OF NBA
After climbing the NBA executive ranks for the past 20 years, Heidi Ueberroth chose to leave her role at the league as president of NBA International in January to explore other opportunities. Ueberroth, a Vanderbilt University graduate, joined the NBA in 1994 after working for Ohlmeyer Communications and ESPN. During her NBA tenure, she played a key role in developing the league’s global footprint, including the creation of NBA China, while also becoming one of the most accomplished female executives in the industry. SportsBusiness Journal writer John Lombardo recently spoke to Ueberroth about her role in helping the NBA expand its brand overseas and about her plans for the future.

When I joined the NBA in 1994, nobody then was talking about international or global prospects for a U.S.-based sports league. Fast-forward to today and there isn’t an organization that isn’t thinking or actively focused on the global aspects. It has been fun for me to see the progress that has been made and the NBA has led the way.

There wasn’t a road map in developing a brand around the world. The first thing that comes to mind is that there is no substitute for investing time. … It was from a strong commitment from the very top of the organization. It was decades long. It involved intense travel, and for me personally, there are no shortcuts. You can’t underestimate the importance of face-to-face communication. It takes a lot of tenacity and determination. It is not one-size-fits-all. It is not a quick answer.

Ueberroth with former NBA China CEO Tim Chen at a 2007 game.
Photo by: NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
I made my first trip to Hong Kong when I was 11 years old. I am so grateful for my parents, who were in the travel business at the time and instilled in me that we had to be open to the culture. One measure was to try the food. I got hooked on a real interest in experiencing other cultures, and China in particular. When I joined the NBA, my first trip was within a year or two. I had an extraordinary interest in the country.

At the senior level in the NBA, there is serious meaning to the word partnership. That works very well, particularly in China where there is extraordinary love of basketball. The challenges were operating a business from a 12- to 13-hour time difference and taking all the values of the NBA brand and keeping up with the huge demand from the fan base in China that wanted to consume more and more of our product. The challenges were in the infrastructure building and in hiring and training. The positives were the partnerships that we developed, which are now some of the longest we have in the company.

Thinking back, there were times when I felt like a 911 operator. I’d awaken at 6 a.m. and think “What calls are we getting today?” There were so many different time zones. I remember we had a comprehensive new marketing partnership in China we were about to announce and I’d get the call that yes, we have a signed deal, but it is blowing up and we need you to fly to Inner Mongolia. We’d get on a conference call with a lot of translation and figure out a way. There was no road map for every country.

Stern “never allowed anyone to get complacent.”
Photo by: NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
There were a number of people who’d travel. We’d divvy it up. If you can get to Mumbai, I’ll get to Dubai and someone else can get to Shanghai. You build it from in-country up. There are extraordinary growth prospects. For me, the first stage I’d accomplished was to help plant the flag in all these countries and get some really tremendous people. I will have a lot of fun watching them take it to a whole other level.

In India, cricket is like a religion and dominates. For some people, that was off-putting. For us that was part of the excitement. You’ve got the rising middle class. There is nothing like sports that provides a common language and there is an extraordinary opportunity for the NBA and other sports. But you have to put in the time. For basketball, it has to be at the grassroots level. That development plan will look different than the one in Africa and in Brazil. To me, every country had its own landscape and opportunity.

As it pertains to working in other countries, it’s imperative that you have an interest in the culture and that you spend some time. It takes some patience. It is not my No. 1 quality, but that was the learning. The learning curve was very steep and it continued to improve. Part of that was to make sure we had local expertise to help accelerate our growth and understand the landscape and nuances.

With Kobe Bryant at a reception before
a game in Beijing last October
Photo: COURTESY OF NBA
The biggest change was in the communication. In the early days in the mid-1990s, those of us traveling to China and Istanbul, you didn’t have cellphones and email. The advantage was that I could be in the country and do an immersion. Today, that is a challenge. You get off the plane and immediately deal with other time zones and other regions and back at headquarters. It was really different then. You were able to apply a certain focus that is very challenging today.

[David Stern] had so many tenets and principles and detail and execution. He sharpens your focus and takes it to a whole other level. There is a shared sensibility from both David and Adam [Silver].

I remember interviewing with David in 1994. He had this vision for international and that really got me enthusiastic. I had the audacity to ask him if he had the owners’ support. The look on his face answered it all. It was a yes. He exceeded expectations and the commitment to the effort cannot be understated. It was like being an evangelist for the growth of the sport. It was a big responsibility to be a part of this effort, to take such a wonderful brand and go to a new frontier. David never allowed anyone to get complacent. It makes for a very strong organization.

Ueberroth plays Pebble Beach with dad Peter caddying.
Photo: COURTESY OF HEIDI UEBERROTH
There are clearly opportunities for women, and there needs to be more women coming through at the high level. I spend a lot of time talking to women looking to get in the industry. I look at the progress made at the NBA. To me, it is evolving in the right place.

There is a recognition right now of the value of sports that is at an all-time high. There is a lot of smart capital right now prepared to invest. There are new business models that are just beginning and I say that with experience in the U.S. and in other countries around the world.

I am very entrepreneurial. Part of the fun is to find the growth opportunities. It is really fun to think about what the world in sports and media will look like 10 and 20 years out from today. I want to dive in and see what the opportunities are. I don’t have a time limit on it. I am in no rush. I am confident in the opportunities.


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