Champions 2019: ‘Some gutsy broad out of Cleveland’
Though more than three decades ago, Buffy Filippell vividly remembers her first encounter with former NBA Commissioner David Stern.
Early in her recruiting career, she convinced Don Stirling to leave NBA Properties for a job with the LPGA. In thanks, Stirling (not to be confused with the deposed NBA owner) advised Filippell to call Stern and secure the search for his replacement. Anyone who knows Filippell — and that’s most everyone on the business side of sports — will tell you that her fearlessness far exceeds her slight stature. So, not surprisingly, she managed to get the NBA commissioner on the phone. Sandwiched between some choice expletives, Stern informed her that the NBA would conduct its own searches.
Long before going out on her own, Filippell was convinced she’d made a big mistake.
“I’d blown it with the NBA commissioner,” she said.
Later, when Filippell started TeamWork Consulting in 1987, her first search was for the president of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Turns out, she had made an impression at the NBA offices after all. She got the assignment because of the recommendation by one David Stern, who described her to the PRCA as “some gutsy broad out of Cleveland.”
When Filippell phoned to offer thanks, he jokingly threatened bodily harm should she poach anyone else from the NBA.
Stern doesn’t remember that initial conversation, but their relationship has blossomed since then, as has Filippell’s business. TeamWork Consulting/TeamWork Online are now industry standards. They regularly stage job fairs for NBA teams and have placed a handful of NBA team presidents. A custom book commissioned by Filippell to commemorate TeamWork’s 100,000th placement is dedicated to Stern “without whom none of this would be possible.”
More recently, Stern has been lobbying for Filippell’s son, Davis, with prospective employers, and singing her praises — which has become another industry standard.
“Buffy gives me all kinds of credit I don’t deserve,” Stern said with a chuckle. “Teams depend upon her and she rarely fails to meet their expectations. She has an intuitive and historical understanding of what makes a good employee — and what teams are looking for.”
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Filippell credits a 1980s Time magazine story as the inspiration for starting TeamWork. It was a time when no firm specialized in sports and there were almost no women in the industry — outside of secretaries. She was wallowing a bit after the death of her father, and the article advised that the period after a traumatic experience can be a fertile time in which to start a business, referencing Mothers Against Drunk Driving as the model.
This is the final installment in the series of profiles for the 2019 class of The Champions: Pioneers & Innovators in Sports Business. This year’s honorees and the issues in which they will be featured are:
Feb. 11 — Kevin Warren
Feb. 18 — Earl Santee
Feb. 25 — Bob Kain
March 4 — Debbie Yow
March 11 — Ron Semiao
March 18 — Buffy Filippell
From the beginning, it was Filippell’s irrepressible nature, combined with a willingness to break convention and establish new tenets, which set TeamWork apart. At that time, the sports business career path was more circumscribed. If you started in a particular sport, that’s where you remained. Filippell started cross-pollinating and was able to convince both employers and employees to think differently.
“I’d try to stretch the position or at least stretch their thinking about who was qualified,” she said, offering her recruitment of Tim Leiweke from the MISL to the NBA in the late 1980s as an early example.
It’s been a lifetime of shattering stereotypes for Filippell.
IMG hired her in 1978 as the seminal sports agency’s first female agent. After working with women tennis players at Wilson Sporting Goods, Filippell was sure she was hired so IMG could add Tracy Austin to a client roster that already included Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King.
Founder & President, TeamWork Consulting/TeamWork Online
B.S., science, Indiana University, 1976
■ Manager of racquet sports and golf promotion, Wilson Sporting Goods, 1976-78
■ Account executive, IMG, 1978-82
■ Senior associate, Korn Ferry, 1985-87
■ Founder and president, TeamWork Consulting, 1987-present
Some of the sports business industry stars whom Buffy Filippell has placed in jobs during their careers:
■ Andy Dolich
■ Len Komoroski
■ Daryl Morey
■ Jamey Rootes
■ Chad Estis
■ Tim Leiweke
■ Scott O’Neil
■ Brett Yormark
Bud Stanner, an IMG employee for 33 years, was the executive who hired Filippell.
“There weren’t many women at all in sports then,” Stanner said. “Buffy was what I would call pleasantly aggressive, which was appropriate for those times, and we were growing so fast, I just wanted someone who knew women’s tennis cold.”
However, there were other agendas in play. Bob Kain, a fellow 2019 SBJ Champion, was running IMG Tennis at the time, and as the division grew, “Billie Jean King started looking at me sideways and saying, ‘You’re a pretty male-dominated gang,’” Kain said.
So Filippell was hired as IMG’s first female agent for a few different reasons, including one that’s indisputable. “I could get into the women’s locker room; they couldn’t,” she said with a lilting laugh that has become a trademark.
“You’ve got the NFL, and then there’s the BFL, which is Buffy’s laugh,” said industry veteran Andy Dolich, a longtime friend whom Filippell placed in jobs and who also has used TeamWork’s recruiting services. “Everyone knows it immediately.”
Filippell was at IMG for just a few years before following her husband Mark to Italy, where he was transferred. But during that time, she helped bring tennis star Andrea Jaeger into the IMG fold.
It’s one of the most requisite qualities in a recruiter: Filippell will rarely accept “no” as an answer. Rejected by Wilson Sporting Goods out of college, she found a way back in and elicited two job offers. When she was rebuffed by a form letter after contacting Korn Ferry about starting a sports practice in the mid-’80s, she called founder Richard Ferry’s office, insisting that if she was going to get “dinged, it had to be from Ferry himself.” Naturally, she ended up working there as well.
“Buffy’s just tenacious; she can get anyone on the phone,” said Chad Estis, Legends and Dallas Cowboys executive vice president. “When she wants something, don’t get in her way. She can get things done just by sheer will. … I’d call 30 candidates to get five good ones; she’d call 300 — most after 6 p.m.”
Estis worked for TeamWork early in his career and took the job with some trepidation. Now he calls his two years in a Shaker Heights, Ohio, basement office with Filippell and an intern, “my Ph.D.”
An early placement of Tom Chestnut as president of the Cleveland Cavaliers was a landmark, followed by a number of top executive recruitments for NHL teams. Forget about gender bias, for a non-Canadian to be having that much success with top NHL job placements was even more impressive.
It was high-volume employment opportunities that sent Filippell to the internet, where TeamWork Online is now a fixture, sending millions of emails daily to job candidates. In 1999, Steve Patterson was executive vice president of the new and at that point still nameless Houston NFL franchise. He was looking to hire around 200 employees.
“That was when I knew it was time to get on the internet train,” Filippell said, “but I knew we had to connect to the team and league sites, because building our own network would take too long.”
Soon after that, Basil DeVito called, looking to hire new employees for the first iteration of the XFL. When 150 people applied during the first hour the jobs were posted, Filippell was impressed. Eventually, 56,000 people applied online over four months for 122 available positions. “We were operating mostly by fax then, so I was sold,” Filippell said.
The internet’s ability to build community pushed TeamWork to the proverbial next level, establishing it as the de facto answer to team employment vacancies. These days, TeamWork Online has thousands of job listings and the company stages more than 50 job fairs annually.
“She made the digital transition well ahead of her competitors,” Stern said. “Now she’s the biggest provider of employees to the sports industry — period.”
The success of TeamWork Online and its adoption across the industry led to some unusual situations. Chase Langdon, New Orleans Saints partnership strategy manager, got his first, second and current sports job through TeamWork Online. Filippell laughs after citing him, since they’ve yet to meet. TeamWork also has enough of a history now that it’s placed both parents and their kids, like Dolich at the San Francisco 49ers and his daughter Caryn with the NBA.
Filippell, who now counts the total placements for TeamWork Consulting and TeamWork Online at more than 120,000, also has witnessed the number of colleges offering sports management degrees grow from perhaps a dozen to hundreds.
“Clearly, there’s a lot more graduates now than there are jobs, especially at teams,” she said. “If they teach more about being entrepreneurial, that’s the key.”
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The more people you ask about how a woman broke through in sports, the more you hear about how that wasn’t an issue for Filippell.
“Her gender never occurred to me,” Dolich said. “It was just, ‘Here’s Buffy,’ who brought this incredible personality, work ethic and joy to the business. She was always able to cut to the core and detect the best qualities in people, which is what any business is all about.”
Filippell has placed Cleveland Cavaliers CEO Len Komoroski twice, including his current position. “For any woman to break through in a heavily male-dominated industry is remarkable,” he said. “Buffy has this ability to instantly connect personally with anyone, quickly understand their motivations and use that knowledge to get everyone to that right place — that’s even more remarkable.”
So what makes a great recruiter? Someone who works as hard on both sides of the deal.
“Whether it’s the employer or the candidate, Buffy has this skill of burrowing into a person and finding out what makes them tick,” said Lee Stacey, Monumental Sports vice president of global partnerships, for whom TeamWork once helped winnow 1,300 résumés down to 10 for a vacant director of marketing job at the New York Jets. “That personal touch is what sets her apart.”
After decades in sports, Filippell is convinced she would never have enjoyed any industry as much. For those looking to enter the business, she counsels: “I wish it paid more at the entry level, but considering the time commitment required, it can’t be a passing fancy. You’ve got to want to be in it for your career. I never thought I would be working my whole life, but now I think more women need to think about that.”
When Filippell began as an agent, she had to enter and exit the IMG meetings held at Cleveland’s Union Club by the back staircase. The front stairs were off limits for women. Having worked at a time when the business of sports progressed from no women in the boardroom to at least a few, Filippell seems happy with the progress, if not completely satisfied.
“I love seeing people like Renie Anderson [NFL senior vice president of sponsorship, consumer products and partnership management] and others in high-level sales positions,” said Filippell, a 2017 WISE Woman of the Year honoree, “but I wish there were some more women presidents, like Amy Latimer [TD Garden president] and Gillian Zucker [Los Angeles Clippers president of business operations].”
The inevitable question for team sports’ most renowned recruiter is when will she commission a search to replace herself.
“My mom always said, ‘As long as you’re making a difference, keep doing so,’” said Filippell, who turned 65 in March, “so that’s my answer, too.”
First Look podcast, with Champions discussion at the 14:16 mark: