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‘We have a test and learn philosophy’: The NBA’s Amy Brooks talks tech, jersey patches and inclusion

To kick off Women in Sport Week, Amy Brooks, the NBA’s president of TMBO and chief innovation officer, discusses the responsibility of being one of the highest-ranking female executives in North American sport, and why no idea is a bad idea when it comes to preparing for the future.

12 August 2019 Sam Carp

Amy Brooks had always been passionate about sports, but her fascination with one in particular started to blossom at the age of 11. 

It was then, she recalls, that the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Kings relocated from Kansas City to her hometown of Sacramento, the Californian capital that prior to then had not been able to boast the same glamorous major league franchises that have become synonymous with other cities in the state like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Now, some years later, Brooks is overseeing the business operations of her favourite childhood team, along with those of the NBA’s other 29 franchises.

“I pursued a path outside of sports in my career for a while, and just always wanted to get back,” says Brooks (right), speaking to SportsPro from the NBA’s New York headquarters in June. “There are personal and professional challenges in any role, but the growth of our league and what it stands for and what basketball means around the world and how sports unites people off the court, it’s just been a fantastic opportunity for me.”

In what sounds like one of the more all-encompassing job remits around, Brooks’ official title now reads president of team marketing and business operations and chief innovation officer at the NBA. The second half of that role was newly created for Brooks in November 2017, marking the latest step in her move up the league’s ranks since joining its marketing group in 2005.

Innovation might be considered a buzzword that gets banded about too hastily within the sports industry, but the NBA is one of the few leagues that has the case studies to back up any weighty rhetoric about it being a forward-thinking organisation. It is also one of the only sports leagues trialling so many different things at once that it arguably requires someone dedicated to leading that side of its business.

“The achievements in terms of innovation are really organisational,” Brooks believes. “One of the reasons I was put in this role is to be a catalyst for innovation throughout the organisation, but it comes from everywhere.

“Innovation is one of our core values, just to make sure people are living it, and you see it in the types of new areas we’ve expanded to in the last couple of years, ranging from our new esports league, our Jr NBA Global Championship. Then it spreads into all sorts of areas, whether it’s sports betting, whether it’s technology, whether it’s how our games are consumed on broadcast in the future. 

“We think our teams are major sources of innovation as well. We’ve always had that philosophy and that’s my other hat, which is team marketing and business operations. It is a function that’s really an internal consulting group to our teams, and embracing that innovation amongst our teams, whether it’s the jersey patch, esports, or building their brand globally – those are the different areas we’re focused on.”

The NBA 2K League esports competition recently completed its second season

Opening the door

In the same way that it is open to new technologies, the NBA is also bearing the fruit of creating a professional culture in which the contributions and ideas put forward by women are embraced with the same vigour as those proposed by men. And while it might come as a surprise to some that a female executive is driving the innovation projects of one of men’s sport’s shrewdest organisations, it is entirely in keeping with the NBA’s status as one of the most progressive leagues.

The 2019 NBA Racial and Gender Report Card, an annual study published by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, found that NBA franchises now have seven women serving in the role of either chief executive or team president, more than all other professional sports leagues combined. According to Brooks, the NBA has over 20 women working on the operations side of its teams.

Meanwhile closer to the court, NBA commissioner Adam Silver (right) has made no secret of his desire to build a diverse and inclusive league. In May, for instance, he spoke of his hope that half of all new referees joining the competition would be women, adding that he would also like to see teams hire more female coaches in the near future.

“Adam’s leadership absolutely reflects our values and how we prioritise diversity and inclusion,” asserts Brooks, herself a former Stanford basketball player. “It shows that diversity matters, having women in leadership positions in every kind of function matters, and that functions that weren’t previously considered as an avenue for women – like coaching at the NBA level – are becoming a priority for us right now.”

Of course, we always want to see more women in meetings, in professional environments, in our owners meetings, at our teams.

Brooks, who in 2015 was named by Forbes among the top ten most powerful women in sport, was recently joined in the NBA’s head office by Kate Jhaveri, who arrived at the organisation from video game streaming platform Twitch in July to take over from Pam El as the league’s chief marketing officer. At a time when more executives are trading traditional sports for esports, Jhaveri’s decision to move in the opposite direction says something for the NBA’s reputation and upward trajectory.

More pertinent, though, is that in what has traditionally been a difficult industry for female executives to navigate, the likes of Brooks and Jhaveri are helping to pave a path for women looking to make their way into sport, demonstrating that the qualities of creativity, invention and strong leadership have no gender.

“Of course, we always want to see more women in meetings, in professional environments, in our owners meetings, at our teams, and I was certainly in an environment where there weren’t a lot of women many times,” says Brooks. “But all along the way the NBA has embraced diversity, embraced programmes to support it, but also it’s just something that we stand for as a league.

“That’s been great for me in terms of both leading and getting other women involved and leading by example, but where we’ve come right now, you see it across not just the business, but also the basketball side.”

Brooks with NBA legend Kobe Bryant

Big money for a small patch

In the interest of leading by example, Brooks spearheaded the NBA’s decision to introduce jersey patch sponsors for the first time ahead of the 2017/18 season.

She admits that it was a risk to start printing brand logos on uniforms in a sports market so accustomed to unspoiled jerseys, but those 2.5-by-2.5 inch patches have generated a reported US$150 million across the league, with the inventory apparently selling for anything between US$5 million and US$20 million per season.

It is a success story which has caused others to sit up and take notice, and might soon see Major League Baseball (MLB) follow suit.

“It was hotly debated at the start,” reveals Brooks, “which might surprise some of our fans in Europe who are used to seeing advertisements on jerseys. It was a complicated process: who sells it? How will all our fans feel? What type of companies will join? Will it cannibalise our existing business? Those were some of the questions we asked but it’s been a tremendous success by all measures, and we now have all 30 teams that have sold it.”

Perhaps most significant, adds Brooks, is that 20 of the 30 companies that have taken on the inventory are doing business with NBA franchises for the first time. That includes American motorcycle manufacturer Harley Davidson and Japanese ecommerce giant Rakuten, which is reportedly paying the Golden State Warriors US$20 million each year, the most of any jersey patch sponsor.

NBA jersey patches have generated a reported US$150m across the league 

Rakuten is now rumoured to be looking to extend that deal with last year’s NBA finalists beyond its existing three-year agreement, pointing to the fact that its brand recognition among US basketball fans has soared 300 per cent since teaming with the Warriors. Should other companies be seeing similarly healthy return on investment from their jersey deals, it would not be a surprise to see the patches sell for more in future. 

“Their revenue has exceeded expectations, but more importantly, two thirds of these companies are brand new in spending with the NBA, and two thirds of these are also global brands,” says Brooks. “So for us it’s really about marketing; marketing in partnership with these global companies, and we think that’s a great opportunity for us to grow our brand.”

Brooks adds that the NBA sees that “global opportunity” in a lot of its metrics, pointing out that two thirds of its teams’ social following is outside the US and Canada. With that in mind, and following the success of the jersey patch programme, the NBA will now allow franchises to sell international sponsorship rights to two new or existing partners from next season as part of a three-year trial.

“What this opportunity is – we’re calling it our international team marketing programme – is for teams to designate two of their partners and grant them additional rights, whether it be retail, whether it be on digital, whether it be advertising, because we want these partners to embrace the team brand globally,” Brooks explains. “We feel, again, like this is the way to help the NBA and all its teams and our partners. Many of our team partners are global brands, we’re just missing an opportunity to create a win-win situation for everyone.”

Keeping one eye on the future

However, the NBA has been turning heads in recent times for more than just tweaking its approach to sponsorship. The league is widely considered to be a leader when it comes to testing out new broadcast technologies, and 2019 alone has seen the league roll out a series of initiatives designed to give its fans more varied and personalised viewing options.

In January, for example, the NBA and its broadcast partner Turner Sports revealed that they would be offering single-player live streams on Twitter for 20 games during the 2018/19 season. Then, the following month, the organisation expanded its relationship with Twitch to allow users to offer their own co-streams and commentary of G League games.

More recently, ESPN streamed game two of the NBA Finals via its app featuring a broadcast aimed exclusively at a teenage audience, while in July the NBA took advantage of its Summer League to broadcast a live game using six smartphone cameras.

For the NBA, it seems, no idea is a bad idea when it comes to broadcast innovation, and Brooks confirms that the league is constantly thinking about how its games might look in the future.

“We very much have a test and learn philosophy,” she says. “We see the media area as the most rapidly changing part of our business in how fans consume our content, so if we are not out in front working with a multitude of different partners, embracing start-ups, testing different products, different ways for our fans to consume the game, then we’re doing our fans a disservice in the long run.

July's Summer League game between the Washington Wizards and the Atlanta Hawks was broadcast using smartphone cameras

“We are very focused on the fan, and it differs depending on region, depending on age, but we want to be out there testing all types of new technologies. The future is personalisation, and we’re very focused on how we can get technology to a point along with our product to deliver a personalised experience for all of our fans globally, in an era where only one per cent of our fans globally can ever actually come to an NBA game.”

Brooks is also quick to point out that there are no secrets in the NBA, and that the league regularly encourages its franchises to share knowledge with each other, as well as its head office and partners.

We see the media area as the most rapidly changing part of our business in how fans consume our content, so if we are not out in front then we’re doing our fans a disservice in the long run.

Last season, for instance, the Los Angeles Clippers rolled out CourtVision, a new augmented reality (AR) experience developed in partnership with franchise owner Steve Ballmer’s analytics company Second Spectrum. The technology, which allows viewers to see animations and alternative graphics alongside their traditional TV feed, has already been jumped on by ESPN, and its success will likely see more teams trial the system with their local broadcasters

“It could be the secret sauce of our league: how our teams are extremely collaborative when it comes to every area of the business,” Brooks says. “We recognise that as well: we’ll share best practices, but we’ll also deliver awards, and the awards are often peer-voted. The Clippers’ CourtVision won the team innovation of the year award as voted by their peers this year, in addition to plenty of other awards in the industry. But absolutely, collaboration, sharing and best practices are core to what our league is.”

The WNBA and an inclusive future

While Brooks remains focused on the NBA, she is equally optimistic for the future of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), whose teams also fall under her supervision. Given its close affiliation to its male equivalent, the WNBA is one of the more visible women’s sports leagues in North America, and the popularity of its players and teams is only likely to grow as the public continues to rally around female athletes.

“My role certainly contributes to the overall strategy of the WNBA,” Brooks begins, “and then on the team business side we’re very focused on improving our teams and engaging our fans in local markets as well: filling our buildings, selling sponsorship and, again, sharing best practices and creating that collaborative environment amongst our teams to succeed.”

The first few weeks of the 2019 WNBA season would certainly hint that the future is bright, with the league reporting that TV ratings were up nearly 64 per cent compared to the same time last season. That viewership boost will undoubtedly have been helped by a new broadcast deal with CBS Sports, which has committed to televising 40 games per season during primetime, but emerging talents such as A’Ja Wilson are also adding some welcome star power to the league.

WNBA star A'ja Wilson sports the AT&T logo on her Las Vegas Aces jersey during an interview

Brands, too, are starting to make serious investments in the WNBA. The league has recently signed off on deals with German sportswear brand Puma and global telecommunications firm AT&T, which is the first non-apparel partner to have its logo feature on the front of all 12 team jerseys.

Add that to a new commissioner in the form of former Deloitte chief executive Cathy Engelbert and a refreshed brand identity, Brooks is confident that the WNBA is well placed to capitalise on the ongoing cultural shift and the added interest that will bring.

“We’ve been around for 23 years, but we’re just scratching the surface when it comes to opportunity for women in sports globally with the WNBA, and we’re very focused on its growth, and not just on the court, but we feel there is an opportunity for the WNBA around women and supporting women globally,” she says.

We’ve been around for 23 years, but we’re just scratching the surface when it comes to opportunity for women in sports globally with the WNBA.

“Obviously as a platform for women in general, we see that as an opportunity, but we also tie that back to basketball, and we’re evaluating several different things about the product, the game itself, how we’re structured, our season, because we think it has tremendous potential.”

The overarching message, then, is one of potential and opportunity – not just for the WNBA or basketball at large, but also for young girls contemplating a career in sport. Brooks clearly does not underestimate her position and influence as one of the highest-ranking women in the industry in North America, but she holds high hopes for anyone looking to follow in her footsteps.

“There’s certainly more work to be done, but the advice I would give and I always do give is if something seems like it’s a barrier, it isn’t always a barrier, and I think the more curious women are to learn and to explore the better we’ll all be,” she declares. “But it is something we’d love to see more of: more women in leadership roles in every function in sports, and I think we can get there and we’re well on our way.”

To kick off Women in Sport week, Amy Brooks, the NBA’s president of TMBO and chief innovation officer, discusses the responsibility of being one of the highest-ranking female executives in North American sport, and why no idea is a bad idea when it comes to preparing for the future.

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