Champions 2020: Jon Spoelstra
Jon Spoelstra spent a career not accepting the status quo, continually pushing the limits on sports marketing.
It’s a gunmetal gray Portland morning, but the midwinter gloom is offset by the bright Asian décor of Jon Spoelstra’s living room.
It is here among a colorful array of vases, pillows and art where the lanky and laid-back 77-year-old is as comfortable chatting about coaching his grandson’s basketball team as he is about his groundbreaking sports marketing career. Spoelstra has worked coast to coast, and winters in Hawaii, but he always finds his way back to his well-appointed hillside home in Portland.
This is the fourth installment in the series of profiles for the 2020 class of The Champions: Pioneers & Innovators in Sports Business. This year’s honorees and the issues in which they will be featured are:
Feb. 3 — Marla Messing
And why not? It’s here were Spoelstra made his name in the industry, leading the Blazers to a decade of sellouts at the old Portland Memorial Coliseum during the 1980s as the team’s head of marketing and later general manager. Filling a building during a 41-game NBA home schedule is a grind, but it was the innovative Spoelstra who kept the ticket turnstiles spinning for former Blazers owner Larry Weinberg during a decade of regular playoff appearances but zero NBA championships.
After gunning the Blazers’ economic engine with bold business moves for years, Spoelstra, backed by the blessing of late NBA Commissioner David Stern, took his out-of-the-box marketing talents from the Blazers to a short-lived stint in Denver, then to New Jersey where he revitalized the downtrodden Nets, and finally over to minor league baseball where he reinvented how small market baseball is sold.
Along the way, Spoelstra literally wrote the book on sports marketing and stood as a mentor to a cadre of some of the most talented and successful executives working in the business today.
His methods in the late 1970s through the 1990s were seen as revolutionary but today are standard operating procedures. He brought team TV and radio rights in-house, boosted the box office through creative ticket plans, and developed new takes on sponsorships to drive revenue, all born out of his refusal to accept the status quo of how teams do business.
“His focus on excellence and reinventing the business was the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen,” said Tim Leiweke, CEO of Oak View Group, who turned to Spoelstra to help market the Minnesota Timberwolves in the late 1980s when he worked for the team during the early years of the franchise. “Jon has been a huge influence. He was the first massive disrupter, and he is still one of the most incredible minds and hearts that I have experienced in the live entertainment business.”
Spoelstra sent out rubber chickens to Nets season-ticket holders, telling them “Don’t Fowl Out" on season-ticket renewals.
Photo: CATHY CHENEY
Spoelstra has been connected to sports all his life. His father, Watson, was a longtime sportswriter for the Detroit News where he covered the Tigers, the Lions and University of Michigan football, giving the young Spoelstra an inside look at the industry.
As a kid in Detroit, Spolestra spent his summers at the old Tiger Stadium with his father, arriving at the ballpark early for batting practice and leaving late as he waited for his dad to meet deadline.
“I had a normal childhood, but sports was the conduit between me and my dad,” Spoelstra said. “We could talk Detroit Tigers.”
One summer as a 13-year-old, Spoelstra went to 50 Tigers home games. “They let me have the run of the ballpark,” he said. “I saw Ted Williams in batting practice. I saw Mickey Mantle.”
Most impressive to the young Spoelstra, oddly enough, was watching Detroit Red Wings star Gordie Howe, who occasionally would take batting practice with the Tigers before anyone came into the ballpark.
“He would have been a hall of fame baseball player if he didn’t play hockey,” Spoelstra said. “He hit balls into the upper deck in left, center and right. And all the guys would gather around and watch.”
Spoelstra played basketball at Birmingham High School where he averaged fewer than 10 points a game as a defensive specialist. “I had to guard the other team’s best scorer, whether it was a 6-6 guy or a 5-10 point guard,” he said.
Spoelstra also caddied at Bloomfield Hills Country Club, where he looped mainly for General Motors big shots for $2.50 a round plus tips. “I was the No. 1 caddie because I didn’t steal from their bags and I was polite,” Spoelstra said. “When the GM guys bet and won, I’d get a $20 tip or a $50 tip. I was rich.”
After high school, Spoelstra attended the University of Notre Dame, where he promptly flunked out after his first year. “I was immature,” he said.
He then knocked around, working for GM as an office assistant for top-level management and running notes between executives and union officials during labor negotiations. He impressed enough to earn a job offer from GM that would allow him to split time between working and attending school.
But Spoelstra turned down the offer, worried about the prospect of working for the rest of his career for GM. Looking for an adventure, he decided to travel to Australia. “I made it as far as the Philippines,” he said. “I thought the Philippines was a lot closer to Australia, but it’s a continent away.”
But the trip turned out to be a success given that before he returned to the U.S., Spoelstra met his future wife, Elisa, and began a corresponding courtship.
Spoelstra said he returned home in Detroit with 52 cents in his pocket, and after realizing the need to return to college, wrote a three-page letter to the priests at Notre Dame asking for academic forgiveness. He was re-admitted and went on to graduate in 1966 with a degree in communications. Spoelstra then married Elisa, moved to Evanston, Ill., and formed a marketing company.
Spoelstra’s first foray into the sports industry began in the early 1970s when he created a company that regionally broadcast Notre Dame basketball games for $2,000 per game paid to the university.
“I called up Moose Krause, who was then the athletic director at Notre Dame, and I said ‘I got an idea I think you’d be interested in. I’d like to talk to you about it,’” Spoelstra said.
The next week, Spoelstra was in Krause’s office making the pitch to telecast Notre Dame games in an ad hoc network that would include Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Boston and New York.
■ Age: 77
■ Residence: Portland, Oregon
■ Education: University of Notre Dame, 1966; major in communication arts
■ 1977-1978: Buffalo Braves, vice president of marketing
■ 1979-1990: Portland Trail Blazers, vice president of marketing, then senior vice president and general manager
■ 1990: Denver Nuggets, president and GM
■ 1991-1993: New Jersey Nets, consultant
■ 1993-1996: New Jersey Nets, president and chief operating officer
■ 1998-2010: Mandalay Baseball Properties, president, managing director
■ 2010-2019: Founder, SRO Partners
The nascent network held great promise. Sponsorships were sold, ratings were strong and more than 100 local stations bought in after the first year, Spoelstra said. But then key investors in the venture, spooked by changing federal corporate tax laws, pulled their money out after a year, Spoelstra said. “It was my greatest success and greatest failure.”
Spoelstra then took a Chicago-based TV ad sales job that had him traveling throughout the Midwest. On one fortuitous trip through Buffalo in 1977, he stopped in to see Norm Sonju, a friend from Chicago who was president and general manager of the struggling Buffalo Braves.
It was a simple courtesy call made to Sonju, who later would become an owner of the Dallas Mavericks, but it ended up changing the arc of Spoelstra’s career.
“Norm said, ‘We’re a mess. Would you come to work for me?’” Spoelstra said. “So I come home from Buffalo to tell Elisa. I said, ‘I won’t have to travel anymore.’ She’s thinking I got fired or something.”
Instead, Spoelstra became the new vice president of marketing for the Buffalo Braves, which after a year and an ownership swap, relocated to San Diego to become the Clippers. “Halfway in, I’m essentially the advance man of where to move the Buffalo Braves,” Spoelstra said.
After the Braves moved to San Diego, Spoelstra didn’t want to work for the team’s new owner in Irv Levin, who took over the team in an ownership swap with the Boston Celtics.
“I just didn’t like his style at all,” Spoelstra said, who then moved on to a consulting job with the Christian-based Athletes In Action basketball team.
Spoelstra figured his NBA days were done, but a presentation he had made to the NBA board of governors earlier in the year had caught the eye of Portland Trail Blazers owner Larry Weinberg, who was riding high after the Blazers had won the NBA title in 1977.
“He called up and said, ‘I’d like to talk to you about our situation up in Portland,’” Spoelstra said. “‘We won the championship. And our radio rights went down, our TV rights went down and I’d like to talk to you about it.’”
Weinberg wanted to meet at his Beverly Hills home, but Spoelstra wanted to get back to his family in Buffalo and begged off the meeting, telling Weinberg he was going home.
“He said, ‘What’s your price? How much do you charge?’” Spoelstra recalled. “I said, ‘$2,000 a day.’ I just made it up. I go out there and we meet at his house at 9 a.m. He got his $2,000 worth, because I was there until 9 p.m. We just had a great conversation about what to do, and he’s telling me about how they’re winning a championship and they didn’t benefit by it.”
Weinberg hired Spolestra in 1979, and the new Blazers executive made an immediate impact by bringing the team’s radio rights in-house, followed by the team’s TV rights a few years years later.
After the first year under Spoelstra, radio revenue jumped from $50,000 to $900,000. In 1982, when Spoelstra took the team’s TV rights in-house, television revenue jumped from $200,000 to $2 million.
“That was the shot heard round the world,” Spoelstra said.
It also cemented Spoelstra’s reputation as an innovator with an appetite for risk that usually paid dividends.
“The smart people paid attention and did what he said,” said Steve Patterson, a longtime NBA team executive and former president of the Trail Blazers. “He would take chances. He’d buy up movie theaters to sell pay-per-view for games in Portland before cable. It was kind of far-out stuff in its day. When I started full time with the Houston Rockets back in the 1980s, I’d go to the NBA marketing meetings and listen and learn from him. He could drive tremendous revenues, viewership and fan engagement.”
Spoelstra’s bold approach soon spread, resulting in one of the wackiest trades in NBA history when in 1983 Spoelstra was traded to the Indiana Pacers in return for point guard Don Buse.
Blazers guard Darnell Valentine was injured at the time, so a deal was made that sent Buse to Portland in exchange for a two-week consulting agreement where Spoelstra met with prospective buyers of the team to outline how a team could financially prosper in the NBA.
“They brought in guys and I explained, ‘You don’t have to lose money in the NBA. We’re in a little town of Portland, Oregon. You’ve got to sell seats and you’ve got to sell sponsorships.’ And the last two guys that came in were local guys. It was the Simon brothers.”
Convinced, Herb and Melvin Simon bought the Pacers in 1983, and Herb Simon still owns the team today.
“I was gone only a few days, it wasn’t two weeks.” Spoelstra said. “So it might be said that I still owe him five or six days.”
Spoelstra promptly returned to the Blazers and the good times lasted in Portland until 1990, when Paul Allen bought the team from Wienberg.
By then, Spoelstra was ready to move on from the Blazers after spending 11 years making a name for himself while he and his wife raised their two children, Monica and Erik. Spoelstra said he could have continued to work under new ownership, but felt the time was right for a change.
Both kids followed their father into the business, with Erik as head coach of the Miami Heat while Monica worked for the Blazers and the Anaheim Ducks. She now runs her own health and wellness company.
“Growing up in an NBA family was unique, but we were also fortunate that it was a healthy relationship with the NBA profession,” Erik Spoelstra said. “I was able to enjoy the pure aspect of the sport and get access behind the scenes. He was able to coach me in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades. I was around the NBA game from an early age, and it wasn’t pushed on me at all.”
Like his own father did with him, Jon Spoelsta took his son to as many games as possible.
“It was a way for us to spend time together and enjoy the game we loved,” Erik said. “At my dad’s core is that he loves the aspect of mentorship, so it tied in well with a young son. He has such a creative mind and growing up with that level of creativity taught me to look at things differently and outside my comfort zone.”
Son Erik Spoelstra, coach of the Miami Heat, presents his father the 2017 Visionary Award from the Association of Luxury Suite Directors. Both of Spoelstra’s children followed him into the sports business.
Photo: COURTESY OF ALSD
After Jon Spoelstra left the Blazers, he began working for the Denver Nuggets in 1990 at the urging of David Stern, who wanted a veteran marketing executive to help the Nuggets ownership group that had recently bought the team.
It didn’t go well.
Ninety-one days into a five-year contract, the Nuggets — under an ownership group led by Peter Bynoe and Bertram Lee — and Spoelstra agreed to part ways as friction over the state of the team’s business grew.
Undeterred, Spoelstra began consulting with the Nets in 1991 and then accepted a permanent job in 1993 as president and chief operating officer.
The Nets in the early 1990s were a beleagured franchise, ranking near the bottom in nearly all business metrics. The team was controlled by seven owners, known as the Secaucus 7, and the team struggled both on the court and in the front office.
Spoelstra, embolded by his success in Portland, took a contrarian approach as he overhauled the business operations. No idea seemed out of reach as he made a serious run at changing the Nets’ name to the Swamp Dragons and famously sent out season-ticket renewal letters with rubber chickens attached to a “Don’t Fowl Out” message to uncommitted season-ticket holders.
He created five-game ticket packages, and turned the marketing focus not on the hometown Nets players, but on the stars from the visiting teams, a move that would be followed by teams for years.
“It was an experimental lab,” Spoelstra said. “Desperate men do desperate things. That’s when I came up with a five-game plan. I said, you guys want to sell season tickets? Nobody was wanting to buy season tickets here. We were selling the other guys. We were selling Larry Bird, Magic Johnson.”
Spoelstra became a mentor to a hungry young sales staff that included Scott O’Neil, who is now CEO of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment; Howie Nuchow, co-head of CAA Sports; Brett Yormark, former Nets CEO and current co-CEO of Roc Nation; and Steve DeLay, owner of the Macon Bacon minor league baseball franchise (see related story). All worked at the same time at the Nets and Nuchow and DeLay also worked with Spoelstra at Mandalay Baseball Properties.
“We had all these young Turks and I thought, wow, we could really do something, because these guys, they had the energy,” Spoelstra said. “All I had to do is provide them the knowledge and get them wrapped up in the plans that we were going to sell.”
One of the first things Spoelstra did was hire dozens of ticket sellers and set them loose on the market. Soon, revenue began to skyrocket. Over the course of Spoelstra’s tenure at the Nets, attendance jumped from last in the league to 12th and sponsorship revenue grew from $400,000 to more than $7 million annually.
The Spoelstra Tenets
Jon Spoelstra has written books, given speeches and mentored countless executives on his philosophy of selling. Here are his four tenets of marketing:
1. New as a way of life.
In his book “Marketing Outrageously Redux,” Spoelstra said companies must strive to continually think of new ways to market their product or service.
2. Push the outrageous envelope.
In the same book, Spoelstra details how outrageous ideas may lead to
3. What’s it gonna take?
“This might be the most important tenet,” Spoelstra said. “For example, managers might say they can’t do something because of a lack of budget. I always ask: ‘How much do you need?’ The answer is often ‘a lot.’ I’ve never experienced a manager giving me an exact amount. When we sit down and figure it out, it’s always far less than the manager thought. This also applies to teams. What’s it gonna take to win a championship this year? Next year? Three years from now? I’m not saying it’s possible, but shouldn’t a team be thinking: What’s it gonna take?”
4. Think Pegasus, the Horse of Opportunity in Greek mythology.
“By subscribing to 1) New as a way of life, 2) Pushing the outrageous envelope, 3) Asking what’s it gonna take, this horse with wings will kneel down, providing easy access to a wonderful, thrilling ride. I’ve got a small statuette of Pegasus in my home office.” — J.L.
By 1995, with five years of steady success in building the Nets business, Spoelstra began to chafe at the Nets’ Secaucus 7 ownership group, which had become increasingly more involved in the team’s business operations. No longer did Spoelstra have complete control over the way he would run the team.
“I could see that, all of a sudden, when we’re starting to become successful, they were concerned of who was going to get the credit, and that isn’t the model of success,” he said. “I decided to walk out.”
The departure wasn’t easy.
“You don’t feel great about it, because here’s something that was a major part of your life,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody’s got their own mourning process, and I found out that my mourning process worked best by just leaving the environment. So from New Jersey I go play golf in Ireland and drink a few Guinness.”
After a year, Spoelstra found his way back to the industry when Mandalay hired him to build up its minor league baseball business. He helped market wildly successful teams such as the Dayton Dragons, which today still own minor league baseball’s sellout record, and the Frisco RoughRiders.
Just like in the NBA, he took bold moves that included putting up rotational and LED boards on outfield fences, selling founding sponsorships, and limiting the number of games in season-tickets packages because Spoelstra didn’t want any tickets to “be left in the dresser drawer” when the season ended, said DeLay, who worked with Spoelstra at Mandalay.
“We turned the Dayton Dragons into the juggernaut that they are,” DeLay said. “We had seven founding sponsors with rotational signs for each one. Nobody had ever done that.”
Spoelstra spent 12 years at Mandalay and during that time began writing books on marketing, including publishing “Ice to the Eskimos” in 1997 and “Marketing Outrageously” in 2001 that helped cement his reputation within the industry. He founded SRO Partners with DeLay that owns the Macon Bacon baseball team, and sells online sales marketing products. Spoelstra sold his share in SRO in 2019 to DeLay and is currently working on another book to be self-published and plans to play more than 100 rounds of golf this year, just like he has for the past eight years. Fittingly, he plays golf a bit differently than other members at his Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.
“I walk, carry my own clubs and I play in two and a half hours,” he said.
Even his golf game is a hallmark of Spoelstra’s style. Confident, independent and a free thinker, he’s always been ready to replace the status quo and do things his own way in a bold style that proved successful. His years in the industry still resonate, and he’s got a long executive tree that has prospered in the industry.
While most of his time is in Portland, he also makes a few trips to his home in Maui. Despite the lure of Hawaii, he limits his wintertime travels in order to coach his grandson in Portland, just like he coached his son Erik.
“I am the original Coach Spo,” Spoelstra said with a smile.
He would get no argument from a generation of sports marketers.
Executives recall the many lessons learned from Jon Spoelstra
Jon Spoelstra knows how to spot and develop executive talent. Consider that when he was president of the New Jersey Nets, he hired and then mentored some of today’s top industry executives.
During the mid-1990s, Scott O’Neil, now CEO of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment; Howie Nuchow, co-head of CAA Sports; Brett Yormark, co-CEO of Roc Nation; and Steve DeLay, owner of the Macon Bacon minor league franchise, all worked at the same time under Spoelstra and the Nets.
All point to Spoelstra’s mentorship as a primary reason for their success. Here are their reflections on Spoelstra’s impact on them and the industry.
■ Howie Nuchow: “You learned from watching him take risks. When you are 22 or 23, and you have all this ambition, you’d watch him change the rules, and it was empowering. A lot of us found empowerment in his challenging authority, thinking big and encouraging that to other people. By the time you were managing people, you would encourage that, too. He used to take us out for dinner. It was amazing to spend time with the team president. We’d get chicken wings and beer, and we’d sit and talk. He’d give us a business book every week. If you didn’t read the book, you had to pay for the meal.”
■ Scott O’Neil: “He promoted me to sell sponsorships at age 23 after I fixed the copier machine on a Saturday. He took chances, and he was smart and he loved talent and didn’t care what size or shape it came in. He was a new-age leader in a business that was begging for it. He had such an impact on how I saw culture. The first thing he did was hire ticket sellers. We had 40; most teams had five. This was in 1992. There wasn’t much of a sports marketing team business back then. It was a bunch of young people just getting after it.”
■ Steve DeLay: “One of the things that was great was that he’d put pressure on you to deliver, but he’d take you under his wing to help you. One day he was standing next to one of our owners and he called me over and said to go pitch him because he wanted to understand what we do when we call on businesses. I was 23, but it was because he had confidence in us. If he trusted us, he was comfortable putting us on the spot.”
■ Brett Yormark: “Jon was ahead of his time; he was an innovator and a creator. He always went against the grain in a positive way to do things differently. He was a master at selling things to people that they didn’t want to buy. Jon, to some people, could come across as somewhat aloof but when you got to know him and he liked you, there was nothing he wouldn’t do for you. He didn’t stay in one place too long. He would come in and be a change agent and move on.”