Thursday, March 27, 2008

Hail To The Chief: A Conversation With D-League President Dan Reed



In a sport where we spend so much time questioning front office officials' intelligence and vision, Dan Reed is a breath of fresh air. After only a few minutes talking with Reed, the most powerful man in minor league basketball, you find yourself certain of both his considerable intelligence and the progressive vision he has for the NBA's minor league.

Dan Reed is President of the NBA Development League. Reed worked for AT Kearney in San Francisco and Washington DC as a management consultant before attending Harvard Business School. From there he joined the NBA where he eventually became Senior Director of Team Marketing and Business Operations. Then, in June of last year, Commissioner Stern appointed him to the position of President of the D-League, coinciding with the move of the D-League offices to the NBA headquarters in New York.

When I met President Reed in New Orleans, I was expecting a very stiff businessman. I anticipated a grizzly minor league official that had no time for a blogger such as myself. I was very surprised to find Reed not only friendly, but startlingly engaging and approachable. I followed his blog at D-League.com and kept up with his public appearances. When he commented on this site a few months ago, I was flattered. And when I was offered the chance to interview Reed, I leaped at the opportunity.

Reed's success in the D-League is something he deflects to his predecessors and the hard work of his office. But the results make it clear that Reed has had a direct influence on the new-found success of the D-League. He's brought live streaming webcasts of all the games to D-League.com. He's brought together a wildly successful D-League Showcase in Idaho, and masterminded the D-League All-Star game, which featured a great showcase of the D-League's talent as well as games like HORSE and a great dunk contest. Attendance is up 21% this year, Reed's first season behind the wheel, and there's a growing surge of interest in the league as call-ups and assignments reach record numbers, now accounting for 15% of all NBA players. Following the announcement of two new franchises in Reno and Eerie, Pennsylvania, the sky seems to be the limit for the D-League's potential, and Reed has been a huge part of that.

We were fortunate enough to speak to President Reed earlier this week, and he talked about everything from the possibility of expansion in New York, to his belief in how the NBA can change the world, to the future of blogging in the D-League.

HP: Coming from the private sector, what prompted you to join the NBA head office?

DR: Good question. There were basically two reasons. One, I've been a huge fan of basketball all my life. I played in high school, couldn't make it in college. I never really thought I could turn that passion into a career. But when I went to business school, and I started to understand the business of basketball, I saw opportunities to combine the consulting I was doing with the business of basketball in the NBA. I got a taste of it and was sold.

The second reason is that I have a very strong social responsibility streak; I truly believe the NBA can change the world. It goes beyond NBA cares. There's an opportunity to help people who need it, and that's something I wanted to be a part of.

HP: How familiar were you with the D-League before your appointment?

DR: You know, honestly not as familiar as I should have been. I sort of consider myself as one of the world's biggest basketball fans. Obviously, as I work at the NBA. I felt a sense of the same what other people get, which is that the league is off the radar. I'd seen some of the D-League shows, I knew it existed, but I don't think I recognized the depth as to how the D-League has impacted the NBA, from what it's done with talent to how it's affected the brand to the development of referees and coaches.

HP: What goals have you set for the D-League during your tenure?

DR: When I started, we developed a mission statement for the D-League. The primary goal is to develop the perfect minor league system. Beyond that, there are four missions we identified.
The first was to become the best developers of talent in the world. Not just players, but coaches, referees, front office execs. We augmented this by putting in training programs. We recently have assigned a "big man coach" to help with those players in the D-League. But it goes beyond that, all the way down to helping our teams in the community by helping the team staffs with sales training.

The second was to provide the best basketball in the world. And we're pretty far along on that mission. Currently we have four times the number of NBA players of any other league in the world. But that's not the perception and that leads us into the third mission.

The third mission was to provide service and recognition. We wanted to develop recognition of the D-League as the R & D program for the NBA. That's why we're constantly looking for new ideas. We've done everything from providing all of our games streaming for free online to testing the new ball. And maintaining our status as a testing ground for the league is very important.

And the fourth mission is creating high community values. We've put a high level of emphasis on teams and community service. We're working to provide entertainment and make an impact on the community.

I'd say overall, one of our biggest missions is to build recognition of the league, to make sure the great basketball fans know what the D-League is and how impactful it is. We need to get that message out.

HP: Let's talk about expansion. You've identified three factors in considering a city for expansion, and dispelled the notion that there's a "shortlist" of cities. But there are still some questions about expansion, since it's such an important and interesting subject. There seemed to be an early emphasis on Western expansion, and now with Eerie, there seems to be a shift towards the East. Is there a greater design in place for expansion, or is it focused more on selecting the most viable markets?

DR: I'd say it's evolving. There was a time when we were just looking for great markets with great owners and arenas. We went where those opportunities were. I think as we go now, with 16 teams for the 08-09 season, we're pretty healthy. We now have the capability to plot out a design. Near-term, we're filtering based on making sure we have strong opportunities. Then we're filling out geographically where we are. We want to create regional rivalries, while managing travel costs for our teams. At the same time, I can tell you we want to put a cluster of teams in the Northeast. The design changes over time. The focus is pretty accurate for where we are in our development now.

HP: How many teams do you see (or plan) for the D-League to expand to over the next two to three years?

DR: Really hard to say, so many factors. As we have the opportunity to, we'll do it. But there's also NBA teams with preference. They prefer to have them within a reasonable distance. We're very aware of the idea of expanding too fast and over-saturation. The geography matters, too. We want to make the markets strengthen the league, and vice-versa.

HP:Has there been any discussion at this time of expanding a team to New York, and do you see it as a viable D-League market?

DR: There's been a lot of discussion. There's a lot of interest. The most prominent one is the Knicks' interest in putting a team in Harlem. We're going down that road and looking at pros and cons. I think it's pretty viable. They say New York has the best basketball fans in the world, and I've seen nothing here to dispute that. I wouldn't be surprised to see a team there in the next few years, but there's a long way to go. I think it would be pretty cool.

HP: What can you tell me about the discussions of the Portland, Maine team in regards to the Celtics?

DR: Well, I can tell you that the Celtics aren't potential owners. There is a great ownership group there that features John Jennings and the Ryans family in Portland. We went up there for a couple of months, and we were very impressed with the opportunity they represent. They've got a really strong ownership group. Right now we're just working through those details. We're nowhere close to a done deal but it looks promising.

HP: Have you or has anyone in your office had discussions with either Rimrockers or Flyers officials regarding a comeback next season?

DR: I'd say it's unlikely we'll see those teams come back in those markets.

HP: Moving on, how involved is Commissioner Stern with the D-League? How often do you meet with him (or other front office NBA officials) regarding the D-League?

DR: Commissioner Stern is very involved in the D-League. It's a passion of his. He was the impetus behind starting the league. I meet with him and other front office executives very frequently on all aspects of the D-League. It's important since we impact all aspects of the NBA. We're very connected. I'm very connected with team marketing still and I work with the teams. We have a strong presence on NBA TV and in global marketing. We're a major part of this league. The move to New York was tremendous it made all of that a lot easier. It's very organic, the way it works here, now.

HP: How often do you get to actually watch the D-League games?

DR: Pretty often. I'm a little bit of a junkie. With the games being streamed online, that's been great for me personally. I'll be on the couch at home, flipping through league pass and the national games, and I'll have the laptop up clicking through D-League games. I catch a couple every now and then. I'm going to be checking the playoffs. It's clear we want to promote FutureCast (the new name for the web streaming service), and to chunk out highlights so fans can see the spectacular plays that happen every night. That's a large focus for us from a media standpoint.



HP: A question that comes up a lot is whether direct team ownership is a productive strategy for teams. There were some mixed results with direct team affiliation early in the league's existence. Given the success of the Toros and the Defenders, and the noticeable difference in operations between the Defenders and Toros and the rest of the league, and the way that teams are starting to take full advantage of the D-League system, do you feel that now there is a clear advantage to teams owning their D-League affiliate and do you see that being the emerging pattern over the next five years?

DR: Two things. One, a correction, direct team affiliation is only three years old. That's one of the things we've changed and it's helped tremendously. It's helped the league take off. We produce so many NBA players, we've seen really strong affiliation of it. We've broken all the records. Our affiliation system works very well for the game of basketball.

The pattern, though: I'm noticing more and more NBA teams taking interest in Toros and Defenders, and finding/talking to me about opportunities to closely affiliate or own their own franchise. Whether we'll see a run, that's up to the team front offices. There are teams that are interested. The GMs are interested, and they'll take that up with their owners. Great news is that every NBA team is completely bought in. In terms of development, the Spurs and Lakers are showing the way of what's possible. They're not alone, though. There are other teams that are working on that. The interest is so high and the value is so great, we're likely to see a lot more of it in the next few years.

HP: Now to discuss some criticism of the league.

DR: Oh, no. No criticism of the league. This interview is over. (laugh)

HP: The biggest detriment to the league in terms of developing players and keeping them with their respective franchises is, of course, money. The lure of Europe is just too much for some players when it seems they won't be receiving their call-ups. The league is very committed to rarely referring to the league as a "minor" league, but the salaries are obviously quite a bit smaller. Now, clearly, it's going to be impossible to match anything close to contracts in the NBA. But is this something the league is looking to address, and if so, how?

DR: We're constantly looking at what we can do to make it more attractive to talent. The players want to play the D-League because of the opportunity to play in the NBA. That's one thing we're going to push: we want to make it easier to track their progress. We want to get them real time feedback on their performance. To do that we need to make the communications between us and the NBA even stronger, so that it's truly transparent. That's one angle. We're looking at everything. We're going to look a lot this summer at this league and how we continue to make this league attractive to players. I don't have any specific tactics or strategies, but it's something we're looking at. The fact that so many players enjoy playing in the D-League speaks well of us. I get emails from players when they get called up, and they're thankful for the opportunity.

HP: Something I've particularly lobbied hard for is the ability for teams to assign veteran players, particularly those recovering from injury. Does the league have any plans to push for this policy? What are your thoughts on the matter?

DR: You're not the only one who's lobbying for changes in the assignment system. Every NBA chair would agree. When the next CBA comes up, there's a lot of issues that need to be addressed for the players and the league, including the ability to assign veteran players that are recovering from injury. The current affiliation system was negotiated as part of the CBA, so we can't have those discussions until the next CBA is agreed upon, which I believe is 2011, but I think there are a lot of things that we can do to evolve the system to make it more effective.

HP: One of the things I've been impressed with is the way the league has embraced the blogging community and the web in general. It's been such a great place for hardcore fans to get interested in the league, and I've been blown away by the approachability of the D-League office. Do you see that as a continuing policy for the D-League in years to come, especially in light of the recent controversy over Mark Cuban's banning of bloggers from the locker room? Will there still be a receptive approach to blogs in the years to come?

DR: Absolutely. We pride ourselves on being the most accessible sports league out there. Not only do we embrace the Internet because it's where you find the hardcore fans, the fans who "get" the D-League are, but also from a pragmatic standpoint, it's the media of the future. We're building for a world where most media will be online. We dipped our toe in web casting live blogs. We have developed a healthy blogging community with our players and staff. Not only does it help get the world out, but it's a smart business strategy for us. We believe it will yield a lot of fruit because that's how people consume information now.

HP: What do you think is the biggest challenge the D-League has to face?

DR: The biggest challenge from what teams and fans tell me is there's never been a truly successful minor league system for basketball like there is for baseball and hockey. Just by the nature of us having to build that, and the skepticism with comparisons to other leagues, we're different and we know that. We've proven that over and over again. It's new, it's a concept that's been done before but hasn't been done successfully. We have to overcome the past and prove to people that we are who we say we are. They're shocked when they hear 15% of all NBA players have spent time in the D-League, they're shocked with 17 coaches having come from the D-League, and they're shocked that every NBA ref hired in the last 6 years are all from the D-League. It's a comprehensive approach for minor league system, and we're working to change the mindset people have towards that. What do you think the biggest issue is? I'm curious to get your thoughts on it.

HP: (stammering as he realizes the D-League President just asked for his opinion) I think the biggest problem that people run into is just realizing how much talent is really there. One one hand, you've got all the success stories that are coming out of the D-League more and more often. Then on the other hand, you've got some people shooting the league in the foot. When Coach Dunleavy says asks, "Would you rather have Smush Parker or a D-League player?" that puts a negative image in people's mind, and the league has to constantly work to get over that.

DR: You know, the ironic part about the Dunleavy comment is that Parker actually was a D-League player.

HP: (laughter, stifled laughter, more laughter) Whoo. That is ironic. Finally, what do you feel is the biggest asset the D-League brings the NBA?

DR: Going back to my previous career in consulting, I often look at the D-League as an incubator for the NBA. An incubator brings a ton of value. It develops future talent, it tests things and innovations that might make sense. It's a laboratory for different things. It contributes to the success of the future. That's the best way I can describe it.

HP: President Reed, thanks so much for your time, we really appreciate it, and we hope to talk to you in the offseason.

DR: No problem, anytime. Thank you.

 
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