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State of the League: Q&A with NBA D-League President Malcolm Turner

By Brian Kotloff | April 24, 2015

With just a few days left in the 2014-15 season, Malcolm Turner still technically holds the title of new NBA Development League President. But ever since he assumed the helm in November, little has felt “new” to him about the familiar surroundings of the NBA.

Nine years ago, he was an NBA intern contributing to the growth of another league, the WNBA. His “new” boss, Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum, is a former classmate at Harvard Business School.

From his most recent post at Wasserman Media Group, Turner could even see the league’s midtown Manhattan headquarters. Among his many friends within the NBA was Dan Reed – the NBA D-League president from 2007-14 – who he’d meet occasionally for lunch or dinner and remembers “peppering with questions” about the comings and goings of the minor league.

Now he sits in Reed’s former seat at a pivotal time in the league’s history, and slowly but surely he plans on seeing the ultimate vision – building a true minor-league system, with an affiliate for each of the 30 NBA teams – through. Turner has preached patience during his first season, but he also understands how quickly the outlook can change.

The NBA D-League featured an all-time high 18 teams in 2014-15 and its alums made up 38 percent of NBA rosters by the end of the season. Five years from now, Turner believes those numbers could reach the mid-20s and 50 percent, respectively.

“The opportunity is there for us, but we have to roll up our sleeves,” Turner said from the 19th floor of Madison Avenue’s Olympic Tower, where he sat down with NBADLeague.com to cover the hot topic of expansion and much more:

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What’s your sports background? Who did you root for growing up?

I grew up first and foremost a basketball fan. I grew up in Atlanta and Boston, mostly Atlanta; Doc Rivers, Dominique Wilkins, Kevin Willis – those days. I loved the game and I played as much as I could. Whether the Hawks were in it or not, we were there and I always – whether in Atlanta or Boston or elsewhere – was up for a game. And not just me; my entire family was into it.

Is there any fanhood left in you that makes this Hawks resurgence extra satisfying?

Yeah, there definitely is. My brother is a year and a half younger than me, and I remember just how fun it was to have the Hawks in contention and just part of the dialogue and really playing for something. It’s been a very pleasant surprise to see them back in the mix in such a strong way, for sure. So that’s been fun to watch.

How and when did you decide to pursue a career in sports?

The summer before my junior year in college, I interned at a company called Advantage International with Scott O’Neil [now CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers]. That was really my first exposure to the business side of sports. It was when the light bulb went off and I was like “Hey, wait a second, there’s this whole other business side of sports that I love so much.” So I feel like I kind of stumbled into it through that experience.

The next summer, that internship led to another internship with the PGA Tour. Within the same week in the spring of my senior year, I got accepted at Harvard law school early that week, and later in the week the PGA Tour asked me to come on board full-time to join their event management team. I wrote Harvard and told them I wasn’t ready for any more school at the time, but I asked for a two-year deferral to go hop on the Tour for a couple of years.

They granted it, so I joined the Tour for two years and really started to learn to business from the ground up from an event perspective: from working with the tour players on a variety of player relations matters to executing corporate partner programs on site, working with the local tournament staff and director, and then helping manage the interface between television. That was my first job out of college, and it was a great way to see the country. My office was the tournament site.

You interned at the NBA in 1996. What was that experience like?

After my first year of business school, I had a mentor of mine from the PGA Tour, Gary Stevenson, who had come on board here at the NBA to work on a variety of marketing and business initiatives, one of which was the original business plan for the WNBA. I interned for the launch of that league.

I remember having an opportunity to meet with Adam [Silver] and meet with David [Stern], and Adam and David asked for your perspective and “What do you think?” It was really cool. It was refreshing for guys in the seat that they sit in to do that. It was just one of those things where I always had a high regard for the NBA and the caliber of people within the league.

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When the opportunity to work for the NBA D-League came up, what excited you about it?

I think it’s a unique growth opportunity within the game and within our industry. The league is only in its 14th season and the league already has evolved and transformed itself even within its 14-year lifespan. This league is very different today than what it was just three, four, five years ago – by any measure. That is really interesting to me.

I really looked at my past experience and the things that I like to do. OnSport [a North Carolina-based sports and entertainment consulting firm, where Turner worked from 1999-2007] was a startup opportunity – myself, Gary Stevenson, an assistant and his dog Maggie, and “let’s go figure out a business.”

And we were successful in growing that business and then got to Wasserman and helped launch a number of different initiatives within Wasserman. As I reflected on my experience, I realized that I like growth opportunities; I like blank-sheet-of-paper opportunities: “How do we grow from A to B and B to C?” and so forth.

It just felt like a good fit. I believe this league is at an interesting point in its own development where it’s poised to grow by its next increment, and that was exciting for me.

Once you took the position, you made the rounds visiting teams all over the country. What were your impressions of the league you now preside over?

I really wanted to have a very aggressive schedule to get out to teams and see them because I do believe they are the front lines of the business. And if anything, doing so was validating of what I believe is really a unique opportunity with the D-League.

I was struck by three things:

1) The talent. And I define that broadly. Obviously it starts with the players themselves. The talent has never been stronger in this league. But then set that aside and you start to uncover this growing D-League alumni network at the NBA level. You look at Dave Joerger and Quin Snyder as head coaches; you look at the number of NBA assistant coaches who started in the D-League; all of the referees since 2002 have been hired by the NBA from the D-League level; all of the front office staff members who are at the NBA level but started at the D-League level. Yes, there’s talent on the court, but there’s also a lot of talent that surrounds the floor.

2) The level of owner commitment. I had my first owners meeting at All-Star, and as I had my roadshow out to team markets, I saw that owners care and are committed to the success of this league. That’s readily apparent and was obviously great to see and something that you need in order to grow as a brand and as a business.

3) The level of community support – communities kind of putting their arm around their D-League team. You sense a growing connection between our D-League teams and their local markets and communities, which is really strong.

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What have been your other focuses during your first year? What have been the biggest challenges?

I think the biggest focus and challenge is growth. Expansion is fun to talk about – it’s a shiny object, and there’s no question there are growth opportunities out there for our league. And we’ll realize some of those opportunities, for sure. But there’s also a challenge that expansion creates. Yes, we can grow, but if we’re going to add four or five new teams, we have to fill four or five new rosters. We only want to grow in a way that’s creating value for our league and our teams and owners. If we’re growing but only doing so by diluting our talent base, for example, I would argue that that’s not the smartest thing for us to do.

The playoffs are on ESPN networks for the first time ever this year. How much is the TV deal a part of your plans to grow the league?

I think it’s very significant. As we expand our footprint, we want to grow national revenue and national media opportunities. That effort really helps us tell our story to the marketplace. Yes, we’ve had exposure – digital and traditional – before, but ESPN is ESPN.

It’s a bit of a validation point for us as we continue to grow as a league. I think it’s reflective of the fact that there’s accelerating momentum within and behind the NBA Development League. You see the NBA integration in very real, tangible terms beyond the name itself: 18 teams, 17 of which have a single affiliation with an NBA team – and 16 of those were created within the past four years, 11 within the past three years. That process is accelerating; teams that do not have a single affiliate are interested in being a part of this league. NBA teams and owners are clearly voting with their feet here.

One of the other focal points coming in was finding a presenting partner for the league. Where does that stand and what needs to fall in place for that to happen?

The best way of answering that is that there are a number of very active, productive conversations. I don’t think an announcement is imminent, but certainly we’re well down the road with a number of brands. For us, it’s a function of finding and aligning with the right partner. I will say this, and I think it speaks to how our league is changing in a very short amount of time: There are a number of brands who are learning more and more about our league, and our story is resonating.

You mentioned how much the league has grown in the past three to five years. Looking three to five years down the road, how is this league going to look different than it does right now?

I think it’s not out of the question that in five years’ time, 50 percent of the NBA will have D-League experience. I think five years down the road, there’s no question – we’re at 18 teams now – we could be well into the mid-20s and clearly on a definitive path to 30-for-30.

But there are a lot of variables that go into it. There are internal considerations that could accelerate our ability to grow even faster, but we have to bide our time and take advantage of those opportunities as they arise. I think the future is bright. The opportunity is there for us, but we have to roll up our sleeves. It’s going to take a lot of work; we just have to execute.

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