CEO Profile: Casting a giant (New Jersey) Net

NEW YORK -- This story was originally published on Aug. 24, 2008.

Brett Yormark's business cards say CEO. But his DNA calling card reads dealmaker, brand builder, storyteller.

Those DNA strands are a perfect match for this self-described "24-7" guy's double-barreled job as CEO of both the New Jersey Nets basketball team and Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment. "The Nets are my day job. Brooklyn is my night job," quips Yormark.

Two jobs, same employer. The reason for Yormark's moonlighting involves a tale of two cities and two arenas. The Nets are planning a move to Brooklyn, N.Y., to a new $950 million arena, the Barclays Center, designed by a world-renowned architect. They hope to be in by the start of the 2010 season. But due to local opposition to the development plans, the groundbreaking for the arena has been delayed. It's scheduled for November.

Yormark, 41, the NBA's youngest CEO, has a delicate balancing act of filling seats and driving revenue at the Izod Center, the Net's current home in East Rutherford, N.J., while also wooing corporate sponsors from around the world and building a new fan base for an arena that does not yet exist. He is driven to build emotional and financial bridges from New Jersey to Brooklyn.

"Whether it's at the end of a game or that last sale needed to make the monthly budget, I want the ball. That's pretty much been my DNA," says Yormark, a former high school hoops player and marketing whiz who made his name earlier this decade by revving up NASCAR's racing brand by brokering a $750 million sponsorship deal with Nextel.

On a recent summer day, perched on the 38th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper squeezed between New Jersey to the west and Brooklyn to the east, Yormark, clad in an immaculately tailored grey pinstripe suit, is in the Barclays Center sales center wearing his Brooklyn hat.

He wastes no time launching into his sales pitch. "We're building a new Brooklyn," he says. He points to the showroom's walls, which highlight Brooklyn-related factoids. It's where playwright Arthur Miller wrote All My Sons. It's also the birthplace of ex-Yankees manager Joe Torre and rap star Jay-Z, who is part of the investor group, headed by developer Bruce Ratner, that owns the Nets. The walls are also graced with sketches of the Barclays Center done by architect Frank Gehry, perhaps best known for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. A video follows, which markets the Barclays Center as a visual landmark on par with top tourist attractions such as the Eiffel Tower.

Finally, Yormark shows off a replica of the new arena's luxury suites, which command an average price of $300,000 a year. The swanky suites feature a pool table, stainless steel refrigerator, wet bar, two 52-inch TVs, and theater-seating for 16. The suite tour includes a panoramic view of the arena, replete with the sound of basketballs being dribbled. "This is what it will truly look like from your seat," he says.

It's trademark Yormark. Detailed. Passionate. On message. "We sell hope and vision," says Yormark. "We are in the storytelling business. When I talk to a sponsorship partner, I say, 'Do you want to be part of the next chapter?' If you can get people to imagine, you get them hooked."

Let's make a deal

Yormark got Barclays, the London-based financial powerhouse, hooked. In January 2007, the bank signed a $400 million, 20-year deal to put its name on the new arena. It was the richest deal ever for arena naming rights.

And it all started with a "cold call" from Yormark, says Gerard LaRocca, chief administrative officer, Americas, for Barclays Capital. Yormark had been zeroing in on a partner in need of a "game changer," his parlance for a company that would benefit from taking a bold step to gain a toehold and instant name recognition in the financial capital of the world. "I got Barclays to think about what it would feel like to own a landmark. It was a call to action," says Yormark.

"I thought they were calling about selling us season tickets or a suite," recalls LaRocca. "I was surprised the call was from the CEO. Maybe that's what prompted me to take the call. Brett planted the seed. He found us."

Yormark stressed to Barclays that the new arena would one day be a landmark that every tourist visiting New York would go to see. He used CEO-like buzzwords such as "best-in-class" and "street-to-seat hospitality." LaRocca acknowledges he envisioned all the press, buzz and fresh eyes on the new arena and the rebirth of sports entertainment in Brooklyn. After 30 days of negotiating, LaRocca and Yormark announced the deal in January 2007.

To this day, says LaRocca, "Yormark treats Barclays like he's still courting us, not like a company that he already signed a deal with."

An up-tempo game plan

Yormark works long and fast, as if he's on a 24-second shot clock 24 hours a day. His work ethic is legendary. Fortune magazine once called him "The Overtime Guy." His alarm goes off at 3:45 a.m. He's the first guy in the office, getting there by 5 a.m. "I'm the one who turns on the lights," he says.

His secret to success is his "indefatigability," says NBA Commissioner David Stern. "He never quits. He gets up earlier than everyone else and goes to bed later. During all of his waking hours, he is selling, setting up appointments to sell some more or thinking of something else to sell."

Yormark regularly zaps e-mails to employees in the wee hours of the morning to "set the tone" for the day. In a recent e-mail sent out at 6:05 a.m., he said he "needs everyone pushing at a higher gear" and that "success will require an extra effort."

Yormark is often dubbed the guy who NASCAR-ized the Nets. Since joining as CEO 3½ years ago, he has used NASCAR's style of covering every inch of cars and uniforms with sponsors' messages. He has put Nets sponsors' logos on everything from hallways to press releases to dining rooms.

Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp, a sports business consultant, says Yormark is able to bridge established marketing programs with cutting-edge concepts that work. "Very few people in the industry can move the needle meaningfully," says Ganis. "But he is one of those few."

Yormark's goal is to get fans closer to the team and sponsors closer to their customers.

He created a grass-roots season-ticket sales tool by holding backyard barbecues and cocktail parties at homes of existing season-ticket holders to bring together players and prospective ticket buyers. He has a program that allows prospective season-ticket buyers to watch a Nets away game with ex-Nets stars Darryl Dawkins or Albert King in the coach's screening room at the team's practice facility. He gave his blessing on a season ticket plan that costs fans less than $5 a game. He created the first basketball offseason sponsor arrangement, as well as landing a presenting playoff sponsor for the Nets, even though they didn't make the playoffs last year.

Selling the Nets

Two days after touting Brooklyn, Yormark is back in New Jersey, brandishing his Nets CEO business card. He's presenting a new deal to a current Nets sponsor. It's all about the details.

Charlie Mierswa, the Nets chief financial officer, pops out of his office and says he just got off the phone with season-ticket holders, trying to gauge their interest for the upcoming season. Mierswa says Yormark has the team's top executives doing the so-called little things needed for success.

"I do more than just keep the books," says Mierswa.

The meeting with the sponsor, who asked not to be named due to ongoing negotiations, is not held in some drab conference room. Instead, Yormark, who is known for selling "access," has set up this meeting in the Nets locker room. The jerseys — (Vince) Carter 15, Yi (Jianlian) 9, (Devin) Harris 34 — are hanging in their stalls. Sneakers the size of canoes are visible.

Yormark greets the two executives with bear hugs and handshakes. He updates them on the personnel changes the Nets experienced over the summer, touting newcomers such as China's Yi Jianlian. He tells them they plan to market but not exploit Yi, that they are trying to tap a new fan base: nearly 650,000 Chinese-Americans in the tri-state area. He mentions that they have already hired a multi-cultural marketing agency, created a Chinese website and hired two Mandarin-speaking salespeople.

Armed with a slide-show presentation, Yormark presents an upgraded sponsorship deal at an Izod Center restaurant, promising personal touches, signage opportunities and VIP treatment. "We'll give you the best table in the house," he says. When the client says that it would prefer an even more intimate kid-free setting to entertain clients, Yormark quickly counters with an offer of a private room off the main one. "We'll rope it off, your clients will be able to have dinner with you at your club."

He offers the sponsor access to the team during a weekend jaunt to Miami to see a game and travel back on the plane with the players. Most important, he asks his clients, "Is there anything about last year's experience that misfired for you?"

Since taking over in January 2005, the Nets sponsorship revenue is up 30%, 100 new sponsors have signed up, and the team has averaged more than 2,000 new full-season tickets.

The art of the deal

Sealing the deal is what it's all about. "The chase is what gets me up every morning," he says. The chase is also about thinking outside the box whenever possible. When seeking out a beverage sponsor for the Barclays Center, Yormark didn't call Coca-Cola. He called Jones Soda, a little-known Seattle brand.

Jones got a big-time entrée into the East Coast market. And the Barclays Center got a company willing to help build its fledgling brand. Jones has already created a customized soda label with the Barclays Center logo.

Yormark notes that with the Yankees, Mets, Jets and Giants all building new stadiums, he has to be aggressive. He's traveled as far as London and Italy for new sponsors for the Barclays Center. "Everyone is fishing in the same pond for sponsors," he says. "My feeling is, 'Why don't I create my own pond?' — and that is what I did." He's off to China next.

Yormark recalls his initial deal with the Nets during his first go-round with the team in the late 1980s. "On my first day, I sold one of the biggest ticket packages anyone had sold," he says. His sales pitch? If you want a pair of coveted front-row seats, you'll also have to buy 50 cheap seats upstairs. It worked. Says Yormark: "The guy still sits in the front row, and I visit him every night and shake his hand and thank him for launching my career."