The N.B.A.'s Maestro of Marketing
New Jersey Nets C.E.O. Brett Yormark has turned a second-tier N.B.A. team into a sponsorship juggernaut. Is there anything he can't brand?
As New Jersey Nets star Vince Carter took out a pen and signed a four-year contract extension worth $66 million at a much-ballyhooed press conference last July, one had to wonder if he was signing with the Nets or Wrigley's chewing gum.
Behind Carter that day was a massive banner displaying every Wrigley's brand of chewing gum from Juicy Fruit to Doublemint. But Wrigley's wasn't just sponsoring that particular event-they are the sponsors of the entire Nets off-season. Any player or team announcement the Nets make from June to October is branded by Wrigley's gum.
It's one of the more surprising things Brett Yormark, the New Jersey Nets' workaholic C.E.O., has managed to find a sponsor for, but it's certainly not the only one. Almost every inch of the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where the team plays, is branded by someone, including a hallway sponsored by dining cruise company World Yacht. So having a sponsor, Wrigley's, for the off-season shouldn't be all that surprising. Even the team's press releases are sponsored by Internet telephony company Vonage.
All told, Yormark, who at 41 is the N.B.A.'s youngest C.E.O., has lured an impressive and diverse roster of 111 sponsors for the team, ranging from the Diamond Exchange in Paramus, New Jersey, to Aflac and Marquis Jet. And not all the deals are small, either.
Yormark managed to convince Izod to pay several million dollars to sponsor the team's arena through 2012, even though the Nets are planning to move to a much-anticipated new arena in Brooklyn, designed by Frank Gehry, in 2010.
But Yormark's biggest move of all has been the $400 million deal with London-based Barclays Bank to sponsor the new arena in Brooklyn for 20 years, the richest naming rights deal for a sports arena in U.S. history.
"We don't go after the expected," Yormark says of his approach. "We make our living doing the unexpected."
Part of the reason that Yormark has to hustle so hard is that the Nets play in a relatively isolated area (some would say the arena is about as appealing as the swampland that surrounds it) and have always been overshadowed by their enormously popular rivals across the river, the New York Knicks. Even though attendance rose as the Nets became one of the elite teams in the league in the early 2000s with star guard Jason Kidd, playoff games sometimes failed to sell out, a situation that would be unthinkable for the Knicks. This year, after a decline in performance and the trading of Kidd to the Dallas Mavericks, the Nets are pulling in an average of just over 15,500 fans a game, putting them at No. 21 among all N.B.A. teams (the Knicks, by contrast, in the midst of another horrible season, are averaging about 19,000 fans and are 10th in the league in attendance). That Yormark has been able to sell so many sponsorships for a team like the Nets makes his accomplishments all the more impressive.
"[Yormark] has taken the Nets from an also-ran, second-thought franchise in the largest market in the country and made them relevant again," marvels Mark Ganis, the president of Sportscorp, a national sports-consulting firm based in Chicago. "He has turned some lead to gold."
According to the Nets, revenues have increased 25 percent since Yormark took over the team in early 2005. While the team would not disclose revenue figures, Forbes estimated that team revenues rose from $93 million during the 2005-06 season to $102 million the following year. Even the Nets players recognize what a difference Yormark has made.
"You see how much more things are evolving around here," says Richard Jefferson, the team's seventh-year forward. "At first you had a product that a lot of people weren't seeing and [Yormark] has found a way to get more and more people and sponsors to buy into that product."
For his part, Yormark, who often starts his day at 3:30 in the morning and sometimes works as many as 19 hours a day, says his secret is simply that he works harder than everyone else.
"I am probably one of the most aggressive sports executives in the country," Yormark says. "I am giving myself every day, every hour-that is just my makeup." Yormark's twin brother, Michael, is the president and chief operating officer of the N.H.L.'s Florida Panthers and is similarly intense; the two frequently try to top each other with creative ways to advertise sponsors and sell more tickets.
At a recent game, Yormark was seen hustling around the Izod Center checking in on everything from the quality of the food at the arena's Dewar's 12 Club restaurant, to the arrangements for a pregame birthday party held for a young fan, to helping a fan locate his courtside seats.
Yormark got his start in the sports business with the Nets in 1988 as a ticket salesperson, eventually rising to become an executive in the corporate marketing group. From there, he went over to head up corporate marketing at Nascar, where he helped secure the richest sponsorship agreement in American sports, Nextel's $750 million, 10-year deal to turn the marquee Winston Cup series into the Nextel Cup. Yormark's experience with Nascar, where practically every square inch of drivers' uniforms and cars is branded, is readily apparent in his approach to selling the Izod Center (In Yormark's marketing-speak, he's merely trying to "activate" every area of the arena.) Yormark has had so much success selling naming rights that he and the Nets have opened up a side business to help other venues, like the M.G.M. Grand at Foxwoods and Monmouth University, sell sponsorship rights for their properties.
For his latest challenge, lining up sponsors for the as-yet unbuilt Barclays Center, one might think it would be difficult to sell sponsorships on a new center that still faces some legal and community hurdles to breaking ground, but the idea of bringing basketball to a borough on the rise and offering the area's fans an alternative to the woeful Knicks has gotten lots of people excited.
"Sports returning to Brooklyn and the Brooklyn renaissance-we buy into it," says Gerard LaRocca, the chief administrative officer for Barclays Capital, who negotiated the company's deal with the Nets.
Yormark's going to have to adjust his approach in Brooklyn, where Barclays is looking for a more refined and uncluttered look and style. But Yormark claims he'll have no problems adapting to this challenge.
"Our strategy [now] is based on circumstances-in Jersey, we need to drive revenue and we are a tenant in the building," Yormark says. "When we go to Brooklyn, we have a celebrity architect and nobody has ever branded his work before. [We plan to] develop a program that is somewhat of a departure from what it is today."
Yormark displays all the confidence in the world that the Nets as both a business and a team will raise their game to a new level once they move.
"If you like us in Jersey, you are going to love us in Brooklyn," he says, with more than just a hint of bravado.Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.