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The NBA’s International Playmaker

by Tim Ghianni No Comment

Heidi Ueberroth, BA’87, is in a hurry but generous with her time as she catches her breath in the New York City offices of the National Basketball Association.

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Hopping a plane to the world’s largest country is hardly unusual for the English major whose business savvy and drive have propelled her to president of global marketing partnerships and international business operations for the NBA.

China is both her top market and top success story. “The first statistic is there are 300 million people who play basketball in China. When you think of that number, and that it’s larger than the entire U.S. population, you understand,” she says.

Ueberroth herself is a top success story. A native Californian, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of Arts and Science. She says she chose Vanderbilt, in part, because her parents encouraged their kids to be “outside the laundry drop.”

In other words, they teased that they didn’t want her close enough to bring her laundry home each week to Encino, Calif.

“They feel that living away from home can be part of the benefit of a college education. It’s a view I share,” Ueberroth says. In addition to attending a university the caliber of Vanderbilt as far as education, it was important for her to experience another part of the country. “I had never been to Nashville or visited much of the South. I really enjoyed living there,” she says. “I am also incredibly proud of my nephew, Nick Booth, a junior in the College of Arts and Science, who also grew up in California and saw the university as his top pick.”

International Impact

That excitement at being in new places continues to fuel her. Living in New York—as well as in airplanes and hotels circling the globe—she remains far removed from the family laundry drop.

At the NBA, Ueberroth has worked to develop a worldwide network that explores NBA growth and marketing opportunities.

“Basketball is a global game. It’s also been an Olympic sport since 1936. There’s a long history of international competitions.”

“We have 13 offices outside the U.S.,” she says. That includes four offices in China, where 150 employees help in the mission of spreading the gospel of the game. Her job also involves developing relationships with global business partners like Coca-Cola and Adidas to grow the game’s international popularity.

Ueberroth and her staff now are fashioning a campaign to tap into India’s mammoth population.

The game’s portability and simplicity are big selling points. “A hoop and a ball and you can play on your own,” Ueberroth says. “You can play with two people. It’s also played by boys and girls, which is something unique to different countries. And it helps to emphasize fitness and teamwork.”

While Ueberroth works hand in hand with local federations, national teams and youth programs worldwide, China will always be special.

“China is the No. 1 market outside the United States. It is a good place to look at all the basketball events and business opportunities,” the NBA executive says.

Ueberroth’s six trips to China each year will likely diminish to three or four since some responsibilities now fall on the organization’s new entity, NBA China. That doesn’t mean she’ll stay home. It just means more time to explore NBA opportunities in Europe, Africa, India, Mexico, Japan and the rest of the world.

Passion for Sports, Travel and Business

This lifestyle was nurtured in Encino, where her dad, Peter Ueberroth—1984 Olympic executive, baseball commissioner and operator of a worldwide travel firm—helped her learn about sports, travel and business.

“I was very fortunate that I was able to travel a lot when I was young,” she says. “I always knew I was just fascinated by and loved learning about other cultures. I thought that for me, travel would be a perfect part of my career.”

After graduation in 1987, she went to Paris to work for Ohlmeyer Communications, which led her to ESPN and other sports entertainment work. While at ESPN, she heard the NBA was looking for someone to sell international TV rights.

It intrigued her. “I knew that basketball was played in a lot of countries,” she says. “I thought about all of the possibilities and could see the growth on television and sports channels.”

After getting that job in 1994, she quickly realized the NBA had the right programming for international consumption. “Basketball is a global game. It’s also been an Olympic sport since 1936,” she notes. “There’s a long history of international competitions.”

It was simply a matter of the media catching up to the popularity, she says, and marketing the NBA as the ultimate league, drawing the best players from around the world.

And it does. Ueberroth says that 76 international players from 32 different countries played in the league in the 2008–09 season. Eight international players were in the finals pitting the Los Angeles Lakers against the Orlando Magic—a series shown in 215 countries and in 42 different languages.

Thinking back to her college days, Ueberroth says choosing liberal arts over business worked out well. “It deepened the curiosity for different cultures. A liberal arts education can emphasize that,” she reflects. “Being an English major is very helpful in business in that it provides a strong foundation in communications and writing skills.”

Ueberroth recently cemented her ties to the College of Arts and Science by joining the school’s advisory board of visitors. She’s also funding a need-based scholarship for Arts and Science students. “I learned a lot during my time at Vanderbilt that I have found helpful in the professional world,” she says.

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Basketball and Beijing

Still, when she walked in her cap-and-gown ceremony on Curry Field, she probably never dreamed that in 2008 she would be a torchbearer on the opening day of the Beijing Olympic Games.

Serving as a torchbearer was a tribute to her popularity and that of her sport in China. “I joined the NBA in September of 1994. Within a year or so, I made my first trip to China. I was amazed then just how widely spread the game is. And the growth since then has been just phenomenal.

“The game has been played in China for over 100 years. Apparently the missionaries brought the game there,” she explains. “It is played in very rural locations and works well in dense, urban cities.”

While excited that a new partnership is constructing a string of NBA-style arenas throughout the land, she’s equally pleased that the Chinese government is seeding the game’s future by building half-courts in 800,000 villages.

“It always starts with the game,” she says. “Grow the game. Increase participation. Partner with the right organizations and countries. It’s a great game, and the players are so dynamic.”

Her voice is warm as she says, “I do love where this career has taken me.” Soon, it’s taking her, not surprisingly, again to China.

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