Pro Basketball Perspectives: Analytics, Leadership, and Mental Health, with NBA Charlotte Hornets VP Seth Bennett

The decisions made in the NBA front offices aren’t easy – and many of them have nothing to do with player trades or free agent signings. When other NBA teams were in the Bubble in Orlando, how did the Charlotte Hornets react? How does the front office view business intelligence and analytics when not everyone buys in? And when players protest, what should the executives do?  Dr Debby Stroman sits down with Charlotte Hornets VP of Consumer Engagement Seth Bennett.

Transcript

Dr Debby Stroman: Welcome to If You Only Knew, and I’m so excited to have a dear friend, Mr. Seth Bennett, the Senior Vice President of the NBA, Charlotte Hornets. Welcome to the show, Seth.

Seth Bennett: Deb, great to see you. Always wonderful to spend time with you. And I’m humbled that you’ve asked me to participate today. So, I’m looking forward to chatting and catching up with you a little bit. 

Dr Debby Stroman: Well, thank you. Now, I want to start at the beginning. So, tell me about you as a youngster. What brought you to sports? Any particular role models or family members in the neighborhood that helped you out? 

Seth Bennett: You know, I would say I had quite a few influences growing up as a kid. And you know, whether it was coaches or neighbors or men and women in my church, I think I drew quite a bit of inspiration from those individuals. And certainly during my time at North Carolina A&T, the wonderful professors and instructors that I had there, a lot of the parents of classmates that I got to know from the area.  With this being Women’s Month, I had opportunity to kind of reflect a little bit, Deb. 

And I knew that I’d been exposed to very strong women growing up that helped push and influence me and encourage me the right way. It was really a great experience to be able to reflect on some of the women, starting with my grandmother. Again, through teachers, through my high school age, through college.

And then certainly, many great role models that kind of helped me along the way from that community. So, I would say that that’s that compilation that maybe helped prepare me for where I am today. Not only as a sports industry professional, but also as a husband and a dad. So, you know, well-rounded contributions, I would say. 

Dr Debby Stroman: You know, we’ve never discussed our basketball games as to whether or not, you know, as older folks we talk about, “Oh, what I could do to you on the court, I can dunk on you, or cross you over.” But tell me about your basketball skills. 

Seth Bennett: You know, I’m, I’m not the best basketball player in my house. That distinction goes to another Seth, but that’s okay. I think that was a goal anyway. When I grew up, you know, we played every sport imaginable and a couple that we made up. I’m pretty sure that they don’t exist in the formal book of sports. But it was about, you know, being outside with your friends and, and competing.

But I was fortunate to be able to play baseball, football, and basketball. And I actually chose football as the sport that I would play as a scholarship athlete at North Carolina A&T. And I was fortunate to be able to do that for a few years. Unfortunately, I had a few injuries that pushed me to focus more on the academic side, but ultimately it led to what I did today.

When I left the game of football, I actually started working in the sports information department on my campus. And that’s where I really kind of started to connect with the administrative side of athletics and sports. But, you know, I was a, a decent high school basketball player. There’s some photos out there   and a few clippings that speak for themselves, but I’m definitely not the best player in this house. That distinction goes to the other Seth. 

Dr Debby Stroman: Well, that’s great. That’s great to know. And I’m glad that you lifted up A&T in terms of the academic excellence we know about their, you know, sport tradition as well. But it is known as one of the best academic institutions in our country. But I’m also glad to know that you actually played organized basketball. Because I played with some football players who attempt to play basketball and it can be ugly.

Seth Bennett: You’re right. You’re right. And I’ve, I’ve been in the room with some of those jokes the debate on athleticism and football players that try to play basketball. And I’d like to think that I was on the other side of, of actually understanding the game. I will say some of the nuances I didn’t learn until after my playing days were over from having an opportunity to observe at the highest level, having worked in the NBA for 15 years.

Dr Debby Stroman: Absolutely. I just always found it interesting that football players have to have such a command of their bodies, but when they get on the basketball court, they can’t stop. You know, they just run into people and it’s, it’s funny. 

Seth Bennett: That may be intentional sometimes.  We try to use that physical intimidation factor. I think we try to bring that with us just from being completely honest, you know, we always felt like we’re the toughest guys on the block anyway.

Dr Debby Stroman: Well, thank you for that. I’m going to remember that. Not that I’m out on the court anymore, but if guys try to say, “Oh, I tried my best.” And I was like, “No, you had, you knew what you were doing.” But let’s talk business. Let’s talk about your role at the Hornets. And what brings you the most joy. I know you are very, very well-respected, you know, a basketball, professional all across the league.

And certainly, we’re excited to have our Hornets in the state because you know, there are teams that leave states, but we’re going to keep you all here. The fan base, we love the Hornets. So tell me about your role and what do you do? 

Seth Bennett: Sure. So, I’m currently the Senior Vice President of Consumer Engagement and our definition of that is it’s pretty broad. It oversees all of our marketing campaigns, our brand management. It also oversees our most important asset other than the players themselves, our game days in terms of our game presentation and events that we have. Also manage our creative team and our retail in venue and econ. 

And I also happen to oversee the business operations of our minor league team, the Greensboro Swarm. But, you know, I’m kind of a tool in the toolbox that has had a lot of different business experiences. So, from time to time, I’m called on to manage a lot of special projects that we have the organization. So I’m delighted to be able to do that. 

Dr Debby Stroman: Well, you do it very well. Before we get into the technical side of all those different things, tell me about how you ended up at the Hornets. One of the things I tell my students all the time, “It’s not what you know, it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you on a favorable basis.” And you don’t want to burn any bridges. You never know when you need to be a giver versus a taker. And you want to be a giver more. But it’s about being able to call someone and say, “Can you help me?” So tell me about how you ended up at the Hornets. 

Seth Bennett: Sure. And, you know, and I’ll say my journey is probably a little different then quite a few of my colleagues and counterparts that I’ve met over the years.

I wasn’t the person who made a goal to work in professional sports. Certainly, you know, I was, I’m sure I was a kid that grew up wanting to be a professional athlete. But you know, it, it wasn’t at the point that I knew that, that wasn’t in the cards for me. I really kind of started along the career path that had a lot of interests in events, in sporting events.

And as a part of that, I begin to learn the trade of sales and service as it was related to sport, especially working on two small division one college campuses where you may not have all of the personnel and staff. You know, you have to kind of learn a lot of those things yourself.

And I’ve also been fortunate that I’ve had opportunity to work with some great people and you know, what got me to the Hornets really was, at the time, I was managing my own agency, a small company that it had the opportunity to work with some incredible brands across amateur sports, college sports, PGA golf from hospitality standpoint.

One of my clients was Jordan brand and their high school All-American game. And I had an opportunity to work pretty closely with Fred Whitfield, you know, through that project. And in 2006, he became the president of the, at that time, Charlotte Bobcats, which was owned by Mr. Bob Johnson. 

And, upon that, you know, I think he had a certain comfort level and confidence in how I worked not only for Jordan brand, but also on some of the charitable initiatives that he’s had for over 30-some years. And, you know, he asked if I would be interested. 

Of course, my initial response was, “No. I’m doing really well.” And you know, I’m going to buy tickets and come down and watch as many games as possible. But, I really did feel an obligation that, you know, certainly he had been an important part of, of helping me and my company grow. And that I would take that opportunity to come and support him and, and see what I could do.

You know, and 15 years later, we’re still working very closely together. At this time, I actually report to James Jordan, who’s our EVP and Chief Operating Officer. But, you know, still being a part of that team and being able to, to help those guys move our mission forward for our organization has been great.

Dr Debby Stroman: Well, that is a wonderful, wonderful example of doing your job well and being noticed. And certainly, we really, really appreciate Fred Whitfield for all that he’s done for the state of North Carolina. A lot of things he does behind the scenes in particular, lifting up our youth, our youth who need it the most.

So, let’s talk about your role and one of the biggest things that happened in our state, which really affected a lot of people across the country, because they were paying attention. How do you move from the Bobcat’s to the Hornets? Can you give us a quick, maybe just an overview of how you all transitioned so well to bring the Hornets back?

Seth Bennett: Yeah. You know, it is so detailed and complicated. That could be the subject, you know, kind of for an entire few hours of conversation. But very quickly, I think, you know, for us, we tried– when the opportunity presented itself and I think that’s one thing, you know, I would clarify. The New Orleans franchise at the time had the rights to the Hornets name, that Hornets moniker. And they decided that they wanted something a little bit more connected to their community. And when this opportunity became available, certainly it’s something that we paid attention to quickly, but most of what we did was trying to be as thoughtful as possible to our fan base because we knew of the significance and the connection that it had to our community.

And, you know, everything that we did or tried to do, it was really based around those principles that this was something that our community valued. And we needed to make sure that if we have that opportunity, which ultimately we did, we reintroduced it in a way that was not foreign, it was familiar. But we had to bring it forward and we had to modernize it to kind of fit the era that we were in at the time.

So, a very involved process, quite a few teammates that were involved in that. And certainly one of the, I would say highlights of my 15 years is being the person on a day-to-day basis who led those processes and discussions in order to kind of get us to the point that we are today.

Dr Debby Stroman: Well, I’ll represent all the Hornet fans and ticket holders in giving you a big thanks for the electrifying experience when you go watch a game. And of course, everybody would want us to be, you know, Eastern division conference champions, but going to a Hornets game is a lot of fun. You do a great job with the marketing and I’m in love with the buzz and the costume and everything.

So, great job on that side. Let’s talk about technology. There’s just, you know, marketing has changed so much, and I think some people understand that it is a business and there is a bottom line. But technology has changed everything from the cameras, from the analysis, from how you measure things. Can you talk a little bit about technology and how it’s helped you in your role and all of your people? 

Seth Bennett: Sure. So, you know, I don’t mind telling you, Deb, I came from the shotgun era of, you know, promoting events in sports all the way back– you know, my first event was probably in like 1990, ’91. And you know, whether it was entertainment, concert-based, or athletic events, the way we did it then is you just try to get as broad as possible.

With the advent of some of the technology that we have now, we can be so focused on individual demos, clusters of people and what they want in a fan experience. You know, everything from the super fan that, you know, you don’t have to tell them they’re going to be there because it’s their team up or down.

They’re going to be there. And then you move into more casual fans. And certainly those who are looking for the entertainment element of it. But being able to, one, create a, a journey and a conversation for each of those groups and understand where they’re going to be in terms of connecting with them and various channels that you need in order to be able to do that to connect with them is really what you’re talking about when it comes to the technology.

So, we rely heavily on our business intelligence team. We were one of the early adapters, I would say, in the NBA as well as to actually invest in a robust CRM system so that we could manage customer data. And the expansion of what we’ve been able to do with that is, is honestly pretty overwhelming. The dashboards that we have, kind of, access to, you could get lost in there and, you know, sometimes you have to make sure you don’t, as we say, become paralyzed by the information analysis that you may run into. But, really to kind of use it to help inform your campaigns and you know, everything from when people are going to respond. There are a lot of anecdotes and gut feelings. You know, there’s still some art in it, I would say.

But you know, the science of it, it’s taken us to an entirely different level that we can measure how we spend and what type of return that we get and what really makes sense from that vantage point. 

Dr Debby Stroman: Well, I’m certainly very, very appreciative of that business intelligence team. You all have been wonderful, wonderful supporters of my basketball analytics summit. Teaching, sharing, providing the case for the case competition. And so, I know all that you do down there, I say down there in Charlotte, to support analytics. So appreciate that. 

Seth Bennett: I can’t state enough that, you know, we have a team of folks that are really incredible. And you know, I, I get the advantage of working with them. So, I don’t want to overstate or understate how important it is to have a team of people who have an understanding and appreciation for how our technology and our data can help us kind of be better at what we do.

Dr Debby Stroman: That is spot on. In fact, my introduction to analytics when I have the opportunity to speak on it, is I say, there’s basically three roles, there’s the super quant, the person who eats sleep and drinks, statistics. And then there’s the end-user; that might be a coach that might be a general manager. That might be you. 

But the other person is the translator.

Seth Bennett: Yes.

Dr Debby Stroman: And that person is so critical. And sometimes the end-user can be the translator, you know, sometimes it’s the super quant you can translate a little bit, but that role is so important because you can’t take that hard data, that unstructured or structured data, and then just send it over to the end-user and expect them to be able to use it.

Seth Bennett: Yeah. 

Dr Debby Stroman: That’s not how it works. 

Seth Bennett: That’s a great point. Great point. 

Dr Debby Stroman: So, let’s switch to health and safety. And we know that’s a big concern now during the pandemic and the NBA is recognized as a leader in how you prioritize safety in all of your assets. In fact, they even quieted the all-star critics.

So, for those athletes, those coaches who don’t have a lot of support in this space, what do you tell them about how to cope during the Coronavirus? How to stay motivated? 

Seth Bennett: Yeah, you know, I think the situation has caused most people– I know the majority of folks in our industry that really have a moment to kind of look inside of ourselves and, and understand who we are individually.

And I think this is a very individualized topic of where — how you get through this as far as it goes. Because it’s a lot, and you know, so many lives have been impacted and changed forever in various ways. So, you know, for us, I think being able to be information-driven that, you know, we, we tried to capture as much information around the science of what we were dealing with. So that we understood, and we could support and articulate the position that we were taking on things like masking and, and social distancing, and working from a virtual environment.

But we also put a heavy influence on the psychological support and really kind of making sure that we had things in place to support our entire staff, no matter where they were, you know? So, it was complicated because you had, you know, folks who had kids, who all of a sudden, they’re teaching. Then you had people who were just out of college a couple of years; first, second job, families on the other side of country and not having a local support network. So, really trying to come up with various strategies to be able to support each of those particular groups, you know, during this time and certainly, you know, our, our basketball group. With our guys not being able to do what they have been so passionate about was really tough.

It was a huge help to be able to have when the NBA allowed us to have a mini camp. While the other teams were in the Orlando bubble, we were actually able to have an in-market bubble. And I think that did a great deal toward the mental health side of this experience that we’ve all kind of worked through and endured.

Dr Debby Stroman: Yeah. Well, that’s great that you’re so mindful of all the different aspects of wholeness and wellness. So, that’s much appreciated. So, let’s talk about the other pandemic that’s been going on for a lot longer. And that is racism. Let’s talk about social justice. It’s getting so much more attention.

Are there any particular athletes or coaches or even front office people that you respect for their activism? 

Seth Bennett: You know that list is probably so long. At this moment, if you look across all of the leagues, you know, certainly our league and the WNBA, you have NFL, NHL, Major League Baseball, NASCAR. And certainly entertainers, business leaders that you kind of look at and say, wow, this was a bold step or bold statement that they made toward trying to solve this crisis, I would say. And, you know, within our organization, I’d be remiss not to look at what we’ve committed to organizationally, but some of the programs, you know. 

And actually, we had started some of this. We had a unfortunate situation in our community, you may remember, several years ago before the start of our season. And, a number of our players, as well as organizational, we committed to try to put some programs into place to help, you know, address some of those. It certainly, that’s taken a huge step, you know, at this particular point.

And now everything from our owner down. From Michael and his family making a commitment, along with his business partners at Nike, to infuse a lot of capital into organizations over the next 10 years. And certainly, we’ve made some commitments there itself, but I think the sports community has done an outstanding job of stepping into this situation to be a voice in drawing attention, whatever their talents and treasures might be. Quite honestly, to help make a change toward this.

And certainly, some of our young players that you’ve seen across our league be very vocal, be very active. And not just, you know, post something on social media, but really kind of roll their sleeves up and do what they can to try to, you know, get a greater level of understanding.

It was pretty obvious that we’re our best when we’re together as a country, as people of all ethnic backgrounds, all races. When we’re working together and collaborating, appreciating each other’s perspective and background for a common cause, that’s when we’re at our best. So, we just have to try to do that on a consistent basis day in, day out. 

Dr Debby Stroman: I love what you said about consistent as well. I know there are some people who complain that, “Oh, now there awake.” You know, after the video of George Floyd being murdered, you know, or after Trayvon Martin. But my point is that the train is moving. And whether you get on, on the first stop, or the fifth stop, or the 25th stop, the most important thing is to get on. 

Seth Bennett: No, absolutely.

Dr Debby Stroman: You know, we’ve certainly evolved where, you know, kneeling was, you know, a pariah. You can’t do that. Now that people are accepting that we do have freedoms in this country, and if someone wants to kneel, that is their right. And in fact, as we know, many people would say that is the most important form of patriotism, to be able to examine our systems and institutions and to be able to respectfully kneel versus some of the other things we see going on. Like, the insurrection and other things, but I won’t digress.

Seth Bennett: Yeah. Well, you know, peaceful protests is really what we’re talking about and, and, you know, not everyone may be as comfortable, you know, standing up and writing a speech for an hour. But you know, that’s their way of saying there’s something that’s not right. And we need other people to step in and help us.

And that’s really what it is. It’s a plea for help. And being able to kind of address some of these issues. So, that’s at least what I, I believe from a personal perspective, 

Dr Debby Stroman: So, I know you have a lot to do and you do it well, but when you do have an opportunity to escape from the sports world, any particular favorite television shows or books or genres? 

Seth Bennett: You know, I don’t know. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge who you are, and I don’t know if escaping is really something that I’ve ever been able to do. I think even when I’m not in the specific mode or role as a team executive, I’m always kind of observing what is around me and how I can bring that back into what I do.

Certainly, I enjoy golf when I can. Certainly, I enjoy sitting still. I’ve definitely have had some great books over the past year or so. Actually, you know, several years. You know, Grit – Angela Duckworth, Shoe Dog – Phil Knight. Any Given Day, which was the story around the Navy Seals.

So, a number of, of great reads for me that I can draw inspiration from and learning points. But I’m a pretty open guy.  I love to be around friends and family. And obviously, you know, I’ve had the opportunity to follow my son a little bit and, you know, spend time with him is probably one of the biggest treasures I have.

Dr Debby Stroman: Well, I certainly believe in the blending, and you do that well, be able to appreciate sports in this special domain, the special space that we work in. So many amazing people, but Seth, when it’s all over and you’re sitting in your rocking chair, your favorite rocking chair, watching your favorite team, and you think about it, and you reflect back on your career, what do you want to be remembered for?

Seth Bennett: You know, it’s funny how that evolves for you over time. You know? If you’d asked that question 10 or 15, 20 years ago, probably would be different. But you know, I I’d like to think that my body of work will kind of represent a person who, you know, in every measure, I didn’t take any shortcuts or give a half effort. That I tried to build as many bridges and, and pull as many people together as possible. 

That I understood that sport has an opportunity beyond the P and L to be so many things to a community. So many things to young people in the family that can help them and push them, you know, toward other things outside of just rooting for their favorite team.

And being able to be a part of creating so many memories. And being able to be a part of using a brand and popularity and fandom to have positive change in a community and in our country. And who knows? Maybe in the world by that particular point in time.

 I’d like to think that, you know, those are those components and having helped grown and develop people around me. And hopefully, I gave more than I took. 

Dr Debby Stroman: Wonderful. Wonderful. Well, thank you again for joining me, Mr. Seth Bennett, Senior Vice President at the NBA Charlotte Hornets. Thank you, Seth. 

Seth Bennett: Thank you for having me. 

Full Episode Transcript

If You Only Knew…with Dr. Debby Stroman is edited and produced by Earfluence, and brought to you by The Diversity Movement.

Intro and outro music provided by Soteria Shepperson.

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