He may not be a household name, but any NBA insider will tell you, Rick Welts is one of the all-time greats.
Over his nearly 50-year career as a marketing expert and executive in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors’ President and COO has had a hand in some of the league’s biggest developments, helping transform the game of basketball as we know it in the process.
His start however, could not have been more modest.
Born in Seattle, Washington, Welts famously got his foot in the door as a ball boy for his hometown SuperSonics in 1969. From there, the young basketball fanatic quickly moved up the ranks in Seattle, reaching the title of director of public relations when the SuperSonics won their first and only NBA Championship in 1979.
Next, the future Hall of Famer joined the NBA’s league offices, where he rose to the positions of executive vice president, chief marketing officer and president of NBA Properties. It was during his time in the NBA that Welts did some of his most notable work, helping to create, market and promote the NBA All Star weekend, the WNBA and the Olympic Dream Team.
“My skill was picking great bosses; working for people who helped change the industry and trying to learn from them what I could.”
Welts returned to team basketball when took on the role of President and CEO at the Phoenix Suns from 2002 to 2011, before moving to his current home with the Golden State Warriors, where he has won three championships and was key in engineering the Dubs’ first-ever jersey badge partnership with Rakuten.
Last summer, his long list of contributions to the game finally led Welts — a man whose tenure with the Warriors was described by owner Peter Guber as “defined by innovation and inclusivity” — to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Welts sat down with Rakuten Director of Global Marketing and Branding Rahul Kadavakolu during a recent visit to Rakuten Crimson House in Tokyo to discuss the changing nature of sports partnerships, the state of basketball in Japan and reflect on his Hall of Fame career.
Welcome to Japan and welcome to Rakuten! How have you enjoyed the trip so far?
This is my second trip in the last two years to Crimson House and it has been a delight each time. My head basically explodes by the end of the meetings thinking about all the opportunities that we have and all the things that we have learned, and this time will be no exception.
And outside of official business?
We’ve really enjoyed the the minimal amount of free time you’ve given us (laughs), to get to know Tokyo much better. We’ve kind of fallen in love with the place.
You mentioned earlier that you came to Japan a few times in the ’90s. Have you noticed any changes between Japan then and now?
The business style is much less formal today than I experienced on my first trips. Entire trips in the early 90s were spent getting into a car, driving to an office, sitting around a table, exchanging gifts and then saying ‘thank you and see you again some time.’ We’d do that over and over again in these very formal settings and not get a chance to really engage with people informally. Here I feel like I have an opportunity to connect with people on a personal level, which is really fantastic.
How did you achieve your dream in the NBA? Was it something you planned all along, or did it happen organically?
If you fall in love with the sport, you look for ways to make a contribution.
I’m what you’d call ‘vertically challenged,’ so my contribution was probably never going to be on the court. Instead I felt I could make a difference on the business side. Probably the biggest opportunity came when I had the chance to leave Seattle and work with the NBA’s league offices.
Some lawyer I had never heard of left a phone message one day and invited me to New York. That was [future NBA Commissioner] David Stern, and he ended up hiring me to start the league’s sponsorship group. That opportunity probably set me on my course for good.
I was the 35th employee of the NBA when I got to New York. When I left in in 1999, there were over a 1,000 people working for the NBA. I got to work at the NBA through the Larry Bird – Magic Johnson era of the ’80s and the Michael Jordan era of the ‘90s. Seeing the league go from what was a poorly run, not all that respected organization, to being in the conversation as one of the great sports organizations in the world right now, was an incredible experience.
So to answer your question: One thing leads to another and you put yourself in the position to make the most of opportunities, and every time that door opened for me I tried to run through it. I don’t think I ever envisioned what the final job would be for me, but I always felt like there was more to do.
Was there a piece of advice you received along the way that really helped you in your career?
My skill was picking great bosses; working for people who helped change the industry and trying to learn from them what I could.
Any advice you’d offer to others?
My advice is very old fashioned; it’s ‘do what you love’ — you work really hard in this industry and sacrifice a lot of personal and family time, so at the end of the day if you don’t really love what you do, you’re not going to be successful. So do what you love.
You’ve been around the game long enough to see basketball grow from an American sport to a truly global phenomenon. As you know, Rakuten partnered with the NBA last fall to help grow the popularity of the NBA and the sport in general in Japan. What do you think has to happen for basketball to flourish in Japan?
At the end of the day, there has to be an understanding and appreciation for the game and the athletes that play the game. We have to teach the game to people and give them reasons to watch and be drawn in by these incredible athletes that do impossible things, night in and night out. Then we can start telling personal stories of those people around the game, which leads to a level of emotional commitment. If we can do all those things right, and I’m told Rakuten is doing it beautifully [through their global partnership with the NBA], then we have a chance over time to grow the sport into something much more prominent than it is today.
Why did the Warriors originally decide to partner with Rakuten? Certainly there was no shortage of other eager companies?
It was a really interesting process. The NBA created the opportunity to put a corporate badge on our uniforms, and we, like everybody else, started thinking about who our partners could be.
Ideally, we were looking for an organization that could expand our world — someone who, as a representative of our brand, would complement and accentuate the good things that we felt we were doing and the principles that we stand for, and that could also create new opportunities.
We may not have known a lot about Rakuten before we met over this discussion, but every time we peeled back another layer — what Rakuten was, what it had accomplished already, where the company was going and what kind of expertise was being developed within the company — we realized that partnering with them would be a real strategic coup.
Sports partnerships have evolved quite a bit over your time in the NBA. What are your thoughts on the direction the industry is moving?
I think it’s thrilling. I was literally the very first person to go out and start talking to companies about investing money in the NBA. It was not a very successful enterprise then. But, there was one advantage I had. Major companies had what they called a sports marketing budget. You went to Coca-Cola or McDonalds and they would already have decided to spend ‘x’ amount of dollars on sports marketing. So you were battling over an existing budget.
That has completely changed today. Sports competes with anything else that can take a corporate message or marketing to a customer. It doesn’t matter if it’s sports, music or media — all you have to do is analyze the effectiveness of how you’re investing your money and what kind of sales results you’re getting.
I like this world better. If you can create a true partnership, and a true partnership benefits both parties, then you have unlimited opportunity to grow compared to the old model.
Finally, Rakuten means “optimism” in Japanese. What are you optimistic about right now?
I think this partnership with Rakuten can be a real game changer for the Warriors and the NBA in Japan, and longer term, for the NBA globally. We know that Rakuten has the key to unlock so many different paths for our fans to connect with our brand, and to build our business going forward. We’re thrilled to be at the starting point of what we hope will be a really long relationship.