Gillian Zucker's cool sports job: Clippers president of business operations
Gillian Zucker became one of the most powerful women in sports when Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer hired her as president of business affairs in 2014. Since then, she has been tasked with executing the former Microsoft CEO's vision for transforming the franchise he purchased for a record $2 billion from an eyesore into a tech-savvy, cutting-edge winner.
What's a typical day like? We spoke around 5 p.m. on a Friday, 10 hours after she arrived at the Clippers' offices in downtown Los Angeles. There was an early-morning meeting with architects supervising the team's locker room renovation, her daily check-in with senior vice president Carl Lahr to go over ticket sales, a call with the NBA to go over new technology on the bench rules and a meeting with the team's marketing group about outdoor advertising for the upcoming season. And that was just her morning. The afternoon featured meetings with coach and president of basketball operations Doc Rivers, a drive across town to the team's training facility in Playa Vista for an employee event and a handful of interviews for open jobs within the organization. There were 12 other things in between, but Zucker was driving home to her three children on the 405 freeway, and it was safer to remember off the top of her head, rather than look back through her calendar. Besides, it's better to hear what the job is like in her own words than list off appointments.
Working with Doc Rivers
For me, anything that I can do to alleviate him being concerned about anything except what's going on, on the court, means that I'm doing my job effectively. I want him to interact as little as possible on anything that has to do with the hoopla. In that respect, especially during the season, I just try to minimize that. Now, that doesn't mean that we don't have really good communication, and that he doesn't know exactly what's happening. If there's anything that's immediate, I'll text or call him. He'll do the same with me. Otherwise, I try to run things through either email or through Lawrence Frank, who is the executive vice president of basketball operations.
At any given point in time, what I don't want to do is be an interruption in the goal of winning. Really coming from Steve, is that No. 1 in all of our minds is we want to win. Anything that detracts from that, we're not interested in supporting. I think that includes unnecessary interruptions into whatever it is that Doc has going on. Since I don't know what his day consists of, but generally when they're traveling, I just try to be really cognizant of that and cautious about making sure I'm not interrupting a practice. I don't know. They land at crazy hours of the night. If I'm with them, I'll know exactly where he is and when the best time to catch him is. If I'm not, I tend to try to run things through someone who's on the road.
We are interested and experts at different things. It makes it very easy. I think he has about as much interest in being a part of a discussion on a legal contract as I have in trying to determine what plays we run.
One-on-one with Ballmer
I have a one-on-one with him once a week for an hour. I try to save most things for that. I have a personal rule that he should never be surprised by anything. If there's something that I think he might get blindsided by, or that he would really want to know about in real time, I'll call him.
By far, my favorite part of this opportunity is having the chance to work with Steve Ballmer. There are times where I'll be somewhere, and I'm doing nothing more than listening to him interact with someone else. I still learn something from that. He's incredibly bright. He also thinks about things in such a unique way. Part of it is because he hasn't been entrenched in the sports business for as long as I have. Part of it is because he is smart. I think that he takes a lot of the learnings that he's accumulated over his time at Microsoft, and being part of a business that was first that small and now that big. He brings them and that perspective into everything he does now. It's amazing.
The other day I invited him to our ticket-pricing meeting. We have a team of people who, collectively in that room, had over 100 years of experience in ticket pricing. I felt like they were very, very prepared for this meeting. They had done a lot of research about secondary prices, primary prices, what was happening in the industry. We have the league's perspective on it, and really felt good about the preparation going into the meeting.
As the meeting opened, the person who really is in charge of pricing for us started the meeting and said, "What I wanted to share with you is a little bit of strategy about how we set the prices that we will be sharing with you in just a minute." He goes, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. We're not ready for prices." Nobody says this, but we're like, "Isn't this surprising?" He says, "No. No. No. I want to start with talking about how you buy a ticket."
He's like, "If I bought this ticket, how did I get it?" Of course, that answer is very complicated. You could have gotten it buying it from us as a season-ticket holder. You could have it because you work for a company that gave it to you. You could have it because you came in a group outing with you cub scout group. You could have it because you bought it on StubHub. There are many, many, many other ways that you could have gotten that ticket.
What I never want is for a season ticket holder to turn to the person next to them and go, 'This next in-game break is going to be the kiss cam.' You should never know that. You should never know quite what's coming.Gillian Zucker
He said, "OK. Let's write them all down." We, literally, wrote down every single way that you could get a ticket. Then, we matched the entire thing from when this all starts, the Clippers control every single ticket. Then, where do they go from there? After we were done and we had this crazy spider-looking map, our few hours were up, and he looked at it, and he said, "OK, so before we set pricing, let's just follow the value chain and determine if there's anywhere that we can do better." It was just such a simple way to look at the process. I've been pricing tickets for 25 years. I've never done that. It was a pretty eye-opening exercise. What we discovered was a way to amplify revenue without changing a single ticket price.
When I interviewed for this job, I said, "If you (Ballmer) want to run the basketball team, it's probably not the right job for me." He said, "No. I don't want to run the basketball team. I want the basketball team to be really well-run." I think that is the value and the genius of him is that he contributes in a way that helps all of us on the business side to deliver that for him.
Innovating the game
I think some really innovative, creative things that will be coming out.
He's a tech guy. He loves sports. He would be watching a game on TV, and he'd say, "Wouldn't it be cool if I could click on Chris Paul after he just sank that basket, and know exactly how far away from the basket he was? What if I could know what the percentage likelihood is of him making that shot right after he took it, so that if I think, 'Wow, that was an amazing shot,' I could know how amazing that shot was."
He wanted the ability to be anywhere in any space on any device, and cheer for the Clippers and have it matter. This is, essentially, how he works. Now, it's up to me to put together the team that's going to come up with the concept that can realize that result.
So you can get it on your computer. You can get it on your iPad. You can get it on your Xbox. It won't roll out with every single device available from Day 1, but we'll have the main ones all available. It'll be on iOS. It'll be on Android. It's device agnostic.
It'll be like an app, but it will be quite unique. What it's based on is a couple of professors at USC, who were studying artificial intelligence and loved basketball. They taught a computer how to understand the game of basketball.
They're basically connected with the cameras and the feelings that track every player movement and every ball movement in every NBA arena. Then, they take all of that data, which is just a tremendous amount, and they were able to boil that down into a way the general managers and coaches could use it. For example, if a coach was saying to DeAndre [Jordan], "When you have your shoulder out instead of your shoulder in, you're 25 percent more effective at blocking shots." Now, they can say to him that exact same thing, and then they can hit two buttons and show him. This is what it looks like with your shoulder out. This is what it looks like with your shoulder in. Here's the difference in your result. Steve's idea was, "Hey. That's really great for coaches, but what about just for regular Joe fan? Why can't he have that?"
We're doing so much more, I think, than we were doing when I first joined the organization. Even to just look at the game presentation alone, we've completely reinvented that experience. I think you'll see many, many new things this year that didn't exist last year. That's the goal is to always keep that fresh, so that if you're a season-ticket holder and you're coming to 43 games plus playoffs, that you're experiencing something different every time. What I never want is for a season-ticket holder to turn to the person next to them and go, "This next in-game break is going to be the kiss cam." You should never know that. You should never know quite what's coming.
I think that that's been something that we have become known for and want to become more well-known for. We refer to it in the office as, we want everyone to have FOMO, the fear of missing out. I can tell you, for sure, when we did our surprise tribute performance with the flash mob, the number of people who claim that they were at that game, there's no possible way that, that many people could fit. I want that. That is the biggest compliment that our team can get is that we created a moment that was so special that people want to say they were there. The goal there is that people are saying, "OK. You can't miss a Monday night game against the Nets, because if you do, Steve Ballmer might dunk a basketball." You'll never get to see it again.
Chuck the Condor
I am so pro-Chuck. I am so pro-Chuck. Oh my gosh. He's the greatest. First of all, every once in a while, Chuck just shows up at our office. I swear, after 20 minutes of Chuck, my face hurts. He's a fun bird. He brings an energy that, I think, is really just wonderful. You turn into a little kid around him. He brings an excitement level that I think is exactly what Steve wants, to just inspire people to lose themselves in the excitement of the Clippers. I think that's part of what I love about him.
We looked at him and said, "OK. We could go the route of bringing in another bear or another lion, or we could create a mascot that can't be ignored." That's really what we want to be, is that kind of organization that takes on bold things and isn't afraid to think differently. He is comfortable in his own feathers. Wouldn't it be nice if we were all that way?
You'll see a lot more of Chuck. He's not going anywhere. I loved, actually, what happened when he was launched. There was definitely this impassioned side where people were saying, "He's odd, and he's strange," and these other people who were sticking up for him and defending him with such fervor. The minute that happened, I was like, "We nailed this one."
Wife, mother, president
I think that anybody, no matter who you are or what sex, who's had a lot of success in their life will, if they're being honest, are going to tell you it has a lot to do with the people who are around them. What I have is an amazingly supportive partner and incredibly supportive kids. When I took on this role, it was very much from the standpoint of things are going to be different. I won't be home to make dinner every night. I'm not going to be able to do that. When you have your, at the time, 14-year-old stepping up saying, "Well, I guess we're going to learn to cook," that's when you know you're set up for success. The reality is that is not my success. That is theirs. I couldn't do what I do if it weren't for that. They are incredible, and I think proud and supportive and amazing about being a part of all of this.