Impact 25: Gillian Zucker On Her Drive To Build An NBA Power
New Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer hired Gillian Zucker to be the team's president of business operations last month, making Zucker -- previously president of California's Auto Club Speedway, the West Coast's largest racetrack -- one of the most powerful women in sports. Running the financial dealings of a talented NBA franchise can keep a person busy, so ESPN's Ramona Shelburne caught up with Zucker via email to discuss her big year.
Ramona Shelburne: You have said that you pursued this job almost from the moment you heard Steve was buying the team. What made you want this job so badly?
Gillian Zucker: When I heard that Steve Ballmer was buying the Clippers, it occurred to me this was probably the best sports platform of modern times. Here was a major-market team, in a city passionate about basketball, with a remarkable, business-savvy owner who is arguably the greatest sports fan on earth. I wanted to be part of it.
Steve said that you met several times before he hired you, including a four-hour dinner. What did you guys talk about?
Zucker: In a four-hour meeting, you cover a lot of ground. He was very strategic in the conversation, which essentially spanned every aspect of the business, from sponsorships to broadcast to ticketing. We talked about where the best seats are to watch a game, management styles and a dozen other topics. He is exactly as he seems. I left exhausted and invigorated at the same time, hoping it would be the first of many dinners that would challenge and inspire me.
You immediately became one of the most powerful women in sports when you took this job. What does that mean to you?
Zucker: It's humbling to think that I could inspire a young woman or girl to believe that they can follow their dreams and achieve anything they can imagine. And it also makes me feel grateful to my own parents, who instilled that belief in me.
Who were your mentors? What's the most important thing they taught you?
Zucker: I have been lucky to have worked and learned from many people throughout my career, but Bill France Jr. had a profound effect on my life. He was tough, demanding and brilliant. His daughter Lesa (CEO and vice chairperson of International Speedway Corporation) shares those same qualities. They were both huge driving forces in my career.
But when I think of the most important thing I have been taught by a mentor, it would have to be from Peter Anlyan, the former GM of the Durham Bulls. He had a cartoon in his office that illustrated how indecision can bring you down. That same cartoon was the first thing up on the wall in my new office at Staples Center.
You tried a number of new things to boost attendance when you ran the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. Did you ever encounter any resistance to those ideas from the NASCAR owners or drivers?
Zucker: When I took over the Speedway, Bill France Jr. gave me the challenge of making Auto Club Speedway the "Daytona of the West," not just in terms of the quality of races, but in what the track could mean to the region. We set out to accomplish this goal by utilizing anything and everything that we thought would elevate the Speedway, including numerous programs and promotions aimed at families and the diverse Southern California market. While there were times the track and I personally came under criticism, it was always with the intent of moving the industry forward. In the end, the amazing success of Auto Club Speedway would not have been possible without a true collaborate effort that included NASCAR, owners and drivers.
Where are the Clippers in five years?
Zucker: We have every opportunity for the Clippers to become not just the most recognized team in Los Angeles or the nation, but one of the most respected, successful and renowned team brands in the world. We have a fantastic coach, players and staff that are dedicated to making this happen. I believe that the Clippers brand means something powerful, and people all over want to be inspired by the success story of the Clippers.
Interim Clippers CEO Dick Parsons testified in the civil case between the Sterlings that the franchise was pretty average in its sponsorship revenues. When you got into the job and took a look at the books, what was your impression of the team's business affairs?
Zucker: One thing I can tell you for sure: There is nothing average about this team! There are several areas where I know we can and will improve and innovate, in some cases quickly. The opportunity to go from good to great to unparalleled is in large part what makes this role so exciting. There is so much talent in this organization and the staff is fired up to take on the world.
Parsons also testified that sponsors would flee the Clippers if Donald Sterling retained the team. Have they come back now that there's been an ownership change?
Zucker: With the enormous interest we are experiencing from new brands interested in the Clippers, any sponsors who considered fleeing have come running back. Today's Los Angeles Clippers are exciting to watch, the owner is an inspiration to all, and our new creative approach to sponsor engagement and activation has our phones ringing with incredible brands looking for unique opportunities to leverage the power of this Clippers franchise.
How often do you meet with Doc Rivers? What's your relationship with him like?
Zucker: Doc's awesome. He's a great leader who tells it like it is, and he has great pens in his office, which I like to borrow and not return. He's assembled a fantastic staff in basketball operations and we're all working together to create one seamless Clippers organization, not one divided between basketball and business. We meet and talk whenever something comes up that requires collaboration, but there are daily interactions between the business and the basketball side, too many to count.
Do you see the Clippers starting their own television network like the Lakers?
Zucker: Steve is very passionate about this space. When you marry his knowledge of technology, his network and his creativity, the one thing I know for sure is no stone will be left unturned and the result will be a powerful digital product for basketball fans. Stay tuned.