Donna Daniels' cool sports job: New Jersey Devils SVP for business services
After amassing 25 years of experience at the NBA, Donna Daniels assumed she would continue on the hardcourt track. And for the record, she would have been perfectly content with that. As an executive, she was able to keep things fresh over the span of her career by spearheading different departments in sales and sponsorship at headquarters, while also being influential in launching a D-League team and two WNBA teams at their inceptions.
Then the New Jersey Devils organization sought out NBA commissioner Adam Silver's blessing to speak with Daniels. He graciously gave it, and Daniels began her next chapter as senior vice president for business services at the New Jersey Devils and Prudential Center this past April. As for how she's adapting to an entirely different professional sport, she's more than equipped in transitioning after spending her formative years relocating from town to town as her family followed her father's trajectory as a football coach.
With the puck dropping in the Devils' opener on Thursday -- and their home opener next Tuesday -- Daniels details her journey for espnW and explains why she believes in the "never say never" concept.
On the move
My dad was a high school and college football coach, so we moved almost every two years while I was growing up. He would come home on a Friday and say, "OK, I'm on to my next place," and he would be gone on Monday. My mother would stay behind with us to get our studies situated and to sell the house, and then we would meet him at the next destination. It was very exciting, but adapting was definitely a way of life for us -- next team, next school, next set of friends. I have a younger sister and brother, and they were on board as well. I think some of us adjusted better than others, but we helped each other as a group. For me, it was an amazing way to grow up. I didn't really know anything else.
We tried to get to as many games as possible, which included the away games. We would get up at 4 a.m., and my mother would load us all into our wood-paneled station wagon. Sometimes it would take six hours to get there for kickoff, but we lived and breathed it. My dad was able to drive back with us if the team won, which was such a treat. But if they lost, he usually had to go back on the team bus. (Although we probably wouldn't want him in the car with us anyway when they lost!) But then we would say our goodbyes in the parking lot and pile back in the wagon to drive six hours home. It's just what we did.
Trial and error
My father was the coach at Hobart and William Smith in upstate New York when it was time for me to go to college, so I decided to go there to continue to be near my family. I ended up majoring in English because even though I grew up in the sports world, I didn't really understand back then that there was a whole business side to sports. My best friend went into retail in Albany after graduation, so I thought maybe that's what I wanted to do. I think I lasted two months. But I learned what I didn't want to do very quickly, and I'm appreciative of the opportunity for that realization. So I decided to move to New York City to see if I could make it there, although I didn't fully understand what that even meant. I just wanted to survive somehow.
To still be part of the NBA but to start a team from scratch? That was a dream for me. I walked in and said, 'OK, it's just me. Now what?'Donna Daniels
I landed a job at a medical advertising agency, which turned out to be the most amazing first job I could have. I learned a lot about working in an office environment with a great group of people, but I always used to say to my dad, "Wouldn't it be great if I went to work at Madison Square Garden every day?" That was my dream. I pursued it through an alumni connection and landed an interview for a job selling advertising for MSG radio. I assisted in managing inventory for the Knicks, Rangers and St. John's basketball. That was the start of my career in sports, and it opened up a whole new world for me.
After two years at MSG on the sales side, I really thought that I needed some buying experience and moved to the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. This is where I say "never say never" since working at MSG was my ultimate dream. But I really thought being a sports media buyer would be a good move from a career standpoint, which it was.
I was there about a year when I received a call from a former MSG colleague who had moved to the NBA, but I didn't think I had been at Saatchi long enough to warrant a job change. But I worked for an amazing boss at the time. With him, I could walk in and say, "I just got a call about a job." I told him, "I love it here, I love working for you, and I think I have more to learn on the buyers' side." And he looked at me and said, "You have to go on that interview. The NBA is the best sports marketing company in the world." And that conversation changed my life.
I started there working in media for our properties, like the show "NBA Inside Stuff" and Hoop magazine, while also selling units for the pregame shows. I then spent nine years working in marketing partnerships with brands like Nike, McDonald's and American Express before moving to sponsorship and also digital when that became a priority. So again, I was fortunate to be able to stay at the same company but continue to switch departments. It kept things interesting.
We were launching the NBA Development League in eight markets around the Southeast back in 2001, and I was offered the opportunity to go down and be the president of the Roanoke, Virginia, team. To still be part of the NBA but to start a team from scratch? That was a dream for me. I walked in and said, "OK, it's just me. Now what?"
It was a lot of hard work from hiring the right people to putting the ticket sales plan together and business strategy, and then collaborating with the arena staff for scheduling. But that's what I love to do best. Just give me a challenge with a blank slate. I had this mindset that the ball is going to be tipped off, and I know the date and the time that tipoff is going happen, so I can choose to either be ready or not ready. I was going to be ready.
Launch a go
I was part of what we called the WNBA launch committee, representing the corporate partnership side. My job was to work with sponsors and leverage NBA assets to make sure we could kick the league off in a way that would be effective. It just seems like yesterday that I was sitting in that room. It literally seems like yesterday, and here we are 20 years later.
It was an exciting time. The WNBA began play in June 1997, and we were coming off the Atlanta Olympics, so there was a huge amount of momentum for women's basketball after Team USA's gold-medal win. And then later, I also helped launch two new WNBA teams, the Atlanta Dream and the Tulsa Shock. So when I think back over the course of my career, I really loved to work with the new entities like the D-League and the WNBA. I mean, I loved the NBA as well, but those three leagues have different personalities, so I was able to flex different muscles with each of them.
Parquet to pucks
What I really appreciated about the process is that my department head and commissioner Adam Silver gave the Devils organization their blessing to talk to me before I even knew about it. That really made me feel like it was OK to begin to explore the opportunity when they called. And one of the selling points was the ownership group of Josh Harris and David Blitzer, who I can't say enough about. When you look at what they've done over the course of three years, from owning the 76ers and then buying the Devils' Prudential Center and also the Premier League team Crystal Palace F.C. -- they're savvy, they're competitive, and I just love being around them.
Even though the Devils are an established team, there's almost a startup feel here with a huge focus on culture and talent with this new ownership group. Since they took over, the organization has grown from about 40 individuals to more than 200. In the end, it was definitely hard to leave the NBA and the amazing human beings I spent so much time with over the years. But I left an organization with very passionate people who love to come to work every day, and I've found only the same here. I would never have expected anything different, but you certainly never know until you get into the day to day.
Range of wisdom
I think there's two things I say for advice. The first is that networking is so important. Don't be afraid to reach out, because you'll be surprised at how receptive most people are. And the second lesson is one I was fortunate enough to learn early on, which is that there's a whole world of opportunity at a sports team. They're really structured like any other business. You can go to law school and work in sports, or have an MBA and work in the finance department. It's not just ticket sales or sponsorships. You can work in HR or PR or do any number of things. In talking with people, I sometimes think they don't fully understand how many opportunities there really are. It's beneficial to think broad.