Hoop Hopes: How the NBA is getting more fans engaged in the game

At Johnson’s NYC Predictions Dinner, NBA Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer Mark Tatum ’91 outlined how technology and globalization are growing the sport’s fan base.

Hoop Hopes: How the NBA is getting more fans engaged in the gameinline-block

By David McKay Wilson

Less than 1 percent of National Basketball Association fans ever attend a professional game, and an infinitesimal number of those who buy a ticket ever get to sit courtside.

The advent of virtual reality technology will bring millions courtside, said NBA Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer Mark Tatum ’91, speaking at the Johnson Club of New York City’s 2016 Predictions Dinner.

“It’s going to be transformational and help grow our fan base,” he told 225 alumni and prospective students who gathered Jan. 28 at the Grand Hyatt in midtown Manhattan. 

Globalization of the sport will help too. He said 300 million Chinese play basketball, and NBA games are broadcast around the world in 47 languages. Getting people out on the court to shoot hoops is the first step, said Tatum, for developing lifelong basketball fans.

Online fantasy sports leagues have helped engage basketball fans as well. But as prosecutors around the nation have suspended some of the operations, Tatum called on officials to establish stronger legal frameworks within which the fantasy leagues can operate.

“It would definitely benefit from regulation,” he said.

For Tatum, the dinner was a time to reconnect with Cornell friends like Kappa Alpha Psi brother Kenneth Bantum ’85, and share his vision of the NBA’s future. The evening also stirred up memories of his first date with his (then) wife-to-be, Lisa Skeete Tatum ’89, when they danced at the Grand Hyatt.

Tatum, who grew up in East Flatbush and attended Brooklyn Tech, recalled that he’d gone to Cornell with dreams of someday becoming a physician. But a class in organic chemistry convinced him that a future in medicine was not in the cards. So he pursued a business career. A stint at Procter & Gamble taught him that selling diapers and cleaning products was not his passion.

But sports had always motivated him. He played baseball at Cornell and as a kid dreamed of playing second base for the New York Yankees. So he landed a job with Major League Baseball, helping the league attract corporate sponsorships. A year later, in 1999, he was recruited by the NBA as it emerged from its lockout and was looking for new management talent.  

He worked his way up through the organization, and by 2014 was named deputy commissioner and chief operating officer of a 30-team league, with its burgeoning global presence, and ambitions to improve upon how the game can be enjoyed by its growing audience. 

Tatum fielded questions after his talk, and one alumnus — noting that the evening was about predictions — asked for Tatum’s pick for this year’s NBA champion. He declined to take the bait.

“The beauty of the NBA is that it’s wide-open,” he said.

Attorney Ian Schaefer ’01 said he came to the dinner to thank Tatum for helping to launch his career. When Schaefer was a freshman, Tatum, then working for Major League Baseball, was a guest lecturer at his introduction to business management class. They spoke after class, and Tatum later helped Schaefer land a labor-relations internship with MLB for the following summer.

Today, Schaefer does employment law at Epstein Becker Green in Manhattan, which includes work in the field of professional sports.

“We’ve come full circle,” Schaefer said when they met during the cocktail reception outside the Grand Hyatt ballroom. “Thank you for sending me on my course.”

Responded Tatum: “There’s a special bond in the Cornell community. I had people help me out on my way up too.”

About Predictions Dinners

First launched by the Johnson Club of the Bay Area 21 years ago, the Predictions Dinners have become a tradition among Johnson alumni clubs. Predictions Dinners begin with a cocktail reception, which offers a great opportunity for alumni to network with students, faculty, and staff. The reception is followed by a formal, sit-down dinner and address by a keynote speaker. At these dinners, club members also distribute predictions questions for the new year and announce the winner of the award for the most accurate predictions from the previous year. It is a fun evening that is open to the entire Cornell community. 

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