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.
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
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.