Back in the 1970s on the basketball courts at Tufts University, young Ed Tapscott played the game with “heart.” And, with what he describes as “modest talents, at best.” But he took his position as point guard seriously, doing whatever was needed to get the ball to the “bigger and better guys.”
“When you’re not real big, you have to make yourself very valuable on the court,” says Tapscott slyly with a smile. “I would say I played with heart because it was my way of making it in a game I just love — a game filled with passion and intensity.” Although the game, he admits, is not always elegant, it demands an incredible amount of intensity and spirit. Even now he is adamant, “I’d prefer to watch a game that is played inelegantly and with passion, to one that is elegant but has no passion.”
Today, Tapscott still leaves the scoring to the bigger guys, but now his game requires a different kind of talent. In December 2002, Tapscott became executive vice president and chief operating officer of the newly acquired, yet-to-be-named NBA expansion franchise (including the WNBA Sting) which will begin play in Charlotte in 2004. When approached by Robert Johnson, the Black Entertainment Television founder who purchased the team, to head up the franchise, Tapscott says he could not say “yes” fast enough to the offer.
“After we had talked about it and Bob said “let’s shake on it,” I couldn’t get my hand out any faster and I didn’t want to let go — as if he would take back the offer,” he laughs. “Taking the job was an easy decision. I was so exhilarated and felt such gratitude,” exclaims Tapscott. “It is such an exciting and unique opportunity for me. Bob Johnson has always been a great visionary — a man who sees opportunity and success where others don’t. He likes the game and is challenged to make it a successful venture.
“For me to be part of what he has planned for this team and for the City of Charlotte…it is very special.”
The game of basketball has been Tapscott’s livelihood from the time he exchanged coaching work for law school tuition and later passed up a career in law for a career in basketball. At 27 years old he was working with Gary Williams (currently head coach of the University of Maryland) who was then head coach at American University (AU) in Washington, D.C. He describes Williams as “the mentor who ignited my passion for the game.”
“When I first met Ed, he was young and confident and he just wanted a chance,” recalls Williams, who agreed to give Tapscott an assistant coaching position in return for class tuition. “He walked into my office, introduced himself and had a very positive attitude. He had a Masters degree and was working on a law degree, but he had a great passion for basketball. He believed he could be successful and that we could be successful, no matter what it took. UA didn’t have a lot of money at the time; actually, we didn’t even have our own gym or court. He wasn’t deterred by such challenges. And that’s what we needed.”
In 1978, Williams hired Tapscott as head coach despite his young age and limited experience. “Well, he didn’t want a lot of money for one,” Williams says with a laugh. “But he had played for Tom Penders and I knew he had a good playing background. He was also familiar with the area from which we needed to recruit players. He had a good personality to work with people and we needed someone who could speak well on his feet and get out there and spread the word for us. He really fit the bill.”
After eight years of coaching, Tapscott became a player agent with Advantage International. He went on to become vice president of player personnel and basketball operations for the New York Knicks during the 1990s, during which time the team made the playoffs each year as well as two trips to the NBA Finals and won the host bid for the NBA All-Star Game in 1997. Tapscott served briefly as the Knicks’ interim general manager in 1999. Most recently, he worked as a television analyst for Fox Sports and Comcast Sports Net in the Washington, D.C., area and as a consultant for the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns.
The One and Only Candidate for the Job
Over the 20 years he has known Tapscott, Bob Johnson has watched him evolve and grow in the professional sports business — earning a strong reputation built on honesty and integrity. So when the time came to hire a leader for his new expansion franchise, Johnson considered Tapscott his only candidate.
“Eddie is, in my opinion, one of the best and brightest basketball guys in the country,” says Johnson. “I’ve watched him as a professional sports executive, a management executive and a TV personality. His range of experience in sports combined with his engaging personality, charisma, and business sense really impressed me,” explains Johnson. “He is the kind of guy I wanted to give a chance to be the head of my professional organization. Frankly, I think he was the most qualified, unemployed guy in professional sports. I figured I better get him on board before someone else offered him a deal he couldn’t refuse.”
Rather than pointing out specific achievements, Johnson claims there is a culmination of observations that led him to mark Tapscott as the right man for the job. “Eddie’s greatest strength is that he is going to work harder than anybody else to achieve his stated objectives,” says Johnson. “He will do everything to the very best of his ability and will motivate the people around him to do their best.”
No matter what job Tapscott was in, recalls Johnson, he always received favorable reviews from people in the business. “When Ed was a coach at AU, the team wasn’t always the best, but still, writers always talked about his strong leadership skills and how he brought out the best in the players and the team. And when he was with the Knicks and didn’t get the job everyone thought he would, people asked “why” because they thought so highly of him.
“And when I was considering pursuing an NBA franchise, he offered me contacts, ideas and advice that showed me he really had a lot of knowledge of the business. In my mind, all of these things added up to a talented executive with a lot of vision, who worked hard to master his involvement in sports,” affirms Johnson.
Reaching Out and Winning the Crowd
Putting a winning product on the floor, running a profitable operation, and building an engaging relationship with the community is the cornerstone of Tapscott’s mission in Charlotte.
“We want to create excitement and a sense of community by offering an ‘emotionally engaging environment’ in a facility that provides vibrancy to Charlotte’s uptown, and that will become an integral part of downtown commerce every single day,” emphasizes Tapscott.
“We are selling more than basketball here; we are selling fun and entertainment. We want to provide an experience that stimulates all the senses, an experience that always makes you feel like you’ve had a great time. There’s going to be a “Wow!” factor involved in everything we do.
“I believe this area [Charlotte and the Carolinas] has a strong passion for sports; I’ve been here and I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the coliseum sold out for games and I’ve always received a warm welcome when I’ve visited. I believe the spirit can be rekindled if we give everyone a good reason to come down and try us out — whether it’s a game at first, or perhaps a concert or family show.”
Specific marketing plans have not yet been developed, but Tapscott says that extensive research will go into determining which themes resonate best with fans and how the arena should best be designed to meet the needs of consumers. Staff members and team players will be highly visible, accessible, and involved in community activities, and a serious service approach will be embodied by the entire organization.
Getting off on the right foot is essential, says Tapscott, who is already cultivating a service-oriented culture within the growing organization. “Our lifeblood revolves around people — our customers — no matter if they are die-hard basketball fans, casual fans, or people who watch on television. We know we must take the time to meet people, extend a hand, listen to their stories and sincerely respond the best we can.”
Tapscott illustrates his point with a story about the day his young daughter — an avid WNBA fan — met Sparks star Lisa Leslie at an All-Star Game they were attending.
“My daughter stopped Ms. Leslie and asked for an autograph. Ms. Leslie responded immediately. She not only signed my daughter’s ticket stub, but she put her arm around her and talked to her about her favorite team and players and sent her back to her seat with a hug and a positive sentiment.”
At that moment, recalls Tapscott, he realized how much Lisa Leslie really “got it” — really understood the personal service aspect of the business. “By taking just a few extra minutes to engage my daughter in conversation, to listen to her talk, she solidified a fan relationship. Actually, she affected three relationships, because my wife and I were overwhelmed by her gesture, as well. That’s the way you’ve got to do it.”
At the same time, Tapscott feels it is important for the organization to be true to itself. “We have to be ourselves, but we must be consistent and patient with the community because we are new,” he says, realizing that there are certain sensitivities that must be overcome.
“We have to engage in dialogue, and listen to everyone who needs to be heard. And we need to be responsive. We can never ever presume to know what people want. You can never stop listening as long as you are operating a business, you must continue to reach out for as long as you are operating a business. And you must continue these activities forever if you want to be successful.”
Mayor Pat McCrory agrees that Tapscott’s greatest challenge will be to show a true continuous commitment to the community. “You can never let up and take the consumer for granted, especially during tough economic times and with so much competition for the entertainment dollar,” says McCrory. “He [Tapscott] will really have to provide a quality product and be adaptable. And I think he understands that, he’s not taking anyone for granted.”
During his first few meetings with Tapscott, McCrory says he was impressed with his excellent communication skills, his expression of strong values and how he considers community a top priority. Throughout arena negotiations, McCrory says he’s been pleased with the team Bob Johnson has put together and feels that the city has entered into a positive partnership.
“The arena is being designed very fan-friendly. They’ve worked well with the city in designing for long-term quality. They want it to fit well into the city, be accessible to the public, and adaptable for all forms of entertainment. They are definitely thinking beyond the NBA, which is important. Our [the city’s] goal is to fill hotel rooms and restaurants and to create jobs. By offering more entertainment, we’ll both accomplish our goals,” McCrory continues.
McCrory also noted that the practice facility will be open to the public and available to youth basketball leagues. “I think that’s a pretty strong statement and a specific action that demonstrates a sincere commitment to our community.”
“We are definitely out to ‘win the crowd’,” asserts Johnson, borrowing the line from one of his favorite movies, Gladiator. “When the Gladiator turned to his general and said, ‘I wasn’t the best gladiator, but I won the crowd. If I win the crowd, I win my freedom,’ he really got it,” explains Johnson. “Every aspect of what we have planned is to create an experience that makes you feel like you’re getting the best service, the best care and the most fun. If we win the crowd, we’ll have a winning organization in Charlotte.”
Setting Up Shop
Meanwhile, back in the office, Tapscott is busy with the many details required to start a business. Although the City will pick up the bill to construct and maintain the arena, Tapscott’s organization will be responsible for the operations, including marketing, recruiting entertainment venues, as well as shouldering any financial losses. Williams sees the challenge for Tapscott in the many various aspects of business such as marketing, hiring, choosing players, public relations, among other things.
“The first thing Ed brings to the job is a great deal of intelligence, but it’s his background in the game that allows him to see things differently than just as an executive. There are many things involved, but Ed has always been organized and that will help him,” predicts Williams.
Tapscott’s been carefully building a staff, creating infrastructures to operate the Sting and to build and run the new uptown arena and NBA expansion franchise. He plans to have a general manager for the NBA team in place by early summer and a coach named by the spring of 2004.
“One lesson that I’ve learned throughout my career is to hire good people,” explains Tapscott. “You define your mission and let them execute it because they are the ones who have expertise in their particular disciplines. I’m just a generalist. If I’m the smartest guy at the table, then I didn’t hire well.
“I believe in creating a true ‘team concept’, which, if effective, will spawn energy from the realization that we are truly greater than the sum of our parts. That is a very special feeling for a group and it doesn’t happen often.”
A high level of dedication is also something Tapscott looks for in the people he works with. “In the five short weeks I’ve been here, I’ve witnessed an incredible sense of dedication from our staff,” he points out. “Heidi Coleman, for example, was corporate sponsorship manager with the Utah Jazz and Starzz, when she packed her U-Haul truck, hooked her car on the back and drove all the way across the country to come work with us,” he explains. “She gets here, unpacks, and shows up the next morning for work. She picks up the phone and the first person she calls is Hugh McColl. That about says it all.”
“Ed Tapscott is very much the ultimate coach,” Coleman, now director of corporate sponsorship for the Sting, shares. “He has tremendous leadership skills, and a great concern for his staff as people. He sent the small group of women in the office flowers on Valentine’s Day, and has bought us dinner a few nights when we were all working late. It was a personal touch, he’s a great man. You feel it in his work and you feel it in the comfortable working environment he creates.
“But most importantly, he really enables us to do our jobs and trusts that we are the experts and his position is to manage the process. He trusts us, and I think that is a rarity compared to other teams I’m familiar with in the league,” she says. Coleman also feels that by making himself accessible to them, Tapscott helps everyone achieve their goals. “He’s very approachable and eager to assist whether I need his help getting in touch with someone on the phone, or going to lunch with a prospect I need to ‘massage’ a bit more than others.
“He lives what we are promising and meets expectations and then surpasses them. He’s a great example of what we’re all committed to.”
The Last Word
“We want to tie into the passion and the tradition of Charlotte. So I leave you with this — there are three types of people in sports: those who make it happen, those who watch it happen and those who wonder what happened. We will be an organization that makes it happen to the best of our abilities.” — Ed Tapscott
For more information on Charlotte’s NBA franchise, check out the Web site www.rljcompanies.com.