Fred Whitfield is a self-proclaimed optimist. That’s good, because the new president and chief operating officer of the Charlotte Bobcats realizes he has some hurdles to scale.
He sounds like a realist as he ticks off his challenges. He wants to improve the image of the franchise and its organization. He’s ready to deal with bad feelings left over from the departure of the Charlotte Hornets. He would dearly love to attract more people to Bobcats Arena, a state-of-the-art facility dogged by a dark cloud because the city chose to build it after voters nixed it. Whitfield’s job boils down to filling more seats for Charlotte Bobcats home games against NBA opponents.
When he assumed his position in early August, Whitfield joined his longtime friend Michael Jordan, who bought part of the team from owner Bob Johnson and took the title of managing partner for basketball operations. The dust was still settling from the abrupt departure of top executives Ed Tapscott, Chris Weiller and Peter Smul under pressure from Johnson.
Whitfield took on what he calls “a re-expansion team,” because the NBA awarded Charlotte the Bobcats after George Shinn moved the Hornets, the city’s first major league team, to New Orleans.
When Whitfield lived here during the Hornets’ glory days, he saw Charlotte set NBA records with consecutive sellouts that strung out over several seasons. By contrast, the Bobcats have struggled to attract decent crowds to their new arena in Charlotte’s Center City.
“I saw the great teams the Hornets had,” Whitfield says as he leans forward in his Bobcats Arena office, elbows on knees. “I saw the energy this community had behind their team. I knew this town was a great sports town,” he says, adding that he’s been a Carolina Panthers season ticket holder from day one and is a NASCAR fan, too.
“I just felt this was a unique opportunity,” he says of his new position. “If we could reconnect the sports fans in this community to NBA basketball and our franchise, in particular, it could be exciting.”
Whitfield, who turned 48 on the day the Bobcats opened their third season, says he wanted to assemble the best group of executives possible to help him build the excitement. He worked a deal with NBA commissioner David Stern to hire the league’s chief marketing officer, Greg Economu. It helps, Whitfield says, that Economu lives on Lake Norman.
Whitfield also embraced the presence of Tim Hinchey, whom the league had placed with the Bobcats to help with corporate sales and sponsorships. Hinchey has experience with the Sacramento Kings and helped the New Orleans Hornets find acceptance in their temporary home of Oklahoma City in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“Between Tim, Greg and me, we’ve hit the ground running,” says Whitfield, who admits to working 14-hour days on more than a few occasions. “We’ve started to establish a brand around who we are.”
Branding the Bobcats
What is the Bobcat brand? Whitfield says it has several elements. Perhaps the most important is being known for grass-roots involvement in the community. The Bobcats plan to fund improvements to outdoor basketball courts in neighborhoods throughout greater Charlotte, from the lowest income to the highest.
“You’ll see a lot of backboards that say ‘Bobcats’ and will have the names of our corporate sponsors,” Whitfield says.
The team is also looking for a home for less fortunate children that it can take under its wing as a major charity, he says. That will come soon.
On the court, Whitfield wants the Bobcats to be known as a “blue-collar” team, made up of athletes hungry for success and eager to overachieve. Players such as Gerald Wallace and Raymond Felton are already fashioning that image, he thinks.
That kind of community caring, hard working image should entice more people to see a game and sample what the Bobcats are all about, Whitfield believes. To help these potential fans make up their mind, he’s devised some interesting ticket purchase plans.
First, the Bobcats cut season ticket prices by about 17 percent for the 2006-07 season. Then Whitfield added some additional incentives. In conjunction with the NBA, he initiated a $199 full-season package.
“These were for seats in the far corners of the building that we weren’t going to sell anyway,” Whitfield explains. “We sold 1,100 of them. That’s $5 a game per season. If we can just get people to test our product, see what an exciting event it is, then those are the people hopefully we can upgrade to higher priced tickets.”
Then there’s the $999 full-season ticket package that Hinchey came up with. Buyers sit in first level seats except for games against the best 12 NBA teams – Cleveland, Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers among them – when crowds are naturally larger. Then they move to the first few rows of the upper level.
How are these efforts working? Speaking just before the season started, Whitfield says the Bobcats have sold 2,600 new full-season ticket packages, ranking them fourth in the NBA. For the 2005-06 season, the team sold only 461 new season ticket plans.
Overall, the Bobcats had 5,100 season tickets last year. Whitfield says his goal is 10,000 season tickets, but admits he might not get there this year. As many as 8,000, plus a healthy number of partial season packages, would be acceptable for now, he says.
Personal Connections Help
Whitfield has several other initiatives, including his personal sales efforts. He knows many influential Charlotteans from living in Charlotte during the ’90s, working as an agent for players in the organization of noted sports businessman David Falk, and then for Nike, managing player endorsements for shoes and apparel.
He has connections with those who belong to established clubs such as Myers Park and Quail Hollow, Whitfield says, and he communicates with them regularly. Many are gradually coming around to the idea that the Bobcats are worth supporting.
But sales efforts extend far beyond Whitfield’s Charlotte contacts. He’s pushing for regional identity, promoting appearances by Bobcats players and coaches in cities such as Raleigh, Hickory, Columbia, Greenville and Spartanburg. With one appearance in Greensboro, the Bobcats sold 36 season ticket packages. That encourages Whitfield to believe the team can draw from a 100-mile radius, at least for weekend games.
He also wants the Bobcats to connect with NASCAR. At its fall Bank of America race, Lowe’s Motor Speedway honchos Bruton Smith and Humpy Wheeler gave the royal treatment to Head Coach Bernie Bickerstaff and players Emeka Okafor, Adam Morrison, Felton and Wallace, as well as Whitfield.
“Right before the race, they brought us up on stage and introduced us and let us stand in front of 130,000 fans,” Whitfield smiles.
Then there’s Jordan, Whitfield’s friend of more than 20 years.
“Michael will be very involved,” Whitfield says, adding that the man acclaimed as the best basketball player ever is looking for a residence in Charlotte. “He’s going to be totally focused on doing everything to help our team on the floor get better. He is the expert in this organization for what makes a great player and what makes a great team. He’s going to work with our basketball operations staff in making the right moves to help us gradually become better.”
This is not the first time Whitfield and Jordan have worked together on an NBA franchise. They hooked up with the Washington Wizards in 2000 when owner Abe Pollin brought Jordan in as a partner in charge of the team’s basketball operations and Whitfield joined as director of player personnel and assistant legal counsel. Whitfield managed the team’s player salary situation and its compliance with the league’s rules on how much a team can spend in compensation.
Ultimately, Jordan came out of retirement to play for the Wizards for two seasons, but Pollin soured on his team’s administration. When Jordan and Whitfield left together in 2003, they heard criticism that their administration had not been connected to the District of Columbia’s community.
A Learning Experience
Whitfield says both he and Jordan learned a great deal about managing a basketball team and view the Washington experience positively. The Bobcats, he reiterates, will be connected to Charlotte.
“Bob Johnson will be here a lot, Michael will be here a lot,” says Whitfield as he reminds that he and Hinchey live in Charlotte and Economu resides at The Pointe, just across the Iredell County line. “We’ve got other minority owners who live here,” Whitfield adds. “You’ll see Skipper Beck on the floor at every game.”
What NBA teams does Whitfield think set the bar for intelligent management? He likes what Detroit and Dallas have accomplished, not only in winning games but also in involving fans in the overall experience of following the team.
Whitfield is accustomed to success. When he left the Wizards, he returned to Nike to work on marketing for Brand Jordan.
Whitfield says, “Brand Jordan has a great executive team. When I got there we were able to double sales in less than three years. People thought once Michael walked away from the game that the brand would start to decline. In actuality, we took the brand and had it continue to escalate to where it doubled in value in two years.”
Asked to relate something about Jordan that would surprise people, Whitfield pauses and then grins. His story relates to late this summer when he and Jordan joined the Bobcats in their Wilmington training camp.
Wilmington is Jordan’s hometown and he couldn’t pass up a chance to visit his old neighborhood. “People would never believe,” Whitfield says, “that a guy who’s been as successful as Michael has on the floor and in business would want to go back to his old neighborhood and invite people to our first scrimmage.”
What would surprise people about Whitfield? He’s quick to answer. “I’ve run a basketball camp in my hometown of Greensboro for 22 consecutive years,” he says. “It’s Achievements Unlimited Basketball School. We had 350 kids last summer and 250 were underprivileged and came at no cost. For a week every year, I go back and do this camp. I love doing grass-roots things for kids.”
If he could start one initiative to improve the NBA, Whitfield says, it would be to require all the league’s players to participate in some charity event each summer.
That brings him back to branding in Charlotte. “I want to see a building full of energy,” he says. “That comes from connecting to this community and building a brand this community can embrace.”