As president of the Grand Rapids Gold, the Denver Nuggets’ affiliate in the NBA G-League, I’m well aware of the contrasts between sports ownership and ownership in other sectors – how in sports you have to worry about player contracts and sponsorships and merchandising and a plethora of other things that might not come into play elsewhere.

But the biggest contrast is this: In many ways you share ownership with your fanbase. Yes, you have a far greater financial stake in your team. Yes, you put in far more time and effort than John Q. Public. But the fans’ emotional stake in your success is considerable. It cannot and should not be dismissed.

Mark Cuban, who has been the majority owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks since 2000, once summarized the differences as follows, in an interview with Inc.:

“When the Mavs made it to the playoffs for the first time (on his watch, during the 2000-01 season), I got emails from people, telling me they were crying. When the Mavs won a series against the Utah Jazz (that same year) on a Calvin Booth putback in Utah, people were telling me stories about how they just simultaneously ran into the streets and started high-fiving and hugging each other. That doesn’t happen with regular businesses. When the Mavs won a championship (in 2011), there was a parade. Nobody throws a parade when a Fortune 500 company hits their number or has a record quarter. It’s just completely different.”

That being the case, a sports owner would do well to establish a connection with the franchise’s fans. You need to include them. In a very real sense, you need to make them feel like they’re a part of the team – one reason merchandising has exploded.

In my case, that process began as soon as I bought a G-League franchise in 2014 and moved it from Springfield, Mass., to Grand Rapids. The first order of business was naming the club, which was then a Detroit Pistons affiliate, so we staged a contest in which we asked our fans to submit ideas. We settled on four choices – Drive, Horsepower, Chairmen and Blue Racers. The league office nixed Chairmen, and the Pistons ruled out Horsepower, leaving us with two options.

We settled on Drive, owing to Michigan’s deep-seated automotive past, and turned a profit our first year, something that had never before been achieved in what was then known as the Development League. We also led the league in merchandise sales, and were among the leaders in sponsorship revenue and gate receipts.

Our connection to the Grand Rapids fans was such that we resisted the Pistons’ entreaties, which began in 2018, to move the team to Detroit. Instead we changed affiliations in 2021, latching on with the Nuggets and rebranding ourselves as the Gold. Under the terms of our hybrid agreement with Denver, we continued to oversee business operations and community engagement, while the Nuggets took charge of basketball operations.

That connection to the fanbase is critical, no matter the market, league or even era. Consider Pat Williams, who was hired as the Philadelphia 76ers’ general manager in 1974, one year after the Sixers went 9-73, still the worst single-season record in NBA history. He combined personnel acumen with marketing prowess, the result being that during his 12-year tenure the Sixers acquired Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Charles Barkley, among others. The team as a result made four trips to the NBA Finals and won a championship in 1982-83.

But Williams was also aware he had to go the extra mile to differentiate the product, seeing as Philadelphia has three other major professional teams, as well as a storied college basketball tradition. He staged unusual halftime shows (bear wrestling, singing pigs, etc.) and green-lighted an ill-fated ad campaign after the heavily favored Sixers lost to Portland in the 1976-77 Finals: “We Owe You One.”

The team would not repay the debt for six years, and the interim Williams caught all kinds of flak. But he has always said that if nothing else, that campaign was memorable, and that is inarguable.

The efforts of a more recent Sixers executive, Pat Croce, are also notable. A martial arts enthusiast who built his fortune by opening a string of workout facilities in the Philadelphia area, he also served as the team’s strength and conditioning coach from 1984-93. Then, in 1996, he spearheaded a group that bought the team, and in his typical whirlwind fashion set about raising the team’s profile.

One minute he was climbing the Walt Whitman Bridge to hang a Sixers banner. The next he was rappelling out of the rafters of the team’s home arena before a game to fire up fans. He also worked tirelessly to mend fences between Larry Brown, the team’s tightly wound coach, and Allen Iverson, its volatile superstar.

The result was that the Sixers won the city’s heart while storming to the Finals in 2000-01. And as he told an interviewer years later, “It was never about basketball. The real value proposition was changing the city from ‘can’t do’ to ‘can do.’”

Different cities connect with different teams in different ways. But the point is, it’s incumbent upon a sports executive to try. Yes, the idea is to make a buck, as it is in every business. But the approach is different. You want to bring your fans into the tent. You want everyone to be pulling in the same direction. That’s how it becomes a meaningful (and profitable) situation.

Originally published on Forbes>>