From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Feature
Michael McCullough

Michael McCullough, ’84, is executive vice president for the Miami Heat. He has worked in the NBA for more than 25 years.

Aiming High

By Kristen Munson

The Miami Heat became the most despised team in the NBA when LeBron James announced he was taking his talents from Cleveland to South Beach in July 2010. Having worked the free agency system to its advantage, the Heat committed three of the league’s top players to playing in Florida.

The promise of another world championship seemed imminent. But the celebration was over. Nearly overnight, the team was cast as a group of arrogant mercenaries, and its fans called out as undeserving of the talent on their roster. The Heat became the team America loved to hate.

Michael McCullough, ’84, had his work cut out for him. As the team’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, he is responsible for the Heat’s public image and community outreach programs. He would have to tackle the biggest challenge of his professional career. So far.

Were you surprised by the reaction? How did the announcement affect your job as the brand architect of the team?
Last year was probably the most difficult and challenging year that I have ever had in the NBA. We were ecstatic when those three guys signed on. My [staff] played a role in bringing them here. It was a career highlight for me. Once the media scrutiny began, it was like nothing I had ever seen after working 25 years in the NBA. I had never seen the media take such a personal slant that colored how they covered the team.

We had to look at everything we were doing with new filters. It was a difficult experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Actually, I would if we could have won those last three games, but it was a learning experience for all of us.

With the lockout in place and games cancelled for the second time in league history*, how do you keep fans engaged if there are no games to attend and no players to support? Does this mean you have more or less work to do?
The busiest part of a sports executive’s calendar is the off-season. The regular season is when all that you planned unfolds. We are still busy because [the owners and players] could deal and we could be playing in three weeks. But it’s a slippery slope that we are on right now. People are fickle. The recreational dollars are drying up and people may take their money elsewhere and forget about basketball.

You came to USU on a basketball scholarship. Did you have aspirations of playing in the NBA?
I think everybody would love to think that they’re going to play professionally—I would be lying if I didn’t. I was good, but playing in the NBA was not in my future. I realized that early on. It was not part of my planning process. Originally I went to school as a business major. Then I took a class with Mike Lyons [head of the political science department] where we acted as if we were members of Congress. I realized I really enjoyed all parts of the negotiating and deal making.

What was plan B?
My long range goal was to become governor of California. However, by the time I got out of school the whole political atmosphere was starting to change; it was becoming really nasty and dirty and it just wasn’t for me.

It is funny that you thought playing in the NBA was going to be too difficult so you switched gears to becoming governor of California.
I aim high.

You graduated in 1984 with a degree in political science. Then what happened?
I had the opportunity to play professionally in Europe and South America after graduation. I had a great time, but I knew I was done. I didn’t have any real work experience to speak of and I needed a job that was going to teach me the ropes.

I started working at Weinstock’s [a department store in California.] Think Macy’s. My first department was the men’s department, and then I moved to the Christmas department, where they put their up-and-coming people. Finally I moved to women’s wear and furs. I absolutely loved that job. It was my favorite job I’ve ever had—including this one. Those two and half years were just a great learning experience. I still keep in touch with some of the people I worked with there.

In 1987 you started working with the NBA. How did you get your foot in the door?
I was still playing semi-professional basketball in a summer league and I met a man at one the games. We got to talking and I must have impressed him. He told me he was head of the Sacramento Kings and that he would contact me if a position ever opened up. I thought I would never hear from him again. Six months later he called.

Are there similarities between politics and sports?
There is in the decision-making and the things that happen behind the scenes. I’ve been in all facets of the business from corporate sales to managing the expectations of people to putting on the public face of the organization. There is a great deal of overlap between what I was studying and preparing for at Utah State and what I’m doing now.

What advice do you have for students in the liberal arts who look at you and want your job?
I was so lucky. When I started working for the Sacramento Kings there were maybe 30 people in the entire organization. I got to be involved with a lot of different areas of the business early on.

Now I probably receive 20 resumes a week. The students are all graduating from great schools, with MBAs, or from special sports management programs. They are all smart—they’re all smarter than I ever was. The problem is there are so few jobs, and because of the demand starting salaries are deflated. New graduates are going to have to start entry-level. But once you get in, work hard and impress people because there is nothing like sports. There is nothing that brings a community together. There’s no better product to sell.

Looking back at your time at USU, what was the most valuable lesson you learned?
I really loved my time at Utah State. I met my wife there so that was the most important connection that I made. But the guys I played with are still friends, and Rod Tueller, who was coach at the time, is still a great mentor. He taught me a lot.

Academically, it’s kind of funny what you end up taking away. I remember sitting in some great classes and having spirited debates with people of different political persuasions. There was one class that focused on team-building exercises. It sounds like a ‘jock’ class, but we ended up doing a lot of things you see companies doing today with personnel. All that stuff that seemed like fun and games was about creating teams and building trust with people which is what I do professionally. It had a real world application.

You joke about ‘jock’ classes, but your professors say you were a true student-athlete. How did you balance your practice and study load? Did you make sacrifices—and if so—were they worth it?
My education was really important to me. I was the first person in my family to go to college and I wanted to graduate in four years with at least a 3.0 GPA. We traveled a lot for basketball, but it was important that I was in class when I could be to reach my goals. And I did it.

* In December, the NBA and players association tentatively established a new collective bargaining agreement. The 2011 season opened Christmas Day.