The Interview: Social Distancing With Rick Welts

By Janet Reilly

Photoshoot from a safe distance. Ando in San Francisco and Rick in Sacramento. (Ando)

Hope: The Golden State Warriors boss gets candid on leading his team through coronavirus.

My experience sheltering in place — like yours, I’m sure — has had its ups and downs. One of my ups? Interviewing Warriors President and Chief Operating Officer Rick Welts — in my pajamas! I mean, when else would I have the opportunity to do that?

It was an early morning call in March, me in San Francisco and Welts at his home in Sacramento that he shares with husband Todd Gage. The two split their time between San Francisco and the state’s capitol, where Gage’s son attends high school. The couple, together for nearly a decade, married in a low-key ceremony in January at San Francisco City Hall, officiated by Mayor London Breed.

Professionally, Welts is considered one of the finest executives in pro sports. In 2018, he was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in recognition of his more than four decades working in the league.

His career began in the late 1960s as a ball boy for his hometown team, the Seattle SuperSonics, where he rose to director of public relations when the Sonics won their only NBA championship in 1979. He had a 17-year stint at the NBA’s New York headquarters before spending nine years as president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns.

In 2011, Welts moved to Northern California, where the Warriors scooped him up, and he’s helped assemble a world-class team, winning three out of five championships from 2015 to 2019. He also spearheaded the building of Chase Center, which opened last fall. Even as games and concerts have been called off, Welts remains optimistic about his team, their sparkling arena and life after social distancing.

These past few months have been huge for you. Chase Center opened. Your star player broke his hand. You got married — congratulations! Thank you.

Now, due to the pandemic, the new arena you built is closed temporarily and the NBA season has been suspended. It makes me tired just saying all of that. How are you feeling? It’s not been the 2020 that I think any of us could have possibly anticipated, but on the glass-half-full side, I’m really proud of the way our staff and our whole organization has rallied for the occasion right now. We completely changed our way of working and actually haven’t missed a beat. We’re all looking forward to the other side of this, but I think, all things considered, we still have a lot to be thankful for … just remembering that this, too, will pass and that we do have a brilliant future ahead.

Let’s talk a little bit about Chase Center. Now that the team has had a chance to play there and some of the world’s great performers have played there, has it exceeded your expectations? We had really high expectations so saying yes to that question really means something to me. It has exceeded our expectations. These [venues] are not just places to hold concerts and sporting events. These are places that create lifetime memories. The reason I’m doing this today is [because of ] my early experience in Seattle and going to basketball games with my father. That was the currency of our relationship. And what struck me not only was the beauty of the game — which I fell in love with — but what that team, the Seattle SuperSonics, meant to our community. … That really set me on my course. That’s what drew me to this industry.

You spent 17 years with the NBA in New York. What drew you back to working for an individual basketball team like the Warriors or the Phoenix Suns? I’ve described it this way; Sports leagues and teams are very different animals, right? A sports league was an amazing opportunity for me. I got to see the world. … At the league, it’s pretty much a certainty that half the teams are going to win every night and half the teams are going to lose. Somebody is going to win the championship, and then you’re going to do it all over next the year and build a business around that. It was an amazing experience, but if you’re wired the way I’m wired, you really get more gratification out of the ups and downs that go with being completely invested in a single team and its fortunes. There’s nothing like that at the NBA. There’s nothing like that at a league. It’s the feeling of seeing what you have tried to create out there in front of an audience of 18,000 people each night who are voting on whether you’ve done a good job. Something about that is magnetic for me.

You arrived in San Francisco and took the job as president for the Warriors in 2011. How did Joe Lacob lure you here from Phoenix? I made the decision to leave the Phoenix Suns after the 2010-11 season. And that actually coincided with the time that I got a call from a mutual friend of Joe’s and mine, suggesting it might be a great idea for us to get together and talk about their new team. So I came to Joe’s house in Atherton and we sat down with Joe’s co-executive chairman,, and we had a three-hour conversation and dinner and we connected on every level. And, I think, at the end of that meeting, they offered me the job.

What’s it like working with Lacob and Guber? It’s unique because of their unique partnership. They’re tremendous friends and business partners and could not be more different as human beings: Peter’s background in the entertainment industry and Joe, the classic venture capitalist from Silicon Valley. The thing they share is their interest in sports, right?

Clearly. Joe really has a passion for the sport of basketball. That, above all, is why he got involved in the Warriors. He absolutely loves the game, loves to be around the game, is a student of the game and is so involved in the basketball operation — of course, in the business operation, too, but Peter is much more focused on the business aspects of what we’re doing and how we’re presenting the Warriors as an entertainment property. He brings an expertise in talent management. Whether it’s a Hollywood movie or a basketball team, you’re dealing with a very, very tiny subset of our universe in terms of the talent we’re assembling. And making that talent work together, effectively, is magic.

So, while they focus on very different things, they’re complementary and very respectful of the focus of each other. And, ultimately, they’re the owners that every sports fan dreams would own their team because the thing they care about most is winning.

You had a special relationship with former NBA Commissioner David Stern, who died in January. What did you learn from him, both professionally and personally? I met him before he was commissioner of the NBA. We connected through a love of the game. I fit all his criteria at that point in time, which meant I was passionate about the NBA, I was young, and I was very inexpensive. I was very honored to be one of the speakers at his memorial service in January, and I got to tell the story. We still, to the last time I saw him, argued about what my starting salary was. I’m sure he paid me $47,000 a year and he swears that it wasn’t a penny over $42,000.

What year was that? I moved to New York in 1982. He was just starting to build a business. It sounds crazy now. I was the 35th employee of the NBA and that counted the mail room. My job was to be the first person ever who would go out and talk to companies about investing marketing dollars and sponsorships with the NBA. There was nobody at the NBA who did that. The NBA just scheduled games, signed referees, settled disputes between teams or rule enforcement, things like that. That’s all they did. We didn’t have a business organization like the NFL had. And Stern, in addition to being in-house general counsel, had also been assigned the task of building a business organization for the NBA [before he was elected commissioner in 1984]. We got to go on this amazing ride with him through the ’80s and ’90s, where the NBA went from a very poorly respected brand to something that would have been unrecognizable at the beginning of the ’80s.

What an experience! By the time we were through the ’90s, when I left, we went from 35 people to 1,100 people. The things about him that inspired me were his unquenchable thirst for knowledge. He was a lawyer by trade, but probably the best marketer in sports — probably the greatest expert on the broadcast industry in sports — and it was all self-taught. He would always challenge himself and encourage us to wakeup every morning thinking that everything you’ve ever learned is wrong and look for information out there and just intellectually force yourself to … discover reasons to think in a different way. He was one of a kind. He would always support me, whatever I did, and be there exactly the times I needed him to be. Our friendship surpassed our business relationship 10 times over.

You came out as gay in an interview with the New York Times in 2011. What made you come out at that time? It was just time. My father had passed away and my mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer. I had a longtime relationship breakup, which I think in great measure [happened] because I couldn’t bring the most important person in my life into my work life. It was completely separated, those two parts of my life. And I just was at a point where I felt like it was time. So I actually went to my mother and said, “Here’s what I’m thinking of doing. If it’s going to cause you any embarrassment, any concern, I can do this completely privately or not do it at all.” She was just very encouraging. [She] encouraged me to do whatever I thought was the right thing to do. I needed that permission.

That’s beautiful — and you broke barriers. There had never been anybody at my level in the sports industry who had taken the step. So there was nobody to look to to say, “OK, that worked out really well.” I really didn’t know what this would mean, so I sought out the counsel of a still really tremendous friend [Dan Klores] who had run a New York City public relations firm whom I’d known forever. I asked him out to dinner, and over the course of that dinner, laid out “Here is my story, here is what I’m thinking about doing and I just need somebody to help me put this into perspective.” Dan looked across the dinner table and said, “If you’re willing to do this, I want to help and second, I think it’s page A1 of the New York Times.”

Indeed, it was. And at the time, you were president of the Phoenix Suns. What kind of reaction did you get from the story? In terms of reaction, it was not what I expected. I had negotiated with myself that maybe 90 percent of the responses I’d get would be great and then there’d be 10 percent of people who didn’t like my news and would probably express that in someway, shape or form. And the part of the story that never sounds real, but I actually keep binders of emails that I printout, thousands of them that I got from people, mostly that I didn’t know. There was not a single negative response, which to me is still, to this day, the craziest part. But then I had to go back to work. I hadn’t told anybody at the Phoenix Suns that this was going to happen. I just went off to New York City for a couple of days, and came back to go to workin Phoenix. There was an incredibly supportive owner in Robert Sarver. The staff was amazing and nothing had changed, except I could come to work kind of as a different person and not close off that part of my life. I’d always been afraid of what the implications might be for my career if I had.

You met Todd Gage around then? It was exactly the same time I met my now-husband, who went through this whole thing with me and who was tied to northern California because he has two kids living in Sacramento. I wanted to get it right this time, which is really the reason that I chose to leave the Suns after that season — just because I felt like I wanted to move to northern California. I wanted to have a different kind of life and had made that decision before I was ever introduced to [Warriors co-owners] Joe Lacob and Peter Guber and before the job with the Warriors was available. So it was a crazy coincidence that all of those things happened at the same time.

What kind of progress did your announcement help facilitate in the world of professional sports? The answer is not a ton, not as much as I think society has made. The fact that I’m married today was unthinkable in 2011 when that story came out. Nobody could have perceived the societal change in attitudes around gay marriage at that point in time. But in sports, male professional sports, there’s still a lot of work to be done. People always wonder when a professional athlete is going to come out, not at the end of his career, but maybe a star player in the middle of his career.

It’s not that those people aren’t there. It’s because, I think, a lot of pressures are on them that make [coming out] not a step they’re willing to take. But in the rest of our sports world, in the administrative side of sports, I hear from people all the time who just want to connect with somebody who will recognize and understand where they are and what their hesitancy is about coming out. I never counsel people that that’s something they need to do, but I can usually help people talk through what they’re thinking about. The only counsel that I give is, “You’re going to know the right time and you’re the only one who possibly can.”

The NBA seems to be evolving with the times. We at the NBA had awarded an All-Star Game to Charlotte, North Carolina, and shortly thereafter they passed state legislation — the bathroom bill [mandating that you use the bathroom of your biological gender]. And it became a huge lightning rod in the state and became a real concern within the NBA whether [keeping the game in Charlotte] was consistent with the values of the NBA. It came down to a meeting we had in Las Vegas. We call it the Board of Governors, which is a group of owners and executives who meet and, in fact, govern the league. [Commissioner] Adam Silver had on the agenda the question of what we should do about the Charlotte All-Star Game.

Before the meeting, Adam said that he was going to give me the opportunity to have the last word on the subject. I could look at the owners of the teams around the room and say, “I have been in touch with a lot of people in my same situation in your organizations who don’t feel like they’re in an environment where they can bring their sexual orientation into their work life. And those people are going to be watching what you decide here. I’d just like you to have that in your mind when you make a decision about what we should or shouldn’t be doing related to the All-Star Game in Charlotte.” I wasn’t the only one expressing that. But I think it was a factor, in some owners’ minds, in deciding that it wasn’t a time to bring our showcase event to a state that was not exhibiting the same values we wanted to have at the NBA.

The COVID-19 pandemic has totally upended everything, as we know, and it’s going to take a while to recover. What economic impact do you think that’s going to have on the Warriors and on the Chase Center? A sports team and arena model are 100 percent dependent upon staging live events. That’s all we do. So right now, we sell tickets to events, we sell food and beverage, we sell merchandise. That adds up to zero today. And so we’re one of those industries that has an expense structure that continues, but we have no revenue. For us, there are a lot of questions out there at this moment in time, some of which will probably be answered by the time you write this stuff …

We set aside a million dollars to assist with the part-time employees who have no work because they have no events. We’ve set aside a million dollars to try to get them through this interim period, but that’s certainly not going to be enough to really keep people supported in a time that they really need revenue.

In the interim, we just don’t know the fate of our season, so we don’t have a plan yet in the NBA or hockey or baseball. … We’ve really not missed a beat in terms of the business of the Warriors and Chase Center. But until we can start rescheduling events, it’s really hard for us to know what the path forward is going to look like.

What’s the team doing on hiatus now? The basketball players can’t leave the country, but they’re free to leave the Bay Area. The NBA closed down all of our training facilities, so none of the team training facilities are operating. It’s not like Steph Curry can go over to the Chase Center and work out at his usual location. He can’t do that right now. So the players are free to do what they want to do and hopefully stay safe and be ready to come back and play at a point in time we think that can be resumed safely.

The team has had a tough year obviously. Are you optimistic about next season? And do you think this year may have been a blessing in disguise? We do. Number one, our team has had an unprecedented five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. … Obviously we had a couple of tragic injuries right at the end of last season, and then Steph Curry breaking his hand right at the beginning of this season. So it was pretty clear this was not going to be our year.

We’re hopeful and have every expectation that Klay Thompson and Steph Curry are going to come back better than ever. Right now, we have the worst record in the NBA and that will result in the high probability of getting a very, very, very good new player next year, which is also something we haven’t had for the last five years. We’re all in. We think that Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, three all-stars, are truly in their prime and that we have another opportunity to go on another run. So that’s what we’re 100 percent focused on from a basketball perspective. We really think there’s another run in these Warriors because our core is the same group that won the first championship in 2015. That’s the same core players we have together today. So we’re really optimistic about the way forward for our team.

Lightning Round

The biggest risk I’ve ever taken … Moving to New York from the only place I ever imagined living, Seattle, Washington.

I’m happiest when … The Warriors have won the game and we’re sending the fans home happy.

My biggest regret … The logical answer is having to wait until 2011 to bring my full self into my work life, but I actually don’t see that as a regret. It was the right time. Maybe not taking enough chances in my career. I am a little bit conservative in my own way, [the way] I approach my career and I probably could have taken some bigger chances.

If I had a magic wand, I would … Make this damn coronavirus go away tomorrow.

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