Sports fans know how Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Steve Kerr led the Golden State Warriors from the basketball wilderness to their first NBA title in four decades this past June.
But Rick Welts?
His name probably doesn’t ring a bell. And he’s OK with that.
“My theory is that if the men and women in business attire are doing their job right, then we should be invisible,” said Welts, the Warriors’ president and chief of operations. “That way the fans’ attention will be focused where it should be – on the games. We want everyone talking about the players and coaches, not Rick Welts. It’s all about the product.”
But make no mistake: A strong front office foundation has played a pivotal role in making the Warriors arguably the NBA’s best-run organization. That’s why Welts, along with team General Manager Bob Myers, have been asked to share their expertise as featured speakers at the annual Dreamforce extravaganza sponsored by Salesforce on September 15 in San Francisco.
“The people who attend Dreamforce are looking for tools to make their businesses run better,” said Welts, 62. “They’ve asked us to talk about how the Warriors’ culture was developed and why this organization came together in a way that produced an NBA title. Dreamforce is all about finding things that are applicable in your business that will help you become more efficient. Maybe telling the Warriors’ story will be interesting to people looking to build their own companies into winners.”
The Warriors’ story is a rags-to-riches tale. For years, the team had one of the most rabid fan bases in professional sports. But the Warriors usually gave them few opportunities to cheer – not winning a championship since 1975 and only sporadically even making the playoffs.
When Joe Lacob and Peter Guber purchased the team in 2011, they made it clear the Warriors needed a top-to-bottom rebuild. When they hand-picked Welts to oversee the reorganization of the business operations, the new co-owners were choosing one of the most creative thinkers in sports management.
A Seattle native, Welts started as a ball boy with his hometown SuperSonics and eventually rose to media director by the time the team won the 1979 NBA title. Welts later spent 17 years at the league’s home office where he built a reputation as perhaps the most innovative marketer in American sports. He created the glitzy All-Star Weekend formula – an event that quickly was copied by other leagues – and helped market NBA standouts like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley into global sensations. Welts perfected the art of putting on a show without ever stepping onto the stage himself.
Welts would return to team management with the Phoenix Suns, where he was CEO, before deciding he needed a break in 2011. But that only lasted a few months because the Warriors’ Lacob and Guber came calling.
“He’s just a very, very capable man,” Lacob said at the time. He also made it clear that Welts had a big challenge ahead of him. “There’s a lot of work to do and it’s going to take a number of years to do everything we want to do here, to have a first-class organization throughout basketball and business,” Lacob added.
It took less than five years. The Dreamforce presentation will break down how exactly it happened.
“If you’re successful on the business side, you’re preparing the organization for that point in time when everything comes together on the court,” Welts said. “You have to be ready to take advantage of that opportunity when it arrives. There’s definitely an element of luck in sports. But there was a plan. And every company needs a plan.”
The Warriors’ strategy revolved around making sure the business and basketball operations worked together – much the way smart companies today are aligning their sales and marketing departments to boost revenue. For instance, Myers attends weekly business meetings where Welts and his staff discuss how to improve the fan experience and grow resources to make sure the team remains competitive. Meanwhile, Welts’ voice is heard on basketball matters.
“One of the many things that attracted me to the Warriors is that the two sides are linked,” Welts said. “We’re truly one organization, and that has played a big role in our success.”
It all came together last season in a magical fashion. The team finished a franchise-best 67-15 in the regular season behind league MVP Curry. Then, the Warriors streaked through the playoffs – defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games in the NBA Finals to end their championship drought. Afterward, the streets of Oakland became a sea of yellow and blue for a victory parade that was 40 years in the making.
A week-and-a-half later, Welts was the grand marshal of another celebration – the San Francisco Pride Parade. In 2011, when he was still with the Suns, Welts established himself as a trailblazer in a different arena by becoming the nation’s highest-ranking professional sports executive to reveal that he was gay.
His declaration, which came in a front-page New York Times story, was an important signpost in rapidly changing societal attitudes that culminated with the recent Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all 50 states. Today, Welts said, his announcement probably wouldn’t even be newsworthy.
“I’m not sure how many people can say that they have been in two, million-person parades in the span of 10 days,” he said. “Both were tremendous experiences. But I’ve figured out how to be popular in any parade: Make sure I’m bringing the championship trophy with me.”
The trophy will be making the trip to Dreamforce as well. And Welts will bring along the story of how the Warriors won it, and what other businesses can learn from the team’s journey.