Dear Sir or Madam, I want to work anywhere in sports
This article appeared in the Aug. 13 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
He grew up wanting to be like Mike. Jordan, that is. But once he realized he didn't have the hops, Michael Thompson pursued a new dream: landing a job with an NBA franchise. We spent draft day with the Hornets' corporate communications director to learn what it's really like to work in sports.
5:57 a.m. Running PR for the Hornets as they return to New Orleans means getting the word out, no matter the hour. "The Hornets are back, and we're here to stay," Thompson tells a local TV reporter in a live morning news interview. It's the irony of ironies: Casual sports fans nationwide have no clue that the Hornets spent the past two seasons in Oklahoma City -- playing 71 of 82 regular-season home games there -- while casual fans in the Crescent City don't know they're back.
7:03 a.m. Thompson dials in to a news/talk radio station. When asked to extend his interview, he grins; Thompson likes to talk. It's a big part of the reason he loves his day job. It's also why he loves his night job -- as the team's PA announcer. While most franchises employ separate staffers for each position, Thompson is one of two NBA execs who pull the rare PR/PA combo (Gary Sussman of the Nets is the other).
8:10 a.m. Thompson puts the finishing touches on a document entitled Draft Choice Talking Points, a primer for everyone giving interviews today, from Hornets sales reps to star guard Chris Paul to board member Chad Shinn. "If it's not me saying it," says Thompson, who majored in PR at Pacific Lutheran, "I want whoever is saying it to say what I want them to say."
8:11 a.m. An e-mail arrives from Thompson's wife, wishing him good luck on the long day ahead; she knows a lot about long days. Tara Thompson was 35 weeks pregnant when Hurricane Katrina hit two years ago. The couple fled north to Yakima, Wash., where her parents live. It took 14 hours just to reach Dumas, Ark., then another six to arrive in Oklahoma City, where they reveled in the beauty and hospitality of the place before heading north. So when Hornets then-marketing VP Tim McDougal phoned his PR director a couple of days later to ask what he knew about Oklahoma City (many cities offered to host the homeless franchise), Thompson gave it a big thumbs-up. The following Wednesday (Sept. 21), the team announced they'd be putting up a shingle there.
8:50 a.m. Thompson gets a mass e-mail from business operations announcing where to find office supplies. Yeah, working in sports is sexy.
9:10 a.m. In the hallway, Thompson bumps into community investment VP Suzanne Werdann, who hired him in 2000 when her assistant quit three weeks before the start of the season. At the time, Thompson's résumé looked like this:
1998-99: Client Services Specialist, Yakima Sun Kings, CBA. Sold tickets and sponsorships. Salary: $20,000. ["It took me five-plus years to get a sports job," Thompson says, "even though I majored in PR with a concentration in sports administration. Even then, I got the job only because the team's GM was a fellow PLU grad who was also on the board of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra, where my wife's dad just so happened to be the conductor."]
1999-2000: PR Director, Yakima Sun Kings, CBA. Salary: $24,000. ["I pretty much did everything, including starting a community relations program," Thompson says. "I knew every NBA team had one and figured CR would be an easier entry route than PR. Then, after a year in Yakima, I sent résumés to all 29 NBA teams but got zero responses, just like when I crafted a Dear-Sir-or-Madam-I-Want-to-Work-Anywhere-in-Sports cover letter out of college and went 0-for-61."]
It was Thompson's community relations portfolio that persuaded the Hornets to give him a shot. "There were a lot of sleepless nights, wondering if I was an idiot for chasing my dream," Thompson recalls. "When it finally came true, the feeling was indescribable." Seven years later, Thompson's résumé looks like this:
2000-02: Community Relations Assistant, Charlotte Hornets, NBA. Salary: $28,000. ["Did assistant stuff."]
2002-04: Director of Youth Programs, New Orleans Hornets, NBA. Salary: $35,000. ["I gave tons of clinics wearing a Hornets polo shirt, which probably made kids think I was a player, even though my hoops career ended when I graduated from the American high school in Hong Kong."]
2004-05: Corporate PR Manager, New Orleans Hornets, NBA. Salary: $35,000. ["I assisted in all nonbasketball communications."]
2004-present: Public Address Announcer, New Orleans Hornets, NBA. Salary: $100 a game. ["'At guard, six feet, from Wake Forest ' You get the idea."]
2005-present: Director of Corporate Communications, New Orleans Hornets, NBA. Salary: ["Let's just say we're not living paycheck to paycheck anymore."]
9:19 a.m. Thompson hoofs it back to the Arena to supervise another TV news shoot.
10:07 a.m. Michael misses a call from a private number. "Probably Mr. [George] Shinn," Thompson says, dialing the owner. "Good morning, sir, it's Michael. Were you trying to get ahold of me?" Being on call 24/7 can be the job's downside. The upside? Meeting heroes like Michael Jordan and Willis Reed. "Willis is a Hall of Famer, one of the 50 greatest players of all time," Thompson says. "And he's in my BlackBerry."
10:58 a.m. Thompson delivers the talking points to Paul, who's spending the morning calling unrenewed season ticket-holders.
11:08 a.m. Draft party meeting. Thompson doles out assignments for the event, during which he'll be chained to the announcer's seat. "Lather, rinse, repeat the rest of the night," he says. In other words, get the "The Hornets are back" message out, all night long.
1:06 p.m. He eats a rock shrimp po'boy for lunch and checks e-mail. Chad Shinn is driving his father to the airport; George is off to vacation in the Bahamas. The owner's absence on draft day will need to be addressed.
2:07 p.m. In Chad Shinn's office, Thompson asks him to be brief on any questions about the AWOL owner: "Your dad's not here because he's on vacation with family and he has confidence in his staff."
4:01 p.m. Back at the Arena, Thompson proofreads his 40-page announcing script. In 2002, the Hornets held auditions for a new announcer. The winner was an ad guy with silky pipes and zero hoops knowledge. So Thompson -- who played forward in high school and coached AAU after college -- played Cyrano de Bergerac, feeding the new guy info via headset. Two seasons later, the team held tryouts again. All three finalists bombed in preseason. Thompson finally got the gig. For real.
4:16 p.m. An Oklahoma City radio reporter e-mails with a request for a postpick interview. "MC'ing our draft party tonight," he types. "I'll call as soon as I can."
5:13 p.m. Thompson takes a call from an AP writer looking for a quote. No problem: "We believe Oklahoma City is a major league city and should have its own NBA franchise."
6:08 p.m. The ESPN crawl announces the Hornets will play in New Orleans full-time. "When ESPN gets your talking points right," says Thompson, "that's a good day in PR."
6:17 p.m. Thompson stands in an Arena tunnel reviewing the talking points again with Paul, who's about to speak to prospective season ticket-holders.
6:32 p.m. Paul and GM Jeff Bower have talked the talk, so Thompson is back to the scorer's table. "Easiest pick in draft history," he says off-mike when Seattle takes Kevin Durant.
7:52 p.m. The Hornets take Julian Wright with the 13th pick. Three minutes later, Thompson interviews Bower at center court: "Are you happy?" The GM replies, "Yeah, this is the guy we wanted all along." You get the impression that this time, it's not just a party line.
8:57 p.m. The draft party winds down. "We got on TV, radio, in the paper, and we got a good player. That's a good day."