I was just recently able to interview Bobcats Director of Corporate Communications Michael Thompson, who I’d have to say is one of the nicest sports team employees I’ve ever met. Here it is, enjoy.
Teej: Your official title is Director of Corporate Communications. What exactly does that mean to the normal person?
MT: As the corporate communications director for Bobcats Sports & Entertainment (BSE), I am responsible for the team’s non-basketball public relations functions, as well as those of Time Warner Cable Arena.
In layman’s terms, I do a lot of writing. From press releases and media advisories to talking points and speeches, my job is to craft and deliver our message and influence public opinion by working with local and national media to tell our story. On the team side, I deal with a variety of issues ranging from ownership/management questions to business announcements (ticket sales, corporate partnerships, etc.) to our community relations agenda (player appearances, charitable giving, etc.) to broadcast initiatives to events and presentation (Lady Cats auditions, Charlotte Jumper Classic, etc.). On the arena side, I assist the people from AEG Facilities with crafting and delivering messages about upcoming shows or events, and facilitate interview requests regarding the building.
I monitor local and national media for non-basketball stories about us and teams that are in markets like ours, and I keep track of the online conversation about us on sites like BobcatsPlanet.com. You guys definitely keep me busy.
I also handle speaking requests and give a fair number of speeches myself each year, mostly to Rotary/Kiwanis clubs and schools across the Carolinas. If you ever need a speaker, let me know and I’ll see what I can line up for you.
Teej: You’re frequently quoted in articles about the Bobcats, locally and nationally. How does it feel to be the “voice” of the organization to so many people?
MT: On the business/arena side, BSE has only 2 primary spokesmen – Mr. Johnson and our team president Fred Whitfield. When I get a business/arena question, I do my best to get Fred on the phone or in front of the camera. If he’s unavailable and the reporter is up against a deadline, Fred may choose to designate me to answer the question. In either case we work together on the talking points to make sure we get the message right and keep it consistent with what we’ve said in the past.
I’ve been doing this for almost 6 years now, and I’m still not comfortable seeing my name in print or watching an interview I gave because I know people have different agendas and scrutinize every word that comes out. In this day and age, when even a casual conversation with a blogger can lead to headlines on ESPN.com or USA Today, every interview carries with it great risk and requires preparation and discipline to avoid saying something with unintended consequences. It’s a responsibility I have to take very seriously.
Teej: You constantly deal with media outlets like ESPN, what are the best and worst parts of doing that?
MT: The best part of working with the media, locally or nationally, is tapping into the potential they offer to get our message out and positively influence public perception about us. Certainly it’s imperative to develop and maintain a good working relationship with media members, and there a probably a dozen or so reporters that I truly enjoy talking with, but they’re all important whether they represent a local weekly paper or a global brand.
Teej: How much do work on any given day?
MT: Home game days are 15 to 16 hour-long days, where I’m in at 8:30am and out between 10:30 and 11:00pm. Non-game days during the season can be about that long if there are events or appearances in the evenings. During the off-season I typically work 8:30am to 6:30pm. No question, the hours are long when you work in sports, but we’re all passionate about what we do and when you love your job you don’t tend to notice how much time you spend at it.
Teej: You’re on a firstname basis with MJ, but what was it like first meeting him?
MT: It’s intimidating at first, but I truly believe the first time he meets an employee he’s watching to see how that person reacts to him. If he or she can get past the fact that they’re standing next to one of the world’s most recognizable people and stay focused on the task at hand, everyone feels more comfortable. But think about what it must be like to be him: virtually every person he comes in contact with wants something from him, whether it’s an autograph or a picture or an interview or some of his time. My approach – and I think the approach that a lot of people who work here take – is to be someone who is not asking him for anything but rather someone who is here to work and make some part of his life easier or run a little more efficiently.
Teej: How many games do you actually get to see each year?
MT: For starters, I see all 43 games played at Time Warner Cable Arena and any preseason games played in the area (ie Greensboro, Charleston, etc). I then watch as many of our road games on FS Carolinas and SportSouth as possible. The toughest ones, of course, are the games on the West Coast that don’t tipoff until 10:30pm local time and finish around 1:00am. But sometimes that schedule includes the Lakers game and we all enjoy watching that one for reasons I don’t have to explain.
I also get League Pass every year – mostly for work-related reasons – but also because I’m a basketball junkie and really do want to see if Phoenix and Golden State will combine to score 300 points on a random Wednesday night in February. All told, I probably watch on average the equivalent of 2 games every night from Halloween to mid-May, and then every game from the Conference Finals through the NBA Finals in mid-June. If I did the math correctly, I guess that’s roughly 350 games per year, not including Summer League when my wife finally says, “ENOUGH” (but I do sneak in a few of those games as well).
Teej: If you had to pick one part of your daily schedule you like the most, what is it?
MT:I most look forward to reading the daily clips sent to us from the league office first thing in the morning. They’re collected into one big email organized by the day’s top stories, broadcast clips with links to the actual video, and then stories arranged team-by-team. It’s a daily snapshot of what each team is doing, what issues are being discussed the most, and where the potential pitfalls are. A lot of times I can predict the kinds of questions we’re going to get throughout the day just by reading the stories from around the league, and that gives me a jump on preparing talking points and prepping my boss on potential interviews coming that day.
On game days, my favorite part of the schedule is meeting my family at the light rail station and walking them in to the arena. Family activities are few and far between during the season, so every opportunity I have to bring them to the arena is an opportunity to steal a few more moments with them.
Teej: Who’s the funniest member of the Bobcats, player, coach, or ownership?
MT: After practice and in the interview room, Coach Brown actually shows a pretty good sense of humor. A lot of times it’s pretty dry or subtly sarcastic, but if you’re listening closely to him you can hear it pretty clearly.
In the office, there’s a guy in our marketing department who manages our database and helps develop strategies for utilizing electronic media to deliver our message. I don’t know if it’s just his personality or the specific nature of his job or a combination of things, but he makes me laugh every single day with the way he interprets the things we do and the way we operate as a professional sports franchise.
A sense of humor is really important to maintain during the course of a season, though, because we have a tendency to forget that we’re in the entertainment business when we get too wrapped up in wins, losses and profit/loss margins.
Teej: What other teams did you work for before the Bobcats?
MT:I started my sports career in the Continental Basketball Association with the Yakima Sun Kings. There I got a chance to work with current NBA players like Raja Bell and Anthony Carter. That was a great experience because I got a chance to learn how to do everything a franchise does, from ticket and sponsorship sales to game operations to public and community relations.
After two seasons in the CBA I got my first NBA job with the Charlotte Hornets as a community relations assistant. I moved with the team to New Orleans where I was promoted to youth programs director and eventually corporate communications manager right before Hurricane Katrina hit. In the aftermath of Katrina and our temporary relocation to Oklahoma City I was promoted to corporate communications director and held that position through our return to New Orleans, and my offer from the Bobcats to come back to Charlotte.
Teej: What’s the best/favorite moment you’ve had since you took over the job you’re in now?
MT: The best moment since coming to work for the Bobcats has to be announcing the naming rights and broadcast rights deal in April of 2008. It’s hard to describe how difficult that deal was to get done without sounding self-congratulatory, but let’s just say that Fred and his team utilized every available resource and angle to consummate two major deals without much leverage and made it fair for all three parties. That deal fluctuated from being dead to “could be done tomorrow” on a weekly basis, so the day of the announcement was an incredibly gratifying day for everyone involved.
But my favorite moment was back in January at the Special Olympics clinic we host at the practice facility every year. An athlete from Catawba County snuck up behind one of our players who was dribbling the ball, stole it from him, ran to the basket to shoot a layup and returned to the line from which he bolted to a chorus of cheers and high fives. The whole time our player was just staring at him in disbelief, and then started cracking up and high fived the kid himself. It was a great reminder that, even though this is a business and there’s a lot at stake every year, it’s a business built on a game and the connection between a team and its fanbase. It’s easy to lose sight of that most fundamental idea when you’re working in sports every day, and I’m glad I had that moment to remind me of what’s really important in this business.