Gina Antoniello Helps The Warriors Win…
It has been a good year to be the Warriors. From the on and off-court success in the Bay Area to their D-League franchise down the coast in Santa Cruz, all things Golden State are humming along. While many followers are well aware of the landmark season Steve Kerr’s team is having, they may not be aware that the Santa Cruz Warriors have become one of the shining models of business and community success in the NBA’s fast-growing developmental platform. Santa Cruz has been at the top of the league in fan engagement, brand development, and fun for families who may not make it to Oracle Arena to see the parent club that often. We caught up with Gina Antoniello, Santa Cruz’s Director of Public and Community Relations to find out what the club is doing to set make it an A list success in the D League.
You come from a big Italian family. How did that help your ascent in sports business?
My family had a great influence on my educational and professional life. They always encouraged me to reach higher and that’s what I have done, both academically at Wake Forrest and then at Columbia, and now in my professional career. Hard work, family and faith all go together for me.
Santa Cruz has become one of the model D-League business stories. What are the key things that set it apart from others?
In just two years of existence, Santa Cruz leads the D-League in many business categories, such as ticket and sponsorship sales, home games are regularly sold out, and the team has become such an integral part of the Santa Cruz community, that “Surf City” is also known as “Hoops City.” In addition to fostering momentum on the business side, the Warriors were named the 2013-14 NBA D-League Development Champion, an award that is designed to recognize the NBA D-League team that best embodies the league’s goals of developing NBA basketball talent via GATORADE Call-Ups and assignments. This validates what the Golden State Warriors organization was setting out to accomplish when the team was launched–continue to develop high-quality talent on and off the court. Several current and former players have been called up to the NBA, as well as front office staff members.
How does the relationship from a PR and Marketing side work with Golden State?
Golden State has been one of the most exciting sports teams to watch both on and off the court. From a business side, the senior leadership is committed to not only developing players, but also developing executives in Santa Cruz. Our President and two directors on our senior management team have come directly from Golden State, and there are former Santa Cruz staff members that have been “called up” and are currently working for NBA teams. There is constant support and the generous lending of resources and ideas from Golden State. Our geographical proximity to Oakland allows our leadership team to get up to Golden State, see how they run the show up there, then come home and implement.
How do you think the makeup of the fan base is different or similar from that of the NBA?
The makeup of the Santa Cruz Warriors fan base is incredibly unique in the minor league space. It’s similar to an NBA fan base when looking at the unbridled passion that the fans have for this team. For a slightly quirky, sleepy beach town, many thought that having a sports team in Santa Cruz wouldn’t be a good fit. However, the relationship between this city and its new sports team has blossomed into a passionate love over the past two years. Santa Cruz has embraced its team like no other city in the NBA’s minor league, and the first two seasons have shown that. Home games regularly sell out, and the Warriors were the first NBA D-League team ever to sell more than $1 million worth of season tickets.
The D-league players for the most part are younger and looking to take another step toward the NBA. How do they factor into the marketing plans?
D-League players are the strivers, chasing the dream of playing in the NBA. It’s easy to root for these guys. When we develop marketing around players, we look to promote their individual stories to forge that emotional engagement with the fan base.
How big a role does community relations play in Santa Cruz?
Community relations is a major reason why this team has become such a huge part of Santa Cruz. Without a doubt, our community is our team’s heartbeat. My boss, Jim Weyermann, the President of the Santa Cruz Warriors (EVP of New Franchise Development at Golden State) is a visionary in this regard. He saw the potential of this community embracing a pro hoops team when Golden State ownership was initially contemplating where to relocate the team from Bismarck, ND. Since the Warriors came to Santa Cruz, we’ve participated in over 200 community events. We’ve entrenched ourselves in philanthropic programs that directly benefit our city. The team is accessible to the community; they’re a part of it. Jim, the son of a preacher, likes to compare Warriors game nights to the church pot-luck where “Everyone brings something to the table.” The community is the reason we have the best fans in the D-League.
What are your biggest challenges on a day to day basis?
Balance is the biggest challenge. As a senior manager in the D-League, you are entirely responsible for your departments and pieces of business. I have daily obligations to fulfill on the business side, communications duties for the basketball operations side, and then of course there’s game-day PR protocol, media communications, and League expectations. The challenge is prioritizing and executing, all while expecting a curve ball, then adjusting when one comes your way!
What has been the biggest lesson learned for you in your short time in the job?
Be ready for anything at any time. For instance, after going through my first D-League Draft and working with our basketball operations department to announce our picks, I thought I could breathe a bit easier for the rest of the night. As I’m on my way home, one of our Associate GMs calls me to let me know that the League just approved a 5-team trade and that I should pull together a press release explaining all of the transactions, and then coordinate with the League and the four other teams on the timing of the announcement. I had 30 minutes to put a release together by the time I got in front of a computer to keep with the timing of the other teams. I’ll often get late night/early morning phone calls about player transactions, assignments, call ups, or media requests, then be expected to get that information out immediately. Experiences like these have definitely heightened my focus and productivity during crunch time.