growing the Heat’s
fan base in China, Eric
Woolworth is looking
to expand south, to
places such as Brazil
A fixture at every Heat game,
Woolworth watched as the
team won against the
Sacramento Kings in February.
LeBron James delivering a
massive dunk on February 12,
when the Heat beat the
Portland Trail Blazers 117–104.
From where Eric Woolworth is sitting—several rows behind visiting Houston’s basket, in a section of regular fans at AmericanAirlines Arena, watching the Heat dancers perform during a time-out—the view seems perfect, thank you.
The arena is sold out, as always. The Heat is winning, as usual. There’s a South Beach buzz as Woolworth surveys another seamless night of basketball and entertainment inside the country’s seventh-busiest arena. And then it’s lost to him for a moment.
“The red tops,” he says.
The red tops?
“The red tops of the Heat dancers don’t match the red in the players’ uniform,” he says. “It’s a little thing. Maybe no one else notices it. But the thing is we have the right-colored tops for them to wear. So that’ll be corrected.”
For the past 12 years as the Heat’s president of business operations, Woolworth has sat in this seat, among these fans, measuring such detailed brushstrokes at games and arena events. It’s not just red tops this night. There’s a new way fans are lined up entering Section 113—“a snake line,” he says—that might be fan-friendlier. Or not. He’ll see. All of which offers a glimpse into the details Woolworth involves himself in while constructing the major opus in his job: maximizing the Heat brand on the international stage. LeBron James’s arrival two seasons ago didn’t just give the Heat a championship team but a unique platform. The evidence says as much. More than 100 million Chinese watched the Heat on television during the 2010–2011 season. More than 7 million people follow the team on Facebook— of which only 10 percent are from South Florida and only half from the United States.
“This is an opportunity, with this team Pat Riley has built, unlike any the game has had,” Woolworth says.
There’s a Christopher Columbus element here. No American sports team has engineered an international business model. The NBA wasn’t even certain it wanted to go there, as it traditionally limits teams to marketing themselves within 75 miles and broadcasting themselves within 150 miles. “We got them to relax that,” Woolworth says. “Now we’re working with them on how to build the NBA around the world.”
Developing the plan is a kid who grew up playing hockey, who didn’t step on a basketball court until a college intramural league at Georgetown, and who admits he came to the Heat “the old-fashioned way—through connections.”
Woolworth’s father-in-law, Howard Frank, is the vice chairman at Carnival Corporations, which is led by Heat owner Micky Arison. When Arison took control of the Heat in 1995, Woolworth worked at a Washington, DC, law firm. He enjoyed the law work but didn’t see doing it the rest of his life. “My favorite billable hour was my last one,” he says.
“Listen, I don’t know the first thing about sports law,” Woolworth told Arison in their first conversation. “But I’ve always wanted to figure how to get involved, and this is the best chance I’m going to get.” Arison chuckled: “I don’t know anything about running a sports team, and I’d love to have someone I can trust.”
For five years, Woolworth worked on the basketball side as the Heat’s legal counsel, helping Miami Heat President Pat Riley to negotiate contracts, navigate trades, and deal with various legal issues. Such work didn’t just rate him a thank-you in Riley’s Hall of Fame speech—it earned him a promotion in 2000 to run the Heat’s business side and arena. His idea of business expanded accordingly.
“Law school is a hypercompetitive environment; everyone wants to win,” he says. “You get to a law firm, it’s kind of the same. When you go in-house to work for a company, you have to take a different approach. It’s not about winning and crushing your opponent. It’s about finding win-wins. You’re in the relationship business.”
Woolworth views the Heat’s sell-outs and marketing success through a prism of yesterday’s lessons. He isn’t involved in the basketball side anymore—that is Riley’s world—but he works with Riley on advancing business plans to market the team. When star center Alonzo Mourning suffered a kidney disease in 2001, the Heat slumped to the third-lowest season-ticket base in the league. But sales shot up after the drafting of Dwyane Wade and the signing of Shaquille O’Neal catapulted the team to a championship. At the time, the Heat decided to sell most seats in the building as a season ticket—a “mistake we learned from” when LeBron arrived, Woolworth admits. The lesson was threefold: Some tickets far from the court didn’t work as season tickets; group sales, which bring new fans from schools and youth leagues, were lost; and the fan base “stagnated, as the same people showed up game after game,” Woolworth says. Now, Woolworth limits season-ticket sales to just over half the arena, and games are sold out.
At this point, Woolworth’s view is as big as the world. He traveled with the team to China and met with corporate sponsors. That has resulted in the Heat having a Chinese New Year’s game with arena signage in Mandarin for its Chinese viewers. And Woolworth is now studying the next Heat frontier. Not Europe—think Brazil and Argentina. Or, says the man surveying both the red tops and a global map, “South.”