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Franchise players: NBA execs Steve Mills and Terdema Ussery score as two of the industry's hottest front-office players. Will one gain the ultimate prize of NBA commissioner?

TERDEMA USSERY CAN EASILY BE SPOTTED at a Dallas Mavericks home game. Standing behind the scorer's desk in a business suit, the CEO's attention regularly shifts between the on-court action and the goings-on in the arena itself--aware of the game and his environment. This came in handy during game four of the NBA Western Conference finals when the shriek of a fire alarm echoed throughout the arena, piercing the din of 20,000 fans anxiously awaiting tip-off.

Ussery quickly directs security and other personnel to ensure that spectators at the sold out arena make an orderly exit. He pinpoints the source of the alarm--a minor kitchen fire. It is quickly extinguished. Crisis averted, he turns his attention toward getting fans re-seated and players warmed up so that the game can begin.

A few days later, Steve Mills sits in a conference room surrounded by the heads of marketing for the New York Knicks, Rangers and Liberty--the teams Mills oversees. The challenge at hand for the president of operations for Madison Square Garden may not be as dramatic as a pre-game arena evacuation, but it is nonetheless critical: boosting season ticket holder renewal rates after disappointing seasons for the Knicks and Rangers--neither of which made it to the postseason.

One strategy includes sending out personalized letters to subscribers to generate excitement about the upcoming season. Another includes a small pin commemorating the number of years the subscriber has been a season ticket holder and a payment plan so that subscribers don't have to lay out several hundred dollars in one lump sum for their tickets. Yet another allows season ticket holders to go online and sell tickets to games (at face value) they cannot attend.

Ussery and Mills represent two African Americans who have successfully ascended the National Basketball Association corporate ladder to become the highest-ranking front office executives in the league. In addition to running the Mavericks, Ussery is CEO of Dallas-based HDNet, the nation's first high-definition television network. In the Big Apple, Mills oversees the NBA's New York Knicks, as well as the NHL's Bangers and the WNBA's Liberty--some $700 million in assets, as estimated by Sports Illustrated. For their achievements and diverse responsibilities, BLACK ENTERPRISE has selected Ussery and Mills as co-Executives of the Year for 2003.

Truth be told, both executives have the business savvy and leadership skills that could someday land them the league's top job--commissioner. In a league noted for its progressive hiring practices and diversity among every level of its ranks, it's not hard to imagine an African American running the league. In fact, both Ussery and Mills have much in common with Commissioner David Stern. The commissioner has a background in law, as does Ussery, and graduated from an Ivy League institution, as did both Mills and Ussery. After receiving his undergraduate degree from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey (which lies about 20 miles from Ussery and Mills' alma mater, Princeton), Stern went on to study at Columbia Law School. Ussery began his career in law similarly to Stern. Ussery even served as general counsel and commissioner for a basketball league--the Continental Basketball Association.

In fact, Stern, the man credited for revitalizing and expanding the once-beleaguered NBA, says either Mills or Ussery would be qualified to someday fill his shoes. "[Terdema Ussery] has done it all at the team, league and corporate level," Stern points out. The commissioner lists among Mills' attributes an understanding of many different aspects of the NBA's operation. "Either one of them, without question, [is capable of] not just filling my shoes but improving them."

TERDEMA USSERY: A BALANCING ACT

Command central for Terdema Ussery, or "T" as many refer to him, is a Spartan ex-warehouse that serves as the Dallas Mavericks offices. At the rear of the bustling office is a medium-sized cubicle--its four walls offer relative privacy compared with the open office space. He's a chief executive who manages to balance his time between two very, different businesses. "When I go out that door, I'm on HDNet business," Ussery says pointing to his right--the direction of one of the two doors in his modest office. Gesturing to the opposite portal, the CEO adds: "That door is for the Mavericks." Indeed, Ussery wears two hats and divides his time accordingly, with about 55%-60% of his time allotted to the high-definition television network and the remainder for running Mavericks team operations--both of which are housed in the same downtown Dallas location.

Ussery considers both operations he oversees equally important but, as a technophile, is more drawn to the HDNet business due to its hightech nature and growth potential. "The television network will ultimately be a lot bigger than anything we're doing with the Mavericks," Ussery predicts. The Mavericks generated more than $100 million last year. "It also gives me the opportunity to be at the forefront of an emerging technology that will eventually be the standard in households throughout the country." Ussery expects to have HDNet running profitably within two to three years. He estimates that HDNet has as much as 1-1.5 million viewers.

HDNet was launched in 2001 with a $100 million investment from Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in conjunction with satellite television provider DirecTV and Fox Cable Networks Services. Currently, the network is subscription based, but Ussery is exploring an advertising-based model. High-definition television is an emerging market with vast growth potential. Roughly 6-7 million households currently have a high-definition television, a number that's expected to grow to about 42 million, or 38%, of households by 2007.

But as with any new entertainment format, there's going to be a lot of competition. "The biggest challenge is not to get swallowed up by bigger and better financed networks that are now coming out with all HDTV channels, [like] Discovery Channel, [and] ESPN," says Phillip Swann, author of TV dot Com: The Future of Interactive Television (TV Books Inc.; $14). "Mark [Cuban] has a lot of money, but he doesn't have Disney money ... or NBC, or perhaps even Discovery money."

In addition to his plethora of responsibilities, Ussery, who reports directly to Cuban in both positions, serves as mediator between the oft-fined team owner and the league, which once levied a hefty $500,000 penalty for criticizing officiating at a Mavericks game. "Cuban is a fascinating owner, but because Mark is so mercurial and energetic, [when he first arrived], the relationship between the team and the league couldn't have been any worse," says former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, a 20-year Mavericks season ticket holder. "But Terdema was the glue or vehicle that kept that relationship from totally dissolving, which wouldn't have been good for the Mavericks. He also provided a degree of reality and professionalism, in terms of the relationships with the owners and the league, that Cuban didn't particularly care to vest in."

Ussery, who's in his seventh year as Mavericks CEO, has come a long way since growing up near the border of Compton and Watts in South Central Los Angeles. A 1981 graduate of Princeton University, he received his master's from Harvard and a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley. He practiced entertainment law in Los Angeles before joining the Continental Basketball Association, a minor league; as its deputy commissioner and general counsel in 1990. In April 1991, Ussery was named CBA Commissioner where he would spearhead the league's anti-drug and player education programs. "We had no resources--seven staff members," recalls Ussery. "We were just a bunch of young guys and girls and we were having fun."

In his time with the CBA, Ussery would help the league turn profitable and identify good team ownership candidates. He also developed relationships at Nike, which would be the next step in his career path. In 1993, he joined the Nike Sports Management team where he served as president. His responsibilities there included overseeing the advertising, marketing and promotion of Nike's most important athletes, such as Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Picabo Street, Alonzo Mourning, and Ken Griffey Jr. The sports apparel giant ended up folding the Nike Sports Management Team after the NCAA ruled that the division functioned much the same as sports agents.

Enter real estate tycoon H. Ross Perot, who had recently purchased the struggling Mavericks. In 1996, Perot was seeking an executive who could run the team and reach out to the city's voters in order to get a bond election passed to help fund the construction of an arena. Perot turned to commissioner David Stern for possible candidates. Ussery's name was on Stern's list. However, the Mavericks had been struggling and fans had grown apathetic. It was just the challenge that Ussery was looking for. "Attendance was poor and ratings were poor. People stopped talking about us," Ussery recalls. "It wasn't that they hated us, we were just irrelevant. And when you lose your relevancy, that's when you're in trouble."

In the arena deal, the city of Dallas would float a bond to cover $150 million of the costs associated with the construction of the arena. Mavericks and NHL Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks would front the rest. When all was said and done, it would take three years and a whopping $450 million to build the arena--$200 million over budget. "But that was by design," asserts Ussery. "It was like designing a house where you say, 'Hey, this is going to be enough' and your spouse comes in and says, 'It sure would be nice if we could take that down and add this.' Well, [when] you do enough of that over time in a building that's almost one million square feet, it starts adding up. [However], in the end, the owners got what they wanted." Since the team owners--both of whom were billionaires--were behind the additional costs and agreed to foot the bill, the expenses weren't an issue.

Now with 120 people under him in the Mavericks organization, Ussery continues to juggle his responsibilities. Most recently, he assisted with hammering out a deal with Echostar/Dish Networks in which the satellite TV operator would carry HDNet, and is in talks with cable operator Comcast Corp. Current HDNet programming includes such sporting events as the Triple Crown, Winter Olympics and NBA playoffs. A sister channel, HDNet Movies, airs films in high-definition through deals with Warner Bros., Sony, MGM and Lion's Gate, which agreed to convert a total of 750 films into high-definition format to air on the network.

For Ussery, each job has its own appeal. HDNet, the first high-definition network in the U.S., utilizes the latest technology. In addition, it has all the excitement of a startup and the deep pockets of a billionaire behind it. Running the Mavericks keeps Ussery in touch with a Dallas community that is very passionate about their team. "You can go to a Mavericks game on Tuesday and if we win, come out on top of the world," Ussery says. "Thursday night, we lose by 30 points and you want to punch somebody--we're selling passion. So while it's not as intellectually stimulating in some ways as the television [business], sports are a lot more passionate."

The Mavericks owner too waxed positive on Ussery's business acumen. "Terdema has the amazing capacity to grasp the important elements of a seemingly unlimited number of business issues," Cuban says. "You can throw him in any situation and he will be thorough and exact. Bottom line, he helps me get the job done and I trust him. And that is the highest compliment I can pay someone."

STEVE MILLS: A TRIPLE THREAT

Anyone visiting Steve Mills might think him standoffish if judged by his isolated, lush executive office with its leather seats and a waiting room that's larger than most New York City apartments. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The office is a remnant of a former executive, and its occupant is more at home in a conference room hammering out marketing plans, or on the sales staff going over new strategies.

Overseeing virtually all the day-to-day operations for the New York Knicks, Rangers, and Liberty, Mills doesn't have the time to relax in his luxurious digs. With a staff of 150 people, he handles the teams' payroll, finances, business planning and marketing issues--just about everything but the signing of players.

Mills' basketball career began as a player. While attending Princeton University (where he met Ussery) he majored in sociology. He was also starting guard for the Tigers and helped lead the team to a league title in his senior year, 1981. After graduation, he played one season professionally in South America. "I had committed to myself that if I wasn't good enough to play in the NBA, I wasn't going to be one of those guys who spend years and years bouncing around playing semi-professional basketball," says Mills, 43. "I thought it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences to continue to play and get some money for it, but I was only going to do it one year and then I'd go to really working for a living."

That following year, Mills served as manager of new business development at Chemical Bank in New York City. While there, he received a call from Cecil Watkins, an old friend from his high school days who was working in the NBA. "He called me up one day and said there was a job selling sponsorships open at the NBA and asked would I be interested in interviewing," recalls Mills. "I took him my resume that night and interviewed with David Stern and [Deputy Commissioner] Russ Granik, and five weeks later I was working at the NBA."

While Mills continued to sell sponsorships for the next few years, moving to bigger and bigger clients, the league was beginning to expand globally and was looking for ways to build a loyal following outside of the U.S. The league created a special events area that included the NBA draft, lottery, and corporate functions, as well as their promotional initiatives overseas. Mills was tapped to oversee the execution and development of these events--the first of which was the inaugural McDonald's Championship where an NBA team (the Milwaukee Bucks) competed against a team from the former Soviet Union. "I'd go to Europe and negotiate hotel and arena contracts and television deals, so I was able to develop a skill set that touched every aspect of the business."

By the late '80s, the native New Yorker was looking for new challenges. He approached Stern and Granik to discuss where he wanted to go with his career. "It was a wonderful experience, but in the end, it was sort of the same drill in different locales. It was negotiate arena deals, interact with local broadcasters and teams, negotiate housing contracts," recounts Mills. "You're overseeing the same thing except one was in Paris, one was in Japan, etc. I loved it, but I was ready to do something different."

After brainstorming with the league brass, where they identified some of the NBA's needs, Stern and Granik created the position of senior vice president for basketball and player development. Mills assumed this position during the early '90s. While Mills continued to oversee and nurture relationships the NBA had with different basketball entities around the world, he also managed all the programs that the NBA sponsored to help transition players from college or high school into the NBA. In this position, he would be integral in the creation of not only the WNBA, but also the first "Dream Team," where hoops legends Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley won the gold for the U.S. in the 1992 Olympics.

During the late '90s, Mills again sought new frontiers. "I really loved everything that I did there, but in my heart, I always knew that at some point I wanted to see what it was like to work for a team," says Mills, pointing out that while working for the league, there is no vested interest in the outcome of any particular game. "There's something exciting about the whole prospect of developing a team, getting them ready to compete and being part of that process."

As luck would have it, Dave Checketts, who at the time was president and CEO of Madison Square Garden, called Mills. Management was restructuring operations for the Knicks to one where there would be two executives of equal level within the organization--one running team operations (such as player payroll and personnel) and one overseeing the business side (identifying new revenue streams, setting financial goals). Mills knew that he was interested in one of those positions. Scott Layden was going to run the basketball side, with Mills handling the business side as executive vice president of franchise operations and reporting directly to Checketts. Mills jumped at the opportunity.

When Checketts stepped down in 2001, Mills stepped up. He was approached by James L. Dolan, president and CEO of Cablevision (the publicly traded cable giant that owns Madison Square Garden and its teams), regarding the creation of a new management structure. They Would create a group called the Office of the Chairman, in which Mills would handle the sports side of the business, and Seth Abraham, president of Madison Square Garden/ Radio City Entertainment, would handle the entertainment and television side. Both report to Dolan. Cablevision does not provide financial information or projections for its Madison Square Garden operations.

Dolan praises Mills for his executive skills and business acumen. "In the two years since he assumed his current role, Steve has transformed the business operations of the Knicks, Bangers, and Liberty, focusing on improving the quality of experience for the Garden's customers and business partners, while enhancing the value of these preeminent sports brands," Dolan says. "Through good times and bad, Steve remains a great executive, a leader, and a trusted friend who deserves the success he's had. [He] can look forward to an even brighter future."

Mills, just like any other corporate executive, has to contend with the current business climate and devise a strategy for getting through the hard times. Therefore, he focuses on quality of product and top-notch customer relations. "In New York, there's the economy, [and] there's the competition. There are so many different choices for people to make, so it makes us work harder--it makes us focus on what's important to our customers in addition to providing a team that's competitive on the court or ice," he says.

As the NBA and NHL seasons wrap up and players head for the golf courses, Mills and Ussery remain focused on their goals: fielding competitive teams while watching the bottom line, With the Spurs eliminating the Mavericks from the playoffs in six games, the Knicks finishing with a record of 37-45, and the Rangers failing to break even at 32-36, both execs and their respective staffs have their work cut out for them. But these execs will make sure they have the right people in the right places to get the job done--profitably.

Terdema USSERY

Dallas MAVERICKS

HDNet

Age: 44

Title: CEO, Dallas Mavericks, HDNet

Years in Position: 7

Education: Princeton University (bachelor's), Harvard University (master's), University of California at Berkeley (law degree).

Career Highlight: As commissioner, he turned around the Continental Basketball Association. Also led a successful campaign that resulted in funding for American Airlines Center.

Steve Mills

New York KNICKS LIBERTY RANGERS

Age: 43

Title: President, sports team operations, Madison Square Garden

Years in Position: 2

College: Princeton University, sociology major

Career Highlight: Creating a flexible model by which each of Madison Square Garden's sports teams would become integrated to do business efficiently while maintaining their individual identities.

--Additional reporting by Marcia A. Wade
COPYRIGHT 2003 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Biography; B.E. Corporate Executives Of The Year
Author:Hughes, Alan
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2003
Words:3285
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