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Global Perspectives: R.C. Buford on Basketball’s Globalization, Marketing and Leadership

Mark A. Wynne

March 16, 2021

R.C. Buford, chief executive officer of Spurs Sports and Entertainment since July 2019, leads the business operations for all sports franchises owned and operated by Spurs Sports, most notably the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association (NBA). He was previously the Spurs’ general manager while overseeing sports administration for the organization’s other professional teams, which include the Austin Spurs (basketball) and San Antonio FC (soccer). Buford was named the NBA’s executive of the year in 2014 and 2016.

Buford began his professional career in 1983 as an assistant coach at the University of Kansas, where the team participated in the National Collegiate Athletic Association postseason tournament during each of his five coaching seasons, including winning the basketball championship in 1988. After subsequent coaching stops with the Los Angeles Clippers and the University of Florida, Buford returned to the Spurs, becoming director of scouting in 1997 before being named vice president and assistant general manager in 1999. He was promoted to general manager in 2002.

Buford played basketball at Texas A&M University and Oklahoma State University and before receiving his degree from Friends University in Wichita, Kansas. He is involved in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Africa camp and in 2015 became an advisory board member for the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at Duke University. He is also on the board of PeacePlayers, an international organization dedicated to uniting communities in conflict through sports.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas recently hosted Buford as part of the Bank’s Global Perspectives speaker series. This series was launched at the beginning of 2016 with the objective of bringing leaders from the worlds of business, academia and policymaking to the Dallas Fed to share their insights on leadership, and global, national and regional developments.

Buford and Dallas Fed President Robert S. Kaplan discussed basketball’s global reach and player development and the traits of leadership. The following are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity, and presented by topic.

On Discovering a Career in Basketball:

Buford: Basketball was always my passion. I grew up playing it. When I got out of school, the athletic director at the University of Kansas, Monte Johnson, introduced me to coach Larry Brown, who didn’t have anybody to walk his dog or pick up his laundry. It fit my skill sets perfectly. So, I got into coaching. I coached for 11 years, and during that time, I was introduced to [current Spurs coach] Gregg Popovich, and we were assistant coaches together.

We won the national championship at Kansas in 1988. When he [Popovich] spent his time with us at Kansas, it was clear that he was a brilliant—not only a brilliant basketball mind but a brilliant leader.

In 1994, he [Popovich] came back to the Spurs as a general manager [after a stint with the Golden State Warriors]. I really believed in his vision and his leadership. He asked me to come join the front office, and it was at that point that my career pivoted. I moved into the front office with him. It’s shocking to think there were three of us in the front office in our entire scouting department at that time. And to think, the scouting profession has [since] been elevated through data, through international play. It’s a big change from where we were then, but it’s been an amazing journey.

On Global Talent Search:

Pop [Popovich] worked for Don [Nellie] Nelson with the Golden State Warriors [1992–94]. Nellie and now Donnie Nelson, his son, [the general manager] with the Mavericks, have always had a great appreciation for the game internationally. A lot of the nontraditional aspects of Nellie’s coaching fit Pop’s vision of how to build a team. It’s diversity of thoughts, diversity of experience. It’s putting together teams from really many different environments and growing together.

You know, our team in 2014 had 11 of our 14 players born outside the United States—including [Tim] Duncan [Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands]; [Tony] Parker [Bruges, Belgium]; and [Manu] Ginóbili [Bahía Blanca, Argentina]—and that provides an appreciation of how we built our team.

Both traditional basketball metrics and more-advanced basketball metrics have evolved over time. It still comes down to how a team fits the diversity of experiences that we can bring together—and it fitted the way Pop wanted to build a team.

You also have to be incredibly lucky. In 1999, we drafted Manu Ginóbili with the 57th pick, and everybody said, “Oh, you were brilliant for finding Ginóbili.” Well in that same draft, we had the 42nd pick, and we drafted a Croatian kid named Gordon Giriček, who came and had a nice NBA career. He played seven years in the NBA. If we were that damn smart, we would pick Manu at 42 and Giriček at 57. But you know, we weren’t that smart. We got lucky and Manu became not only the player but the person who helped change our franchise.

On Defining a Target Market:

Traditionally, our marketing was focused on San Antonio and Bexar County. We found that Austin is in our territory. It’s in our designated market area.

There are people traveling in the [San Francisco] Bay Area from further distances and for longer times to go to a Golden State game or a 49ers [football] game or a Giants or Athletics [baseball] game than what it takes to travel back and forth to Austin. I think we’ve got a real focus as we look at our future strategic planning on capturing those markets together.

It would really help if you could get us a [high-speed] train built between Austin and San Antonio. Connecting these markets in a way—even all the way to Monterrey, Mexico, and the corridor between Monterrey and San Antonio–Austin—would be one of the most dynamic quarters in the world. It really needs to be a region, not different markets.

On Taking the Game Global:

I thought with the [U.S. Olympic] Dream Team in 1992, our revenues had the greatest opportunities to grow internationally. From the China perspective, Yao Ming came to the NBA in 2002, and it was expected at that time that there would be a big influx of Chinese players into our league, which would then help us build a model that would continue to diversify our revenue streams globally.

The NBA has created academies now in China, India, Africa and South America, with an elite academy environment in Australia, where we bring the best of all those academy environments and bring them together, hoping to develop talent that helps us continue to grow our audience in nontraditional places.

In Sacramento, we now have a lead owner of Indian descent; in Brooklyn, a lead owner of Chinese descent. I think you’re going to continue to see our international market grow and be our biggest opportunity for growth.

I think you’re going to continue to see the focus in nontraditional places. We have played regular-season games in Mexico City for the last six years—playing real games, similar to what the NFL has done in London. I think you’re going to see that in places that fit within the parameters of our schedule.

On Advice for Leaders:

Don’t think we have it figured out. Ask good questions and be really intentional about listening. We all have needs. Do not think that we know the plights of underserved communities, as well as [knowing] those who live in and experience them on a daily basis. Let’s pay attention to the people who really live in them.

Let’s ask questions and then let’s problem solve; let’s put the problem in the middle. And let’s ask leaders in our communities who have diversified backgrounds—who can add value in ways that we may not even know—to share with us and join with us in [meeting] our real community responsibilities.

About the Author

Mark A. Wynne

Wynne is vice president and associate director of research in the Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

The views expressed are those of the author and should not be attributed to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas or the Federal Reserve System.

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