CHARLOTTE, N.C. – May 11, 2023 –In this edition of 4×4, Robert Russo, CEO of Independent Advisor Alliance, sat down with Fred Whitfield, President & Vice Chairman of the Charlotte Hornets. As a talented sports executive whose career has spanned all roles, Fred has overseen the impressive growth of the team and the Spectrum Center since he joined the front office in 2006. He is a consummate professional and dedicated philanthropist. Robert and Fred sat down at half court to learn more about his role, his thoughts on social justice issues and professional athletes, and more.
R: Thanks for joining me, Fred. I really appreciate your time.
F: It’s great to be here.
R: I’m going to do my four questions and then we have a surprise bonus question for you at the end. Let’s dive into our first question – People understand that you oversee many moving parts in your role, but they picture it as glamourous. What would surprise people about your job and things that you do in your day that maybe aren’t quite as glamorous as people may think?
F: That’s a great question, Robert. The thing that most people probably wouldn’t realize about me and my role is that I have to make sure that everyone in this building feels important. That’s not just the senior leaders, such as James Jordan, Seth Bennett, or Jacob Gallagher. It’s the team that we have at Levy, at Jani-King that helps keep our building clean, and all the people that make this run such as our part-time employees that are ticket takers or ushers or they’re on the elevators. It’s really important to me, and most people probably wouldn’t think that it’s important as a leader that you lift those people up as much as you do your senior leaders. This is the only way this thing runs the way it does.
I hope you as a long-time season ticket holder can appreciate all the great work that our 500 part-time employees do. It’s the work that Jani-King does to keep our building clean and the work that the CRVA team does behind the house to switch our building over and have a concert one night, a basketball game the next night, and then Monster Jam the next night.
We, as a senior leadership team starting with Michael [Jordan] as our owner, want to make sure everybody in this organization feels like they’re valued and they’re very important. Most people wouldn’t think I or my senior leadership team will put that kind of value on the people that are earning hourly wages to help us do our business but they’re the core of our business and they’re the core to any success we might have. That’s something people wouldn’t probably think I’m focused on, but I don’t pass one ticket taker, one usher, one elevator operator, one Jani-King employee, or one CRVA employee without speaking to them and telling them “Thank you for all that you do.”.
R: Question number two- You’re running a business to entertain but your entertainers are human beings, regular people just like me and you. Some of them may have strong feelings one way or another about different social justice issues or different opinions about many different topics. How do you balance not alienating fans and risk losing those relationships while respecting the thoughts, feelings, and views of your players?
F: It’s not just us at the Hornets, but I think it’s our league and it starts with us having what I think is the most phenomenal commissioner ever in-, Adam Silver. Clearly, he was trained by the late David Stern who I had so much respect for and had a great friendship with.
Our league stands for doing the right thing, for diversity, for inclusion, and for being able to speak up on matters that you think are important to you personally or important to your family. Our league has never tried to strangle or hold our players back from giving their viewpoints on things like social justice, economic mobility, injustices, etc.
However, when you’re running a business, the way I view it in the seat I sit in is we probably have 40-45% of our fans as Democrats, probably 40-45% of our fan are Republicans, 8-10% are somewhere in the middle, and you don’t know who any of them are. You don’t know who they represent, what they believe in, what their religion is, how they vote. So, the role our senior leadership plays is to make this a fun, family-friendly environment for everybody where no one feels excluded. But the last thing we want to do is not allow our players to have their own individual voices and be respectful in the way that they express themselves. I think our league and the NBA Players Association have done a great job at helping to educate our players on the power of their individual brands, the power their brand plays on whatever respective team they play for, and the impact it has on our league. Social media can be very positive if used the right way or become very negative if used the wrong way. We have great players that are great people.
R: For the next question, you made a commencement address at Campbell University at the end of 2022 where you told students that life is a team sport. What is one essential skill that all team members should have?
F: I think understanding that you can’t win anything alone. There are individual sports like golf, tennis, or pickleball that you may be able to think you’re winning alone but if you really peel back the onion, you have a coach, a family that’s supporting you, a trainer, and a dietitian. There’s nothing that I can think of that you can win alone. You can’t win a basketball game, a football game, or a successful friendship alone- it’s a give and take. Everybody has to look at life in the way that none of us got to where we are and none of us have had any level of success, regardless of how smart or talented we think we are, without the great team of people helping you.
R: This question interested me when I looked at it in advance. You’ve worn many sports hats during your career: player, coach, agent, marketer, and administrator. Which one has been the most challenging and why?
F: I’d say easily it has been coming in here in July of 2006 as President, Chief Operating Officer, of the then Bobcats. I had no idea I’d be inheriting a television deal. Bob Johnson was probably 15 years ahead of his time in creating his own Regional Sports Network. Inheriting that and the financial strain that was put on our organization, not having worked on the business side of an NBA team as I worked on the basketball side with the Wizards. Being the Director of Player Personnel and in-house legal counsel, I could negotiate the player contracts and I could manage a salary cap with the Wizards. When I came here, I learned how to sell tickets and sponsorships, get involved in the community, and make everybody that’s a part of this team feel special when they come in regardless of what job they may have. I didn’t have any experience at all in that.
R: Outside of the Carolinas, who is your favorite sports mascot?
F: Wow, that’s not easy because I’m a Carolina guy. I’ve been a season ticket holder at the Carolina Panthers from day one. I love going to a Knights game when I can fit it in because they do a great job there. I’ll say the Wolverines because Juwan Howard is one of my former clients and I love Juwan, he’s like a little brother.
R: Okay, there you go. Thank you sir and I appreciate you for joining me. Thanks for everything you do.
F: Thanks for having me and allowing me to do this with you.