If the NFL has developed a reputation for stodgy traditionalism, the NBA has done the exact opposite, innovating—and yes, Tweeting, 'gramming and TikToking—its way to status as the fast-changing league of the future. Chief innovation officer Amy Brooks's job is to lead that push, whether that means changing the shot clock, tweaking the playoff format or, yes, finding new ways to make the NBA and its partners even more money.
"If you're watching a game and you see a player's shoe, why can't you put up your phone and scan a QR code and buy that sneaker instantly?" says Brooks, 45, whose title also includes president of team marketing and business operations.
Her job has two parts: advising teams on ways to innovate and then driving change at the league level. As for part one, she leads an internal consulting group of about 40 people that helps the 93 teams of the NBA, WNBA, G-League and the e-sports NBA 2K League pump up revenue and popularity and develop new ideas. When the former Stanford guard (and Stanford M.B.A.) was promoted to the job in 2017, after 12 years of working in the league office, one of her first tasks was to spearhead the league's new jersey patch ad program.
That particular innovation may have been better loved by owners than fans, but Brooks says that to do her job right, she has to serve the league's faithful first: "Growing the business starts with our buildings being full, but it's also about how we deliver the game to our fans globally, because only 1% of our fans will ever attend a live game."
Which brings up the second part of her job: leading a 10-person, league-focused global strategy and innovation group. The NBA's embrace of, in Brooks's words, its young, diverse and global fan base has allowed her to tinker with tradition and explore novel approaches—as opposed to, say, the NFL, which has limited appeal beyond the U.S. and has been slower to embrace social media.
Chief among those efforts is the NBA 2K League, which was launched 18 months ago, making it the only U.S. pro sports operation to own and operate an e-sports league. Next year the 23-team league will add a franchise in Shanghai, continuing the NBA's (increasingly complicated) push into China. Brooks's group is also aiding the March 2020 launch of the NBA's new Basketball Africa League (BAL), which will feature 12 clubs competing in Egypt, Senegal, Nigeria, Angola, Morocco and Tunisia.
Brooks's team is involved in everything from the schedule changes that reduced the amount of back-to-back games on consecutive days to teams' advanced mobile apps that power the in-arena experience. In Sacramento, fans can crowd-source the temperature in their seating areas to adjust the A/C or heat, while in Milwaukee, jersey patch sponsor Harley-Davidson added a vroom sound within the app for fans to hold up during games.
"Innovation happens everywhere at the NBA—that is the secret to our success," Brooks says. "Our group is trying to inspire and pull it all together."
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the NBA's openness to change is Brooks herself. The Sacramento native is one of the highest-ranking female executives in American sports and, according to the University of Central Florida's 2019 NBA Racial and Gender Report Card, NBA franchises have seven women serving in the role of either chief executive or team president, more than in all other U.S. pro leagues combined.
"I see myself as an example, but my goal is to help others," Brooks says. "It's only a matter of time before we see a female head coach in the NBA."