At 5 feet 7 inches tall, professional basketball may not be the first thing you would associate with Mike Bass, but the PR leader has been a star player for the National Basketball Association’s communications department for 17 years.
Stories about the NBA hit news outlets year-round, whether it is LeBron James’ return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, or racist comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Needless to say, the pro sports league doesn’t lack in media attention, but behind all those articles, crises, and events is Bass, who ensures effective communication strategies are in place.
NBA, various positions. Hired as director, entertainment comms (1997-2000). Was promoted to senior director in 2000 before being named senior director, strategic and corporate comms later that year. Became VP, strategic and corporate comms (2001-2005) before taking the role of VP, marketing comms (2005-2006). Later named SVP, marcomms (2006-2012), before assuming his current role, EVP, comms, in late 2012
CBS Television, senior press representative
Dan Klores Communications, senior account executive
Bass, who was promoted from SVP of marketing communications to EVP of communications in 2012, leads a group of about 40 communicators in the US and coordinates with global staffers. The communications person in charge of international efforts, which includes two staffers in Hong Kong, three in Beijing, and three in London, is based in New York and reports to Bass. The department also has one employee based in New York who represents Latin America.
Aside from managing staff, Bass says he has "regular communications with the teams" across the NBA, Women’s National Basketball Association, and the NBA Development League, or minor league.
"On the basketball side, there is always something to discuss, so it’s constant outreach," explains Bass.
In July, the NBA held a league meeting in Las Vegas that allowed executives from various departments, including communications, to meet face to face and discuss upcoming events, issues, and social media efforts.
Despite the fact that hundreds of players have their own social platforms, Bass says he’s generally not worried about one of them tweeting or posting something inappropriate. He adds that it hasn’t been a major issue, but when the communications team has had to intervene and discipline, it’s been on top of it. Last November, the NBA fined New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith $25,000 for violating league rules by directing hostile and inappropriate language to another player via his Twitter account.
"It’s no different than if an NBA, WNBA, or Development League player is in front of a local affiliate camera crew," he says.
Benefits of social
Overall, social media has been more of a benefit than a detractor, adds Bass, because it allows players to engage fans globally.
Every new player goes through a digital orientation as part of the overall rookie transition process, where the league discusses social media issues, as well as what it’s like to jump into the NBA lifestyle.
"You are on the road for most of your life," says Bass. "You are away from your usual support system, and this is the way we make sure everyone knows they are supported."
In recent years, social has played a big role in the league’s growth, especially for the 18-year-old WNBA, still an infant compared to its 68-year-old male counterpart.
Bass says the women’s league is "a growing entity," and social interaction, as well as attendance and viewership, continue to rise.
"If you were to compare where the NBA was in its first 18 years, the difference would be staggering in the WNBA’s favor," he adds.
Viewership on ESPN2 jumped more than 28% during the 2013 WNBA season and, on YouTube, it garnered three times as many views in the 2013 season, compared to 2012.
Barry Baum, EVP and CCO of the Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Nets, who has worked with Bass since 2005, says Bass saw the potential of leveraging social media.
"He utilized it in a big way and in a smart, tactical fashion," adds Baum. "The NBA has been at the forefront of social media and [Mike] deserves a lot of that credit."
Despite its advantages, social also has its challenges in terms of the need to "constantly stay on top of the burgeoning digital media landscape and who is tweeting what, both positively and negatively," says Bass.
He adds that social offers opportunities to take advantage of good storylines to repurpose and share with fans, but he and his team must be vigilant and try to get ahead of factually inaccurate or negative stories. When a crisis arises, the communications department has teams in place, with experts for specific issues, such as basketball operations or legal.
In April, the NBA steered through a major crisis when a recording emerged of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling allegedly making racist comments about his girlfriend associating with black people and bringing them to Clippers games. The news spread like wildfire, garnering coverage in major news outlets worldwide.
Three days after the recording was released, NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life and put the wheels in motion for the league to force a sale of his team. Silver, who has worked for the NBA since 1992 and became commissioner in February, gained near-unanimous praise for his statement. At the time of this interview, the Sterling issue was a matter of pending litigation, so Bass was unable to discuss it.
When dealing with a major crisis though, Bass likes to deal in facts.
"In this world, in which perception becomes reality, you have to get past any initial emotional reaction and deal with the facts," he explains. "The first thing you do is try and gather the information as quickly as possible to be able to respond."
A lesson Bass says he learned from former commissioner David Stern, who led the NBA from 1984 until last February, was to "never miss a good opportunity to keep your mouth shut, which means listen, take it all in, and then work with the facts in front of you to set the best course forward."
Weeks after the news about the disgraced Clippers owner broke, stories still flooded media outlets, but Bass created something favorable out of the situation when he helped get Silver on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
"The timing was great because [Silver] was very much in the news and there had been a lot about what he was doing with the Clippers issue, but there hadn’t been a lot of stories on Silver himself," says Baum. "Mike recognized that and was able to secure a great story in one of the premiere sports outlets in the world in a very positive way."
Silver, who Bass previously reported to when Silver served as deputy commissioner, says the way the communications leader handled the incident shows his work ethic.
With the Clippers situation, media outlets that typically don’t cover sports were reporting on the matter, but Bass approached them "the same way he would the local beat writers in ensuring they got what they needed to do their jobs," says Silver.
He adds that it’s rare for him to do an interview without Bass’ help.
[Mike] is the first line of defense for me for any media that I do," says Silver, "and typically if there is a media enquiry, he is the person interfacing with the reporter."
One of Bass’ first jobs in PR was at Dan Klores Communications, and Baum believes this agency experience was beneficial.
"He understands very well how to pitch a story, be aggressive, be proactive, and how best to communicate it," adds Baum.
Thinking outside the box
In 1997, when Bass worked at Dan Klores Communications, he was tasked with building buzz around the mob-focused TV miniseries The Last Don, based on a novel by Mario Puzo, at the Television Association Critics Press Tour in Pasadena, California.
Bass says about 200 members of the media were staying at a hotel for the event, so he and his team decided it would be funny to parody a scene from the movie The Godfather by leaving horse heads – made of chocolate – in each reporter’s bed.
"Everyone loved it," explains Bass.
He adds that working at DKC alongside agency president Sean Cassidy and partner Peter Seligman, who passed away in 2000, helped him learn to think outside the box and always find "new and different ways to generate interest" in campaigns.
Bass’ agency experience has influenced the NBA’s communications roadmap, which has been in development for the last decade.
"We set up our internal communications structure at the NBA like an agency, where we represent our internal clients and we support them in everything they do and advise them when we think they could be doing something differently," says Bass, who reports to deputy commissioner Mark Tatum.
Bass’ unit is broken down into three communications subsets, all of which report to him: basketball, marketing, and internal. Basketball communications is focused on everything on the court, including game-day operations and coordinating with team PR directors. The marcomms function deals with off-court PR, such as media monitoring, sponsorships, CSR, TV, and social and digital. Internal communicates with employees and teams, and works on the league’s newsletters, letters, and fan mail.
"We have seamless integration. The communications unit works with all of the other departments," he adds. "The great part is that we’re at the epicenter of the organization because we touch every department."
As an example, Bass cites senior director Carmine Tiso who oversees global marketing partnerships PR, and acts like an account manager of the overall global marketing partnerships group. He’s "embedded" in the department, being brought into staff meetings and helping develop initiatives.
With this setup, the NBA uses no external PR resources in the US, but works with Pitch in Europe, Exp in Africa, and Genesis Burson-Marsteller in India.
The NBA has held 150 international games to date and Basketball Without Borders, the league’s global community program, also brings players to countries around the world, such as South Africa and Turkey. Going forward, Bass says the league will focus on developing the game in India, Africa, and Asia, especially Manila, the capital of the Philippines, as it has the highest concentration of NBA Facebook fans of any city in the world.
Leveraging new mobile and social initiatives are two ways the league continues to engage fans. In June, the NBA launched its most extensive use of Facebook Live during the finals, interviewing players on the social network and allowing fans to ask questions. Bass, who says he’s learned from Silver’s drive to always be updated on happenings in the world, adds that the league will continue to find new ways to connect players and fans in real time.
Even though Bass has his hands full on a daily basis, Silver says he’s a "fun-loving guy" who "keeps it light around the office."
"He never forgets that ultimately this is about sports," explains Silver, "and that what we’re dealing with are not the most serious matters in society."