Warriors

Warriors named 'Franchise of the Decade' by Sports Business Journal

Warriors

SAN FRANCISCO -- Warriors president Rick Welts stood on a makeshift stage tucked atop Oakland's Downtown Marriott in November 2011 with a proclamation for a team that just hired him. 

"Everyone in the NBA, as I'm sure you know, looks at this franchise as really the sleeping giant," he proclaimed. 

Eight years later, Welts sat more comfortably in a grey tailored suit, minus a tie, on the second floor of the Bay Bridge Club. The exclusive lair -- inside a corridor of the NBA's newest $1.6 billion palace called Chase Center -- is reserved for team shareholders and special guests, giving a direct view of the three Larry O'Brien trophies the Warriors have earned during his tenure, along with a reminder of his statement nearly a decade ago across the Bay.  

"We're feeling pretty evolved today," Welts says as he nestles into his soft blue seat on Sunday night, prior to the Warriors' blowout loss against the Sacramento Kings.

On Monday morning, the Warriors were named Sports Business Journal's "Franchise of the Decade," a nod to the team's five NBA Finals appearances on the way to becoming one of the most valuable franchises in sports. 

"I wish I was smart enough to really picture the success that was going to come," Welts said Sunday. "What I knew that everybody observed the NBA from a distance knew was that all the ingredients were here for this franchise to be one of the great franchises." 

 

Seeds of Golden State's current business model were planted 28 miles south in the affluent community of Atherton, inside team chairman Joe Lacob's Spanish style estate. Welts -- the first openly gay executive in professional sports -- was looking to move to the West Coast from the Phoenix Suns, closer to his partner in nearby Sacramento. 

"The Warriors were not even on my radar screen," Lacob admitted. 

Two hours into their meeting, Welts was struck that Lacob never used the words "good" to describe his vision for the team's future, opting to use "great" when describing Golden State's expectations. As Lacob spoke, Welts' mind wandered about the business possibilities of the region. While the Warriors toiled in mediocrity for the previous 16 years, the Bay Area's economy was on the rise. 

When Lacob bought the team a year prior, Facebook -- located in nearby Menlo Park -- announced 500 million users, setting a valuation of $41 billion. With tech giants Google, Twitter and Apple nearby, the region's economy was set to rise out of the Great Recession. All the while, the team kept losing, becoming the NBA's hidden gem. 

"You don't find that combination of things may be anywhere other than New York City, maybe Los Angeles," Welts said. "But, we had never as an organization been able to put that together in a way that achieved great success on the court and off the court." 

The organization's first task was to phase out the culture of old. In the ensuing years, nearly half of its 200 employees left, making way for the 500-person staff today to change the company's mindset.

"We had a culture of losing in the locker room and we had a culture of losing in the rest of the organization and kind of everybody felt okay," Welts said. "Season would end in mid-April and everybody gets a really nice summer vacation and everybody gets a raise and everybody come back and do it all over again the next year. It's pretty good.

"We had to turn that upside down." 

Over the next six years, the Warriors increased their revenue by nearly 1,000 percent, according to a team spokesman. For four consecutive seasons, they've led the NBA in merchandise sales, both online and in-arena. Last season, they led the NBA in total online engagements, racking up 7.5 billion total impressions. 

On the court, they were equally as dominant, going to five straight NBA Finals, winning three titles with a roster built around Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. 

However, the crown jewel of Golden State's run is the building Welts sat in Sunday afternoon: Chase Center. The $1.6 billion privately financed arena -- a nearly impossible ask in San Francisco -- already has secured $2 billion in tickets, suites and sponsorships, including JPMorgan Chase, United Airlines and Google.

 

But perhaps the most essential part of the business resides down the stairs, through the corridor and down the steps from Welts in the BioFreeze Performance Center. The athletic wing of the building is equipped with two practice courts, a weight room, sleep pods and a locker room featuring televisions in each player's stall. 

While business is boomin' in San Francisco, the team is in transition. With Durant departing for Brooklyn and the duo of Curry and Thompson out until at least the All-Star break, the Warriors have descended into the worst team in the league, a distinction Welts doesn't see the Warriors carrying for long. 

"I think recruiting players here going forward, we're going to beat 29 teams," Welts boasts. "And I admit, because the opportunity to live in the Bay Area, the opportunity to play at Chase Center and the opportunity to be surrounded by the businesses, that most 20 somethings look at as the most exciting enterprises going on in the United States right now, in front of these fans on a night in night out basis." 

Even as the Warriors reconcile the potential of another run, its current roster is thriving with the perks of the organizational infrastructure. Big man Omari Spellman shed 50 pounds last summer, posting career highs in points, rebounds and field goal percentage this season. Meanwhile, rookie forward Eric Paschall has cemented his place in the Rookie of the Year conversation. Guard D'Angelo Russell, 23, is progressing with Curry out, scoring a career-high 52 points last month while crediting the culture along the way. 

"I just think the quality of people. It's great people around here," Russell said about the Warriors. "They've been accustomed to winning, they're accustomed to bringing good people in. They just feel super jolly."

Russell -- who signed a four-year, $117 million last summer -- has been subjected to trade rumors since joining the team. Nonetheless, he says he wants to be a part of the team's future plans. 

"Of course," he added. "It's where I'm at now. Wherever I'm at now, I would want to be there long term." 

[RELATED: Welts joins "The Habershow" Podcast]

About an hour before game time, Welts gets up from his plush seats inside the club, walks down the dark brown stairs and greets some guests in the shadow of the three championship trophies, which serve as a reminder of the giant he's built and the one he'd like to maintain for the next decade and beyond. 

"I think we do it exactly the same way that we did to get here," he says. "Never take anything for granted. Every day starts out, you got to earn it all over again.

"But now it's about execution. Now we got to go do it."