The Golden State Warriors’ Filipino Heritage Night is a sensory experience.
Food trucks and tailgaters create the vibe early. The bass from a Filipino DJ’s set puts a pulse in the air. As fans flow into the arena, they see flags, stars, and lights. Filipino Heritage Night shirts await them at their seats. The anthem singer and in-game performers are Filipino. It’s maximum representation.
Maria Valdehueza, the woman who transformed Filipino Heritage Night into the Dubs’ most successful group ticket sales night, feels her heart soar.
“It was certainly a passion project for me, honestly," Valdehueza told NBC Sports Bay Area. "I am a proud Pinay. So the thought of bringing culture to the basketball court was something that totally piqued my interest."
Connecting with fans in an authentic way motivates Valdehueza. She’s the Senior Director of Group Sales, and Filipino Heritage Night is the top ticket seller. It’s so popular, the Warriors put on two of these events: One in the fall, one in the spring.
“It sells out every year. It's the fastest thing to sell out,” Valdehueza said.
Valdehueza’s passion for the night comes through with every word.
“I think over the years, we've found really some magic in what we've been able to do and how we can connect with the Filipino community," Valdehueza said. "You know, we say it all the time. Filipinos love basketball.
“How do we make it authentic and you know, tailgating and food and music and dancing that is all so much a part of the Filipino culture is just the ability to be together right with family."
“Filipinos don't just bring their immediate family members, they bring their whole community. They bring aunts and uncles, you know, they bring lolas and lolos [grandmas and grandpas] and it's amazing to see them all want to spend time together.”
Togetherness is tough in COVID-19 times. Spirited crowds at Oracle Arena and Chase Center have given way to empty stands. How does Valdehueza pivot the team’s most popular heritage night into something that resonates when fans cannot be in the building?
She helped launch the Dub Hub. It’s an interactive fan experience via giant LED boards that sit behind the bench during games or in the players’ tunnel.
In the Dub Hub, about 120 fans per game tune-in from home to get behind-the-scenes views from the tunnels. Occasionally, players speak into a microphone to say hello. Fans can interact with each other during games to create a virtual watch party. Their faces are prominently on screen during the TV broadcasts.
The Dub Hub will host Filipino Heritage Night on Jan. 30. Other group nights will spotlight Jewish heritage, Polynesian heritage, Girl Scouts, LGBTQ+ fans, first responders, and families with special needs.
Valdehueza wants basketball to be accessible to everyone, and her mission of inclusion is a personal one.
“I'm first generation here in the United States," Valdehueza said. "I never thought I would work in sports. I honestly just didn't think it was a chance for someone like me with my background."
Valdehueza remembers watching basketball games with her dad as she grew up. She always liked the sport, and she had a chance to intern with the Warriors in 2006. In 2009, she got her first full-time job with the team.
In 2021, she’s spearheading campaigns for fan outreach in line with the Diversity and Inclusion initiatives she holds dear.
“It's literally what motivates me to come every day," Valdehueza said. "And we say it all the time, to bring our authentic self to work. I know that that gets tossed around. But it couldn't be more true for me and for the groups that I work with, internally and externally. How are we supporting our team members? How are we creating open spaces for dialogue and meaningful change?”
It’s poetic that someone who didn’t think she’d ever have a job like this is now in charge of bringing fans into a world she loves so much.
Valdehueza thought back to one of her favorite memories at a game.
“It’s gotta be when my oldest daughter, who is now six…” Valdehueza said, flashing back to her daughter’s infancy, “It was our first time bringing her on to the floor. She got the chance to be on the hardwood and started crawling around. And you know, she just saw the logo and was going there.”
Valdehueza said she had a mom moment. She cried.
“And I'm like, 'This is so great to see ... my child really connecting with basketball in this way,' " Valdehueza said. "And to have these incredible moments that I know I won't ever forget, and that I will make sure she doesn't forget when she's older.”