CU grad Fred Whitfield keeps the Charlotte Bobcats runningBy Will Bratton
Athletics Media Services
The scent of salty, buttered popcorn wafts through Time Warner Cable Arena as thousands of fans find their seats. Charlotte Bobcats center Kwame Brown and Orlando's Dwight Howard soar upward to fight for the opening tip. Bobcats owner Michael Jordan sits at the end of bench, watching his players' and coaches' every move.
A man wearing a lavender shirt and pinstriped suit stands calmly in the tunnel as the game is played. He takes in every aspect of the game, and cracks a smile every so often with other Bobcats executives standing next to him.
"He's the man who makes everything work around here," said Bill Duffy, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial and Administrative Officer for the Bobcats.
The man is Fred Whitfield, President and Chief Operating Officer of the Charlotte Bobcats. Whitfield a native of nearby Greensboro has held multiple sports positions including player, coach, agent, basketball operations administrator, sports marketer and now sports executive with the Charlotte Bobcats.
"I'm responsible for managing this huge investment that Michael has made," said Whitfield. "Running the day to day operations of the business side and I am also responsible for running and managing this arena (Time Warner Cable Arena), which we will probably have, including our games, about 200 events a year."
Much of Whitfield's success has matured from his relationship with Michael Jordan. Whitfield met Jordan during his years in college at Campbell University. The Campbell Basketball School was one of the top summer camps during the time and brought in names like John Wooden, Press Maravich, Bones McKinney and George Lehmann.
"I actually met him (Michael) in Buies Creek," said Whitfield. "I'm almost positive he was going in to his senior year of high school and he happened to come to our camp. At the time I was playing at Campbell and working as a counselor and he happened to be in my group and we hit it off and became friends. Ultimately he went to Chapel Hill and I came back to Campbell to be an assistant coach and work on my MBA and part of my job was to get a lot of college athletes to come in and speak to our campers during our summer basketball camp. I was very fortunate to be able to maintain my relationship with Michael."
Maintain the relationship is exactly what he did. When Jordan went to The University to Carolina to play basketball, Whitfield continued his relationship with him and would even go and visit Jordan and roommate Buzz Peterson on weekends. During the summers, Whitfield would take the hour long trip to Chapel Hill from Buies Creek to hang out with Jordan and other Carolina players and would even participate in pick-up games inside the historic Woolen Gym.
"Fred showed a special interest in Michael Jordan not because he was special then but because he and Fred hit it off pretty good," said fellow Campbell teammate John Boney. "That relationship developed and they just kept in contact. He had no clue where that relationship would take him. There is no way he could have anticipated it."
The relationship that Whitfield built with Jordan took the Campbell graduate on quite a path that he never could have anticipated. While in graduate school at Campbell, Whitfield served as graduate assistant coach for coach Danny Roberts and the basketball team. Press Maravich also served as an assistant coach at the time.
"For me I was just trying to be a sponge," said Whitfield. "I became close with Mr. Maravich. One of my years in grad school he was the other assistant coach so he and I sat on the bench together every night, we met in coaches meeting every morning. He became more of a mentor to me than anything. He is actually the person who talked me into going into law school. I don't know if I completely agree with him now but he told me I was too smart to be a coach, to go do something different and become a lawyer."
Whitfield followed the advice of Maravich and went on to graduate from North Carolina Central School of Law with a Juris Doctor degree. Following graduation he opened a private law practice before becoming Director of the Carolinas Region at Falk Associates Management Enterprises (F.A.M.E.), a prestigious sports management firm. At F.A.M.E., Whitfield represented numerous athletes including Juwan Howard and Alonzo Mourning.
Following his time at F.A.M.E, Whitfield held the position as director of player development for Nike Basketball. Whitfield was responsible for overseeing all business relationships and negotiating endorsement contracts with over 150 players in the NBA. Whitfield attributes much of his business success to Nike, Inc. founder Phil Knight.
"I always give him (Phil Knight) credit for really giving his managers the opportunity to grow and learn from him," said Whitfield. "I have taken a lot of my management skills from him and I think most importantly surrounding yourself with really, really talented people and allowing them to do their jobs. If you are ultimately responsible you have to be able to make those tough calls but if you surround yourself with really talented people that are experts at what they do everyday and really enjoy their jobs you've got the right formula. That's one thing that I really admire Phil for is that he found a way to go out and recruit really talented people and let them do their jobs and that's what I have tried to emulate."
Taking what he had learned at Nike, Whitfield later went on to be Director of Business and Legal Affairs at Brand Jordan, the top division of Nike. While at Brand Jordan, Whitfield worked closely with the athletes and negotiated contracts with NBA players including Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Derek Jeter of Major League Baseball.
"I managed our athletes that were Brand Jordan athletes and negotiated contracts on what we paid them to endorse our products, said Whitfield. "I managed how we integrated them in to our marketing process. I was there to do any and everything I could to help the Brand be successful and help Larry (Miller) be successful as President. When I got there we were about a $350 million dollar company and when I left we were in excess of $900 million dollars a year."
In 2000 Whitfield joined Jordan again for a three year stint where he served as Director of Player Personnel and Assistant Legal Counsel for the Washington Wizards.
In July of 2006, Whitfield took on a different role for a new organization. Whitfield became President and Chief Operating Officer of Bobcats Sports & Entertainment.
"Literally every major concert and family show that hits the road, college basketball tournaments, we just hosted the NCAA 1st and second round, we hosted the CIAA tournament as well," said Whitfield. "I'm responsible for running and managing that too. Everything from our sales operation to tickets sales, sponsorship sales our community relations efforts, public relations efforts all of those things ultimately report up to me. So I am completely responsible ultimately for the business success, or failure, but I like to think success of our organization."
Whitfield has been a leader throughout his life, as a captain on the Campbell basketball team, as the Student Bar Association President while in law school at North Carolina Central University and now an executive in the NBA. His leadership does not go unnoticed by his peers.
"Mr. Whitfield is a great leader because of his willingness to
learn and understand people," said Bobcats owner Michael Jordan.
"A leader must manage people along side understanding the business
goals. He has a tremendous work ethic. I'm proud to have him as my
friend and business partner."
For over three decades now Fred Whitfield has been involved with sports and business in some capacity. There is no doubt that he sees a relationship between the two.
"I have always felt like sports teach you how to survive in life," said Whitfield. "I feel like sports teach you how to win and stay humble and how to lose and thrive to be better to win the next go round. That's pretty much how I have always approached business. When I look at our organization I really look at myself as the coach on the business side of our operation and I have to make sure our culture is right, our attitudes are right, our desire to win is in the right place. I have to make sure we all operate as a team. I think sports help teach you how to win, how to be a great teammate, and how to be a great leader."
Will Bratton is a senior communication studies major from Roanoke Rapids, N.C.