From the NBA to MLB to the NHL: A Darden Pro Helps Top Sports Franchises Outperform
By Dave Hendrick
University of Virginia Darden School of Business alumna Valerie Camillo (MBA ’00) knows you want to know about Gritty. Everyone always asks about Gritty, the wild-eyed, transcendently famous Philadelphia Flyers mascot.
Camillo, president of business operations for the Flyers and the Wells Fargo Center, said it’s not uncommon to be in a meeting room with representatives of some of the world’s largest brands, only to see the meeting collapse into a string of selfie sessions when Gritty walks by.
“He is the No. 1 thing people ask me about,” Camillo said. “Do I know him? Where does he sit?”
Camillo does know him and knows where he sits. (Wherever he wants — he’s Gritty.) But, as a trailblazer herself in tradition-bound industry, Camillo wants to point out one of the lessons behind the Gritty story.
Before Gritty became a thing, before he spawned countless memes and gained roughly a quarter million Twitter followers, Gritty was received as a bit of joke — a poor one.
“The initial reaction was, ‘This thing is not good, and it’s really weird and what were you thinking?” said Camillo, who took the Flyers role a few months after the Gritty launch. “There was a period where the marketing department was trying to decide whether to pull it or lean in.”
Their decision was ultimately made for them when the social media team, a group composed primarily of young women, began to aggressively inject the mascot into the broader cultural conversation — threatening the Pittsburgh Penguin; retweeting a video of the orange monster slipping on ice; recreating an iconic photo from reality TV star Kim Kardashian. Suddenly, Gritty was being booked on The Today Show and The Tonight Show. A star was born.
Sleep with one eye open tonight, bird. pic.twitter.com/wLmGBa0Oyh
— Gritty (@GrittyNHL) September 24, 2018
“It just showed the brilliance of this team and these young women and their understanding of the zeitgeist,” Camillo said. “There is value in gender diversity in any industry and certainly there was here for the Philadelphia Flyers. These young millennial women created Gritty by their ability to see things a little differently.”
A Rapid Rise in the Sports World
Camillo’s rapid rise in the sports world — with leadership positions in the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and now the National Hockey League in the span of a decade — has been due in part to her own ability to see things a little differently.
A double Hoo and lifelong sports enthusiast, Camillo long dreamed of a job in the industry. Working as a management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton after Darden, Camillo said she occasionally made inquiries with members of her network, expressing her desire to break into sports and entertainment but couldn’t find a pathway.
“Sports teams couldn’t project my skill set into one of their existing roles,” said Camillo, who grew up in Northern Virginia and holds an undergraduate degree from UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce. “At my level, team sports executives were mostly experienced sales and marketing professionals — not business strategists or analysts.”
Then, fortuitously, teams’ emerging needs began to match her background. Camillo recalled receiving an unexpected call from Chris Granger, who was running the NBA’s internal consulting division.
Teams were trying to become more data-informed and analytical in their decision-making and there might finally be a role for her in the industry. Was she interested?
Camillo got her break.
“A lot of teams, even though owned by top corporations and titans of industry, ran the teams on the business side a little bit mom and pop,” Camillo said. “There was this sea change taking place with Moneyball on the sports operations side, and that was trickling over to the business side.”
Camillo worked for the NBA’s Team Marketing and Business Operations Group for nearly four years, working to help teams modernize and innovate their business operations to increase revenue. The position led to a more senior role with the Washington Nationals, where Camillo was responsible for all revenue and marketing for one of professional sports’ most visible franchises. Again, her charge was to modernize.
“The biggest change was to alter the mindset of the organization; every decision we make is not going to be anecdotal anymore. It’s going to be built on the foundation of a business case, and it’s going to be based on what the numbers tell us to do,” Camillo said of her role as Nationals chief revenue and marketing officer. “That’s a big change, and in some cases you need new talent, but you also need a new mindset from the sales and marketing professionals that are there.”
Once other departments and sales leaders saw the revenue that could be unlocked by inviting advanced analytics into their decision-making, initial wariness typically gave way to enthusiasm, Camillo said.
After five years with the Nationals, Camillo accepted her biggest role yet, taking charge of all business operations for the Flyers and their arena, which hosts both the Philadelphia 76ers and major concerts and family spectacles throughout the year, meaning a full arena almost every night of the year.
Camillo described her responsibilities as “end-to-end,” including ticketing; food and beverage; and retail operations, corporate partnerships and broadcast relationships.
“In this industry, it can be kind of taboo to be perceived as a fan, but you have these moments, whether it’s standing on the sidelines at the Super Bowl, or a major concert comes through and you get to meet a childhood idol like Bruce Springsteen, or you’re in the clubhouse when your team clinches a playoff berth and you’re getting drenched in champagne. These unbelievable moments happen,” said Camillo. “And every one of us goes back in our minds to that little kid we once were, that sports fan, and for that instant you can’t help but feel incredibly blessed.”
Rebooting the Live Sports Experience for a New Generation
Camillo is also overseeing a $250 million renovation of the Wells Fargo Arena, in addition to her other responsibilities with the arena and Flyers. “It’s an awesome opportunity, and it’s a whole lot of fun, too.”
In an era when the at-home viewing experience has never been better, Camillo said the arena is being renovated with an eye toward making the live experience can’t miss entertainment.
“We are being progressive and creative in how we are thinking about the experiences we want to deliver,” Camillo said. “We want to create one-of-a-kind areas within the arena that are can’t-miss elements.”
Clearing a Path for More Women in Pro Sports Management
Camillo’s success in the sports world came about because someone took a chance on her. For other women to follow in her footsteps, there needs to be multiple, more formalized paths available, she says.
More women owning professional sports teams will be one important aspect, Camillo said, and she hopes other women can follow her path, getting a foothold and then working through the structure of an organization and demonstrating the aptitude to be offered a top job.
It’s important that women can see themselves at every rung of the ladder within organizations, Camillo said. There are a lot of great jobs in professional sports — many of which would benefit from diverse perspectives — and the field can be uniquely rewarding.
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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