How This NBA "Ball-Girl" Hustled Her Way Into A Role As The Atlanta Hawks CMO
Melissa Proctor wasn’t your ordinary student growing up. She loved to draw and create things from scratch, leading her to major in graphic design at a magnet arts school - but she claims to have never wanted to be an artist. She was open to whatever she believed the universe had in store for her after high school, but it wasn’t until her cousin introduced her to the NBA, that her ambitions changed.
“I knew I didn’t want to just be an artist. I wanted to do something different. At the time I decided I wanted to be the first female head coach of the NBA, as it sounded like a really cool thing to do.”
Even though she never played basketball, Melissa was determined. She credits her mom, who Melissa calls her “Champion”, as she didn’t let her get just any job but really encouraged her to find a job doing something related to what she wanted to do as a career, which at the time was to coach in the NBA.
So, she picked up the closest Yellow Pages to start calling any professionals she could find in the basketball industry. She never stepped foot in an arena and didn’t have any ‘hook-ups’, so Melissa relied on her sheer determination and artistic abilities to land a foot in the door. She started writing letters to show her passion for basketball and drew over them to show her strength - her artistic abilities. Many times, she had no idea what kind of job she was applying for but she knew her strengths.
Surprisingly, she got a call back from someone on the Miami Heat Community Relations team who suggested she reach out to the Equipment Manager. She sent numerous letters and kept calling once she found out the right person, but he eventually got annoyed.
“Hey kid, you call me one more time and I’m not going to hire you” Melissa recalls.
So she stopped…. for a while. Eventually the equipment manager called back and invited her out to a preseason game. That game led to an opportunity for her to become the first ever “Ball-Girl” or Team Attendant for the Miami Heat. Melissa was 16, had no idea what she was doing, but took any opportunity that came her way. There were no female refs or women in the locker rooms at the time, so her job responsibilities were limited, but her boss eventually found her something and asked her to stay on the court and help rebound.
Over time, she gained the trust of Assistant Coach Stan Van Gundy who would ask her to help with running drills on game nights; Players Dan Majerle & PJ Brown would also teach her how to pass, so they could get passes exactly where they wanted in practice. She even would pick up little scraps of paper that Pat Riley would scribble plays on and take them home to study. Eventually, the team and staff loved her so much that they nicknamed her “Queen”. Pretty cool, right?
Despite the excitement of the basketball drills, it was still a lot of grunt work. The job included folding up towels, mopping up sweat, and hanging up uniforms. Oh yes, and it didn’t pay…. But it was all about building those relationships that would help her down the road as her career unfolded.
As she finished high school, Melissa was fortunate enough to receive a Presidential Arts scholarship to attend Wake Forest University. So she packed up her bags and took her talents from South Beach to North Carolina for her first year on a new journey. During university, she stayed involved with basketball by volunteering with the Heat in the summers and working for the women’s team at Wake Forest but realized never playing basketball growing up would limit her chances of becoming a head coach – but she wasn’t ready to leave her newly developed passion for basketball.
In her senior year, she decided to apply for a management-training program at the NBA. THIS WAS THE JOB. She had the work experience and even had recommendation letters from Pat Riley and Alonzo Mourning. After an interview with the league office, she was shocked to receive the following message “Melissa, you are very talented and have a lot of great experience, BUT you are too creative for this position…”
Melissa was devastated. How could she not get that job? Well, don’t worry, her
Getting back on her horse, Melissa came across a posting for an 11-month internship with Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta. She didn’t know exactly what the job was, but since when has that stopped her. To apply for the internship, Turner had asked for applicants to send in their talent in a project. She knew what she had to do – she put together a magazine called the “T3 TV Guide”, which incorporated an art gallery of her work and even mock ads about her becoming homecoming queen at Wake Forest. She took it on as a creative challenge, tailored it to the job at hand and leveraged her strengths as a way to stand out. She got the job. In fact, the Turner executives claimed that she sold herself so well with the magazine, that they believed she would do a great job selling their content to consumers.
Since the internship didn’t pay well, Melissa took on a part-time role with the Atlanta Hawks so that during her 11 months learning about the broadcast industry, she could support herself through money earned from game nights.
As she was getting ready to start applying for graduate school in England, the realization that she couldn’t afford further education dawned on her. She wrote up a proposal that explained why she wanted to attend university and how she would give back to the community upon completion, while using the idea of selling her artwork to hopefully raise some money. She gave the sales pitch to anyone that would listen, but it wasn’t until she happened to meet some a familiar faces in Atlanta for NBA All-Star Weekend, that something miraculous happened.
Two weeks after NBA All-Star, she received a call from Tim Hardaway.
“He said my wife and I are a fan of you, your artwork and work ethic. We want to help you go to graduate school – they wrote a cheque for $30,000 to support my dream. Don’t pay it back, pay it forward.” Melissa recalls Tim Hardaway telling her.
As she got ready to attend graduate school in England, she got an opportunity to intern with Turner in their UK office. From there, she worked 9 different jobs in 11 years with Turner. Any opportunity that came her way, she took it, from design to consumer insights. Her willingness to take on new challenges led her to a role as Vice President of marketing & content for an internal health & wellness start-up at Turner. She was truly a poster child for the company - from Intern to Vice President.
A few months after launching the start-up, leadership decided that they wanted to go in a different direction – they fired the whole small business unit for upwave. Melissa was let go of her job and at the time was 8 months pregnant.
Melissa is a strong believer in everything happens for a reason.
After focusing on having her new baby, she happened to have a chance encounter with an old colleague Steve Koonin at an NBA Draft party. Steve had left Turner broadcasting to take on an executive role as CEO of the Atlanta Hawks – at the time, he couldn’t recruit Turner employees as he left the organization but since Melissa was let go from her role, he invited on for a consulting project. Leading to a full-time role as Vice President of Brand Strategy, Melissa was back working with the NBA and following her passion for basketball.
TAKING THE LEAD
Fast forward to now, Melissa is leading one of the most respected sports marketing teams in the nation as Executive Vice President, Chief Marketing Officer of the Atlanta Hawks and Philips Arena.
She credits her career growth to her ‘guiding principles’, which state the following:
Bring your WHOLE self to work
Be able to be both creative & strategic
Be able to pay your bills on-time and save
Be challenged everyday
Maintain a work-life flexibility
By taking on roles that are challenging and outside of her comfort zone, Melissa always looked past the money and rather towards jobs what would allow her to add more tools to her personal toolbox – in other words, what would make her a better professional and allow her to build a stronger skillset. Her success throughout her career came from raising her hand and being willing to do things to fill gaps where people didn’t see them.
In her current position, Melissa is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of the club’s marketing teams, including digital marketing, creative, content, in-game entertainment, advertising and fan experience. As a member of the executive leadership team, she has been a core contributor to making the Hawks more appealing to “Next-Generation Atlanta” and to the greater country.
“For me, it’s constant innovation. How are we continuing to grow our brand for the next-generation Atlanta Hawks fans? It’s looking outside of the sports space and towards technology so we can innovate and determine how to create the best experience for our fans when interacting with the Hawks brand or coming to a Hawks game.”
It’s clear that innovation is a priority for the team. In the past year, the Atlanta Hawks have announced a $192 million dollar renovation of Philips Arena, made a recent acquisition of a D-League team in College Park and have partnered with Emory Healthcare to build a new practice facility for the 2017-18 season.
When it comes to the team’s marketing, Melissa places a strong importance on listening to the fans and remaining authentic to the core brand, a promise to unite and entertain fans through basketball.
When the idea of creating a “Swipe Right Night” in 2015 came about, so that fans in the arena can find the loves of their lives on game night, Melissa remembers wanting to make the experience authentic. She credits her talented marketing & fan experience teams for helping to put together the concept and bring it to life. The event, partnered with Tinder and gathered national attention the last few years and this year they even partnered with Bud Light and had R&B superstar Monica come in to sing at halftime. In the same year, the Hawks hired 3 people named “Ashley Madison” to help sell 10-game flex packs and urged fans to feel the rush of a “new relationship” in a new campaign. Fast forward to 2017, the Atlanta Hawks have continued to innovate with a creative emoji schedule release on Twitter, exclusive Facebook Live videos to watch preseason games, and even a virtual reality broadcast on NBA League Pass. It’s this new idea of thinking that really resonates with the next generation of Atlanta Hawks fans.
When asking Melissa about her advice for rising young professionals, her response was simple.
“Do the job you want before you have it. The idea of not waiting to get a job to get the experience, but to find a way you can volunteer or help somebody else to get that experience yourself. It’s huge.”
From her personal life, she focused on brand development in graduate school but wasn’t given a job in it – so she encountered a t-shirt company named Free Hugs (every time someone bought a free hugs shirt, the founder personally thanked them for supporting their vision of letting everyone know they matter) – she really liked what they were doing so she reached out to help build their brand and tried to build their sales internationally as the Director of Brand Development. For years, she built experience and case studies that were relevant as she created her career even if it didn’t provide a paycheck. It’s not always going to be easy along the career path but that’s where Melissa believes mentorship comes in.
“Everybody needs a few people to help champion their careers. Steve Koonin, Jennifer Dorian, they were
champions for me and helped open doors.I always tell people about ‘active networking’. It’s not always talking to someone about what they can do for you, but rather looking at it as a mutually beneficial relationship. It needs to be more than just transactional. Find out how to be a networking asset, not a liability."
This is simple advice that was really demonstrated throughout Melissa’s career: Go above and beyond before you even have to and provide value - those are the keys to success.