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Steve Mills never made it to the NBA—as a player. But this one-time draft-hopeful earned MVP status behind the scenes for more than 16 years. And he hit another three-pointer when he was named president of sports team operations for Madison Square Garden in New York City, home to the New York Knicks, the Liberty, and the Rangers.
Mills manages business operations, finances, and marketing for all three teams. He also manages relationships between the teams and their respective leagues.
His career with the NBA began after he retired from the court. In 1981, after playing guard for the Princeton University Tigers, Mills had accepted a position as manager of new business development for Chemical Bank when he received an offer to play basketball in Ecuador. Chemical held the position for Mills, who spent a year in South America, and he joined the bank in 1982.
The following year a friend called Mills about an opportunity at the NBA. Soon afterward, he began working as an account executive in the corporate sponsorship department of NBA Properties. He was promoted several times, including being named vice president of special events in 1989, vice president of corporate development in 1993, and senior vice president of basketball and player development in 1995. Mills was also instrumental in forming the first Dream Team. “That was a landmark in terms of the globalization of basketball,” says the native New Yorker.
Mills was involved in the last two collective bargaining agreements, which significantly changed player-management interaction and labor agreements, and he was instrumental in creating the WNBA.
In August 1999 Mills became executive vice president of franchise operations for the New York Knicks. His next goal? “For us to win some championships here in New York,” he muses.
People vs. Policies: “When it comes to the business operations, it’s managing people, it’s managing budgets, it’s managing policies you’ve put in place to promote and market the team, and to sell tickets or sponsorships,” says Mills. “The difference is in the fan base, which is different from sport to sport. You’ve got to figure out ways to make the players connect with the fans.
“In most cases, teams and organizations come up with a framework and say, ‘This is what we’re doing, and this is how we want the players to fit in.’ What we’ve done differently is come up with general goals as an organization, but then ask the players what’s important to them, how they’d like to see themselves positioned. We started building programs around the players. Kurt Thomas was interested in investing, so we created the Kurt Thomas Investment Challenge and involved the schools and Merrill Lynch. So what you have is Kurt vested in a program that is important to him. If he’s scheduled to be at a school for an hour, he’ll be there for four because that’s where he wants to be. And the kids who perform well get internships. So it’s win-win.”
o Competitive Advantage: “If you played sports at any serious level, you learned how to