Andrew Saltzman (GSB ’88) came of age in the golden era for Georgetown basketball, as his time as a student overlapped with Patrick Ewing’s (CAS ’85) career with the Hoyas. While Saltzman never played for the Hoyas, he witnessed some of Georgetown basketball’s greatest years as a student. During Saltzman’s freshman year, he witnessed John Thompson Jr. lead the Hoyas to a national title and repeat a title game appearance during the following season. Following his graduation from Georgetown, Saltzman entered the sports world, but not as a professional athlete. Saltzman began his career in sports radio in San Francisco doing advertisement revenue for a station that covered the Golden State Warriors and the San Francisco Giants. He has since moved to Atlanta and established himself as a leader in sports marketing.
In his role as executive vice president and chief revenue officer for the Atlanta Hawks, Saltzman has helped rebuild the Hawks’ franchise under Tony Ressler’s (SFS ’82) ownership. He has assisted in facilitating the change in branding rights from Philips Arena to State Farm Arena and worked to transform the in-game experience for new NBA fans. In an interview with The Hoya, Saltzman discussed how Georgetown influenced the trajectory of his career and what his role has been in the NBA. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Why did you choose Georgetown?
A: It’s kind of an interesting story. I grew up in Manhattan, but my dad had some experience with St. John’s and got exposed to Jesuit education. The more he learned about it, the more he was convinced that, even as a Jewish kid growing up in Brooklyn as he did, growing up in New York as I did, that it was the right place to get an education. And that was really the driver. … I knew I wanted to be in the business program, wasn’t sure if I was going to grad school after I graduated college, and because Georgetown offered a true business undergraduate program, it seemed to make the most sense.
Q: Do you have any great stories or memories from watching Georgetown basketball?
A: I don’t think you could’ve picked a better four years to be at Georgetown. My freshman year was the 1983-84 season, in which we won the national championship, and I had two starters living on my floor — first floor of New South [Hall]. So I had Michael Graham and Reggie Williams, who both started on the team, living on my floor. So, a couple of funny stories: One was on the first day. The RAs were bringing everyone into the common room. It’s 50 rooms, 100 guys, and they’re going through a few things. And finally, the RA, after the whole meeting, says, ‘Does anybody need anything?’ And Michael Graham, who was a tall, bald-headed, mean-looking but unbelievably sweet man, said, ‘Yeah, I need a bigger bed.’ His bed wasn’t big enough. They could bring in a 7-foot bed — most of our beds were like six and a half feet or something — but he needed a bigger bed. So that was a pretty funny story from him. And then of course, after everything else, he said, ‘We’re bringing home a national championship this year,’ and all the kids went crazy. And who knew what was going to transpire that year with us winning the national championship in Seattle that year.
Q: ‘The Last Dance’ was just released, bringing national attention to Patrick Ewing. You were at Georgetown at the same time as Patrick Ewing. Did you ever get to go to the national championship, or see him on campus or get to interact with him?
A: I went to a lot of Georgetown games, both in D.C. and some Big East games, but I had other things I was doing in college. I was a big hoops fan but just had other things that I was doing, and I never went to either of the two national championship games — the one in Seattle in ’84, or the one in Lexington, Kentucky, when we lost to Villanova in ’85. So I didn’t go to either of those, but again, the campus was smaller then, so I got a chance to see everybody, and because of the relationship with Michael Graham that I had, because we were pretty friendly, I got to see the players. They wore suits and ties every day. John Thompson Jr. was a very strict disciplinarian, regimented coach, and the players had to take it seriously. They had to do their work and really take their studies seriously.
Q: What was it like on campus when they won the national championship in 1984?
A: I mean, it was pretty cool. It was electric, as you could imagine. Interesting, because even in ’84, while it was a big deal, it isn’t what it is now. In ’84 and ’85, too, these games weren’t being played in domes like they are today — the stadiums that are enclosed with 60,000 to 70,000 people. They were played in arenas like State Farm Arena. They just weren’t as big. But we didn’t just win, we dominated people. We were so big and so physical that we just really dominated people.
Q: You were at Georgetown during the golden era of Hoya basketball. What does Georgetown need to do to reclaim its rightful spot as a perennial contender for an NCAA title?
A: I think coaching is going to be key, and I’m a huge fan of Patrick and I would love to see him successful there. I think there was some debate after going from John Thompson Jr. to John Thompson III and was it time for a change of the constant, if you will. We all know how close Patrick Ewing and John Thompson were and still are, so I think there was some question if we should go in a different direction. But the reality is, Patrick got the job on his own. He was the right guy. He had a great career as an assistant coach in the NBA. I certainly think coaching and recruiting is going to be important. Does a 17-year-old today understand what Georgetown basketball was and possibly could be again? I’m not so sure. I think that’s a very hard one. Do they appreciate the legacy? I think social media — everything happens so fast — I’m not so sure that a young person today playing high school basketball, being recruited by schools knows, ‘I could go play for Patrick Ewing at the once-great Georgetown University.’
Q: What is your favorite memory of Georgetown basketball games as a student?
A: Probably my favorite Georgetown basketball home game I went to was the game where there was such a bad snowstorm we couldn’t get to the [Capital] Centre, so they moved the game to McDonough, the on-campus gym where they practice, and it was just electric. And we played against Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh had a freshman who maybe was the best player I had ever seen up close, ended up playing in the NBA — not Georgetown’s Charles Smith, Pittsburgh’s Charles Smith. He was 6’10”, and I’d never seen someone, almost like Magic Johnson, who could handle the ball at that size with such ease. He was amazing. I think we won the game, but he was just spectacular. So that’s probably my favorite Georgetown home game.
Q: Do you think it would make a difference, if games were played back on campus, to renovate McDonough to look more like a Cameron Indoor [Stadium at Duke University], giving Georgetown an on-campus stadium?
A: I think that would be a great, great idea. And I don’t know how something like that would happen or could happen, but I think that would be a wonderful idea. I would certainly support it.
Q: You know a lot about stadiums — the Atlanta Hawks renovated their stadium, State Farm Arena. What did you do there?
A: It’s all about: Going to a game is a social experience. This idea of understanding and appreciating the experience economy and how young people — millennials, Gen Z — appreciate, and probably even more so, not just appreciate, but are driven by experiences. And that’s where people of your generation — old Gen Z and young millennials — they don’t want to buy things; they want to do things. And that’s why travel and dining and music and sports and that live experience is so important to how they want to spend their resources. So we took a tact; we went from having 90 20-person suites or boxes to 20, but all these different premium seating areas and offerings that were beyond just a typical seat. And then making that an experience, doing things in the building — we wanted the building to reflect our core values, which are authenticity, innovation and inclusivity. And I think that’s what we were able to accomplish in the arena. Walk anywhere in the old Philips Arena, you couldn’t — you were kind of sanctioned off by what section you were in. And then we wanted to bring some things that were true to Atlanta, which is our mantra into the arena. … So understanding how people are going to games and concerts differently than they did 20 years ago, 30 years ago, so we built an arena that reflects our city and also reflects the changing ways that people are enjoying live sports entertainment.
Q: I know Dikembe Mutombo played for Georgetown and later the Hawks — do you ever talk to him about being a Hoya?
A: Oh, sure. The one thing about Georgetown — there’s a lot of pride there. And Dikembe has a lot of pride. They’re all still very close to John Thompson. So he’s a big Hoya supporter, no question.
Q: How did you go from being a student in the [business school] to chief revenue officer of the Hawks? What motivated you to go into sports-related businesses?
A: It really wasn’t a plan; it was something that just happened. I knew early on in my career that I wanted to be in sales. I took a year off Georgetown and I worked on Wall Street for about six months. I loved the sales process, but I didn’t like that product. So I knew when I got out of Georgetown and I graduated that I wanted to sell — I didn’t know what. My father had been in the media business in New York, so me and a friend went to San Francisco, and I got a job at a rock radio station selling advertising and liked it. Then our company bought the sports station in San Francisco, and I loved the idea of selling sports radio and play-by-play. And we were the home of the Golden State Warriors back in a great time for them. … I was running all of our sports radio sales for our team properties, which at that time was the San Francisco Giants and the Golden State Warriors and Stanford Cardinal basketball and football.
I got interested in that side of it, and then had the opportunity to move to Atlanta in ’97 and really start Atlanta’s first sports radio station at 790 The Zone back in 1997. We became the rights holders for virtually every team in Atlanta. We were the rights holder for the Falcons, for the Hawks. We were the first rights holders for the Atlanta Thrashers, which were the NHL team that Ted Turner brought here. We were the rights holders for Georgia Tech, Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, so I got really involved in the sports side from the media perspective, and then through some trials and tribulations we sold our company.
I did a stint with NBC Sports consulting and then joined a digital high school startup called Play On! Sports, which was aggregating all of the high school sports play-by-play content and basically an OTT platform, which was really interesting.
And when the team got sold from the Atlanta Spirit group to the group led by Tony Ressler and Grant Hill, Steve Koonin, the CEO, asked me to come over and run the revenue side of the business, because I think what he realized, a local pro sports franchise is a local team. It’s a local business, and he needed someone who really understood the local markets — where the bodies are buried, where the beer guys, the insurance guys, the car guys, how to build a local sales organization. And that was all my forte. So that’s kind of how it happened. I joined the team in August. It’ll have been five years, and we’ve had a great run, and we’re held up right now with the pandemic, but I’m confident we’ll come back.
Q: Tell me a little bit about what a chief revenue officer does. What are some things the Hawks are doing to attract crowds and sponsorships that are different from other NBA teams?
A: I oversee our local revenues, and our local revenues are all of our ticket revenue, so every Hawks ticket we sell across the board. Our premium non-Hawks revenue, so we have inventory that we have that we can sell — suites, club seats and whatnot for all of our concerts and non-Hawks events, whether it be Michelle Obama or Oprah or Disney on Ice or WWE or UFC, obviously every concert, really always a top-five concert venue in the country, Atlanta’s such a big music town. So I oversee all of our ticketing revenue, I oversee all of our sponsorship revenue, which is referred to as corporate sponsorships, and I oversee our local media partnerships as well.
Q: How is the Hawks’ marketing strategy unique?
A: Well, I think you have to look at the Atlanta sports market to really understand that. This is such a new city. When I moved here 22 years ago, there were a third of the people that there are here today. So it’s not a city really where sports are part of the fabric of the city. When you think about St. Louis — if you talk to someone there, their grandfather or great grandfather took them to Busch Stadium — it’s part of the fabric of your culture. Atlanta isn’t that way for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s a new city, and a lot of people who grew up here moved here 20, 30 years ago. They grew up in another place and they had other allegiances from a sports perspective, so I think that’s certainly a component. And you couple that with there’s no real championship culture here. There’s only one pro championship — the Braves in ’95, I guess MLS has one too. Instead of traditionally going after the 50-plus-year-old guy from the suburbs who can buy season tickets, we really changed five years ago the marketing strategy to going after the next generation. We’re going to go after people who grew up here, born here. This is their town, they don’t necessarily want to follow their father’s teams, and that’s what we really did. And to do that, you have to have a real voice. And we created a voice of our brand that was a little more reverent.
Q: In 2018, you rebranded Philips Arena as State Farm Arena. What did that process look like, and what was the motivation behind it?
A: We needed to break down the walls and create a much more social experience for our fans. And so, the Philips deal was expiring, and we were looking to do a transformation of the entire arena. And we did everything under the roof. Basically it was a brand-new arena under the same roof. And that’s what people didn’t really comprehend: how extensive the renovation was. Renovation is what I just did to my kitchen; it’s not what we did to the arena. It was a full transformation, that’s what it was, and I don’t think it could’ve gone any better.
Q: The Hawks’ CEO Steve Koonin has floated the idea of shifting the NBA season to start a few months later; what do you think is the motivation behind that?
A: The NBA has two months of its season, essentially a third of its season, where it’s competing with the Goliaths of the NFL, and a lot of people don’t really focus on the NBA until Christmas time and the New Year when football winds down. And in this market, it’s not just the NFL — it’s college football. So by shifting the season to a December to July time frame he brought up, could put you in a position where you’re competing much less against football, and then where there’s a lot fewer major sports distractions — it’s really just baseball at that time. And when you really think about it, and he does a really good job of describing why it started in the first place, it was really advertising-driven, because in the fall, that’s when all the new TV shows are launched back when TV really was the primary way to reach people, and all the new car companies rolled out their new models in the fall, and that’s why the NBA wanted to be on in the fall. Well, it’s a different world we live in today, with media fragmentation. So at this point, you can get eyeballs any time, at any time of the year, and to have a season that goes December through July or early August or whenever it may be could end up being a really, really good move.
Q: How has the NBA had to adjust in light of the season being put on pause in response to the novel coronavirus, and what do you anticipate happening over the next few months?
A: Right now, we are just working with the league to figure out what’s going to make the most sense for how and in what way the league comes back and games get resumed. So I think, just like with everybody, health and safety of players, fans, personnel are paramount, and that’s what we’re working towards. We are the franchise, and the league will make that decision when they determine and how they determine to resume games.