Masai Ujiri opens sports conference at MAC

By Sarah Cunningham-Scharf

More than 50 students and industry professionals sat in silence for Toronto Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri.

Ujiri gave the keynote speech during the third annual Ted Rogers Sports Conference, held on Monday at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC).

Several sports business veterans spoke about the current state of the industry and future opportunities over the seven-hour conference, but no speaker held the audience as rapt as Ujiri. The six-foot-four Nigeria native offered words of wisdom while addressing the necessary traits for success in the cutthroat sports business world.

“Find something you love, and then become the best you can be at it,” he said.

The Raptors executive also discussed dealing with egos and contract negotiations, saying he tries to treat others the way he’d want to be treated. The 2013 NBA Executive of the Year fended off questions about the Raptors’ playoff hopes and trade scenarios, and cracked a couple of jokes about how much he hates the New York Knicks.

Following the presentation from Ujiri, a panel of industry heavyweights spoke about the state of pro sports in Canada.

Chief commercial officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), Dave Hopkinson, said people had previously been worried about the increasing number of immigrants to Canada and their lack of interest in North American sports. However, he believes new Canadians can become devoted fans.

CFL commissioner Mark Cohon agreed, citing his experience holding a swear-in ceremony for a group of new Canadian citizens at a CFL game.

The digital future of sports media and growing demand for interactive content was the topic at hand at another panel discussion held during the conference. “I don’t think we’ve seen all the change,” said former MLSE chief operating officer and Ryerson alumnus Tom Anselmi. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sports are becoming more and more important to people.”

Rogers Media senior vice-president of marketing and insights, Dale Hooper, said, “Really, digital is gone. We’re about screens now, consumers engage with screens. At the end of the day, our job is to bring entertainment and smiles to people.”

When asked what young people need to do to succeed in the sports business industry, Anselmi answered: “You do what you need to do in any industry; you succeed at the most basic levels. Work hard, a little bit of education, have a bit of a plan and great values.”

Hooper’s advice for industry hopefuls is simple. “Know what you’re good at, do it well, and be passionate. The industry will always be changing, just stay on top of it.”

CBC’s Monika Platek, a 2008 graduate of Ryerson’s School of Journalism, also offered advice. “Start working and become involved in the industry you want to work in, even before you graduate from school. Be proactive and network,” she said.

Starting out in the sports business industry may seem daunting, but the story of Ujiri serves as a reminder that anything is possible. Ujiri said he fell in love with the sport of basketball at age 13 when he was still in Nigeria.
He played college ball in the United States for a few years, then spent time playing professionally in Europe.

However, Ujiri had his sights set on scouting talent. Since then, he has taken his career from being an unpaid international scout for the Orlando Magic, to president and general manager of the Toronto Raptors.

“If my dumb ass can do it, you can too,” the 44-year-old said with a smile.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on March 26, 2014.

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