“I truly believe that sport has the power to effect cultural, social, economic and even political change in the world unlike any other discipline,” says Sharma, who worked for the National Basketball Association’s minor league, the NBA Development League, for more than eight years.
His latest career challenge will put that philosophy to the test as he assumes the position of senior vice president, global business development, basketball, with IMG, the global sports, entertainment, and media giant. In this role, Sharma is charged with overseeing the growth of IMG’s basketball business around the world, from grassroots efforts to new professional leagues, with an initial focus on the emerging economies of India and Brazil, where IMG Chairman and CEO Ted Forstmann has struck joint venture partnerships with leading industrialists. The joint ventures also will focus on the growth of soccer and sports academies to develop elite talent. With India being the most advanced opportunity, Sharma will relocate to Mumbai later this year.
Career re-evaluation puts passion at forefront
Having worked at law firms in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and New York doing general commercial litigation following his graduation from Duke Law, Sharma charted a new professional course for himself following the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I had a re-evaluation of priorities and direction in life,” he says. “I realized I loved being a lawyer, but I wanted to take my career in-house to build something, and I wanted to do it in an area where I had a passion. My greatest passion since I was a kid has been sports.”
Sharma’s networking efforts produced contacts at all the major U.S. sports leagues. In 2002, he joined the fledgling NBA Development League (also known as the “D-League”) as director of legal and business affairs.
“It was exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to build and do something that really changed people’s lives. Over the years we’ve had many, many call-ups whose dream it was to be in the NBA” Sharma says. Of note – twenty percent of players on NBA rosters at the outset of the 2010-2011 seasons previously appeared in the D-League, and every NBA and WNBA official hired since 2002 has come through the NBA’s minor league.
“It really is constructive in the truest sense of the word,” he adds. “People say it’s where dreams come true. The D-League really does serve that function for players, coaches, referees, and even front-office people. I’m proud to have been a part of it.”
He remembers fondly the first D-League game he attended when a friend and fellow NBA employee encouraged him to appreciate his role in the night’s events. “‘Take a look around. Take it all in,’ my friend said. ‘This is what all your hard work has translated to.’”
“That was a very meaningful moment for me,” Sharma recalls. “I saw thousands of fans and all these great basketball players, some of whom I had just been watching play in college the year before. There was game entertainment going on, a great basketball game being played, courtside signage, on-court contests and events. It was a unique viewpoint to have, one that was much different than my previous perspective as a fan.”
Keeping pace with a changing industry
Sharma says he faced a steep learning curve at the outset as he addressed high level legal issues as well as business and operational challenges. He likens his first several years on the job to working at a new start-up company each year as the league’s business model shifted from a central ownership structure to one where teams are locally owned and operated.
The NBA’s 2005 collective bargaining agreement created a formal affiliation structure for D-League and NBA teams, whereby players in their first two years in the NBA could be assigned to the minor league for playing time.
“The dynamics shifted so much, the structures changed so much, the challenges were constantly new or growing,” he says. “It involved a lot of long nights, early mornings, weekends, but all of it was welcome.” Sharma’s role evolved along with the league, and he became vice president and general counsel with responsibilities that ranged from drafting, developing, and administering various contracts, rules, policies, and procedures, to assisting with team marketing and branding efforts. He received the South Asian Bar Association of New York’s 2010 Corporate Counsel Award, as well as the Association of Media & Entertainment Counsel’s 2010 Sports Counsel of the Year Award.
“There’s a long-running joke that NBA stands for ‘Nothing But Attorneys.’ Virtually everything a professional sports organization does is legal oriented. In such a context, lawyers have a great deal of influence and power, as everything stems from contracts, rules, policies, or procedures,” Sharma says. “As such, there was a lot of value to my legal background which often directly translated into what I did on a day-to-day basis. My Duke Law education has been immensely valuable in doing what I do.”
Nearly a decade after re-evaluating his direction in life, Sharma is pleased with the path he is on — and as passionate as ever about it.
“Sport has become such a powerful force in our culture, our communities, and our lives. I’m really happy to be involved in this industry because I think there are few better venues for affecting positive and constructive change on a global basis.” Sharma says. “Sports have a way of bringing people together unlike nearly anything else.”