Joi Garner is the force behind the scenes in the NBA Player’s Association’s branding arm
Exclusive: The secret behind many NBA players' most lucrative deals is the EVP, general counsel and corporate secretary of the NBPA's Think450 platform
As the NBA playoffs go on, pitting the league’s top teams against each other in hotly contested battles, there are thousands of people behind the scenes working to keep the league and its players in the public eye.
Joi Garner is one of them. As the executive vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary of the NBA Player’s Association, Garner works with the Think450 platform which, according to its official website is the “for-profit licensing and business development entity wholly owned by the NBPA and its members.”
Basically, it’s the critical arm of the NBAPA that helps the league and its players increase their revenue streams and make deals that enhance their brands. As its wholly owned by the NBAPA, it means that players are able to profit off of themselves, instead of how it has been in the past where players weren’t always able to monetize their time in the league.
A Philadelphia native, Garner started out in entertainment with the famed Violator Music Management company, then headed to law school, graduating from the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law.
After stints as a corporate lawyer, including in the sports and entertainment division at blue-chip law firm Garvey Schubert Barer, she joined the New York Racing Association as associate general counsel. From there she joined the NBPA and has been behind deals with Nike, Panini America, and Anheuser Busch, as well as partnerships related to their social justice efforts including DoorDash, Kia Motors, and more.
theGrio caught up with Garner to find out more about what her role entails.
(Interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
theGrio: Your job now seems like a pretty big step from music management to law school. How did that happen?
Joi Garner: I’m from Philadelphia originally and when you’re from Philly, you just don’t have a choice. You’re an Eagles fan, you’re a Phillies fan, you’re a Sixers fan. So that was always in my core and my family’s a big sports family. But it was just as a pastime. I didn’t really realize that I could actually have a career in the industry. And so when I was doing PR, the NBA was actually one of our clients. And I’m looking, like wait a minute. I could be doing this. I was the manager of my middle school basketball team. I cheered in high school.
I’ve been supporting athletes and talent my entire career. I decided to apply to the NBA to do PR there. That really started my professional sports journey. When I was at the NBA, I realized I was looking at [the late NBA commissioner] David Stern, who used to be, and I guess I probably could still say, he was one of my idols. I looked at him, I was looking at Adam [Silver, current NBA commissioner] and I’m like everybody that is of note in this industry has an MBA or a JD MBA. And so, I thought, I should go back to school, see if I can get a law degree and if that would help for my career in sports. And that’s what I did.
TG: What is your specific role? You are an EVP, general counsel and corporate secretary which sounds like it could mean you’re responsible for a number of different things.
Garner: The general counsel is another word for the chief legal officer. I’m in charge of all legal matters for Think450, every contract we sign, whether to lease our office space or a copy machine or set players up with brand partnerships. Everything that is signed by Think450, I’m responsible for from a legal perspective. The corporate secretary is about corporate governance, and that is the governance of our board.
It’s a position within the board of directors that makes sure that we are maintaining our fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders, which is the Player’s Association. The EVP and general counsel, because I’m a part of senior management, I take care of all the HR issues as well, on top of our day to day which is selling brand partnerships and licensing the image rights of the 450 players in the NBA.
TG: So you’re looking for people who want to form relationships with the league, with the likenesses and the rights for these various players?
Garner: To make it even more clear, if you want a relationship with the league and you want the rights to the players, sure, come to us. But if you don’t want the rights of the league, you don’t have to. We think the league does a great job with the 48 minutes they have. We talk about the 23-12 effect. The 23 hours and 12 minutes of the day where the guys are not playing basketball. That’s our house. So if you wanted to use a bunch of guys out of uniform and you want to talk about the lifestyle thing, which a lot of brands do, you can come to Think450.
TG: What is your typical work week look like? What are you doing? What are you working on? What are you planning in terms of facilitating these kinds of relationships?
Garner: So we are typically working about six months in advance, planning an event and coming up with assets that we can attach brands to. If a brand comes and says, we want to do something around Father’s Day, we can try to integrate the brand into that. I’m working with our brand partnership team, who might be doing bespoke things for brands. The brand will come with an idea already made and say they just want to fly athletes in.
They want the top names, they want the entire Lakers squad and they want Steph (Curry) and they want James Harden. And you’re like, those things make sense if you want to get the biggest name guys, great. But why not get the guys that are more true to your brand? If you’re selling oil, it makes sense to get the guys that own trucking companies.
TG: So how did the last year complicate what you do?
Garner: I don’t know that it complicated things for us, generally. And the reason why I say that is because we tried to do things with brands before last year that were authentic to the players. We were always trying to align players with things they cared about and what the brand cared about. And so when the civil unrest and social justice, so important I’m going to say, to all of our players, when brands would come, if they didn’t have an idea about something that already meant something to them, it was generally a pass.
There are a few brands, maybe a handful, that we were like, No. You can’t have been on the wrong side of history for 15 years, wake up, have a racial reawakening, and say let’s get some NBA players and show [the public] that. No disrespect to them, but you have to get your own house in order before you see us.
TG: We talk a lot about how Black woman are at a disadvantage in the workplace. But is there something specific about being a Black woman that has actually helped you in this position?
Garner: Yes, and I think it’s been one of my biggest assets in this role. As in sports in general, the majority of our athletes are Black. And I’m a Black woman. I look like their mother or someone in their family. And I know the lifestyle, whether they grew up very well off or not because not all of our players have a sad story.
I connect with players and their upbringing in a way that I think that white men might not. So I think there’s a certain kinship or a comfortability that I offer to players. I think it helps a lot, honestly, to be a Black woman in this role.
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