Joining a team that finished bottom of their division and admittedly knowing very little about basketball itself, it was a daunting introduction for Irina Pavlova when she took up a leading role with the faltering New Jersey Nets.
As president of Onexim Sports and Entertainment Holding USA, Inc, she was tasked with overseeing the NBA team’s business operations and coordinating between the management and new Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who bought 80 per cent of the Nets in 2010.
A rookie she might have been, but the feisty, focused Pavlova rose to a challenge.
It was no surprise given she had been brought up in Russia during the Cold War, appreciating many of life’s harsh realities, and eventually becoming a keen admirer of successful tennis compatriots Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova for their “mental fortitude”.
“When you are down in two sets and find that willpower and energy to fight back, it’s great,” she says. “Not everyone has it.”
Pavlova certainly does. Google’s first-ever employee in Russia a decade ago turned to the internet to shape a brighter future for the Nets with Prokhorov’s backing as they changed names and home court from New Jersey to Brooklyn in 2012.
“When I took the job, I asked Mikhail what exactly am I going to be doing,” she told Sport360° exclusively. “He said you get there and figure it out – and that’s what I’ve been doing.
“But it’s like any other job. Any I’ve had, it takes about six months to figure your way around and know your way around and establish all the relationships. This was no different.
“I don’t know everything about basketball now, but I definitely know a lot more than when I started. I don’t deal with the basketball operation, just with the business side. This is more my expertise.
“To learn, I googled, I read every article I could find about the league, the teams, basketball terms.
“I still do that now. It’s a constant process of learning and the game is always changing. I didn’t focus on player talent, I’m not an expert and never will be, but that’s fine. I enjoy watching the game and root for my team, I’m a fan.
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) December 6, 2015
“We were always positive about our plans and looking forward. It’s not an easy process, but it’s not an easy process for anyone right? There are 30 teams after the same thing and only one will win.
Success doesn’t happen overnight, but starting from the bottom that’s the best place to start out isn’t it? You can only go up. There was pressure when we came and we got very lucky and very successful.”
That has been witnessed both on and off the court and Pavlova, born in New York when her father first worked as a United Nations translator, is rightly proud of her part in that.
As well as representing Prokhorov in NBA team ownership meetings, she was also responsible for the move to the Barclays Center, in which her boss had procured 45 per cent of the sports and entertainment arena.
“The stadium, the Barclays Center turned out amazing and become a great home for the Nets and our fans,” said Pavlova.
“Team rebranding has been very successful as well and the rest is on us now to make the team better and win more games.”
Prokhorov saw the potential for improvement when he bought the Nets, paying $200m in cash, assuming $160.5m of their debt, and an estimated $60m to cover losses during the team’s final two years in New Jersey. Now, should he consider a sale, they could cost more than the $2 billion Steve Ballmer paid for the Los Angeles Clippers last year.
The Nets had not won a divisional title since 2006, but, when taking over, Prokhorov made a bold statement by promising fans a championship within five years – and invested in big names and salaries to try to fulfil that dream.
Yet despite reaching the play-offs in the last three seasons, that deadline passed this year.
And Pavlova laughs as she recalls: “He said either we win it in five [years] or if we don’t, he’s going to get married.
“Then this summer he said Adam Silver, the Commissioner of the NBA, got married so he took one for the team. So Mikhail doesn’t have to get married now.”
And even though they have started this campaign badly, his relationship with the Nets could still be a match made in heaven as Pavlova adds: “The ambition is always to keep getting better. Obviously the ultimate ambition is to win the championship. Not the divisional title, we need to win the big thing.
“I don’t think we have any illusions that it’s going to happen overnight, tomorrow or the day after, but that’s what we are striving for. I don’t know if we are on a five-year plan or not, but I feel we are on an annual plan every year.”
Pavlova is not short on ideas nor interests, with a new $50m, 70,000 square foot training facility on the horizon at Industry City, the move of NHL side, the New York Islanders, to stadium-share at the Barclays Center, and she is eager to push the Nets brand globally.
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) December 7, 2015
The NBA has been keen to do the same and with games having been played in China and the UK, the Middle East could be another future option.
Pavlova, who admits a visit to Dubai or Abu Dhabi is on her own wish-list, adds: “Absolutely we would be keen to play in the Middle East. The league basically decides the international areas of growth, but as a team we are always excited to go and play abroad.
“Since I’ve been with the team we have had two trips to China, two trips to London, one to Russia. Whenever they are asking for volunteers we are always ready to go.
“It’s extremely important to promote the brand. We live in a global society, especially with social media and global fan outreach and I think it’s incredibly important to get the brand name out there. Any fan you win in the world, that’s a success.”
The fact the UAE has a large Filipino community might also help as Pavlova reveals the Philippines has surprisingly become a popular overseas fan base for the Nets.
“Someone mentioned to me that it must be because of Andray Blatche, but we tracked that before he played for us,” she added.
“I’m still not sure. But I do know they are great NBA fans and we welcome Nets fans from everywhere.”
With music icon Jay-Z, a former stakeholder and fan, and even Royal couple Prince William and wife Princess Catherine at games, Pavlova has welcomed the improving image of the Nets.
But there’s no standing still for one of the most powerful female sports executives. “I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, absolutely,” she said. “But it’s always the next hurdle, the next obstacle you have to overcome. My next project is the new practice facility and I’m focusing a lot of my time on that. It’s going to be amazing when that happens.
“The next challenge is what has always pushed me. I thrive on that. I’m a deal-orientated person and like having a deadline, having some sort of closure that I need to get to and then something else comes along.
“The only person I’m competing with is myself and I’m pretty hard on myself. Most motivated people are their own harshest critic. There’s definitely some of that, men assuming I don’t know much, but I’m not shy to speak out when I have something to say. You have to make your voice heard.”
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