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Brother’s (Goal) Keeper

Pro sports team executives Brett and Michael Yormark play off each other to raise the bar for individual performance.

When New Jersey Nets CEO Brett Yormark needs to find ways to creatively market his NBA team, he doesn’t have to look in the mirror… though sometimes it may seem that way. Often, he calls his brother Michael, the other half of the only identical twins running professional sports franchises in the United States.

The two, among the most innovative minds in their industry, share the same grueling schedule, the same philosophy for success—and the same face.

Brett, who also serves as president/CEO of Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, and Michael, president of the Florida Panthers hockey franchise, have been capturing the industry’s attention for more than a decade. Named to “Forty Under 40” lists in several high-profile magazines, the Yormark brothers, at 44, are the youngest to hold their positions in their respective leagues.

Since joining the Nets in 2005, Brett has helped bring about a 15 percent increase in ticket sales and a stunning increase of nearly 200 percent in team sponsorships. He also managed a deal with the Barclays banking and financial services company that includes a 20-year strategic marketing partnership and naming rights to the Barclays Center under construction and slated to open in 2012. Additionally, he secured a dozen other major sponsors for the Barclays Center before the first shovel struck dirt.

Michael faced the particular challenge of warming South Florida residents to the idea of a hockey team when he joined the organization in 2003. After taking over in 2007, he helped launch the team’s BankAtlantic Center toward becoming the fourth-highest revenue-producing arena in the country and increased suite sales by more than $2.5 million per year. The Panthers’ fan base continues to expand each season, as does BAC’s entertainment offerings, which now include the Sinatra Theatre and several high-end dining venues.

To understand the brothers’ success, it’s important to consider their childhood. Growing up in northern New Jersey, they watched their mother aggressively pursue a career as an interior designer after their father left. “When she was presented with the set of circumstances that left her with the sole responsibility of taking care of Brett, my sister and myself, she stood up tall and said, ‘I’m going to do my best to provide them with a wonderful life,’ ” recalls Michael. “She just set a terrific example because working hard is one thing, but without that passion or desire, it doesn’t matter. I have an equation I think of all the time: Passion + Energy = Success. We’d see our mother on her feet for 12 or 13 hours a day—that teaches a lesson on how to be successful.”

Brett and Michael loved sports but their athletic ability didn’t match their passion. So, in Brett’s words, “We had to find a way to get our foot in the door without being on the field.” The person opening that door, it turns out, was their mother, who provided introductions through her own client connections. She introduced Brett to a member of the Nets’ management and Michael to a partial owner of the Yankees, and both boys landed jobs within the organizations.

Brett eventually moved from the Nets to NASCAR, where he served as vice president and oversaw the largest sports deal in American history—the $750 million naming rights with Nextel—before returning to the organization that had given him his start. Michael transitioned from baseball to hockey, and arranged a co-promotional marketing agreement between the Florida Panthers and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers pro soccer team.

Both Yormarks consider themselves fortunate to work for organizations whose owners give them freedom to explore new ideas and take risks.

Some of Michael’s ideas included enacting the “Good Time Guarantee,” which promised a full-price ticket refund to any fan who didn’t enjoy his or her experience at home games in January. Another idea was to use the BAC’s glass elevator shaft for advertising space for home-security company ADT. Another light-bulb moment capitalized on LeBron James’ decision to sign with the Miami Heat; playing off his “King James” nickname, the Panthers offered “Seats fit for a King” and used James’ old Cleveland jersey number and new Miami jersey number as the starting price-points for the BAC’s tiers of seating. “It was the most successful promotion we’d ever done,” he says. “Heat tickets by that point had sold out and casual sports fans were still thirsty to attach themselves to something—and we were the next best game in town.”

For his part, Brett explored opportunities outside his team’s facility, enacting “Fan Appreciation Night” on the New Jersey Turnpike, with the Nets paying for one hour’s worth of tolls at Exit 16W. He also created the Nets Chamber of Commerce, in which season ticket holders can network with the team’s corporate sponsors. He also implemented the Nets Employment Program, inviting unemployed fans to send their résumés into the team’s offices, which were then forwarded to the Nets’ 120 corporate sponsors. Free tickets went to the first 2,000 people sending in résumés. And the Nets scooped up two of the applicants to join their sales team.

Brett also signed Wrigley as the official sponsor of the team’s off-season—an unprecedented move. He reasoned that since athletes do most of their endorsement deals, appearances and training during the off-season, “attaching a sponsorship during all that activity just made a lot of sense.”

But how do the Yormarks come up with the unconventional ideas? “For me, it’s a 24/7 deal that is part of our work lives and what we do every day,” Brett says. “Most of my ideas come spontaneously when I’m working out, which I do early every morning. That’s when my mind is most clear and I’m not on the phone or fielding emails. I’ll write the ideas on my BlackBerry and send to myself immediately after my workout.”

Brett also knows good ideas can come from any source: “I encourage fans to write me with ideas. I also use Twitter as a vehicle to connect with them. And I dedicate hours each weekend to reading publications to look for interesting trends.”

There’s another secret weapon each brother keeps in his arsenal: his twin. “Competition is healthy,” Michael says. “To have two brothers—twins—that are living, in many respects, parallel lives, especially in a career perspective helps to continually raise the bar. When Brett is successful, I’m his biggest cheerleader. At the same time, though, it raises the bar for me. I recognize I’ve got to work hard, do more. I’m a very self-motivated person. My boss doesn’t need to motivate me; my staff doesn’t need to motivate me. It’s just in my DNA. Your passion is your motivation. But with Brett, he does motivate me to continue to achieve, to push, to do whatever it takes to be successful. Because I know that’s what he’s doing in his world every single day.”

Brett says he doesn’t view his brother as “competition,” but as “someone near to me who I respect and admire who provides me with those checks and balances to make sure I’m on the right path every day, to make sure I’m on the straight and narrow on the way to being successful.

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Don Yaeger - Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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