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The Starters’ Leigh Ellis’ Journey from Banker to NBA Media Personality

Leigh Ellis found himself at a crossroads in life. Not wanting to work odd jobs anymore, he decided to go back to school. At 31, he found his true passion.

Front Office Sports



Leigh Ellis

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Leigh Ellis grew a love affair for the NBA in one of the more unlikely places in the world. The year was 1987, Ellis was living in Australia and without cable TV or internet, trying to follow a league in a place that was 15 hours behind where he lived could be difficult at times.

While he was aware of the Jordan’s and the Bird’s of the era, with limited coverage in Austrailia, he did not see much of the league. That is until his brother found a VHS copy of the 1987 NBA All-Star game and bought it for him. He was hooked.

After moving to Toronto from London, Ellis was able to attend an NBA game for the first time ever. Working odd jobs to make ends meet, Ellis knew that he wanted to somehow find a way to work as an NBA media member. So, he ended up going to a sports media journalism school in Toronto, then applied for a job at The Score, and eventually found his way to The Starters.

A journey years in the making, Ellis’ journey is an incredible example of what happens when you do everything in your power to make your dream come true.

Edited highlights appear below:

On How He Got His Start (9:06)

“I worked in banks and I’d done odd jobs here and there, but I didn’t really have a career and I just turned 31. I’d always been passionate about basketball and sports media and I thought I have to do something in that field if I was going to be happy with my life. Fortunately, at that time, a sports media journalism school opened in Toronto.”

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“I went to the school and from there I applied for an internship at The Score Television Network, a Canadian all-sports TV channel. It no longer exists in the format that it was at the time, but it gave me an opportunity to just get involved in the sports media field.”

On Joining The Starters (aka The Basketball Jones at that time) (14:09)

“The Basketball Jones joined The Score and started doing their podcast daily. I thought it was amazing. It was exactly what I wanted to do, but I didn’t really know how to sort of just walk up to them and say, ‘Hey, can I work for you guys?’ What happened was I did make myself known to them by sort of always accidentally walking by their office.”

“Occasionally, they needed an extra pair of hands when they went on a shoot. I started to establish a little bit of a relationship with them. My big break came when the NBA had the lockout in 2011 because, at the time, they needed to produce a basketball show but there was obviously no basketball. They pitched an idea to the bosses at The Score to do a podcast tour around America.”

LISTEN MORE: Rob Perez’s Journey from Ticketing Entrepreneur to NBA Personality

“The bosses loved the idea and the Basketball Jones said, ‘Hey, we need an extra pair of hands on this trip.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely!’ before I had even cleared it with my wife who was three months pregnant at that time.”

“I went home and I said to my wife, ‘I’ve got this opportunity for work that means I’m going to be away for the next five weeks.’ There was a little pause, but then she said, ‘You know what, you have to go, you have to take this chance and see where it might lead because you just never know.’ She was incredibly supportive.”

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On Putting Himself in a Place to Succeed (16:21)

“When I sort trace back to the initial steps, if I hadn’t been able to do those other things like shoot a video, edit it, and produce it and again, you don’t have to be the best data in the world, you just have to be competent at it. That was my foot in the door, which then led to me being an on air analyst for the show which is really what my dream job was when I first decided that I was going to chase a career in sports media.”

“Having those other skills, as I mentioned earlier, was my opportunity to at least show somebody what I could do and if people can see that you are able to shoot a video, or produce it, or to do some graphics, or whatever it is, they’re more likely then to give you another opportunity at something that you would like to be doing as far as voicing an opinion or being some sort of an analyst.”

On Being a Fan-First Show (27:08)

“We really encourage that sort of stuff (fans sharing things) because even though it is six of us, we just simply can’t see everything ourselves. Fans see that they can participate in the show, get recognition in the show, and we like to basically say to them that this show is not just about us telling people what they want to see.”

“Our show is made by us, but it certainly takes a lot of input from fans. We want fans to participate, not just to watch and to say, ‘Hey, great show.’ we want them to actually contribute to the show. That just makes it a better show because again, it comes back to the reliability.”

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NBA, Instagram and New Era to Deliver Shoppable Championship Moment

As Instagram expands into e-commerce, it’s teaming up with the NBA and New Era to offer fans the opportunity to buy officially licensed championship gear.

Michael McCarthy



Photo Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Sports fans are most likely to open their wallets and make an impulse purchase after their team wins a championship. As Instagram expands into e-commerce, it’s teaming up with the NBA and New Era to offer either Golden State Warriors or Toronto Raptors fans the opportunity to buy officially licensed championship gear as they’re popping champagne.

Here’s how the digital “tap to shop” promotion will work: The minute the buzzer sounds ending the 2019 NBA Finals, Instagram will instantly offer a $50 cap/t-shirt bundle for the winning team via New Era. The combo will be exclusively available on Instagram for 24 hours after the game’s conclusion. After that, the gear may go on sale at

The 37.7 million followers of Instagram’s NBA account just have to tap on the post for details, then tap again to buy. Instead of being sent elsewhere they can handle the entire purchase within the app.

As the “authentic cap” of the NBA, New Era is currently selling Warriors/Raptors hats emblazoned with the gold “2019 NBA Finals” logo. The NBA, Instagram and Fanatics offered a similar “shoppable moment” after the Warriors won the Western Conference Finals.

“As the Authentic Cap of the NBA, we’re excited to honor the championship team with the official New Era Authentics: Championship Series Cap and Team Celebratory Tee Bundle exclusively available through the NBA’s Instagram,” says John Connors, New Era’s director of basketball. “This partnership gives us an opportunity to reach fans and provide them with product that helps them celebrate their team’s NBA championship.”

Paige Cohen, a spokeswoman for Instagram’s tech communications, notes fans “want to be part of” the winning team’s celebration. “They shop the gear, they get all decked out,” Cohen says. 

Cohen has a point, according to sports retail expert Mike May. Capitalizing on the thrill of victory can create a “financial windfall for those who have the right product at the right time.”

It can even inspire couch potatoes to put down the clicker and play the sport they’re watching on TV.

“When (fans) emotions are high there’s often a disconnect between common sense and spending — and spending just takes over,” says May, who consults for PHIT America. “It’s an interesting day and age that we live in. It gets faster. The immediacy of Instagram just adds to the festivities — and the spending.”

READ MORE: Canadian Craze Carrying NBA Finals Viewership

Instagram and New Era previously partnered with the NFL to offer a digital shopping experience during the 2019 Draft in Nashville.

The ceremonial act of young college football stars putting on the cap of their new NFL teams has become part of the NFL Draft day ritual. A photographer shot photos of the players in their New Era caps. The photos were shared to the NFL’s Instagram account, complete with shopping tags, driving fans to The caps sold for $30 to $38.

The NBA can tap into a huge pool of hoops fans on social media. The NBA’s Instagram account boasts the most followers of any pro league account. The account has drawn 11.8 billion views, and 1.3 billion engagements, this season alone. And Instagram’s new role as a digital mall keeps growing.

In March, the social media giant launched a “Checkout on Instagram” button that enables users to shop and buy products without leaving the app. Users enter their name, email, billing information and shipping address.

Over 1 billion people use Instagram every month, according to Hootsuite, with 500 million on the platform every day. Roughly 60% utilize Instagram to discover new products.

READ MORE: NBA and Twitter Team Up to Bring “Virtual Sports Bar” to Life

Sam Farber, the NBA’s vice president of digital media, said the Finals offer the league an opportunity to “test innovative initiatives” during its biggest event of the year.

With the Raptors leading the Warriors 3-2 in the NBA Finals, the series returns to Oakland for Game 6 Thursday night. If the Warriors survive, the Finals moves to Toronto for Game 7 Sunday night.

“We’re excited to partner with both Instagram and New Era to bring exclusive merchandise to fans in a new way.”

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Stanley Pup Correspondent Fetches New Fans for NBC Sports & NHL

According to NBC Sports, the Stanley Pup campaign has had more than 18 million impressions this postseason.

Ian Thomas



Photo Credit: NHL

The multiple-month grueling road to the Stanley Cup Final annually catches the attention of the sports world. This year, one of the most dogged chroniclers of that journey has helped the league gain even more traction – Sunny, the Stanley Pup correspondent.

The idea for a Stanley Pup correspondent was the brainchild of Matt Ziance, manager of consumer engagement at NBC Sports. After seeing the way that Sunny, a labrador and guide dog in training, had captivated audiences as the official Today Show puppy, the idea of having a dog being a continued part of the network’s coverage of the NHL playoffs was spawned.

“Each year during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we’re always searching for new, organic ways to stand out in our overall marketing messaging,” Ziance said. “While looking at successful campaigns across our properties, we saw a strong connection between our fan base and utilizing puppies in our campaigns.”

That led NBC Sports to incorporate the Stanley Pup across its broadcasts and social posts on a weekly basis. Across the playoffs, Sunny traveled more than 10,000 miles across the country while attending games in Boston, Denver, San Jose and St. Louis, as well as appearing at the network’s studios in Stamford, Connecticut – creating unique content while also finalizing his guide dog training by working in high-volume areas and new surroundings.

That content has been a boon for NBC Sports, the NHL and the reach of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. According to NBC Sports, the Stanley Pup campaign has had more than 18 million impressions this postseason across collaborations with The TODAY Show, the NHL, the We Rate Dogs Twitter account and the Guide Dog Foundation – an audience that includes many who are connecting to the Stanley Cup and the NHL in a new way.

Dan Palla, director of consumer engagement marketing at NBC Sports, said the network spends significant time in the build up to the launch of the playoffs each year thinking of “every single way we can make the Stanley Cup Playoffs bigger than it has been before.”

“The tagline we use is ‘there is nothing like playoff hockey’ – there is an inherent truth to that and every hockey fan knows that,” Palla said. “It’s also about growing the game and making the Stanley Cup Playoffs resonate off the ice, and thinking of new ways to draw people into the compelling games and the culture.”

Palla said when he first heard of the idea of bringing Sunny onto the hockey team, he said “it’s hard not to smile when you think of a Stanley Pup correspondent – we knew it was an opportunity to bring hockey to audiences in a different way that felt like a shot worth taking.”

The NBC Sports team worked with the Today Show staff to understand what worked well with Sunny in terms of content, as well as with the Guide Dog Foundation to ensure that the experience would also be beneficial to Sunny’s training.

READ MORE: Like Novak Djokovic’s Outfit? NBCUniversal Wants To Help You Buy It

The ability to capture hockey-related content with Sunny has allowed the two NBCUniversal programs to have cross-company promotion on-air as well as on social media, while also having hockey content reach new audiences. For example, the Stanley Pup correspondent was featured on the popular We Rate Dogs Twitter account, which has more than eight million followers. That also helped spark user-generated content coming from hockey fans and dog lovers alike on how their own ‘Stanley Pups’ were enjoying the playoffs.

Palla said NBC Sports has made it “mission critical” to help raise awareness of the sport and the NHL outside of the traditional ways of marketing hockey, something that he thinks has helped viewership. The NHL 2018-2019 regular season averaged 424,000 viewers across NBC Sports’ TV and digital platforms, up 2% from the previous year.

Both Palla and Ziance said the network has been thrilled with Sunny’s contribution to this year’s playoffs. While Sunny is now leaving the NBCUniversal family to become a full-time guide dog, Ziance said the idea of another future Stanley Pup Correspondent is something the network will consider not only for the 2020 playoffs, but potentially for the regular season as well.

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Twitter Doesn’t Want Sports Rights

Front Office Sports



*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else.

You can count out at least one social media company from the TV sports rights game. 

According to Max Mason of The Australian Financial Review, the company is not interested in battling for major sports rights, but wants to partner with rights holders, such as TV broadcasters, to extend their audiences and bring in more money.

Friend, not foe…

While Twitter does have deals to broadcast games on its platform with leagues like the WNBA, NWHL and more, the goal for the platform is not to be a linear TV broadcaster.

“The way that we’re approaching our business and our partnerships in the space is not to compete with rights holders. I don’t want to be a linear television broadcaster.” – Kay Madati, Twitter’s vice-president and global head of content partnerships

Bigger together…

Instead of competing with one another, Madati and Twitter want to serve as a way for traditional linear broadcasters to be able to amplify their content and drive new revenue.

“We’re here to make those events bigger by marrying the conversation that happens on our platform around those things. We’re here to actually come to them and say ‘we can make your event, your investment in this property that much bigger and that much better’.” – Kay Madati

More video is good for Twitter…

According to Mason, video has become the dominant source of revenue for Twitter, comprising 50% of money coming in.

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