Human capital and corporate culture play a key role in most M&A transactions. For Episode 260 of the Smart Business Dealmakers Podcast, we turned to a different sort of business leader to talk about asset management, team building and creating a winning culture — in a very literal sense.

Nic Barlage is CEO of Rock Entertainment Group and its many holdings, including the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. He oversees more than 500 full-time team members throughout the business operations of the Cavaliers.

Nic sat down with Smart Business Chief Content Officer Dustin Klein at the 2023 Cleveland Smart Business Dealmakers Conference in June 2023 to discuss talent acquisition and development, building a winning culture and the importance of leadership.

Below is a transcript of the podcast's condensed conversation, edited for easier readability.

Dustin Klein

Well, Nick, it's great to sit down with you. We had a chance to talk a little bit before today and not just about your background, but about all the great things that are going on with the Cavaliers and rock Entertainment Group. So I want to start by just kind of having you set the scene. So people who are not understand exactly what rock Entertainment Group is, because there's a lot of entities under this umbrella. There's teams, there's venues, so if you could just kind of shed a little light on that, for those who may not know.


Nic Barlage

REG, as we call it in short form, Rock Entertainment Group is really anything Dan Gilbert that’s sports and entertainment related, just to keep it very simple. We have a PGA Tour event, the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit. We have our properties here, which are the [Cleveland Cavaliers], the [Lake Erie] Monsters, the [Cleveland] Charge.

We have two interests in eSports teams — one here in Cleveland, which is the Cavs Legion GC, and then one in Culver City, California, which is 100 Thieves, which in the last valuation I believe was the second most valuable eSports operation in the world as it sits right now, which is a fascinating business unto itself.

Then we we've also started to kind of take what we do within our four walls and bring it to market. So we're helping out Tennis in the Land this year, which is a WTA 250 event, helping to sell and market and kind of build the profile of that event.

And so and our hope with that is, you know, REG kind of our thesis, if you will, for those of you that are in investing, the thesis is really how can we harness all the great things we see on the coasts, whether that’s in New York or LA or other places. We kind of have this mantra internally that Dan's established with us, which is, ‘Look, the coasts shouldn't be the only place people have to go to have fun. We can do it right in our own backyard. And we can do it by aggregating these assets and these resources and lifting communities.’ And so that's really what the goal of Rock Entertainment Group is, and something that we're very focused on how we continue to serve our communities through sports and entertainment.


Dustin Klein

So let's talk a little bit about basketball and business. Since 2019, the Cavs have assembled key pieces of talent to build a winning team post LeBron. You've mentioned in our discussion that there's a development arc for every team. Share more about what you mean by that, and how you've been able to bring all these pieces together over the past three, five and even seven years.


Nic Barlage 

Yeah, I think a lot of it — and everyone in here has a business or is around business — we think about these things over periods of time, right? As we map things out, whether it's business plans, or what we call clarity planning in our in our business. You look at it over a three-, four-, five- or six-year period of time.

The hard part in our business is you can't really predict certain things. You can't predict where a player is going to go via free agency, which we had two of those notable in the last 15 years. You can't predict where these we're certain things may come from.

But it actually started in the ’17-‘18 season, which was the last year that we made the Finals. One of the biggest things we did during that season, we sat down in early October and we said, ‘Hey, we're going to plan vehemently for two scenarios. We're going to plan that we're still a Finals contending team and all that that meant. I don't even need to go into the personnel because this room knows it well. And then we're going to plan for if we need to build this thing back up. And if we need to reload.

And so from that perspective, we spent a ton of time, and for those of you that remember in 2018, we started that on the business side, I want to be clear and how we kind of built and structured our business from a terms and we really wanted to give ourselves kind of five years of sustainability.

On the basketball side for those of you that follow it closely in 2018, we were still pretty good team. We were a championship contending team. The trade deadline February of 2018, we changed out 11 players on a 15-person roster. And not everybody remembers that.

But what we did was we changed out a lot of parts and pieces and brought in a lot of parts and pieces that we felt like could help us in that run. But then, also, we could use those parts and pieces if we weren't in a run to flip those into draft assets and draft capital: first round picks, second round picks, so on and so forth, likes of Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance, Jr.

Going back to the core of your question, and this is really the genius of Koby Altman, I want to be clear I president of basketball operations, we said, look, if we're going to reset after the ’17-‘18 season, we went and studied all the competitive arcs in the NBA. So on average, a team that is a contending team — which is in our mind is the top four teams in the league — a contending arc range is somewhere between four and six years. You have some anomalies. If you study this over the course of a period of time, there's some anomalies. There's dynasties, obviously. Golden State is on kind of an eight-year tear right now. But given free agency, given contract length, given age of player, that arc is somewhere between four and six years.

So we said, hey, we want to start striding out. If we're in a reset mode, coming off of the ’17-‘18 season, we want to start striding out somewhere two to three years beyond that. So that as we're starting our ascent, some of these really competitive teams are actually on their descent. And you can't predict these things, right. But you can get very analytical and I won't bore you all with what that means.

So we really said, look, if we can start to be taking steps forward by the ‘21-‘22 or the ’22-‘23 season, that's really what we want to be focused on.

For those of you that buy tickets, and all those things, it doesn't mean we're giving up I want to be clear. It just means that we wanted to be very strategic in how we were structuring one of our main assets, which from our perspective is obviously is the team we put on the court every single night.

So we set forth on that journey. Obviously, we were dealt the cards we were dealt going into the ’18-‘19 season. And then the ’19-‘20 season was a shortened season due to COVID. And even the ’20-‘21 season was a shortened season due to COVID.

The thing I give our group a lot of credit for is coming out of that 2021 season, there was a lot of noise out there. We were not a good team. It was a 52-game regular season schedule for those you that remember it, and we were getting hit pretty hard.

That summer we traded for Lauri Markkanen. We also drafted Darius Garland for those of you that remember. Isaac Okoro. I'm reading a little bit because I want to make sure I got the years right as I go through it. But I remember all the players. And then obviously Evan Mobley.

But going back to that 2018 trade deadline, we were able to capture between that trade deadline and the next two trade deadlines, we were able to capture for additional first round picks.

And you say, ‘Who gives us a sh… Who cares? Like that's not that big of a deal.’ I can probably do that in this room. But we that was really important to us because we knew like this is Cleveland, Ohio, and we love Cleveland, Ohio. We love Northeast Ohio. But the likelihood of a top-tier free agent choosing Cleveland, Ohio, over Los Angeles or New York or Chicago, it's just not likely. So that means that we got to bet our bets in the trade market.

As we did that, we assembled a ton of assets. And once again, this is Koby’s savant-ness in all of this. As we were able to build this great young core, ’21-’22 surprised the hell out of us, I'm not gonna lie. We didn't think we had a 40-win team under the hood. We thought we'd be pretty good. We thought we'd give you all something to look forward to. But it kind of came together a little bit quicker than we thought.

So going into ’22-‘23, which was a really incredible year for us, we had all these assets. And we always sit around and say, ‘When are we going to push go?’ Like, when are we really going to push go? We went back to our arc model, we studied it, we said, hey, look, there's really only a couple of teams that have a similar arc that we have given we've got our average starting lineup this last year was 23 years of age. We start lining up all these kinds of KPIs like all of you do in all of your businesses every single day. But you start to line some of these things up and you say, ‘Hey, look, our best years are actually, if you think about it, are ’23-’24 and then the next four years beyond that.’ If we can keep everybody and sign everybody and all that good stuff, which by the way, we feel pretty good about today, but we're not going to bet on anything in that regard.

Then the Donvan [Mitchell] opportunity came. We actually submitted our first-ever trade proposal for Donovan right after the NBA Draft. I mean, it was like right before July 1st. Nobody knew about it. Nobody heard about it. We don't try to live our life in the headlines like other teams do. We try to be very, very, very practical about this because we're really focused on the culture we've established within our group. If your name is out in the newspaper, that you can be traded every other day, you're probably not going to think too highly of the place that you're going to be.

We went through a three-month process and we said, ‘Look, this is too good to be true.’ An incredible All-Star who's got three years left on his contract as of last summer. A very affordable rookie-scale max contract, which is still $30 million a year, which is a lot of money. But in our world, it's a very practical situation.

So we kind of went all in and this year [’22-’23 season] is what the outcome of that was, which was a great year, with a lot left to go. We don't feel like losing in the first round is something that we are OK with. We kind of have these philosophies internally. And one of them is adversity creates opportunity. And we think the adversity we went through this last season will really be what feeds into the opportunity that we have, as we continue to grow on the basketball court.


Dustin Klein

Really interesting how you've approached that. But one thing I'm interested in is how did your organization communicate with season ticket holders, with partners, with sponsors about what you guys were doing? I mean, I see Steve Demetriou over here who we’ve seen on TV with the court seats during the championship game and otherwise. Folks like that who had been supporters through thick and thin and you guys put together this plan to kind of remake the team. What did you tell them? Did you say. ‘Trust us, we know what we're doing?’ Or did you say, ‘Here's what our plan is for the future so that we know that when we get there that you're still with us?’


Nic Barlage

I think first thing, we were very deliberate. But just even in the wording that we use the nomenclature we put in the marketplace. We at no point in time or ever talking about a rebuild. We didn't want that out in the market, we talked about a reload. And I think that's a very small mentality difference.

Honestly, I think it starts internally first. You have to have a team of people bought into what's going on. Because really, at the end of the day, like, I can go, I can go talk to Steve or I can go talk to anybody in this room and be like, ‘Hey, stay with us, stay with us, stay with us.’ At some point in time, they look back at me and be like, ‘You guys suck. We're out.’ You know, I mean, it's just the nature of the business. It's a zero-sum game.

Honestly, COVID kind of helped in this way. Because we were put on pause for about 18 months. Everyone's business was impacted by COVID. I always say other businesses caught a cough, we caught pneumonia in the sports and entertainment industry because we were a large-gathering business. The one thing we did — and I give our chairman Dan a lot of credit because he gave us the resources to be able to do this because we were not making money, we were losing a lot of money — we said let's put money in numbers aside, like we are not going to let those things lead us through COVID. What we're going to let us lead through COVID is we're going to build upon our relationships, we're going to make sure that we maintain the team we have internally, and we're going to invest in our clients, and we're going to invest in our team members.

Ultimately, what that allowed us to do was to fortify relationships that we have with stakeholders to get to a level I always say there's like this, this paradigm of a relationship where you have their attention, you establish credibility, and then you gain their trust.

The entire time, as we were going through COVID, we were focused on how do we get to that level of trust. If we get to that level of trust, we could be bad for five years. We could be bad for seven years, which we didn't think was going to happen. But people will trust us to a certain degree with their investment. They may not want to invest as much. They may invest a little less, but they're still engaged. And we thought that that was really, really, really important when we thought about the relationship we had with the marketplace.

We didn't ask for a bill. We didn't ask for an invoice to be paid. We didn't do a lot of those things. We rolled a bunch of credits over and did a bunch of different things. Then we just focused on how we could get face to face with as many people as possible.

I think that's really important in the kind of qualitative side of it. When you think about the quantitative side of it, and the strategic strategic side of it, I think it's also important when we were going through the run, Dan had spent more on any team in the history of the NBA ever at the time. Now the Golden State Warriors have blown that out of the water in the last couple of years, but that also was a good sign, I think, to our fan base that look when it's time to go all in, we're always all in. But when it's time to really go all in financially, we have some credibility to fall back upon. And so we really tried to make sure that we fortified that during those kinds of two or three years of choppy waters.


Dustin Klein

In spite of the wins and losses that you guys had on the court, one of the things that's been so impressive with the organization itself and with Dan's other companies, is the way you guys have been able to build and sustain a winning culture off the court, or in the boardroom or whatever it is with Dan's companies and with the team here in Cleveland. How have you been able to get and keep everybody on the same page?


Nic Barlage

This is what we talk all the time about. I think in any business, the culture and the environment that you curate is ultimately what determines how successful you're going to be. For us, I tell our leaders all the time, if you wake up in the morning and you have a to-do list, or maybe you're looking for something to do, default to your people. Default to our culture.

We have what we call cultural rules within our four walls. One is if you have a direct report, you have to meet with that direct report at least every 30 days. Face to face, or obviously during whatever it was video conference.

We have other things. Every two weeks our business leaders get together just to share what's going on in the business. I think communication and transparency are so incredibly important.

Dan has his isms, which I'm sure some of you have heard about. It's really his book of all things culture. And one of the things we struggled with as a franchise for a while was how do we distill those into who we are. Those isms have been created from a mortgage company that is one of the, if not the, most successful mortgage businesses in the country. But they didn't always apply totally to us.

We went through a whole process about three years ago where we created our mission, we created our vision, we created our values. I'm sure a lot of you have already done this. You're like, yeah, that's so easy, but we didn't have that. We needed to figure out what was our cultural DNA.

I always said to our leadership group, if one of your team members gets stopped at Giant Eagle and they say that they work for the Cavaliers, how are they going to describe us? Not talk about Donovan Mitchell and Evan Mobley and Darius Garland, but how are they going to describe our organization as a place to work.

The silence we got in the room when we did that was a very key moment in time for us to say we have to put some true understanding to that, we have to we have to truly put some description to that. I think that ultimately created alignment within our culture.

I tell people this all time, I think our jobs as leaders in businesses, we actually sit at the bottom of the org chart. We don't sit at the top of the org chart. It's our job to really serve the rest of the organization.

It's done, like I said, through many, many, many one on ones, it's done through many different constructs of communication. But it's also done with the prioritization that it starts and stops with the environment and the culture that we create.

You have to have alignment. J.B. [Bickerstaff], myself, Koby, we are more aligned than I've seen in 17 years of being in the NBA. It's because we talk a lot. We like each other. We get in the room. If we have differences, which we have many of them, especially over business and basketball, it's the most far divided thought process you can think about. But it works because we're constantly connected. And I think the other thing too is whenever you're thinking about a great culture, you have to have a system and constructs in place that promote it, allow it to permeate, and then reward it as you get into it.

Whether that's our performance management system, or whether that's different things that we have, as we go through the last couple of years, coming out of COVID, we've promoted roughly about 14% of our company every year into different jobs. That's meaningful because 68% of our business is under the age of 35 from a team member perspective, so they're constantly looking for what's next.

I think it's important for us not to roll our eyes at them, but to embrace that and try to put them on a development plan to be a part of a bigger purpose than just a paycheck every two weeks. And those are things that we've really tried to institute in all of our kind of synapses with what I call the heartbeat of our business, which is really at the end of the day middle management is the description that I think people would use for it. It's a kind of a scatterplot of inputs to get us to a place culturally.

The other thing is when I first started back here six years ago, a guy grabbed me and he said, ‘How long do you think it's going to take to turn the culture around?’ On the business side, the culture I thought was pretty good, but they felt like it could be improved.

And I said, ‘Hold on, like, you're going to ask me for a timeline?’ And he said, he said, ‘Yeah, I want to timeline.’ And I said, ‘That's where you're wrong. There is no timeline. There's no finish line to a great culture.’ It's like you've accomplished something and you're relentless in how you pursue the next thing relative to culture in the environment that you work in.

If you're waiting for an aha moment, you're not going to get it. You should probably try to find it somewhere else. But just know that there's going to be a commitment and a relentlessness to pursuing this. Every day we're going to get a step better and a step bigger. We're going to take a step forward. I think that at least put it in perspective and allowed us to make progress in some of those things.


Dustin Klein

What's really fascinating about it is the parallels between having the right pieces in place for the team on the court, and the pieces in place for the management team and for the operations that you have. As it relates to the operations, you can't plug them into a matrix the same way you can and look at the skill sets that you would have the players or even the coach. What have you done to try to codify that in such a way that you're making sure you've got, as you mentioned, these opportunities for the younger folks to be able to rise through the ranks, but at the same time have this very positive culture that it's not just a winning culture but a culture that wants to continue to improve. How do you identify and codify those folks?


Nic Barlage

I think first for us, we went through a really kind of a big renovation, overhaul of our performance management system. As you can imagine, there was this 45-minute sit down and be talked at by your by your leader, which I just hated that coming through the ranks. I'll be honest with you.

What we did was we spent six months going through, we had 12 different focus groups across the organization, just cross sectional people. We totally changed it. We rebranded it first and foremost, which we think that the packaging is just as important as the contents in a lot of the things that we all do.

The second thing was, my biggest thing was I wanted us to start with the personal side first. If you sit down and you have a game plan review with somebody in our company, the first thing you're going to be asked to do is identify three to five personal goals you want to accomplish in the next 12 months.

I think that's important because as leaders, it gives us what I call hooks into our team members. It gives us equity into what they're thinking about, what's important to them. Then they develop their own personal goals. Then we develop things we want to accomplish together. Then feedback from the leader. Then next steps.

If you think about it, that the percentage of a performance management view before we did this, it was about 95 percent of the leader talking at the team member. We tried to flip it to say let's get to 70 percent of the team member providing us feedback to the team leader. And I think we saw instant gain from that.

Now we're at a place where we're three, three and a half years into it, we’ve got to renovate it again. It's just one of those things, going back to that kind of relentless comment. If you just assume it's going to work and continue to work because we did it really well three years ago, it's starting to flatline again.

We've got to change it.

In sports, on the business side in particular, you don't get into right away to get rich, it's just inot as well paying as probably some of your entry level jobs are in this room. But one of the things we've been really focused on is the holistic team member experience. What we've done is really tried to, from an articulation perspective to our group, is put together not just their compensation, not just their benefits, but this whole host of other things, whether it's flex hours or whether it's time off in the summer times or if it's sabbaticals. Some of these things are like, we've been doing that for a long time. We had it.

And I think the other thing we we've done a nice job of in the last six or seven months, is stitch all of that together. Now we talk about your holistic team member experience and the value proposition you have as a team member for Rock Entertainment Group. Not just, here's your base salary, here's your bonus, here are your goals here, which is what you need to go accomplish. We really try to bring all of that together. We've seen in the last two or three years, by taking this kind of approach, pre-pandemic, our turnover levels were about 24 to 28 percent. We got a lot of young people, like I mentioned earlier, and we got a lot of new people in jobs and so that turnover rate is pretty significant. We dropped it to about 12 to 14 percent during the pandemic. And then this last fiscal year, we were somewhere between 6 and 7 percent.

I think a lot of that has to do with, one, being very transparent, having constructs, as I mentioned earlier, that promote communication two ways. And then also, quite frankly, just telling a better story to your team members. Stitching these things together in a way that isn't so traditional, maybe, in thinking all the time. But it's in a way that resonates with a kind of a new generation of workers or what I call a modern generation of workers and team members. That's been successful for us. Not perfect. I want to be clear, there's no utopia out there. But we've been able to see some gains.


Dustin Klein

I want to shift for the last about seven minutes or so to some personal questions for you. Just a little bi getting to know you a little bit better on this stuff. And I'm going to ask you, might be a weird question. But I was lucky enough about eight, nine years ago, I had a chance to talk to Billy Beane. I asked him, you know, player, sports fan, baseball fan. And I said, how do you separate being a huge sports fan, having come up through there, with being a sports executive? How do you do both and balance those? And I'm sure you are a huge sports fan. And how do you balance that with being a sports executive?


Nic Barlage

It's a great question. I would say this, this is all I've known. I played basketball through college, small little D-III school. I wasn’t going to play anywhere after that. I had this counselor in school asked me he's like, ‘What are you passionate about?’ And I literally wrote down basketball, baseball and football.

He goes, ‘The best form of anything you can do in your life is if what you're passionate about determines what you do.’ I kind of thought about that and I let that linger. And he's like, so why don't you go get a career in sports. And I was like, I didn't even know those existed.

You mentioned Billy Beane. At the time when I was in school, it was Theo Epstein was just named General Manager of the Boston Red Sox. He was 28 or 26 years old or something like that. And I just said this looks amazing. So I became kind of infatuated with it and then researched it and then got some internships and then started selling tickets out of a box office in Phoenix and then worked my way up.

But I think the thing you learned about five years in, the fandom is kind of gone. Don’t get me wrong, I cheer like hell for the Cavs. Anybody that sits near me, I feel bad for them, especially in a playoff run. But I would say this, you really learn to separate it naturally. You kind of become classically conditioned that this is a business. And when you see a napkin on the ground walking the concourse, you pick it up, it's like your home. You see every single seat in the building as an opportunity and as a way to engage with the community. And your mindset just totally shifts.

It doesn't ruin it for me. I love it. I've seen it ruin it for some people, I will be very candid and very, very transparent. But I think it's just something as you go through it, you transition that passion into this kind of productive and impactful mentality around what you can do with the platform.

Not that you ever lose the fandom, but you really don't go to a game or an event much as a fan anymore. I will say this, I also don't really go to a lot of other events outside of Cleveland, Ohio, because there's just so much care you have for it. And honestly, if I don't have to be around 20,000 people on my day off, I probably won't be around 20,000 people on my day off. You learn to love it, But you just learn to love it differently.


Dustin Klein

Billy gave me a similar answer, except he was a little bit more colorful in his language. But I want to switch to another area. As a leader, we all have people we lean on, we counsel from, but at the end of the day, as a leader, you are making decisions by yourself. At the end of the day, it does fall back on whatever your role and responsibility is. I'm interested in two things: One is what drives you as a leader each day. But the second piece to that is what keeps you up at night.


Nic Barlage

First, what drives me is, is our team is our people. When you get into leadership, no matter what level you're in, you have to at some point check it and say this isn't about me anymore. This is about everybody else. Our people.

June 12 and June 19 of this year, which those are the two weeks we announced promotions across the company — and we do it throughout the course of the year, but that's our big time to announce big promotions, I think it's 79 promotions this year — It's like my favorite time. It's really this time where we get to honor all the hard work of all the people that do and make this thing work way more than I do. It's our people. First and foremost.

I think second what really motivates me is this almost this kind of fear of not making enough of an impact. And I don't think you fear it, you embrace it. But it's like when I go to bed at night, it's like the things that run through my head are, ‘God, we could have done this better, we could have done that better, we could have got more out of this meeting. I could have been more intentional about that interaction, or I could have got this handwritten note out.’ And so it's this kind of like relentless evaluation of yourself that I think is really important.

Last, and certainly not least — these are not in priority order — my wife's not here, but it's our family I think at the end of the day. I’ve got two little daughters and a great wife. You do those things to help support them in their journeys. I think that's something to not lose sight of.


Dustin Klein

We’ve got time for about one or two more questions. Did you have a mentor coming up through the ranks that took you under his wing or her wing and was able to tell you when you were down that things were going to get better? That you were able to get some sage advice from?


Nic Barlage

I think it's by committee, honestly. I think it's really important to have a lot of mentors. Dan has been probably my biggest.

I was 24, 25 years old in 2010. I don’t know if you guys remember what happened in the summer of 2010. It was a pretty weird time for us. We sat in a conference room, and there's a few of us in the conference room. He just said, ‘Hey, who can I direct all the fan inquiries to?’

And it was like 45 seconds of silence. I kind of raised my hand and I see Randy sitting here — it was like a group of ticketing people and Randy was on the other side of our business. I kind of raised my hand and he goes, ‘What's your name?’ I gave him my cell phone number, which is best thing that I ever did, but also worst thing I ever did for the next eight months of my life.

And literally for the next eight months, he would call, text. People that have worked with Dan would know, it was a 24/7 job. But it built a relationship with him. And I got to see behind the curtain of how he saw things. To be able to get that at 2425 years old with a guy that can see around not just the next corner, but the corner after that. You can't get it from an education. I can promise you that.

And so I'd say Dan, I would say I learned a lot from watching Adam Silver. I interact with him quite a bit now. He's just a very cerebral guy.

I think it's important to have mentors. Outside. You mentioned Steve [Demetriou]. Steve has been a mentor of mine for a long, long, long time. I grew up as a kid that, you know, middle class kid in the middle of nowhere in Minnesota. And just to have somebody's perspective like Steve to bounce things off of, whether it's how you structure your employment agreement, which I never even knew existed. He's laughing because he knows because I'll call him late at night and go, ‘This is what’s going on.’ This was this was probably four or five years ago.

So I've got a whole team of those type of people. Len Komorowski I’d put in that bucket, too. I've learned a lot from Len just about the business and  different things. I think every stop in my career there has been a mentor, but those would be the four or five I've kind of carried with me throughout throughout my entire career.


Dustin Klein

So fast forward from 2010 to 2023. What sage piece of advice do you have for the folks out there as a closing thought?


Nic Barlage

I do believe this as a city, as a region — and this is not me drinking the Kool-Aid and as a team as well as an organization — I'm really bullish. I think our best years are in front of us.

If you think about what we were able to harness as a region in the mid-2010s, between the RNC and the championship runs and all the great stuff. The development that happened in Cleveland.

I think the greatest moments of momentum come before you actually see it. I think that's right where we are between what you're seeing with Sherwin Williams and the tower they're building, I think our riverfront project. I think the waterfront development. I think having public officials in Mayor Bibb and County Executive Ronayne that are aligned, that are communicating, that care and have an energy about the city — those things add up.

We've been studying this a little bit and doing our homework on what got Nashville to where Nashville is today. It's not Nashville today; it's the decisions they made 20 years ago. Same thing you've seen in microcosm in Columbus or Indianapolis or Charlotte or Phoenix to a certain degree. I just think we've got a lot of those foundational pieces that are starting to get put down. Now it's going to become about us doing it.

Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Why would Dan, want to put all this money in the riverfront? It's kind of the armpit of downtown.’ And my response was — which I appreciate by the way, I think it's not that far off, It doesn't look good right now, let's be honest — but I think there's two schools of thought, I think there's a school of thought where you can wait for the momentum and you can ride that momentum, or you can create that momentum.

We're choosing to try to do the latter every single day, which is we're trying to create our own momentum within the city. That momentum starts to become a snowball effect. We've seen it in Detroit. We are firm believers that we can harness that same type of strategy and that same type of mentality and approach and we can deploy it here in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. I go back to overarchingly, why can't we do and accomplish right here in the Upper Midwest what everybody else sets out to do, whether it’s on the East Coast, the West Coast or in the southern region of this country. We think we have that chance because the common denominator — and this last thing I'll say — we have so many great people here.

When we were going through the NBA All-Star planning process, our internal mantra — I don't know if David Gilbert's here or not — but we firmly believe we in Cleveland have world-class assets without world-class egos. We think that that can be a separation and a differentiator for us as a city because every time you talk about Cleveland, there's an affinity, there's a care, there's a passion.

It's not because we have a lake or a river or we have some buildings. I's because it permeates amongst the people that live, work and play in this city. It's how do we harness that? And how do we create our own momentum?