In NBA front office, alumna connects players and fans

Photo by Greg Miller

Annabel Padilla has been a basketball junkie her whole life. She put it this way: “Working for the NBA was always No. 1 on my radar.”

Growing up in Bloomfield, New Jersey, she was a devoted New Jersey Nets fan, played on several recreational teams, and drove her high school squad’s offense as point guard. While working toward a degree in communications from Northeastern, Padilla earned co-ops and an internship with the Boston Bruins that gave her the expertise in professional sports to pursue her life’s passion.

And once she graduated, she parlayed that experience into a high-profile career, joining the small, elite group of women who occupy executive positions in the National Basketball Association.

In 2016, the Atlanta Hawks hired Padilla as director of player engagement, a role in which she’s the linchpin at the intersection of sports, business, and entertainment. She works closely with the players, coaches, and front office to align their schedules, strengths, and areas of interest with the priorities that fuel marketing, franchise growth, and community relations. “Then I match up the players to the areas that can set them up for success, but also to the areas that best drive our business,” she said.

Good exposure can have benefits for the team, the individual brands of the players, and the city itself.

By gaining the knowledge and trust of each team member as an athlete and a person, she works with various departments to help shape events, appearances, and opportunities that suit their individual passions and interests, and helps hone life skills to set them up for success long after they hang up their sneakers.

“We want to use our players authentically and engage them in the business and in the community,” said Padilla, AS’07. “Good exposure can have benefits for the team, the individual brands of the players, and the city itself.”

One such example is her work with Dennis Schröder, who was a 19-year-old from Germany when the Hawks drafted him with the 17th overall pick. Because Padilla has developed beneficial partnerships with other Atlanta sports teams, and because she knew Schröder was a huge fan of Germany’s most popular sport, she naturally teamed him up with the Atlanta United professional soccer team for multiple content and promotional opportunities.

It was fun to see him embrace the city through the support of Atlanta United, their players, and their fans,” said Padilla.

Once, when Schröder was interacting with the fans at an Atlanta United game, a woman threw him a scarf. A few weeks later, Padilla located the fan through social media, and Schröder was happy to make contact.

“We sent her an autographed item and helped organize a meet and greet at a Hawks game where Dennis took some time to chat with her,” said Padilla. “It was a really cool, special moment to bring … [them] to meet face to face.”

One of the highlights of Padilla’s tenure so far has been the opportunity to guide the latest rookie draft picks through an entire season, helping them make the leap from amateur basketball players to NBA professionals.

“So much comes at them so quickly,” she said. “They have to learn how to manage all that comes with being a professional athlete—both on and off the court. It’s been gratifying to see how well they’ve handled those transitions.”

Like Schröder, rookie John Collins is also a huge soccer fan, and Padilla found opportunities for him because of his support of Atlanta United.

“He was completely new to the city, so this was a great way to establish his presence in the market and build his brand in the off-season, even prior to stepping foot on the court for the Hawks,” she said.

Working so closely with the players and the front office means riding the lows as well as the highs and being an expert at adapting.

I grew up believing that if you have the ability, or if you were interested in learning or being part of anything, you just go for it.

“It’s very emotional, and that makes it even more special when your team wins, when you see team and individual growth, and also when the business does well—seeing the stands full, or seeing our players out in the community or pursuing their individual passions off the court.”

Prior to joining the Atlanta Hawks, Padilla spent almost a decade with the NBA. As manager of social responsibility, she oversaw the NBA’s relationships with international nonprofits and global partners to strategically market and promote the league’s social responsibility platform, NBA Cares.

What’s it like to be one of the few women in the front office of an NBA team? Padilla is honored and humbled, but she came into the position with the confidence to meet any challenge.

 “The New Jersey-born-and-raised mentality works for me,” said Padilla, who is the daughter of Filipino parents and grew up in a diverse area of New Jersey where she never felt marginalized. “I didn’t see things as just male or just female. I grew up believing that if you have the ability, or if you were interested in learning or being part of anything, you just go for it,” she said.

It wasn’t until she started growing in her professional career that the issue came into focus. Men still occupy most of the executive positions, but she sees women having an influence in the world of sports.

“I’m so impressed with the NBA and in particular the Atlanta Hawks. They truly value diversity and inclusion,” she said.

Padilla hopes to grow her career in professional sports, where she’s seen its power to inspire individuals and bring communities together. In 2013, she helped bring an NBA team to the Philippines for a preseason game. According to Padilla, the country is crazy about basketball, so she knew what this event meant to some of the citizens who got face time with the pros.

“That moment the fan has with a player could be one of the best day of their lives.”