Michigan Law grad is living out his hoop dreams

By Lori Atherton

For as long as he can remember, David Cho has been a basketball fanatic. But it isn’t just hitting the court or watching his favorite NBA team in action that inspires his passion for the game; it’s also the gear worn by players.

You might say, then, that Cho is living out his hoop dreams as adidas’s NBA partnership director, a role in which he manages all aspects of adidas’s 11-year global partnership with the NBA. That partnership includes on-court uniforms, U.S. and international retail licensed businesses, league events, and sponsorship activities. During his five years at the company, Cho has introduced the NBA’s Christmas Day event jerseys, the category of team-specific Pride uniforms, and, more recently, the 2015 NBA All-Star Game uniforms. All of these new initiatives have been instrumental in the growth of the global NBA merchandise business.

“Unlike other international leagues, where the uniforms for individual teams are made by different brands, here in the United States it’s typically one brand that makes uniforms for the entire league,” Cho says of adidas’s partnership with the NBA. “You see this model in the MLB, NHL, and NFL, but the primary difference with the NBA is that it’s a truly global league and business. The NBA has done a phenomenal job with its international growth, and what you see is the popularity of basketball on the rise in Europe, in China, and throughout Asia and Latin America. We sell NBA jerseys in practically every market in which adidas does business. No other U.S. sports league has that following around the world.”

A Rochester, New York, native, Cho grew up in retail, which he credits with fostering his heightened awareness of sports apparel. His dad owned two sneaker shops, and Cho spent a lot of time there after school, on weekends, and during summer vacations.

“I got to see all of the new products and styles, whether they were sneakers or clothing,” Cho says. “Most kids my age went shopping when they were looking for stuff; I was always in stores even if I wasn’t looking for something. As I became a serious athlete and wore sports gear day in and day out, I cared that much more about what I was wearing than most other kids.”

Despite his love of basketball, Cho, who also played tennis and volleyball, didn’t pursue a sports-related major in college. Instead, he graduated with a biochemistry degree from Harvard, then worked as a researcher in rheumatology and orthopaedics for three years before joining a biomedical startup. Though he liked science well enough, Cho realized he lacked the passion to make it a long-term career, so he entered law school, a move inspired in part by his brother and sister-in-law, both of whom are Michigan Law graduates. Cho opted to pursue a joint JD/MBA while at Michigan, which led to a coveted summer internship in Nike’s global apparel division and set the course for a career in sports marketing.

Cho never expected the internship to translate into a full-time job—”it was just a fun summer in Portland,” he says—but a final project for one of his business classes brought the attention of Nike executives and resulted in a job offer.

“Our project was to create a hypothetical problem related to doing business in Asia,” Cho says. “I thought, why create a hypothetical situation when I can call someone at Nike and ask if there is anything that business students could look into for a semester. They were interested in having us research the action sports industry in the Asia Pacific region. We gave the class presentation, and then had a teleconference with what turned out to be the entire senior leadership team for Nike’s Asia Pacific region. It led to a full-time position straight out of school.”

Cho held global brand and regional strategy positions at Nike and worked there for four years before moving to his current role at adidas which, the lifelong basketball fan says, is a dream job.

“When I explain to people what I do, the joke I often get is, ‘that’s great, but I wouldn’t consider it a job.’ It’s fun to come to work every day, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges or that it’s easy. It’s a true global business, and there are overarching brand and business goals that have to be met. But still, in the world of sports, specifically the NBA, it’s a unique role.”

And Cho is relishing every moment of it.