Like many sports fans, Eric Woolworth ’83 recalls exactly where he was on the night of March 11, 2020, as the world began to realize the gravity of the surging COVID-19 pandemic: He was in Miami, watching the Heat play the Charlotte Hornets, when phone rang. It was the league office calling.
“[Utah Jazz center] Rudy Gobert just tested positive,” he was told. “The NBA is shutting down.” Woolworth says the first words out of his mouth were, “What the hell does that mean?”
As the president of business operations for the Heat, Woolworth says he is responsible for “all the outward-facing elements of running a sports and entertainment operation,” which includes booking non-basketball events for Miami’s FTX Arena. Instantaneously, in-person events went from desirable to impossible. He was in command of a 20,000-seat ghost town.
Woolworth called a meeting with staff the next day and said, “I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.”
“Obviously,” Woolworth says, “that dragged on, and on, and on.”
The NBA returned later in the summer, but only in a virtual “bubble” environment in Orlando. It would be nearly a full year before the Heat would welcome basketball fans back into its arena.
In the intervening months, Woolworth says, his mindset remained focused on the day that live events would return, and he made sure his staff maintained their regular meetings over Zoom.
“A lot of people in the industry, once it became clear it was going to be a longer-term issue, they laid off staff or had people take pay cuts,” Woolworth says. “We remained confident that eventually we were going to come back. And the organizations that were going to do well were the ones that were ready.”
Last April, the NBA recognized the Heat with the league’s sales and marketing “Team of the Year” award, which covered its business performance over the previous 24 months. Woolworth accepted the award from NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
“He said to me, ‘Congratulations, you won the pandemic,’” Woolworth says.
Miami has gotten used to winning. It might surprise some people to learn that the Heat owns the NBA’s second-longest active sellout streak, with a capacity crowd at every home game since 2010. That record has remained intact even after the departures of superstars LeBron James, who played for the Heat from 2010 to 2014, and Dwayne Wade, who retired in 2019.
“When I got to Miami, everyone I met said, ‘It’s a football town,’” Woolworth says. “Now, we sell T-shirts that say, ‘Basketball Town.’”
In addition to three NBA championships in 2006, 2012, and 2013, the Heat won the league’s inaugural Inclusion Leadership Award in 2018, given to the organization with the strongest record and commitment to diversity and inclusion. At the time, the Heat’s full-time workforce was 70 percent minority and 33 percent women.
But Woolworth says the franchise’s commitment to diversity was nothing new.
“Miami is an incredibly diverse place,” he says, adding that he always felt like the organization should reflect that. “No matter where you were from or what group you associated yourself with, when you came to the arena, you would find somebody that was like you.”
Woolworth wasn’t always a hoops fanatic. A tri-sport varsity athlete at Taft, lettering in soccer, hockey (cocaptain in 1982–83), and track, his parents had tickets to the New York Giants, Yankees, and Rangers games—but neglected the Knicks.
Attending Georgetown University during the Patrick Ewing heyday of the mid-’80s changed his opinion of the sport. But Woolworth planned to pursue a career in environmental law after finishing Georgetown Law School.
His father-in-law was at the time the chief operating officer of Carnival Corp., the cruise line, and he desperately wanted Woolworth to move to Miami. Woolworth resisted, saying Florida was “just for old folks,” and the only thing that might change his mind was if he could work in professional sports.
Two months later, Carnival’s chief executive, Micky Arison, assumed majority control of the Miami Heat in 1995, and Woolworth, then 30, became one of his first hires, as the team’s general counsel.
Arison simultaneously brought in a slightly more credentialed name to handle the basketball side: Pat Riley, the championship-winning former coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks.
Riley and Woolworth have now worked side by side for 28 years. Not bad for a guy who says he could never really dribble with his left hand.
“It’s been an incredible ride,” Woolworth says, “to get in on the ground floor and be part of the growth of one of the premier sports leagues on the planet has been incredible.”