Ed Winkle ’86 has forged a career making meaningful connections between the NBA and
its growing global fan base.
Story by BRIAN HUDGINS
Within Ed Winkle’s work environment, the shortest distance traveled often comes during
his daily commute.
As vice president of global partnerships for the National Basketball Association,
Winkle deals with the marketing aspects of a rapidly growing global sport. It is a
career that has taken him through many Asian countries — and now to Midtown Manhattan,
where Winkle works at the NBA League’s 5th Avenue headquarters and resides just a
few blocks away.
Winkle likes the simplicity of the arrangement. “I don’t own a car in New York because
there is nowhere to park,” he says. “I walk to work every day. It’s very different
than if you are living in most places around the world.”
Since graduating from IWU with a degree in finance and insurance, Winkle has logged
countless travel hours to and from destinations around the globe. Before launching
his NBA career in 2009, he managed a team of over 300 Fed Ex sales professionals across
the Asia Pacific.
“That really opened up my global perspective because I lived in Tokyo, Hong Kong and
Bangkok, Thailand — all with Fed Ex,” Winkle says.
While Winkle was advancing his career at Fed Ex, the NBA was going through its own
growth spurt. Professional basketball players from overseas began to make inroads
into the league. The effect was noticeable in China, where basketball was first introduced
by YMCA missionaries in the late 1800s and thrived even through the Cultural Revolution.
When Shanghai-born Yao Ming signed a contract with the Houston Rockets in 2002, it
gave his country a face to attach to its growing fervor for the sport. Now, the NBA
is among the most popular brands in China, and the only American sports league with
a significant following throughout Asia.
Winkle was part of the ground swell of this growth in his first job for the NBA. Based
in Hong Kong, he served as senior director of business development and marketing partnerships
for all of the Asia Pacific markets outside of greater China. “The NBA brand was very
relevant in China, but what was happening was the NBA brand started to grow all over
the region,” he says. “If you look at countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia,
the NBA was expanding to all those markets.”
Part of the sport’s popularity in Asia comes from the basic elements of basketball,
Winkle observes. In countries with very crowded cities, finding available land and
the cost of a sport become two major considerations. What does basketball bring to
the table in these markets? All you need is a basket and a little bit of land in a
gym or outdoor park.
Winkle got a firsthand look at basketball’s impact in the Philippines while traveling
with Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra as part of the NBA FIT program, the league’s
initiative to promote healthy lifestyles. Over the course of 10 days, the program
hosted a series of interactive fitness clinics — a combination of on-court physical
activities, exercises, nutrition seminars, and basketball clinics.
“People don’t understand that the NBA is more popular in the Philippines than it is
in the United States,” says Winkle. “In the U.S., you have a segment of people who
like other sports, but in the Philippines it is such a basketball-focused and NBA-focused
country. The Philippines is unique in that the NBA is such a massive brand there,”
Spoelstra, whose mother is Filipino, was greeted as a superstar during his first trip
to the Philippines in 2009, and he has returned almost every year since. “They identify
Erik as a Filipino-American,” notes Winkle. “Erik does a lot of great work.” Watching
him coach youngsters in the basketball clinics, Winkle was impressed by Spoelstra’s
intensity. “Once he gets going,” Winkle told a reporter at the time, “I don’t think
he can differentiate between these kids and his players.”
The Power to Unite
In looking back on his international career trajectory, Winkle cites his IWU experiences
as a crucial launching point. The diversity of the student body and the overall educational
experience helped prepare him for a global career, says Winkle, who matriculated to
Illinois Wesleyan from Hinsdale South High School in Darien, Ill.
Winkle also learned leadership skills through his role as rush chairman for Sigma
Chi fraternity, and his character was shaped by his experiences as a wide receiver
for the Titan football team. Winkle, who never missed a game in his four years on
the varsity squad, was known for making catches in clutch situations. Named co-MVP
in his senior year, Winkle was described by his coach, Don Larson, as “one of our
more intense players, and his teammates showed good judgment in honoring him.”
His employers at Fed Ex noted those same qualities when they offered him a promotion,
and the chance to work and live abroad. “When it came time at Fed Ex to kind of raise
my hand, I was 25 years old, and they asked me to move to Tokyo,” Winkle recalls. His family background helped the transition. His mother, born and raised in France,
immigrated to America, where she met Winkle’s father. Traveling abroad was a familiar
event for him growing up, so “it wasn’t that much of a stretch for me,” he says. “But
it was the first time I ever went to Asia. I did have a moment on the plane where
I said, ‘Oh, my God. I’m moving to Tokyo!’ — and at that time, I didn’t speak one
word of Japanese.”
In hindsight, it turned out to be the best decision he ever made, Winkle says, not
only from a business standpoint, but also as a learning experience in understanding
and appreciating other cultures.
Even after relocating to Manhattan with his 2012 promotion, Winkle’s worldwide perspective
on business and culture remains an essential part of his NBA career. As head of the
league’s global partnerships efforts, Winkle and his team engage some of the world’s
top companies — including Nike, PepsiCo, Anheuser-Busch, and Gatorade — “through deep
and authentic brand integration.” Those efforts, he says, extend well beyond traditional
“With Gatorade, for example, you are used to seeing a bottle,” he explains. “We work
with them on programs — it is much more than a logo slap and getting your brand out there.”
“It’s harder to reach consumers,” says Winkle. The challenge to create strategies
that attract and engage customers in meaningful ways can be daunting in today’s competitive,
fragmented and rapidly changing media landscape. But it helps that the NBA spotlights
so many engaging personalities among its players and coaches, captivating fans around
“If you go to Bangkok, I guarantee you will see a kid in a Stephen Curry jersey in
20 minutes,” Winkle says. “But 99 percent of those people will never get to go to
Basketball’s power to unite people and cultures around the world continues to fascinate
Winkle. While driving business results for the NBA’s league, teams and partners, he
still finds time to stay involved in the sport’s philanthropic efforts through its
Basketball Without Borders (BWB) global development and community outreach program.
Since its founding in 2001, thousands of youngsters from Asia-Pacific, Europe, Americas,
and Africa have attended four-day BWB camps, where they learn basketball skills and
life lessons about leadership, education, sportsmanship, and healthy living from current
and former international and NBA stars. In addition to Winkle’s collaborations with
Spoelstra, he has worked with retired players such as Tim Hardaway Sr., A.C. Green,
and Dominique Wilkins and in BWB camps and related community-action efforts such as
HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.
As he continues to promote the reach of basketball worldwide, Winkle is also relishing
his recent move back to the States and the opportunities it gives to stay closer to
family and friends both in Chicago and at IWU. He even had the chance to attend four
World Series games last year. As a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, Winkle says, “That was