After 17 years with the NBA, A&S alum Leah MacNab, who earned her honours bachelor of arts with majors in political science and French in 2002 as a member of Innis College, is a driving force behind the growth of basketball in Canada.
As senior vice president, MacNab is responsible for NBA Canada’s television and digital media, marketing and retail partnerships, licensing, special events and basketball development.
“That is really what drives me long term: how do we secure the future of the NBA, our fandom 20 years from now?” MacNab says. “What are we doing to make sure we're at the forefront and the cusp of really exciting sport opportunity for our fans?”
Born in Almonte — the same small Ontario town that gave birth to James Naismith, basketball’s inventor — MacNab grew to appreciate the hustle and bustle of Toronto while doing her undergrad and never left. Her most formative U of T experience was her trip to Hong Kong after the first year of her program, funded in part by Innis College's “Kitchen Sink” Award.
MacNab credits the international presence at the University with helping her career in years to come.
“I really did value the opportunity to meet people from all over the world,” she says. “I sit on the international leadership team for the NBA, and we have managing directors all over the world. It’s nice to have met folks from some of the countries we have business in.”
MacNab began her career in government. A transition into marketing led to a chance encounter with an NBA marketing director at a Toronto International Film Festival party. The director told her about a job opening at NBA Canada.
When MacNab was initially declined for an interview, she didn’t take no for an answer.
“I decided to go through the posting and take an example of every time I've demonstrated the skill they were looking for, and I called the hiring manager’s office phone every day for two weeks,” MacNab says.
That hiring manager was Dan MacKenzie, now president of the Canadian Hockey League.
“Dan said to me, ‘You know, a lot of people would hate this and be really annoyed by it, but I like persistence. So, I'm going to let you come in, but you're my last choice,’” MacNab says.
Today, MacKenzie is one of MacNab’s biggest supporters in the industry.
“She’s not one to shy away from a challenge; she loves strategic initiatives and she really excels at solving problems,” MacKenzie says in a 5 to Watch – Canada's Sport Business Awards video from 2018.
NBA Canada’s operations have grown significantly since MacNab joined. She says several factors led to that growth — not least of which is the changing demographics of Canada or the twenty-plus Canadian players in the NBA, the highest for any country besides the U.S.
“It's been really rewarding, to be honest, to be a part of that journey,” MacNab says. “I know my personal contributions are small in the grand scheme of everything we've achieved, but I do feel really proud of them.”
I do think there's room for everyone in sport and in business. And that has been one of the more positive changes from a work culture standpoint that I think the industry — certainly the NBA — has experienced in the last maybe 10 years.
Growing up, MacNab had been introduced to basketball and the NBA through her brother. She was drawn in by the storylines and the personalities. Most of all, she was impressed by the NBA’s willingness to address difficult topics from which others were shying away.
“It was the only league that — at the time — I'd heard talk about social issues like HIV-AIDS prevention,” MacNab says. “I went into politics because I liked the idea of making change. And I feel like sport has the ability to do that in a way politics can’t necessarily.”
During her tenure with the NBA, one of MacNab’s biggest passions has been empowering women within basketball. Just recently, it was announced that the first WNBA game in Canada will be taking place at Scotiabank Arena in May 2023. MacNab says that women have been increasingly taking over positions at the top of the NBA.
“I do think there's room for everyone in sport and in business,” she says. “And that has been one of the more positive changes from a work culture standpoint that I think the industry — certainly the NBA — has experienced in the last maybe 10 years.”
MacNab’s advice for any students looking to get into the world of sports business is to network. She hosts a monthly “Ask Me Anything” over coffee for any students that reach out to her.
“It is still a relatively small industry,” MacNab says. “And we don't just want people that have studied sport management. We need folks from a variety of backgrounds to bring their expertise and lived experiences to the industry.”