From an air ball to the NBA: Barlage ’06 is president of Cavs’ business operations

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January 8, 2018

By Mike Killeen

Nic Barlage from the CavaliersNic Barlage can still recall the day he embarked on a path into the world of professional sports.

“I sent out 172 résumés the fall of my senior year, and received zero responses back from pro sports teams,” said Barlage, a 2006 graduate of Saint John’s University.

For the former basketball guard, it amounted to an air ball.

But the Alexandria (Minnesota) Beetles did eventually get back to him. Barlage had interned with the Northwoods League baseball team the summer before, and while he worked long hours, he found out he was decent as a salesman. Plus, he liked the job as assistant general manager.

“I kept applying (to professional teams), and … I ended up applying with the Phoenix Suns. I got the first opportunity to transition there in the fall after I graduated,” Barlage said of his job as a sales consultant.

Finding his way to the NBA

That started a 12-year trek in the NBA that took him back to Minnesota to briefly work for the Timberwolves, then to the Charlotte Bobcats, the Cleveland Cavaliers and then back to the Suns, where he served most recently as the senior vice president and chief sales officer.

In September 2017, Barlage was named president of business operations for the Cavaliers. Finance, human resources, building operations, ticketing, sponsorships, marketing, a digital group and technology services all report to him.

About the only thing he doesn’t do for the Cavs is shoot with LeBron James and Kevin Love.

“At the end of the day, I look at how I’ve been fortunate enough to grow and be in this position, and it’s been through working extremely hard,” Barlage said. “I think Saint John’s puts you in that mindset from a work ethic perspective. I also think that establishing, growing and maintaining relationships has been a vital part (of his career), and I think Saint John’s does a great job of preparing all their students for that.”

“His work ethic is off the charts,” said Ryan Voz, who was general manager of the Beetles when Barlage worked there. “It is his determination and work ethic that has gotten him to where he is today.

“It’s not a surprise to me where he is today, knowing his drive and determination,” added Voz, who is now co-owner of the Willmar (Minnesota) Stingers of the Northwoods League.

Barlage’s story is one perseverance and finding one’s self.

Finding his passion while at SJU

He came to Saint John’s in the fall of 2002 fresh out of Eagan (Minnesota) High School, wanting to study biology in advance of a medical career and play basketball.

Foot injuries ended his playing days as a junior. It turns out his career path had changed the year before.

“I was basically failing out of college,” Barlage said. “I realized my mind didn’t think that way.”

He visited Career Services and had a chat with a career counselor.

“I said, ‘I’m struggling here. I need to change it up.’ He said, ‘What are you passionate about?’ So I literally wrote down five things – three of which were sports-based. He kind of looks at me, and he goes, ‘Why don’t you get a job in sports?’ I was like, I didn’t think those existed. That doesn’t sound like it’s even possible.

“He said there were tons of jobs in sports, and he walked me through, pointing out what a few of the alumni from Saint John’s had been able to do working for different sports teams.

“And so, the light bulb went off. I changed majors immediately (to a psychology major with a business administration minor, as it was known then),” Barlage said.

That led to an internship with the Beetles, and then a job following his graduation in May 2006.

“I took that opportunity, but I kept on applying (to professional teams),” Barlage said. “What I found, through the opportunity in Alexandria with the Beetles, was from a selling perspective, that was the area I really wanted to start my career in.”

In August 2006, he latched on with the Suns selling tickets “at an hourly wage, basically the most entry level place within the team,” he said. “There were a few people that were getting their careers started on a leadership level that have become like my big brothers in this industry.”

Mike Tomon was one of those people. Tomon, who is chief operating officer of Legends, which partners with pro sports teams, athletic departments and municipalities to create sports and entertainment experiences, hired Barlage to work in Charlotte. Barlage followed him to his first stint with the Cavaliers from 2009-14.

“I worked for Mike Tomon eight of my 12 years in the NBA,” Barlage said. “I was fortunate to make some great relationships going through my own successes and experiences.”

Finding a "home" in Cleveland

Barlage acknowledges that he will wear many hats for the Cavaliers, a team that has reached the NBA Finals the last three seasons, winning the championship in 2016.

The Cavaliers, led by perhaps the greatest player on Earth in James and supported ably by Love, Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose (currently injured), could be there again in 2018.

With such a star-studded lineup, Barlage was asked if his job is easier when the Cavs are winning.

“There’s no doubt winning definitely creates a ton of momentum in our business. But our goal as operators in the business is not just to ride the wave, but to try to capitalize on it and make the most of it and create a sustainable environment as we move forward because we realize that success in our business is cyclical,” Barlage said.

“If you think you can kind of sit back and relax thinking you have reached a pinnacle, that’s the absolute wrong mentality to take,” he added. “You have to work harder to ensure that your fellow team members and external stakeholders objectives are not just met, but exceeded,” he added.

That means it’s back to work for Barlage.

“Is it time consuming? No doubt. I’m working harder now than I ever have in my entire life. Are there a thousand priorities? Absolutely,” Barlage said. “But ultimately, this is something that has been a goal of mine and you enjoy every moment of it.

I would say that you do wear a lot of hats, but at the end of the day the reward is phenomenal because we have a fantastic opportunity to impact our fans, this city and our fellow team members through experiences that will be with them for a lifetime.  We take a lot of pride in delivering on that commitment on a day-in and day-out basis.

“There’s not a lot of burden here, just a ton of opportunity to make an impact,” Barlage said.

Photo courtesy of Cleveland Cavaliers.