Sometimes a 20-minute conversation is all it takes to change the course of a lifetime.
That was certainly the case for Nic Barlage, now the chief executive officer of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, Rock Entertainment Group and Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
But once upon a time, the 2006 Saint John’s University graduate was a college sophomore in search of a change in direction.
“I was pre-med for my first year-and-a-half of school and it wasn’t working out,” said Barlage, who also played basketball for legendary former Johnnies head coach Jim Smith. “I didn’t think that way. I couldn’t string the grades together that I was going to need to go to medical school. So I needed to pivot.”
That was when Barlage paid a visit to a counselor in Career Services at SJU who in the course of a brief conversation helped set him on the path that has led to where he is today.
“It was very informal,” he recalls. “I rolled in with no idea of what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to change my major. And he told me that whatever I did, it should be something I’m passionate about.
“He had me write down what my passions were and I wrote basketball, football and baseball – in that order. So he said ‘Well, then go work in sports.’”
Path to success
Which is exactly what Barlage did – starting with a stint in baseball as the assistant general manager for the Alexandria Beetles of the Northwoods League immediately after graduating from SJU. From there, he landed a job as a sales consultant with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. Stints with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Charlotte Bobcats followed before he arrived in Cleveland in 2009.
He eventually worked his way up to become the team’s vice president of sales and services, then returned to Phoenix in 2014 to become the Suns’ senior vice president and chief sales officer for three years. He came back to the Cavaliers in 2017 as the president of business operations, and in 2021 he was named president and chief operating officer of Rock Entertainment Group – the umbrella entity encompassing the teams and venues that are part of Cavaliers chairman Dan Gilbert’s Family of Companies.
Then, last year, he was named to his current post when Len Komoroski, who had been the Cavaliers CEO since 2013, announced he was stepping down.
“The benefit I have is that I’ve grown up in this business,” Barlage said of a role that requires him to wear many hats. “And I specifically have grown up here in Cleveland. I’ve seen the franchise from every level. I started out selling tickets, making an hourly wage and sleeping on an air mattress. I’ve worked my way up from … I don’t like to call it the bottom, but from the very foundational parts of the organization.”
Building a winner
Superstar and Ohio native LeBron James returned to the franchise in the summer of 2014, setting up a stretch in which the Cavaliers made four-straight trips to the NBA Finals from 2015-18 – winning a championship in 2016 (the first professional sports title for the city of Cleveland since 1964).
James again left as a free agent in 2018, signing with the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Cavaliers have been trying to return to the postseason ever since. This year, there appears to be a very good chance of that happening. Heading into the All-Star break, the team boasted the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference.
“When we went through (James’ departure) a second time, it was just from the mindset that we were thankful that it happened,” said Barlage, an Eagan (Minnesota) High School graduate. “He brought a championship to this city, and we’re beyond thankful we had a part two with him. For us, it wasn’t acrimonious or adversarial or any of those things. It was more of a celebration of the experiences we had been through together. Then, we focused in on how to take these past experiences and use them as a foundation for future success - to continue creating momentum as a business, as a brand and as a team.
“And that’s really what we’ve been able to do.”
CSB and SJU well represented
Barlage is one of a number of CSB and SJU graduates who have risen to positions of prominence in professional sports.
That group includes:
- Pat McKenzie Sr. ’79, the longtime team physician for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers
- Trent Kirchner ’00, the vice president of player personnel for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks
- Ryan Monnens ’98, the director of player personnel for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings
- Anne Doeppner ’01, the senior director, diversity, equity and inclusion for the Vikings
- Brett Becker ’15, the manager, pro scouting and baseball operations for MLB’s San Diego Padres
- Bryant Pfeiffer ’94, the EVP, chief revenue officer for MLS’s Minnesota United and an early and valuable professional contact for Barlage
And a number of other as well.
“When I was in school, I think there were only about two-or-three graduates working in this field,” Barlage said. “Ice (Pfeiffer) at the time was with the Timberwolves and he was very helpful getting me orientated around the right opportunities. Now, I think we’ve had a really good run in the last decade-and-a-half or so of alumni that have broken into the sports industry.”
Keeping in touch
Barlage remains in contact with former teammate Pat McKenzie, now the Johnnies head basketball coach.
“I just did a little video for him,” said Barlage, who also takes a golfing trip every year with friends from SJU including former roommate and All-MIAC linebacker Matt Hawn.
“We text quite a bit. He’s busy and I’m busy, but I love what P-Mac is doing with that squad and how he’s approached everything.”
McKenzie said he is grateful for the support Barlage has continued to show to his alma mater.
“We spent a couple of years playing together when he was here and I just remember him being a really good guy,” McKenzie said. “He was very easy to get along with and a great teammate. One of the really cool things about Saint John’s is that you learn never to be surprised by what guys go on to do. There are so many guys who get out of here and go on to excel in the next chapter of their lives. This place just seems to attract that type of guy and helps develop that type of guy. So it’s been really impressive to see all that Nic has gone on to accomplish.
“Because of our mutual interest and passion for the sport, we’ve stayed in touch over the years and he’s been a phenomenal resource for me and for our program on a variety of fronts. He’s a great SJU success story.”
Barlage looks back warmly on his time at SJU, and credits lessons learned there for helping him develop into the person he is now.
“I owe a lot to Saint John’s,” he said. “The thing I loved most about it was the liberal arts education, which gives you a much wider purview of subjects that you have to engage with. And then the relationships you’re able to build there.
“The environment and culture of that school teaches you a lot. And I needed that kind of system and environment to help guide me. I was a social butterfly when I first got there and those guardrails helped me develop into a more well-rounded human being.”