Scott O’Neil Carries Villanova Values to 76ers’ Front Office


Courtesy of Chief Executive Magazine

Scott O’Neil Carries Villanova Values to 76ers’ Front Office

David Nguyen

Figuring out a career path is not easy. For 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil, he had an idea of what he wanted to do with his life before he enrolled in kindergarten. 

“I wanted to be the boss since I was three years old,” O’Neil said.  

At a young age, filled with lots of energy and intensity, O’Neil admits he wasn’t the easiest kid to deal with. Growing up in North Jersey as one of five siblings, his parents thought he had behavioral issues as a young man. During parent-teacher conferences in the fourth grade, O’Neil’s teacher had a possible solution to use his personality traits in an impactful way.  

“My teacher told my mom, ‘Look, he’s a really good kid. He’s got a lot of energy, but needs to find some channel for it. If I were you, I would be pushing sports,’” O’Neil recalled.  “That was the jumping off point.” 

From that day on, O’Neil was involved in athletics. He remembers his parents signing him up for five different basketball leagues throughout the year, always playing sports; mainly basketball, soccer and tennis. With his father coaching him as a youth, aspirations to have a career in basketball were not surprising. 

“Basketball is in my blood,” O’Neil said. “I’ve had a ball in my hand since I was two, three years old.” 

O’Neil was able to learn a lot while participating in organized sports and is a firm believer in the lessons it teaches. 

“I love the lessons you learn,” O’Neil said. “Learning how to win, lose, how to compete, sweat and giving yourself up for the betterment of the team. I am a huge believer in youth sports because it turns kids loose and it teaches them valuable life lessons.” 

With both of his parents holding PhD’s, learning and education was very important in the O’Neil household. When it came down to applying to college, O’Neil had his selection narrowed down pretty quickly. Of the 10 schools he applied to, only Syracuse and Villanova accepted him. In order to make his decision, he decided to visit Syracuse first.  

“I hopped in my car and drove to Syracuse and it was snowing, I believe in May, and it was an awful experience” O’Neil said. “It was that ugly rain and snow on the ground, and people wanted to get inside. I didn’t know where to go or who to talk to, so I got in my car and drove down to Villanova.” 

When driving to the Main Line, O’Neil had the opposite experience. 

“At Villanova, it was sunny, the students had their little backpacks on, and they looked happy” O’Neil said.  “That’s how I made my decision. I didn’t break out a spreadsheet or do a plus/minus ,column because I was 18 years old and didn’t know a thing. Fortunately, I made the right choice. I had a wonderful experience, because it was where I grew up, met lifelong friends and began a renewed love of learning, developing a much stronger spiritual self as well. For me, I couldn’t imagine a better four years of my life.” 

One of those friendships was made on his first day of orientation in August of 1988 with current 76ers President, Chris Heck. 

“I remember Chris Heck was the first person I met at orientation in Group 23,” O’Neil recalled. “Low and behold, we ended up next to each other in the exercise where we would tell people where we were from, and we have been friends ever since.”

It’s safe to say that building relationships was one of the main lessons he learned at Villanova.  

“Some of the closest people, in terms of just my sports world alone, there were several of us in class I met at Villanova,” O’Neil said. “I think from a relationship end, I feel like I grew up there.  I learned how to engage, talk and love, and I think the relationship piece was a key.” 

“Other than relationships,” O’Neil adds, “I tell other young people in their careers or going into the work that there are three characteristics that bring success: work unreasonably hard, to have an intellectual curiosity of learning and to be an extraordinary teammate. All three of these values I have were rooted from Villanova. I think when you walk on campus, you are expected that expectations are high and nothing is handed to you, which I love. I think the sense of community, love, respect, charity and service that is driven there helps us all to be really good teammates. I think any of us who fall in love with learning will never fail, and the world will not pass us by, and the world will be our oyster. These core trends are held near and dear to my heart, and the fuel to its fire still burns from Villanova.” 

With the reputation Villanova’s business school has, O’Neil is proud to be an alumnus of his prestigious university, as he earned a degree in marketing. 

“Well I can tell you that it’s a sure good thing that I applied in 1988 and not today,” O’Neil joked. “I think its reputation is incredible and well-earned. I am proud (to be an alum), and I love everything the school represents.”  

While at Villanova, he had an internship at Advantage International (now Octagon, one of the largest sports and media talent agencies in the world) that was life changing for him. 

“I remember walking in there the first day, and there were these young, good looking, smart people that seemed excited to be at work,” O’Neil said. Normally he had hard labor jobs during the summer, from landscaping to digging pools. This seemed different. 

“It was the first time I walked into an office that people seemed thrilled to be there. Monday wasn’t a down day. It was an up day.” he said. “And it was at that moment that I felt that if I could make a career out of sports, that would be something I should absolutely pursue.” 

After graduating from Villanova, O’Neil began his sports career as a marketing assistant with the (then New Jersey, now Brooklyn) Nets. When he first met former team President Jon Spoelstra, he was amazed with his persona. It was then he knew he wanted to run a professional sports team. 

“(Jon) was just captivating and smart, and funny, and engaging and he was a true leader,” O’Neil said. “And I saw him transform the culture from ‘Hey let’s see where we can get you today’ to ‘Hey let’s get you to do some world class work in a breakthrough manor.’ I remember saying to myself that this is the guy I want to be and the job I want to have. That was the first time the lightbulb went on for me.” 

After his experience with the Nets, O’Neil earned a sales position with the Eagles, eventually becoming Vice President of Sales, and would continue his education by earning his MBA at Harvard Business School. He switched from football to basketball when he became the Senior Vice President of the NBA’s Marketing and Business Operations, working closely with former commissioner David Stern and current commissioner Adam Silver. For seven years, he advised NBA and WNBA teams on ticket sales, marketing and developing sponsorships. Learning from Stern and Silver, O’Neil earned an unofficial “PhD” in the sports business. He then became the President of Madison Square Garden (MSG) Sports, overseeing all of its brands which include the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers. He helped transform “The World’s Most Famous Arena” as a key figure in some of the largest marketing deals in NBA History. His team signed JP Morgan Chase as MSG’s first Marquee Partner, followed by partnerships with Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Lexus, and more which helped record setting revenue in ticket sales, sponsorships, and suites. His aggressive, innovative drive to succeed was the motor that kept him going.  

“I think in many cases it’s a product of how we grow up and some total to our experiences,” O’Neil explained about his personality. “For me, I’ve always had a pretty competitive spirit, ambitious drive, and a will to win. I wake up pretty happy, dressed for life with a sparkle in my eye, and I love to get after it. I am really fortunate to have a big platform that drive my two passions in life: to help grow the next generational leaders and leave the world better than I found it. That’s what is driving me today.” 

O’Neil is not only the CEO of the 76ers, but the CEO of all the properties of Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment (HBSE); which include the New Jersey Devils, the Prudential Center, the Delaware Blue Coats, Binghamton Devils, Team Dignitas (eSports) and other properties. He has made many contributions to make HBSE successful, and it’s due to the culture he sets with these organizations.   

“I had a good friend of mine once tell me that culture can be defined as the things you tolerate and the things you celebrate,” O’Neil said.  

With the Sixers, he instituted a policy that every employee has to perform 76 hours of community service every year.  

“One of the things we don’t tolerate is sitting on your hands and not making the world better,” O’Neil said. “And we celebrate the incredible people that go out and make the world better every day. I feel like when you work as an organization that can reach and touch people it is our responsibility and obligation to put that to work.”  

Additionally, he emphasizes the importance of family by having Take Your Child to Work Day at their facility in Camden, as well as inviting family members to the office, games, important press conferences and other events.  

“In this business and with all of HBSE’s properties, you could technically work every day of the year,” O’Neil said. “So a lot of us do work quite a bit. One of the pieces of working at an organization like this is it becomes your family. So, I have a family at work that I love and respect and do the best I can to help provide an experience for, and the other one is at home (with his wife Sara and his three daughters). Generally, in today’s day and age, the line between work hours and home hours is blurry, and I try to make it a little darker. At work, I am focused and present. When I’m at home, I am present with my kids. I don’t think there is anything more important.”  

The culture O’Neil has established has paid off in major ways. The Sixers were named “One of the Top 50 Cultures” by US Magazine in 2017, as well as the “Best Place to Work in Philadelphia” by the Philadelphia Business Journal three times in the last five years. Additionally, the Prudential Center was named “Best Business” in 2016 by NJBiz. All these accolades attribute to his secret to life. 

“When you wake up in the morning, you put your feet on the ground and you’re so excited about what you do. You’re willing to work,” O’Neil said. “Then at night, you’re so excited about the life you have at your home. You should bring that excitement with equal passion at home. I’m very passionate, I love new things, and I love to create ideas and explore. To me, that sums it up the way I see life.”