Nic Barlage drives Rock Entertainment Group’s ambitious plans for itself and the city

It is correct — but also misleading — to refer to Nic Barlage as the business leader of the Cleveland Cavaliers, because the work he is involved in goes well beyond basketball. ϒ While the National Basketball Association’s Cavaliers are the most established and culturally recognizable brand under the umbrella entity known as Rock Entertainment Group (REG), there is so much more to this broad, growth-minded business than hoops fans might realize. Much like a basketball net itself, REG, under Dan Gilbert’s vision as founder and chairman and Barlage’s leadership as CEO, is made up of elements woven together. 

In addition to the Cavaliers, REG includes the American Hockey League’s Cleveland Monsters, the NBA G League’s Cleveland Charge and the NBA 2K League’s Cavs Legion Gaming Club, an esports franchise. The company also operates three venues associated with these teams — gaming home Legion Lair Lit by TCP in Cleveland, Cavaliers training and development center Cleveland Clinic Courts in Independence and, of course, Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, a recently renovated, shining jewel of downtown Cleveland.

That’s a lot on Barlage’s plate, but he’ll tell you the key to juggling it all is the people under him.

“The business has some seasonality to it, which helps us create a hierarchy of priorities,” Barlage says. “But we spent a lot of time finding the right leaders for the different parts of our business. We are as structured and as talented as we’ve ever been, from a senior leadership perspective.”

This structure is important, because Rock Entertainment Group has ambitious plans for its business and for the city of Cleveland itself. The company does not just view success through the prism of the NBA standings but also through its ability to properly serve as a community asset, a key piece of the league’s global growth and a shaper of Cleveland’s municipal infrastructure.



Shooting his shot

In Barlage, REG has a leader who knows quite a bit about ambition. Appointed to his position in 2022 at 37, he has come a long, long way in a relatively short period of time. He struggled to get his foot in the door in the sports field after college, only to navigate his way to this prominent position. Barlage’s appetite for opportunity pairs perfectly with REG’s vigor and vision. 

“Sports and entertainment can be a roller coaster,” Barlage says. “You can win three in a row, you can lose three in a row. But if you stay positive and look at challenges as opportunities, you’ll figure out how to get through the downs and get to the ups a lot faster.”

For Barlage, life on that roller coaster began humbly. After more than 150 applications for jobs in professional sports went unanswered during his senior year at Saint John’s University, he took a position in amateur baseball with the Alexandria Beetles in Minneapolis. 

While working for the member of the summer collegiate wood bat Northwoods League, Barlage did everything from donning the mascot uniform to hanging signs on the outfield fence. He figures his hourly rate from those days could be measured in cents, not dollars, given how much time he invested in the low-paying position.

“I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck and sacrifice a lot to be in this industry,” he says. “It gives you confidence that you can work through most things. I can still remember doing players’ laundry in the morning so that they could catch a bus to the next stop on the schedule, or making 150 phone calls in a day to try to sell tickets. So, I can empathize and meet people where they are a little bit better.”

Having developed a passion for sales during his time with the Beetles, Barlage eventually landed an hourly position in the sales department for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. From there, he worked his way up the NBA business ladder with several teams. He first joined the Cavaliers as a premium sales manager in 2009 before returning to Phoenix as senior vice president and chief sales officer in 2014. 

When Barlage returned to the Cavs as president of business operations in September 2017, a major undertaking awaited him.

Courting the future

From its 1994 opening as Gund Arena to its 2017 status as Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavaliers’ home had received only modest modifications through the years. In need of an overhaul to adapt to the times and the tastes of sports and entertainment fans, and to continue to attract premier events like the NBA All-Star Game and major concerts, the team spent all of 2017 in protracted negotiations with Cuyahoga County for the funding of a $185 million renovation project. 

Barlage rejoined the team just as the funding process was being completed and the design process was beginning. That put him front and center for a dramatic reshaping of the building prior to its reopening and rebranding as Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in September 2019.

“It was an amazing two-year journey,” Barlage says.

Barlage played a key role in overseeing a construction project that would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in income. The building was upgraded with premium club areas, improved amenities for the players, upgraded corridor, and a seven-level, glass-enclosed atrium that connects to the concourse via an LED “Power Portal.”

“The atrium is so iconic,” Barlage says. “It gives us a front door to the city like we never had before. It’s this beacon of light and opportunity and shows what can be possible if you just think big about things.”

Subsequent elements of the renovation plan included the 2019 removal of 1,000 seats in the upper levels on the south side of the building to make room for the Budweiser Brew House, a 2,500-square-foot, standing-room area where fans can congregate and relax with food and drink while still taking in all the action on the court. 

Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse is now considered a benchmark among arenas — one that has continued to evolve with the 2023 opening of the 10,000-square-foot Caesars Sportsbook upon the legalization of sports gambling in Ohio and a modernized team shop.

“It’s really provided us a foundation for the next generation of Cavs fans, the next generation of concert-goers, the next generation of Monsters fans,” Barlage says. “We’re able to have an experience and assets that they want to engage with.”

Passing the Rock

Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse is the center of the Cavaliers’ world, and that world is growing. As the team’s business operation came to include multiple sports, venues, music and content properties, it became practical to link them all under the Rock Entertainment Group moniker in 2021 to, as Barlage put it at the time, “drive efficiencies and innovation.”

That same year, efficiency improved when the Charge, the Cavaliers’ affiliate in the developmental G League, moved from Canton to Cleveland, where the team now plays its home games at the Wolstein Center on the Cleveland State University campus. Barlage says the move has substantially improved the popularity of the minor league team and also benefited the basketball operations group, allowing Cavaliers and Charge players to practice together.

“It’s been such a pleasant surprise to see the growth of the [Charge] fan base and the growth of the business,” Barlage says. “It’s a compelling entertainment opportunity for people that’s cost-affordable and family friendly.”

The Monsters, who began play in 2007 and have served as the top minor-league affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Columbus Blue Jackets since 2015, fit that same formula for a different segment of sports fans. Tapping into the growth of youth hockey in Cleveland and utilizing creative marketing ideas, the Monsters have become one of the AHL’s top draws.

Then there’s the Cavs Legion Gaming Club, which engages with a younger demographic of fan in the electronic sports (i.e. video game) space in the summer months when the Cavaliers are in their offseason. REG is also the commercial arm of 100 Thieves, an esports and gaming lifestyle brand.

“If you’re not [in the esports space],” says Barlage, “I don’t think you’re building as diverse and as wide a spectrum of fan development as you should be.”

Rock Entertainment Group continues to grow its business in myriad ways. For instance, the company is currently in the midst of a five-year strategy of tapping into fandom in Brazil, where basketball is the second-most-popular sport behind soccer and the team has a built-in ambassador in the form of former Cavs star Anderson Varejão. 

But the biggest testament to REG’s bid for efficiency and innovation is just outside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse’s main entrance, down along the banks of the Cuyahoga River. A project is under way to move the Cavaliers’ practice facility there. But like REG itself, this project is about so much more than basketball.

Bedrock, a real estate development company owned by Gilbert, has put together a Cuyahoga Riverfront Master Plan that will turn 35 neglected acres of land into thousands of residential units, several office buildings, entertainment and retail space, and a series of public parks and promenades. In September 2023, the Cavaliers and Cleveland Clinic announced a first-of-its-kind sports performance center to be included in that ambitious riverfront vision. The Cleveland Clinic Global Peak Performance Center will not just be a practice facility for the team but also a training center where local athletes can access treatment, nutrition and recovery expertise from the Clinic’s professional medical specialists. 

As of this writing, the hope was to break ground on the project some time in the first half of 2024, and its eventual opening will be the first spark of a game-changing reimagining of the riverfront.

“We think it’s our responsibility to deliver something that Cleveland will engage with and be connected to,” Barlage says.

In its community involvement, REG demonstrates that it takes that responsibility seriously.

Assisting the community

Barlage believes it’s important to not, as he puts it, “throw off the equilibrium” of the relationship between a professional sports team and the community that supports it. The community supports the team, therefore, the team must support the community.

And so, in recent years, the Cavaliers have a variety of social responsibility campaigns in motion at any given time, targeting such important issues as literacy (SCORE with Reading), food scarcity (Cavs Food Drive), mental wellness (Mindfulness Learning Space), physical education (Cavs Academy) and the environment (Trees for Threes). The Hoops After Dark League, created in partnership with the City of Cleveland in 2022 to encourage young men to stay off the streets, has become one of the city’s most anticipated summer community events, providing mentorship and life skills development programs that can change lives and reduce violence.

“We’ve really been pushing ourselves to make investments in the community in a programmatic way,” Barlage says. “That isn’t just writing a check; it’s providing resources and a program so you have something that can create different outcomes for people.”

Within their own walls, the Cavaliers and REG foster a transparent, communicative and connected work environment that represents the diversity of the community and of the NBA fan base. REG’s senior leaders have a portion of their bonus tied to achieving performance in key diversity indicators such as training, education, hiring and retention.

“I feel like the best way to drive behavior sometimes is to wrap a component of people’s compensation to it,” Barlage says. “We’re more well-rounded now than we were before we started this journey four or five years ago, and I think that’s a really good thing for our society and community.”

Barlage is in a business in which so much is judged by the basketball standings. But Rock Entertainment Group also measures — and achieves — success elsewhere, representing the city proudly and commendably, and even pointing it toward the future.

Nic Barlage

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