Matt Wolf ’05
Courtesy NBA
Growing up on Long Island, future NBA executive Matt Wolf ’05 loved sports. Life revolved around soccer, baseball, and even bowling, keeping Wolf organized and on a routine every season. And that continued when Wolf left for Princeton in 2001.

There, at freshman orientation, a small group of seniors approached Wolf, asking him how much he weighed. The seniors were looking for students to join Princeton’s hapless sprint football team, which hadn’t won a game since 1999.

“I think at that time I probably weighed 140 pounds,” Wolf recalls. “So I was way under the weight limit even then, but I think they were nice enough to pass me the flier anyway and I showed up.”

For the next four years, Wolf would play sprint football, the lightweight version of traditional tackle football. The team’s long winless streak continued — Wolf went 0-24 in his time on the team — but the losing didn’t bother him. His love of sports, he realized, went beyond wins and losses. He enjoyed the camaraderie and looked forward to practices.

“It was kind of comforting,” Wolf says. “The routine helped me keep everything in perspective.”

And while life as a professional athlete didn’t look too promising for the 5-foot-8 tight end, another Princeton alumnus, Michael Lewis ’82, charted an alternative career path in a book he published just after Wolf’s sophomore year.

Moneyball famously follows Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane in his team’s quest to bring new statistical tools to baseball.

“I had this love of sports and, at the same time, this book comes out about smart, data-driven and, frankly, geeky, not super-athletic people having a huge impact on the sports industry,” Wolf says. “That kind of collided and got me thinking, ‘Maybe this could be a thing.’ ”

An operations research and financial engineering major, Wolf decided to write his senior thesis about baseball. He trained his sights on the Montreal Expos.

At the time, the franchise’s financial failure had just forced it to relocate to Washington, D.C. Could the league have used data to detect this disastrous situation long before it happened? Wolf found it could have.

After graduation, Wolf eventually found himself at the NBA, where he now serves as senior vice president of team marketing and business operations. The league was fast gaining a reputation in the sports industry as a place willing to take a chance on people who weren’t sports insiders, and Wolf was eager to prove his worth.

Much of his initial work involved expanding the NBA’s international appeal, an aspect of the league’s business that made headlines this month after the NBA’s liberal attitude toward free speech ran afoul of the Chinese government.

Wolf later joined the NBA’s in-house consulting arm, which advises the league’s teams on identifying new revenue sources and boosting attendance. The NBA, which tipped off its 2019-20 season last night, is coming off its four highest attended seasons in history, drawing an average of 22 million fans to its arenas each year.

If only Wolf had been able to use his analytical skills to boost interest in Princeton’s sprint football program, he says. The university discontinued the team in 2016. The team had remained winless since Wolf graduated in 2005.