For Caroline Klein, a Career Pivot Led to a Slam Dunk

The Utah Jazz’ new CCO left a longtime career in the hospitality industry to work in basketball

Caroline Klein posing in the rafters above a basketball court.

When Caroline Klein became the chief communications officer of the Utah Jazz in August 2022, she faced the added challenge of stepping into the job the same season the Jazz was going to host NBA All-Star Weekend. She was quickly thrown into helping plan the annual event, including speaking with reporters in the lead-up to the weekend. Soon, she was faced with a story request from a major media outlet that surprised her. “They wanted to do a story about how unique it was for Utah to host an All-Star Game on a Sunday, and asked if we got permission from the LDS [Latter-day Saints] Church,” she says. “I immediately said no and clarified that it wasn’t unique because we had hosted multiple games on Sundays in the past few years with the NBA Playoffs. I would say the national media has a narrative of Utah that is outdated, and I was seeing that we have to face these misconceptions head on.”

Klein (’07) was ready for the new challenge. She had spent her entire career working in communications and PR for hospitality and travel businesses before making a pivot and becoming the CCO of the professional basketball team.

“I’m always on the hunt for continuous self-improvement,” says Klein, who hails from Milwaukee and worked for the California-based Preferred Travel Group for almost a decade and eventually became CCO. “This was an exciting opportunity from a learning and growth standpoint.”

It also helps that Klein loves basketball. Her father started Wisconsin Playground Club, a nonprofit basketball program in Milwaukee, which Klein and her brother played in and, she says, became one of the top Amateur Athletic Union programs in the country. Klein played basketball competitively through high school. While at BU, she would shoot hoops on the basketball court near her Brookline apartment to decompress after a long day of classes. She also coached the girls’ varsity basketball team at a high school in Boston’s South End for a season. 

“When I told most people about my move to the Jazz, and out of travel and hospitality, it seemed out of left field because I’ve been in that space for so long. But, for everyone who knows me from Milwaukee, it made perfect sense.”

A Whole New Ball Game

Klein arrived at her office in Salt Lake City in August ready to make a difference in the Utah Jazz organization. But the transition wasn’t without challenges. The CCO position was a newly created role for the organization’s executive team, so she didn’t have any precedent to follow. “At this stage of my career, people don’t really consider what it’s like to start over,” she says. “I almost had to be an intern again. I asked every question regardless of how small I thought it was—I had to ask things like, how do things work in the NBA? What’s this organization like? I was asking to tag along with different people so I could gain that perspective.”

In the process, Klein found a fellow Terrier and COM alum in the organization: Michael Goodkind (’18) joined the Jazz as an in-arena host in September 2022. He got to be the in-arena host during NBA All-Star Weekend in February. 

Klein crafts the Jazz organization’s internal and external communications plans, and oversees the public relations, community relations and broadcast teams, which weren’t previously led by the same executive. That can include everything from helping to negotiate broadcasting rights, to collaborating with local government officials on events and initiatives to coordinating speaking engagements for Jazz ownership and front office staff. “My job is really about making sure that the storytelling the Jazz are putting out inspires action and that it is very consistent with who we say we are.” 

Indeed, Klein says authentic storytelling has been a key part of all of her jobs. At BU, she majored in journalism, hoping to one day work as a travel writer. But an internship at the British concierge services company Quintessentially, while studying abroad in London, inspired her to approach storytelling from a public relations and communications perspective. She liked the idea of helping craft brand narratives.

With the Jazz, Klein has been working to create more collaboration between key departments, including the corporate partnerships and the community relations, in order to better leverage corporate partners for funding that the community relations team can use to make an impact. “I want to help create a proactive profile for the Jazz that extends beyond basketball,” Klein says. “It’s highlighting how the Jazz are a pillar of the community and showing all of the work we’re doing to support the community.” 

With my journalism background, I’m looking for all of the stories happening within the organization that need to be told, and I really like telling the story within the story.

Caroline Klein

In January 2023, she and her team collaborated with the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition—a nonprofit group consisting of NBA players, coaches and executives devoted to social justice advocacy—and community partners to host a Clean Slate Summit at the Jazz home arena. Utah is one of 10 states in the US with a clean slate law, which allows for the expunging of arrest and conviction records for people with certain misdemeanors who have completed their sentences and remained crime-free for an extended period of time.  

The event included opening remarks about the importance of the bill by Jazz owner and Qualtrics co-founder, Ryan Smith; Utah’s governor, Spencer Cox; Salt Lake City’s mayor and county mayor; the executive director of the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition; and other community leaders. Then volunteer lawyers assisted more than 400 people. Klein says that more than 150 records were expunged on the spot, while other people had their applications for expungement submitted.

“This was seeing a bill in action, changing people’s lives. The Jazz were using their platform to help that happen,” Klein says. “This is the first time the NBA has done something like this, and it was incredible to see.”

Klein says much of the team’s other community programming is centered around helping youth, including opening STEM centers at schools, working with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and having players visit local children’s hospitals.

Other key projects Klein has worked on since joining the Jazz organization include collaborating with the Jazz president to identify a new local broadcasting partner. She also helped coordinate a major announcement: Delta Air Lines, which held the naming rights for the Jazz arena from its opening in 1991 through 2006, is repurchasing those rights this year. Beginning in July 2023, the arena will once again be named the Delta Center. “That was really exciting because [the original Delta Center name] is such a part of the basketball community here,” says Klein. 

“With my journalism background, I’m looking for all of the stories happening within the organization that need to be told, and I really like telling the story within the story, digging into how something came about, or what impact it’s going to have,” she says. “With the Delta Center announcement, for example—did you know that it’s the first time a naming rights partner has ever returned to an arena in the history of sports in the United States?”

All-Star Moment

Klein counts the Clean Slate Summit as the most impactful community event that she’s worked on, but the biggest basketball event was February’s NBA All-Star Weekend. The weekend included a celebrity basketball game, a slam dunk contest and other skill challenges, and a culminating all-star game with the league’s star players. The Jazz hosted the event for the first time in 30 years, and Klein and the Jazz leadership team worked closely with the NBA to plan the weekend. “We wanted to make sure that this is an All-Star Weekend that people are talking about for another 30 years,” she says. 

Among the highlights, Klein cites Smith captaining one of the teams in the charity celebrity game, against a team led by former NBA star Dwyane Wade (who is a minority owner of the Jazz), and a new record for All-Star Weekend merchandise sales.

“In communications, especially as a publicist, you have to love the product and the people you work for. Otherwise, whatever you are doing or working on is not going to come across authentically,” Klein says. “I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the people here and the culture. In planning All-Star Weekend, I had this feeling like, ‘I made the right decision.’”