Tessa Caffrey recalls standing when a professor at Ithaca College asked which young women were interested in a career in professional sports. That professor then challenged the few students standing to become women in sports whom people discuss in high regard. It’s safe to say that Caffrey, vice president of corporate events for the Boston Celtics, passed the test.
A member of one of the NBA’s most storied franchises for the entire 2000s, Caffrey began as an intern and earned her way to the top. The journey is longer than legends like Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce suited up with the Celtics. It includes three trips to the NBA Finals and planning one championship parade in 2008—an event she gladly would reproduce after this (or any) season.
In total, Caffrey is responsible for more than 100 events per year, all bearing a caliber befitting a team with 17 championship banners hanging from TD Garden’s rafters. “Over 22 seasons, I have experienced and accomplished many things, including an NBA Championship on the court, an 850-person gala, and numerous memorable events. Looking back at the journey to vice president brings me much pride—Celtic pride,” said Caffrey, who repeatedly credits the organization’s support for her all-star career.
Need further proof of Caffrey’s impact? In a family of sports enthusiasts, she used to be referred to as her father’s daughter. Now, he is known as "Tessa’s dad" around TD Garden.
As the ball gets rolling on a new NBA season, BizBash talked to Caffrey about a career that would make many corporate event planners green with envy.
What do you attribute to rising to vice president of one of the most famous teams in pro sports?
I am the type of person who is determined to be successful, and I want people to see that. I'm passionate about working in sports, but I truly love the event day, when people sometimes panic, but I love the teeny tiny details that you have to worry about to make an event memorable.
Who inside the organization inspired you along the way?
Many people within the Celtics organization have inspired me through the years. However, I've been fortunate enough to work with a lot of our alumni and a few have really left an impression—Jo Jo White being one of them. He always said that he had to share what he has learned because it's not his to keep. I've always had that in the back of my mind. When there are new people on the team or an intern, I always try to remember that and try to share what I’ve learned and act as a leader and a mentor.
“Celtic Pride” is such a renowned phrase. What does that pride mean to you?
Celtic Pride is a real thing. It has a few meanings: a sense of family, embracing tradition, being comfortable with change, always keeping that champion mentality, and having a support system. I feel it is very important to channel that Celtic Pride when designing my events. They say the green blood really keeps you going.
Describe the expectations that come with producing events for a team with such a storied history.
Everything we do has to be of a championship quality. An event always has to reflect that whether the team succeeds on the basketball court or not. My events still have to be at that championship level, and hopefully at the end of the season, I'm planning a championship parade. Representing the Celtics brand, you have to be at that level all the time, and you can't let your guard down.
Is there a typical day in the life of planning events for the Celtics?
Today, I'm at a golf course. We're having our annual fundraising tournament, so I'm here looking at the beautiful foliage and wondering what time golfers are going to get to lunch. Tomorrow, I'll be sitting down and designing a Halloween party for the Celtics family and a party to celebrate our newest City Edition jersey. So I don't necessarily have a typical day.
What are some events that stand out over the course of 22 years?
My very first event with the Celtics was for 200 people commemorating the book Let Me Tell You a Story about [former Celtics coach] Red Auerbach. I used cigar boxes as flower containers instead of a typical vase. We had an Asian-inspired menu because he always used to go to a Chinese restaurant at lunch [the book is based on those lunches]. Each person got a signed copy of the book, and then he actually got up and told them stories, and he smoked a cigar in a nonsmoking ballroom. People literally laughed for a whole hour, and we did not want the lunch to end. It’s my favorite event, mainly because it was my first and because Red was there. In my tenure here, I’ve planned retirement celebrations for Cedric Maxwell, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett—and I'm excited to see who we will honor next.
How did the 2008 championship year differ from a regular season?
We had so many crazy memories, with the ups and downs of the playoffs, like losing in LA and then winning at home. When they lost game 5, it was devastating. I called my dad after the game and I was crying. He asked, 'Wouldn’t it be better to win the championship at home?' As always, he was right. We just had so much fun. It was so much work. We laughed. We cried. I don't know if I slept for 48 hours straight. The sense of family and Celtics Pride was apparent this year especially. We formed lasting friendships with coworkers, and the camaraderie was at its best. Hard to believe we pulled together some of the events together that we did, including a press conference with the mayor the morning after we won, a breakfast celebration for STMs, and a parade with 17 duck boats for over one million fans in just two days.
Any Kevin Garnett stories to share?
Kevin is just passionate about everything. And so that's what was exciting when we retired his jersey, because I knew that his passion would show through and so I wanted to make sure that everything we did for him was tailored to his passion and really personalized. Kevin doesn't necessarily show an emotional side often. And it was really cool to see how appreciative and how surprised he was to see the love that we shared with him as an organization. That ceremony also was part of our 75th anniversary. So a lot of our alumni were in town and it was fun to see and work with a lot of different legends when they came into town.
What would you recommend for people looking to break into sports?
I would say get an internship. I know that sounds cliche at this point. But I truly believe in internships. It was my way in. It's so hard to get into the sports world because it's really big, but it's also so small. People know people, and it doesn't matter if you're at a team or if you're at a big company because people are so intertwined in the sports world—it is crazy. Also, for college students, get involved with your school’s athletic department and support the teams.
It’s clear you love your job, but it’s not all fun and games, right?
It's not all championship parades. It's long hours. With basketball, we have games every other day, so that's time away from home, your desk, and your family. That’s where having that support system that we've talked about over and over again comes into play.
What have you seen in the progression of women in sports?
When I first started at the Celtics, there were less than 10 women. There were times through the years when I'd be the only woman in the room. And now sometimes there's only women. I don't think that gender matters when you're doing a task. Unfortunately, some people do think that way, but I certainly don't. I hope that my daughter isn’t thought of any differently because she's a woman. Hopefully, by the time she's old enough, it won't be a conversation we need to have.
How have your events changed in the past few years?
I’m so happy to say live events are back. People don't necessarily want to come to dinner anymore. They want to be part of it. They want it to be personalized. And I think that that's coming out of the pandemic. Those interactive, engaging-style events are certainly big right now.
Lighting also seems to be a big thing. Whether it's LED lights or spotlights or marquee letters—those kinds of things make a huge difference and are not something that we necessarily concentrated on 10 years ago.
Virtual reality is coming through and something I need to learn more about. What’s exciting about events is you can design one as simple as a bunch with pretty flowers on the table or you can use AR and have people in a different place while they're sitting at the table.