TicketManager | A Conversation with the Godfather of Sponsorship Sales: Rob Prazmark

A Conversation with the Godfather of Sponsorship Sales: Rob Prazmark


Rob has sold nearly $4 billion in corporate partnerships for the Olympic Games, FIFA World Cup, Dallas Cowboys, Smithsonian Institution and other properties. The author of The Olympics Don’t Take American Express: The Birth of Mega Sports Sponsorships Part One dove into a host of relevant topics with podcast host Jim Andrews, including category exclusivity, prospect research, ambush marketing and more. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.

Jim: I’d like to start off with a question based on the book’s title, which is the supreme example of category exclusivity. For years, exclusivity was a defining pillar of sports and entertainment partnerships. And while there are still some categories—like payment systems—where sharing or splitting the category between competitors remains verboten, there are many other examples where properties are selling non-exclusive deals. As the guy who literally wrote many of the rules around exclusivity, what do you think of those changes?

Rob: Times have changed, but I still love the concept of exclusivity because it is a differentiator. However, the demand of these properties for big-time money means that in order to achieve their goals they have to split categories. I’m a little amazed that the corporate marketplace has agreed to that and you sometimes see two beers or two airlines, but it is what it is!

It’s no longer so much about associating with the event—although there are still advantages to having tickets, signage, etc.—but the platform of the event. Exclusivity can apply not just to a category but to a platform. Environment can be a platform. World peace can be a platform. We are moving in a different direction and it can create a very cluttered environment. But if you’re on the corporate side and you miss out on some of these opportunities, you could pay the price later on.

I guess I’m ambivalent. If you are a property, it’s “Do you want the chicken or the fish?” Do you want to go all in on exclusivity or split the category? The marketplace is changing but the demand for revenue for these properties is big.

Jim: It goes to show the power of sponsorship, either that competitors are willing to split the category in order to gain the association with a property, or, in the case of the Olympics, are willing to pay a super-premium price for the opportunity to be exclusive. It’s a fascinating part of the decision-making process for properties as to which path to go down. There is no right or wrong answer, but whichever they choose, it is going to mean working with partners in different ways.

Rob: I want to come back to the fact that the rising need of organizing committees or events to raise big money against the fragmentation of the sponsorship marketplace is a tough situation to be in. I would tell the average property to go out with exclusive categories first and if you find the going kind of tough, you can always go to plan B.

Jim: Your success at securing so many big-dollar sponsorships—totally billions of dollars over the years—is inspirational to many of this podcast’s listeners who are out there on the front lines representing all kinds of properties as they seek brand partners. I would argue that one of the keys to your success, especially early on when you were selling an unfamiliar property like TOP, was the amount of research you did into understanding a company’s business, how it went to market and how it could use the sponsorship to make money. Is that a correct assumption, or are there other factors you attribute success to?

Rob: It was huge. And it really started before I got into the sponsorship world. I worked for ABC, and before that NBC, and it was all about the research. I took that mentality into the sponsorship space.

When we started, the IOC had maybe one page of research. And as much as it’s nice to say these are the attributes people associate with the Olympic rings, I told them we needed more research so that when we went in to pitch a company, we could match the opportunity to the company’s strategy and the tactics it was using.

The “deer in the headlights” look I got from the people I was reporting to was amazing, but they gave me the funding to do the research and that was the most important thing.

Same with Jerry Jones. He would say the Cowboys were America’s Team, but when I asked him how he knew that, he would say, “I just feel it.” But he gave me the money to do research that proved that the Cowboys were, in fact, America’s Team. We never could have sold Cowboys sponsorships for the dollars we were asking unless we had those reams of data as proof.

On the Olympic front, we were asking for a lot of money in those days–$10-$15 million for global rights—so we had to show the companies that their demographics aligned with the Olympic brand. Having the research was key to that. We were in a transitional period from the time when CEOs would say, “That feels right, let’s buy it.” We had to come up with a reason for the board of directors of a company like Kodak to say yes.

We had 3M as an initial TOP sponsor. They glommed onto the research we presented about the Olympic brand and why it was good for employee morale, their customers, etc. They are a research-driven company and if I didn’t have that research, I never would have gotten 3M.

Jim: And when we talk about the business-to-business side of things, with partners such as 3M, Bausch & Lomb, John Hancock able to use the Olympics as incentives for salespeople, distributors, etc.—I was always amazed at the results those companies were able to achieve.

Rob: We would drill into how the company sold their products. It’s not always the consumer walking down the supermarket aisle looking for something with Olympic rings. It was about how do you create incentives for the salespeople who were selling to the supermarket.

At John Hancock, former chairman and CEO David D’Alessandro was all about how you ignite the traditional insurance salesperson who can phone it in, work their base of renewals and still make the President’s Club and earn a trip to Hawaii every year. He believed going to the Olympics would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for his salespeople. This was not another trip to Hawaii or Puerto Rico. He also said the spouses of those salespeople were often a catalyst to light the fire within and do what they could to earn the trip because the spouse wanted to go to Barcelona, wanted to go to the Olympic Games.

It was about generating incremental revenue. If the qualifying level for the previous year’s Hancock President’s Club was, say, sales of $100 million of life insurance, David would raise the bar to $120 million for the chance to attend the Olympics. The success of that incentive program more than paid for the sponsorship and all of the hospitality costs, etc.

With Bausch & Lomb, it basically was run by a bunch of ophthalmologists. I had to prove that being associated with the Olympics and the programs we could undertake would create a different image in the minds of the people they were selling to at the doctor’s office. You couldn’t award a doctor a trip to the Games; that’s illegal.

The sales cycle for that agreement was 22 months. These were ophthalmologists who needed research.

Jim: While your representation of the Olympics and the Dallas Cowboys are the headlines of your career, you also famously represented the Smithsonian and other high-profile, non-sports properties. What were some of the key differences in pitching a seven- or eight-figure deal with a non-sports event versus a sports property? Or was it all the same to you?

Rob: I got into what I call “intellectual marketing” versus sports marketing because I was bored with sports marketing! When I saw that the Smithsonian was coming up to its 150th anniversary, I came up with an idea to celebrate that.

I loved it. When you knocked on a door—and this is truer today than it was then—how many sports properties have already been presented? There is a lot of clutter there. But when I walked in the door with something different, that could appeal to all different levels of their customers, board members, shareholders, etc.—I pretty much always got a meeting, even at the C-level.

We took the principles of Olympic, FIFA and NFL marketing and spun them into non-traditional intellectual marketing. The same things applied. Brand association was key, and of course, signage, tickets, etc. That was an easy transition.

We could also add government relations objectives into the mix. There was a lot of appeal with the Smithsonian to corporate people in D.C.

Jim: I’ve always felt that non-sports opportunities are a double-edged sword. You could have the biggest thing ever, but you have to find a company that gets it, that’s willing to be a pioneer, that doesn’t just want to play it safe, etc. It’s a lot easier to buy a sponsorship package from a sports property that’s been doing this for decades. Is that a fair statement?

Rob: Yes, you’re right. And that can apply to new sports opportunities as well. American Express was the logical choice for the inaugural TOP program. It was the Google of its day, but we could never get traction there. They knew they were at the top of the heap. At one point, they told me, “The Olympics need us more than we need the Olympics.”

There were two people inside of Visa, Jan Soderstrom and John Bennett, who had the vision. They were trying to make their mark and they were not afraid to take a gamble. To this day, I look for someone who isn’t phoning it in, isn’t worried about their retirement fund, but instead wants to make a difference in the marketplace.

Jim: What’s your honest opinion of ambush marketing? I’m of the opinion that a brand that creatively establishes an “unofficial” association with a tentpole event like the Olympics or World Cup—without violating anyone’s IP, of course—is a smart marketer. Others would say it’s unethical and harmful to rights holders. Where do you stand?

Rob: John Bennett came up with the idea that it shouldn’t be called ambush marketing, because that could be considered a good or clever thing. He called it parasitic marketing because in this country, the only revenue the Olympics have is commercial, or through philanthropic gifts. They don’t get governmental funding.

But in today’s environment, where broadcasters are paying so much money, they are the ones fueling these properties more than sponsorship. And while sponsors buy media time, they don’t buy all of it, so the media companies have to go to other brands. When the Olympics had McDonald’s as a TOP sponsor, the broadcasters still had to go to Subway and Wendy’s, and those brands created programs that made you think they were a sponsor.

So, I don’t have an answer for you, sorry! I get the reason ambush or parasitic marketing is bad, but I also realize that there is a huge engine in media rights fees paid to properties that is fueled by broadcasters that need to sell media time in order to pay those fees. Competitors to official sponsors will buy those ads, but most don’t want to be perceived as “ambushers.”

Back in the day the Olympic organizations did a great job of communicating to those competitors that if their brands engaged in ambush marketing the Olympic movement would create a campaign that would shame the brand for hurting the Games and the athletes. They never did, but the message was enough to make C-level executives at those companies say, “Why would we want to risk that?”