Starting from Scratch: Challenges and Opportunities of Marketing a New Sports Property
Having made the switch from sports sponsor exec to leading a sports franchise, the former Anheuser-Busch InBev Vice President joins All Access Interview Series host Jim Andrews for a look at how his MLS team is generating interest among potential sponsors a year out from taking the field, as well as how a lack of track record and benchmarks allows for greater creativity in packaging assets, valuing benefits and activating rights.
Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: Obviously with a new club like Charlotte FC, you are building out an entire operation from scratch, including partnership and ticket sales, human resources, etc. Focusing on the sponsorship function, I would imagine the opportunity to begin with a blank slate can be both a blessing and a curse. Is that the case?
Nick: It’s great that there is no “this is the way we have always done it” conversation, and that there is no ceiling or floor. Our challenge is educating a market that’s been tailored to the NFL, NASCAR and the NBA about soccer.
It’s a good challenge to have. Unlike other new clubs, like Austin FC, there are partners in our building. Our Tepper Sports sibling Carolina Panthers are already there, which gives us the chance to educate their partners about a complementary opportunity with Charlotte FC. We’re sharing the eye-opening information that people who are going to come to our matches on a consistent basis aren’t necessarily coming to Bank of America Stadium to watch the Panthers. The overlap is less than five percent, so they can reach another half million people coming into the venue next year who they are not reaching now.
It’s daunting trying to secure 20 or 30 partners, but it’s also fun! I knew I would wear a lot of hats, but I’ve become the ultimate non-experienced salesperson, selling everything from tickets to sponsorships to community initiatives.
Jim: The first match for the club is nearly a year away, players aren’t in market yet and last year was lost to COVID, so how are you generating interest and excitement among the fan base in Charlotte and is it reasonable to expect sponsors to come on early and play a role in the build up?
Nick: It’s challenging selling air. We don’t have any players. We don’t have a baseline to show attendance, ratings, social media impressions, or anything. We’re still trying to build our social media. We’re selling the dream and the belief that we will be a top
franchise. So ultimately I’m selling trust in myself, our ownership and our GM to deliver on that promise.
Having sat on the brand side, I think we are doing a very good job of listening, which has always been a problem with leagues and teams when they are trying to sell a brand. They come in with assets, like minutes of LED time, that they try to cram into a partnership just because it’s inventory they want to sell.
We’re going into introductory meetings with an explanation of who we are, what we stand for and what we expect out of the franchise. We don’t sell them anything. We ask them what they are looking to do in the marketplace, or what do they need to do in the summer season. Then we bring back a proposal.
We’ve had a positive reception to that strategy. I can tell you from my time on the other side, I probably only had that happen five times in the six or seven years I was there.
Another key piece to the conversation is being transparent that right now we need them more than maybe they need us, and we don’t necessarily need cash today. We need a grocery store partner or a beer partner to be a marketing vehicle to get our start-up brand out in the marketplace and build awareness. That has led to more long-term, fruitful conversations.
Finally, we’re also a very data-driven organization and we are doing research now to understand the baseline among our fan base in relationship to every sponsor category, , so that six, 12, 18 months from now we will be able to show partners what we have done for them.
Jim: You mentioned being on the brand side, and of course you were such a prominent figure in sponsorship during your time with A-B InBev, I have to ask you more about making the move from sponsor to rights holder, and in particular how your experience as a buyer informs being a seller, especially in terms of understanding objectives, valuations, etc.
Nick: I think about the relationships I formed with partners that weren’t just transactional and try to reflect that in our deals here. Those partnerships were some of our better partnerships, period. There were two-way, candid communications about what was working and what was not where we could change assets on the fly and the conversation was never about money. We know that if Charlotte FC builds partnerships that work for our partners that the money conversation will come and it will be a lot easier.
The second piece is that there is not a conversation I’m having here that I haven’t had before. It’s a bit disarming because in a meeting with a potential partner I can speak their language in terms of measuring ROI, etc.
Jim: You also have been a leader in pushing for sponsorships to demonstrate return on objectives and return on investment, including introducing a pay-for-performance model
in your previous role. Will you still be a big proponent of that approach now that you’re on the other side of the table?
Nick: I’m 100 percent a proponent, even though every ownership probably hates it because there is no guarantee! The model works well; it’s a matter of training an organization that wasn’t built that way to adapt.
What it’s done here is that it makes us bring everyone into the partnership contract discussion, not just the salesperson or the account rep. We will have our digital team, our marketing team, etc. coming up with ideas on how we can help our partners, rather than just having a brand dictate that they want five social posts, etc.
It allows us to collaborate, to show what we want to do and ask the partner if it ladders with what they want to do. If we know what we can achieve, it makes us more comfortable in accepting an incentive-laden deal.
In fact, we recently tried to flip the model for a potential CPG partner to give them the incentive of a decrease in expenditure if they activated in certain ways, for example reducing their fee if they produced a certain amount of product packaging with our IP on it. Unfortunately, it got too complicated in that case, but I’m sure we’ll be able to motivate a partner who will take that type of deal and help us get our name out there, because that what we need. We don’t need partners who are just buying LED and calling it a day.