Creating Monumental Opportunities in Sports Partnerships and Content
Jim oversees ticket sales and services, corporate partnerships, executive suites, marketing and retail business for Monumental, owner of six professional sports teams—including the Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics—multiple venues and other enterprises.
Jim has played a leading role in many groundbreaking sponsorship agreements at Monumental including arena naming rights (Capital One), Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics practice facility naming rights and medical partnership (MedStar Health), Wizards jersey patch (GEICO), technology platform (Alibaba), and the first international partner for the Wizards (NEC). In October 2019, Jim led negotiations with William Hill to become the first official sportsbook partner of the Wizards, Capitals and Mystics – the first partnership of its kind in North America.
From a ticketing perspective, Monumental has seen incredible success since Jim’s arrival as vice president of ticket sales and service in 2007, including a Capitals sellout streak dating back to the 2008-09 season and oversight of several major events including the 2011 and 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, 2018 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series and 2019 NBA London Game.
Jim sat down with host Jim Andrews for an All Access Interview that takes a deep dive into the future of jersey patches, international partners, NFTs and unique business structures. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim A.: It was recently reported that Monumental is considering a bundled offer for jersey patches across the Wizards, Mystics, your G League and esports teams. If that’s accurate, can you tell us a little bit about how you came to that strategy?
Jim V.: We had an eye to what is unique about Washington, D.C. It’s a very international market. We have 190 embassies. One out of five people are foreign born. The NBA is a global game when you look at the number of followers around the world, so we looked at it as a really unique opportunity internationally. We’ve been fortunate over the years to have some outstanding players who are from faraway places such as Japan and Israel.
When we looked at the opportunity and all the assets combined across the four leagues that are affiliated with the NBA, including the WNBA, NBA 2K League and G League. Combined, that’s a really unique offering for the right brand and right partner, with its global nature; the support of women’s sports—which is critical; the growth of the G League with the amount of talented young people who are playing basketball, it’s similar to what we see with international soccer organizations and their academies growing talent and connectivity; and the world of esports, where I give credit to Brendan Donohue, president of the 2K League, who had the vision to have a team in China and grow the league internationally.
Packaging these together gives a partner the chance to reach a huge audience across a lot of different demographics. And it’s not a seasonal package; it’s a year-round platform. The variety of messages to multiple audiences makes it really unique.
Jim A.: After that news came out, the NHL announced that it was opening its jerseys to sponsor patches for the 2022-23 season. For now will the Capitals jersey be a separate offering?
Jim V.: At least for now, our strategy is that is a standalone offer. Certainly as we have conversations with brands, if someone expressed an interest in bundling we would take a look at it. Similar to the NBA side, we look at the Capitals jersey as a global opportunity.
Jim A.: I’m interested to see what will happen with the NHL allowing teams to split the home and away jerseys if they want to. For some teams that will be a real benefit, while others, including the Capitals, may not want to go in that direction if you’re looking more internationally. But it allows each franchise to do what’s best for them.
Jim V.: It’s great that the league is providing that flexibility. We all work with brands that are hyper-focused in their geographic region, but with us playing all over North America, there are brands where the away audience will be impactful.
Jim A.: You have an enviable number of international companies and brands on your partnership roster, which is certainly a way to derive incremental revenue beyond local and domestic sponsors. Can you talk about the differences in prospecting and securing non-U.S. partners, as well as any other challenges or opportunities they provide?
Jim V.: Our rosters on the Capitals and Wizards have become very global, so we try to see if we can build connections there. A lot of that relies on the explosion in social and digital and the development of content for those platforms. We are digital-first organizations and more than ever teams and properties are media businesses. Being able to create content, distribute it and deliver on a partner’s objectives is critical.
We’ve done well in developing content for global fans. We now produce content on the NBA side in five languages. We have Chinese content that we promote on Weibo; Japanese content promoted on Twitter, which includes a Japanese-language podcast; Hebrew content focused on Israel; and we are starting Portuguese content to connect with fans of Wizards player Raul Neto.
The content allows us to build a huge impression opportunity for brands, as well as forge deeper connections in those markets.
Jim A.: One of those overseas partners is Alibaba, and they have developed a Fan Insights Platform that is helping optimize your communications and promotions. I would love to hear how the platform works and what it’s delivering for the business and for your other partners.
Jim V.: We are in year three of that partnership, and at their core they are a very strong technology company. What they do on the ecommerce side is second to none. With D.C. having so many international visitors, one of the things we wanted to do when we first formulated our partnership was integrate Alipay into Capital One Arena for ticketing, food and beverage and retail. We were the first U.S. arena to accept Alipay.
As we continued conversations with them, we talked about our data warehouse. We capture every interaction we have with a client, so we have an incredible number of data points. We wanted them to build out a segmentation opportunity that would allow us to better communicate with our customers to ensure that we are delivering a message that is 100 percent focused on what their interests are.
What we’ve seen in the first year of using the platform is higher customer conversion rates. We’re in year two and we plan some enhancements, but we think it’s a game changer from a business intelligence standpoint and using the insights to be customer friendly. It’s all about one-on-one communication. For example letting that fan who always enjoys a Michelob Ultra at our games know exactly where he can get one closest to his seat the next time he’s there.
Jim A.: Is there an opportunity for your other partners to take advantage of that data and information so that they could use it for their activation efforts?
Jim V.: Those are things we are talking about with some partners. It’s an opportunity for us to continue to evolve. We have a 20-person BI team and four of those folks are dedicated to our partners, so going forward I’m sure we will have conversations at a deeper level with partners who are interested in getting more data from the fan segmentation program.
Jim A.: Along with William Hill, your sports betting partner, you opened the first sports book within a U.S. pro sports venue this past May. In addition to the direct benefits of increasing fan engagement and visits to Capital One Arena, are there ways to leverage the sports book, and betting in general to benefit your other partners?
Jim V.: Especially with Caesars acquiring William Hill, they are the most ideal sports and entertainment ecosystem you could ask for. From the beginning, we knew the fan engagement and data elements would be very important.
Our buildings are interesting. Even with 230 events a year at Capital One Arena, we open our buildings up an hour before a game begins and close them right afterwards. Adding a fully operational 365-day sports book creates a destination opportunity for fans to engage beyond the events we have.
In addition there is the digital connection and content platform opportunity. We have a broadcast studio in the sportsbook, where we are producing live, original content, including a two-hour daily sports show. The other piece within the sportsbook is an incredible F&B experience in partnership with a local celebrity chef, Nick Stefanelli.
Certainly from a venue operator standpoint, sports betting was a perfect addition. Our forecasts projected a sportsbook would drive one million additional visits to the arena per year. That creates an opportunity to generate more exposure for our partners, and to have ancillary entertainment experiences to drive people to buy more tickets.
We’re looking at how this can help us drive even more programming into the main arena on dark days. We’re looking at doing pay-per-view events in partnership with Caesars. For example, if there’s a great pay-per-view event at a Caesars property in Las Vegas, we could host a live event using the Jumbotron.
Jim A.: There are many different organization structures among owners of pro sports franchises and Monumental is among the most unique. I’m wondering what you would say is the biggest impact on the Capitols, Wizards, Mystics and the arena from Monumental’s streaming, esports and gamification endeavors, especially if there have been any unexpected benefits or lessons learned.
Jim V.: I’m very fortunate to work for the most innovative ownership group in sports, led by our founder and chairman Ted Leonsis, which always wants to be first movers in many areas. At the core, we look at ourselves as an integrated media company that owns all these teams and manages five buildings. We were the first organization to establish a regional OTT sports network broadcasting 500 live sports events a year, focused on emerging areas such as youth, high school and college sports.
The teams and venues become great content opportunities. We broadcast our G League and WNBA teams. We have a 50-person production team that creates content. We want to be the fastest growing regional sports property in the country.
On the team side, we have looked at new opportunities on the front end, such as early investments in esports, including Team Liquid and being a founding member of the NBA 2K League.
It’s great when you work for someone who is entrepreneurial. Ted gives us a great runway to try new things. There have been many things that have worked and some that haven’t! For those that didn’t, you just need to look at what was learned, what could be done differently and is there a future opportunity to do it in a different way?
Jim A.: I was intrigued by Ted Leonsis’s recent interview regarding the potential impact of blockchain technology and the possibility of bundling an event ticket with a collectible NFT, with the likelihood many buyers would keep the token and resell the ticket. Would that risk diminishing the value of the live event experience, or am I overthinking it?
Jim V.: With the NFT being a lifetime collectible that connects with those live experiences to be a part of history, I see a lot of synergy to create value there. I don’t think one will cannibalize the other. We’re bullish on the NFT space. We launched our test opportunity recently. We wanted it to be a community opportunity, so we did it with two local artists, one working on the Wizards token and the other on the Capitals.
Blockchain is something we are focused on. It’s something that is here to stay. There are some amazing companies in that space. We want to be innovators and try new things.