TicketManager | Evolving Partnership Sales Practices for Traditional Sports and Esports Organizations

Evolving Partnership Sales Practices for Traditional Sports and Esports Organizations


Matt—who also holds positions as Senior Vice President of Global Partnerships for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chief Revenue Officer for 100 Thieves, sits down with podcast host Jim Andrews to explore the challenges and opportunities of building and sustaining partnership programs and sales teams while managing innovation and other changes to the marketing landscape. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.

Jim: You have been in the sports partnership and revenue-generating space for a while, so I’d like to get your view of the state of industry right now, in terms of what are some of the biggest challenges to selling, securing and working with brand partners right now?

Matt: Broadly, as long as sporting events are driving the live-TV destination-watching eyeballs, the partnerships ecosystem that lives within there is arguably really healthy. Underneath that, there are challenges, but they are not new ones. They are evolutions of the same challenges as technology and insights evolve.

For example, measurement and ROI on any partnership, as brands have gotten more scientific, operations like ours need to be more scientific. Not just on how we value impressions or assets, but also engagements and return on energy. What is the lift? How much do we need to do and how much does the partner need to do to make sure we extract value?

There is an ongoing challenge of newness of assets. What do we have that is new and fresh to sell? Domestically, we went through a period of teams integrating branding onto kits and uniforms. Now we are seeing virtual take off. But that is something, while we think it’s great, we have to explain it and still figure out what’s next.

One of the things I am watching is the continuing overlap of the swim lanes, as many brands are in so many different categories. We need to figure out how we can either grow the relationship to include many of those categories or try to help partners find value in one distinct lane, even if it isn’t representative of everything the company does now.

There is also a challenge in brands having more opportunities for partnerships and brand alignment, whether it’s global properties like Premier League coming to the U.S. or the emergence of women’s sports. It adds a level of complexity for brands in terms of how they want to invest their money.

So the good news is that there are still eyeballs and attention. We are seeing great partnerships with sporting organizations that are driving value. There are ongoing challenges, as there always will be, but overall things are very good!

Jim: And they are healthy challenges. You don’t necessarily want a brand partner who isn’t pushing you on performance measurement. You want them to have metrics—and be transparent about them so that you can tell how you are performing and whether or not you need to tweak things to ensure you deliver value.

Matt: Media value is easy to measure, but this is not about media value. You need to answer how you are growing brand love, how you are helping the business, what are the connections the brand can make through the partnership, etc. You need to find ways to measure those things and to do it in a way that your partners understand. Agreement on how you are going to measure is potentially the most important agreement in the process of what you are going to do together.

Jim: You mentioned new inventory. The NBA and its teams have been leaders in developing new fan experiences, events, content platforms, etc. and those often become leading sponsorship and activation platforms for partners. What do you see as the next developments in that area? Is mixed reality going to come into play or are there other new assets and inventory that you’re looking into and excited about?

Matt: We’ve heard about AR, VR and mixed reality for years. I feel like it was here a decade ago and there are new versions of it now that fans may not even realize are mixed reality.

Here in Cleveland, we partner with Canon on our Rocket Vision system featuring hundreds of cameras that we use for content and for some integration on our broadcasts. It allows you to watch a game from the perspective of one of the players on the court, which is pretty fascinating. I want to see the game that Donovan Mitchell sees! It also has a fun gamification feature that can turn the players into brick walls or dinosaurs or whatever you want all as part of live action, similar to what the NFL does with its Nickelodeon broadcast.

It is fun to watch all of this evolve. I’m not sure if it’s mass market, but it’s certainly niche market.

Beyond that, I’m interested in seeing developments with the LED court that the NBA had for this year’s All-Star Game in Indianapolis. With that, you don’t have to put applications on or paint the court, so the long-term possibilities are super fun.

We are starting to see more virtual ads and branding on our courts and there is a world not so far away where the brands you see on pole pads or courtside are virtual.

The hyper-customization aspect of all of this is working its way from outside of sports to inside sports.

Jim: And that potentially creates even more opportunities for brands to become involved, which goes back to your remarks about swim lanes and creating value. In general, what are your conversations around exclusivity like these days?

Matt: They are all different, depending on the brand. In the media world there are very few instances of real exclusivity, so brands are comfortable with that. In sports, there are opportunities to create an authentic partnership with an operation that you just don’t want someone in your category rubbing up against. As a sports organization we need to provide partners with a lane they feel they can own. Sometimes that is a category. Sometimes it is a vertical or a thematic, rather than a category or industry exclusivity.

We need to think beyond the category and understand what is the concept that a company owns and what are the things we can build into a partnership that deliver something that only that brand can do, as opposed to something vague that other brands could “own” along with them. It requires a little more thought to do that.

Jim: In terms of things changing, how about when it comes to developing and leading sales and rev-gen teams? How has the recruiting, managing and motivating of talented salespeople evolved?

Matt: Like a lot of industries, sports is seeing fewer lifers. We don’t assume anymore that a person is going to work in one place for 25 years. We are blessed to have many of those folks, but young people as they are coming out of college and university and starting their careers are thinking like entrepreneurs. Those individuals are used to working on their own schedule and not as part of a larger organization.

I get nervous sometimes about making sure we have the right amount of collaboration. That does at times require everyone to be in the same building, and people react to that differently now. Every generation thinks younger generations don’t work as hard as they did, but the fact is they just work differently—potentially more efficiently in some instances. So there is a need to adapt on both sides and sometimes that can be tough. If we all thought the same, work would be easy, but those differing perspectives are important. In the end, we have to have flexibility and also accountability.

Also, people’s motivations have changed regarding what they want to do. And you have to find what inspires each individual. You can’t paint with a broad brush. Those motivations are becoming more different and diverse every day. The idea of having one type of carrot for a group effort is going by the wayside.

Jim: Does geography come into play when recruiting and hiring? A generation ago you would not have considered someone being in a partnership sales role for a team, for example, and not living in that team’s home market. Others I have talked to about this have indicated a willingness to say if they find the right person and that person doesn’t want to relocate, they are okay with that. What are your thoughts on that?

Matt: We haven’t faced that here, but it’s coming. In the events business, I think that’s tough. Our people need to be at our events, but that is evolving.

I think about organizations that have opened offices in international markets to engage with prospective partners that are based there, whether it’s the Premier League having a presence in the U.S. or a few teams in the NBA that have contemplated having folks cultivate business internationally. It gives you the opportunity to have face-to-face meetings and establish relationships even without the benefit of experiencing the live event.

Even in those situations, you have to determine whether its best to send someone from the home market to Brazil or London or Madrid who can really represent, in our case Cleveland, or whether you want someone from one of those markets, who has the authenticity, understands the culture and can make the connection back to Cleveland. Those are the interesting conversations that we have.

Jim: Let’s talk a bit about esports, because one of the hats you wear is chief revenue officer of 100 Thieves, which like the Cavs and Rock Entertainment Group is part of Dan Gilbert’s Rock Family of Companies. The esports space has had its ups and downs recently but tell us what’s been happening in terms of brand partnerships at 100 Thieves.

Matt: For those who don’t know, 100 Thieves is a premier lifestyle and gaming organization based in L.A. For parallels in brand conversations, I often say 100 Thieves creates the same emotion that the Dallas Cowboys, Notre Dame or the Green Bay Packers create. People either love to see 100 Thieves win at everything or they tune in to watch us lose. There isn’t a lot of “I don’t know how I feel about them.”

Matt Haag, “Nadeshot,” our founder, is a super competitive, eight-time world champion Call of Duty player and the heartbeat and the energy of the organization. His premise for the organization is diversification. We compete in three gaming titles: Valorant, LCS League of Legends and Call of Duty. We also have a content creator business where we cultivate content with a set of in-house creators. We also have a thriving apparel business.

The last piece of the business is Higround, which markets keyboards. The premise there is that keyboards are the new sneakers. People are buying fashion keyboards to display. Higround has done some Pokemon collaborations as well.

That diversification has allowed 100 Thieves to find value in many different lanes, not just esports. You mentioned the public ups and downs of esports, but through that esports viewership has continued to grow—nine percent in 2023.

The issue with esports has been it is something you played yourself, now how does that relate to you watching professionals play?

We are trying to integrate brand partners such as Lexus, Heineken, AT&T, Adidas and Crocs across the entire business. They have value coming back through multiple verticals, not just esports. That allows us flexibility.

Those partnerships can look really different from each other. We did an amazing Nadeshot hole-in-one challenge with AT&T. We put Matt, who is an avid golfer, on a par-three tee box and said we would shoot for a day until he hit a hole in one.

Some people might have questioned why a gaming and esports organization did that, but a lot of our followers, fans and community are not gamers sitting in their basement. They play golf, they are into fashion, etc.

We drew a huge audience online. Matt nailed a hole in one on his 79th shot. It’s all about the crossover. Same with the NBA. Somewhere between gaming and the NBA is this awesome community of connection. The guys on our NBA roster are playing against esports creators, etc.

Our biggest challenge is explaining the business and how we can extract value from it, because a lot of people who are great marketers love the audience, but don’t know how to get to it.