From Three Days to Year-Round: One-Off Events Are a Thing of the Past
In his interview with host Jim Andrews, Tom discusses the opportunities and challenges involved in running the sports PR, marketing and event management agency responsible for such events as the Maui Jim Maui Invitational college basketball tournament and the McDonald’s All-American Games high school hoops tourney.
Jim: I’d like to start off by discussing KemperLesnik the business. Can you just give the viewers and listeners an overview of what the company is involved in, how you operate, etc.?
Tom: KemperLesnik is a sports event marketing, consulting and PR agency based in Chicago. It was created by our chairman, Steve Lesnik, and known for providing value and measurable results for our clients and partners. We are part of a bigger organization called Kemper Sports Management, a company like us that is in the sports event, entertainment and hospitality space. They manage 140 golf properties and youth sports complexes around the U.S.
We work together with KemperSports to integrate our services and provide things such as PR, sponsorship sales and consulting, as well as event management.
Jim: Let’s talk about some of those marquee events that are part of the event management side of the business if you would.
Tom: The Maui Jim Maui Invitational is our premier college basketball event. It is the crown jewel of ESPN’s Feast Week around Thanksgiving. Our event takes place the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It’s a three-day event, but we don’t look at it that way. We look at it as a 12-month marketing and promotion opportunity for our sponsors.
Let me give you an example. Beginning in January and February, we take our iconic surfboards to the schools participating in the tournament, primarily during televised games with big matchups and packed crowds. (We have a student competition across those campuses to select the best board design for each school and we also select the best of the best to become the tournament surfboard.)
It’s a great thing for us and the schools because it gets people fired up for the Maui Invitational next November. We see our ticket applications and travel package sales start skyrocketing during that time period. As you can imagine, if you’re in West Lafayette, Ind. or Storrs, Conn., a travel package to Maui sells well in the winter.
Then as the season moves along through the regular season, conference tournaments, Selection Sunday, the NCAA tournament and the championship game there are moments for us at all those points to talk about the teams that were just in Maui or that are coming next season. This year was awesome because for the better part of the season six of our eight 2023 schools were ranked in the top 15 in the AP poll—Kansas, Gonzaga, Tennessee, Marquette, UCLA and Purdue. At one point, five were in the top 10. We use that to develop social media content.
(Our other teams this year are Syracuse, which is exciting because they will have a new coach, and our host Chaminade University.)
In the host city for the NCAA men’s Final Four we announce the field for the ensuing season, so this year we announced our 2024 field. We engaged Andy Katz, the college basketball guru, to do the announcement. We held off until the day after the championship game because one of the schools in the field is UConn, and of course they went ahead and won the tournament for us!
We complement Andy’s reveal—this year he drew the names out of coconuts and pineapples—with a media blitz to national media as well as media and social channels throughout the markets of each participating school. This year, withing 24 hours, we had 177 articles, 42 broadcast hits and about 380 million impressions.
We also take advantage of the NBA playoffs through former Maui players who are in the playoffs. We do the same thing through the NBA draft. In August we do the reveal of the brackets—the first-round matchups—for November’s invitational. That’s followed by the surfboards going back to campus during football games, so you can imagine for example a packed house of 100,000 at Tennessee with the basketball team, cheerleaders and the surfboard making an appearance on the Jumbotron.
For schools that don’t have football, we work with them on their first public basketball scrimmage or Midnight Madness to generate excitement.
Throughout those 12 months, every one of these moments is open to a presenting partner or title partner, so we look at each of them as sponsorship opportunities as well.
Jim: That’s really interesting because so many brand partners seem to be interested in a “fewer, bigger” strategy of limiting the number of events and properties in their portfolio so that they can go deeper with the ones they retain. That often means they are looking for year-round opportunities. As a producer of individual events, you’re really counteracting that by creating a 12-month platform.
Tom: That’s right. When you say many brands, there are many that are not in the space that we are actively talking to all the time. We can be a low-level entry, cost-wise, for challenger brands that don’t have the budget to jump into a season-long college basketball sponsorship.
Or we can be seen as a complement to a sponsorship across college basketball on ESPN or the other networks for example. We can work with sponsors who are in it already and want a little bit of oomph at the beginning of the season. An NCAA partner can kick things off with us and use us as a bookend with the big event at the end of the season.
Jim: You were going to mention another big event, I believe.
Tom: The other event that we own is the Asheville Championship, also a college basketball bracketed tournament. Four teams versus eight in Maui. That event is the first MTE—multi-team event—that kicks off the first weekend of the season, before Feast Week. So we crown the first champion of the season.
This year we have a great field with Maryland, Clemson, Davidson and UAB. UAB was in the title game of the NIT. Davidson is about an hour away from Asheville, so we are working that fan base to come out in droves. Clemson is right over the border in South Carolina, about an hour-and-a-half drive. Our event is Friday and Sunday, so we can catch football fans before and after their Saturday games. Maryland is in a great visitors market—the D.C. area—for Asheville, so they make sense as well.
Jim: And then of course you have the McDonald’s All American Games.
Tom: I’ve been involved there for years, beginning with other agencies, and it’s one of the most fun events to be a part of. Our role there is all of the operations, player travel, registration, plus sponsorship sales and basically co-producing the on-court games with ESPN.
You get to see these young kids, some of whom you know are going to be stars. I remember seeing Breanna Stewart for the first time. You could just tell by the way she carried herself and the way she handled the ball during shootarounds that she had something special.
We had a couple of those this year. Bronny James was in the tournament. LeBron showed up and the crowd went crazy. We also had the number one female player, Juju Watkins, and DJ Wagner, who is a third-generation McDonald’s All American, which is the first time that has happened. His grandfather was in one of the first events and went on to win a national championship with Louisville in 1981.
The games were some of the best I’ve seen. We had a young lady who is attending Notre Dame next year—which made me very happy as an alum—who set the record for most points as well as most assists in a game. She’s a 5’6” guard named Hannah Hidalgo, so watch out for that name.
Jim: What are the biggest challenges facing a business like KemperLesnik?
Tom: We’re always looking for “the next.” Whether it’s on the activation or experiential side, or events themselves. That means how do we grow our business, our portfolio and our client base. We do that in a very thoughtful way. Wherever we are going has to benefit the partner or the client as well. We have to know their needs, goals and objectives, whether we are helping them activate a sponsorship, consulting with them to become a sponsor of something, etc. We have to continue to use the services we are really good at and complement those with other services. We look to do that through acquisition, creating them in house, or through strategic alliances. Those are things such as content development, digital and refining measurement.
Right now we offer those services through strategic alliances, but sustained growth of our business and sustained relationships with our clients and partners will come through having those in house.
We took on some investors this last year, so we are part of a bigger ecosystem now that includes a property called Thrill One Sports & Entertainment, which is Nitro Circus and Street League Skateboarding. On the other side, those investors have a really interesting and dynamic company called 3STEP Sports, based in Boston. They are probably the biggest owner, operator and manager of youth sports in the U.S. They own club teams, events and facilities and multiplexes across nine boys and girls sports for ages 8 to 18.
We see a lot of synergy with what we do, so we are looking at how we can marry these groups together to create better business for both of us and for the partners that we each have. Because KemperSports’ golf management group knows how to manage facilities, they created a KemperSportsVenues division that is now managing a number of those 3STEP youth sports facilities and multiplexes.
Jim: We concentrate on marquee events and pro sports, but the opportunities that exist on the grassroots level should not be forgotten.
Tom: 3STEP reaches six million athletes and their families. Youth sports is a huge industry and it has been unwieldy. How does a brand get involved when it has been so fractured with so many organizations, and regional plays and local plays. 3STEP is at the forefront of aggregating all that.
The other benefit for us in the event space is working with 3STEP we see the sports that are coming based on youth participation. Some of those you can even see at the collegiate level now. For instance, women’s volleyball is really on the rise. There is no denying women’s softball either when you see the numbers and the ratings at the College World Series.
That’s really exciting for us because 3STEP is connected with all these sports’ administrators and collegiate coaches who follow youth activities. We’re working to develop those relationships on our end so that as we look to create new events we have those ties at the administrative and coaching level in the collegiate space.
Jim: We’ve just come through the NCAA basketball championships, where the interest in the women’s game was never higher. Are you seeing increased interest in women’s events among the brands and partners you work with?
Tom: We are having conversations with administrators and women’s college coaches across a number of sports about building an event or two, but when we do that, we don’t just throw the ball on the field, pitch or court, bring in the teams and say, “Have at it!”
We engage the local community. We work with charities in those communities. If you look at Maui, our big charity is the Maui Food Bank. We have silent auctions every year that generate anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000. We work with six elementary schools in the market to create programs for them.
We did the same thing in Asheville with the Cherokee tribe. (The Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort is the naming rights sponsor for the tournament venue.) The tribe has a high school with kids that don’t get to see these kinds of things, so two years ago we created a program about going pro in sports and brought a number of those students out to our event and had a Q&A session with them, introduced them on the court at halftime and had them take on roles during the tournament.
Last year, we expanded that to eight high schools in the area and held a competition among seniors to do a social campaign for the Asheville Championship on their own channels. Five winners each won $1,000 college scholarships thanks to a sponsor that supported that.
So when I say we look at sports, we want to do more than just play the game. We want to make an impact. We also do that with our golf properties in every market we are in.
So yes, we are looking at the women’s sports space. There are some brands that are doing it really well. One that jumps to mind is Ally. They are in NASCAR and MLS, but their CMO, Andrea Brimmer and her staff all played college sports—softball, track, soccer—and they dove headfirst into women’s sports with the NWSL, WNBA and title sponsor of the ACC women’s basketball tournament.
Jim: Similarly, are you seeing an impact from NIL on the programs you are working on? I know you did something pioneering in that space.
Tom: It’s a great story and a hot topic. Combined with the transfer portal, look at what those two things did in one year to the NCAA tournament, or look who was in the top 10 most of the year. It wasn’t Duke, Michigan State, North Carolina or Kentucky. It was schools like Xavier and Houston.
We’re in the second year of a long-term deal with Topps trading cards and a group licensing program with the McDonald’s All Americans, so now all the girls and boys who participate in the event have the opportunity to participate in the program. They are all compensated the same by Topps, which loves the program.
On the collegiate level, we are treading lightly in that space. We just attended a meeting at the Final Four in Houston and it’s very clear in the NCAA’s rules and regulations relating to NIL that a student-athlete cannot be compensated directly or indirectly (read that as collectives) for participating in or promoting their participation in an event.
So we are not going to do that, but it doesn’t mean we can’t help them play in that space, because our events have brands and partners that are involved. We can certainly help open doors with our sponsors.
The big thing that will be an education for some of these student athletes is that these are brands and businesses that expect results. You don’t get compensated for nothing; you have to perform. These kinds of experiences outside the classroom help prepare student-athletes for what’s to come when only one percent of them make it to the pros.
If we who are in the business of college sports look at NIL as a way to educate student-athletes and prepare them for the future, that’s the way to do it right. I’m excited to see where the new NCAA president Charlie Baker can go with this.
Jim: Finally, Tom, is there something you wish brands understood better about the business of producing events like invitationals and tournaments that might lead to better partnerships and activations?
Tom: We approach our partners and clients as their partner. We are not out there just trying to sell them something. I know consultative sales can be a bit of a cliché, but we were fortunate to hire John Knebel, who you used to work with and who spent a number of years in Major League Baseball, the NHL and on the agency side, and he has taught our people that it’s about talking about the prospect’s business first, not our events.
By doing that it helps you collaborate, ideate and activate behind the partnership. We feel we are pretty good in all three of those areas. We have KitchenAid as a client for the title sponsorship of the Senior PGA Championship, activating that property for over a dozen years. We work with the Jr. NBA, putting on their conference every year and connecting with the key stakeholders in youth sports. We work with Maytag on their title of the Ironman triathlon in Benton Harbor, Mich., and of course Maui Jim, our title sponsor of the invitational, working with them on promotions, sweepstakes and things of that nature.
We want to be seen as a partner instead of a vendor. A lot of us in this business experienced that, but we’re getting away from that because brands are now accountable for the programs and the dollars they spend maybe more so than in the past. There are metrics there and that’s where we can help brands.