Gila River Gaming Is All In on Sports Marketing Strategy
Dominic Orozco is a seasoned casino marketing and management executive who currently oversees an extensive sports sponsorship portfolio for Gila River, owner/operator of three Phoenix-area casinos: Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino, Lone Butte and Vee Quiva.
Joining All Access Interview Series host Jim Andrews, Dominic makes the case for category exclusivity, naming rights and building long-lasting relationships with fans through sports partnerships. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: Gila River is one of the few brands that has partnerships with all of the major league sports properties in its market—as well as the major collegiate athletics program. Can you tell us about that sports-focused strategy and how it gets brought to life?
Dominic: The Gila River Indian Community started down the path with this strategy in about 2001, beginning with a sponsorship of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Gila River is both a community of 25,000 members and an enterprise, so first there is a level of pride for the community in these partnerships. For the casinos—the wholly-owned enterprise or financial arm of the community—there is a synergy that we can cultivate between the community’s pride and interest in sports and gamblers’ affinity for sports. Gamblers and sports fans are one in the same.
Jim: Obviously, a major piece of your portfolio is the naming rights to the Gila River Arena, home to the Coyotes. We all recognize that naming rights require a significant investment and come with national exposure, but are their other advantages to being the naming rights partner that make it worthwhile compared to being a team sponsor?
Dominic: That question surfaces for all businesses that consider these types of sponsorships. Before discussing naming rights in particular, I would say sports partnerships shouldn’t be a tip-toe situation; you want to get in fully and do it well. And that is extremely expensive when you calculate everything that comes with getting the most out of your partnership. You have to understand if you have the money, the time and the person-power to commit to doing it right.
Being a sports-centric brand is one of our three marketing pillars. Everything we do from a brand advertising perspective is going to have sports as part of it. That’s the only way to make these partnerships come to life.
In terms of naming rights, there was a strategic reason we chose to go that route with the Coyotes. The arena is in an area where we have a casino and we wanted to ensure we had a presence in that location. We wanted to put a stake in the ground and wave
our flag. We wanted to position ourselves as not only sponsors, but fans, by taking the paramount role with the team, which is naming rights.
In addition to the naming rights, we have the exclusive casino sponsorship category. All five of our partnerships are exclusive in the casino category, which is one of the key things that we pay for and it’s probably the most expensive element of these contracts. In addition to being the only casino advertising with the hometown sports teams, we also ensure we have the rights to use the team’s marks, as we feel that elevates our brand through the recognition they have.
Jim: Exclusivity is interesting. Some properties are able to slice categories pretty thinly and attract sponsors, but it seems like for you—in a very competitive category—there was value in paying to lock up exclusivity.
Dominic: The true value is not just the protection of the casino category from a marketing standpoint, but it’s creating a unified bond with the partner. It’s hard to serve multiple masters in the same category. I get that some properties don’t allow it depending on the market situation, but the properties in this market were willing to entertain it.
Jim: You have many activations supporting your partnerships, including Coyotes-branded hotel rooms at your properties. What are some of the promotions and activations that are working best for Gila River?
Dominic: Activation is where we earn our ROI. In addition to the visual association from signage and TV, how do we get fans to come to our locations and spend money with us. It’s changed over the years, from where we used to have street teams on site at the arenas and stadiums handing out coupons and other offers. With digital, we’re able to have people engage with both the sponsored team and the casino through team-themed games that include team-related prizes redeemable at the casino.
As you mentioned, we’re also using the team marks at our properties. It’s one thing to put our logo in their stadium and expect fans to respond to it. When those people come to you, do they feel like you are still a sponsor and a fan? We incorporate those team brands and logos through table felts, chips, branded rooms etc. so that we complete that experience.
Jim: Many of your partnerships are long-term relationships, some going back 10 years or more. What are the keys to keeping those partnerships fresh for customers/guests and what role do your partners play in making sure you are continually elevating experiences and activations?
Dominic: We sit down with our partners and share best practices. They tell us things that they are seeing in their sports or other areas. We have an open mind and will take best practices from everybody.
That goes the other way, too. For example, when we introduced the felts, chips and rooms with the Cardinals, it was a first for an NFL team. The Cardinals brought us in to share with the other NFL teams how we were doing that.
Jim: Even though legalized sports betting has not yet come to Arizona, does the emergence of partnerships between sportsbooks, daily fantasy operators and leagues and teams have an impact on how you are planning for the future?
Dominic: Most definitely. The question for us is: When sports betting gets approved, how do we position our sports-centric brand so that when people are going to put down a sports bet they choose us? Having built our sports DNA over the past 20 years, we are prepared to talk about that from the mountaintop.