TicketManager | How a Boutique Firm Survives and Thrives in the Sports Partnership Arena

How a Boutique Firm Survives and Thrives in the Sports Partnership Arena


In conversation with podcast host Jim Andrews, Matt describes the opportunities and challenges of competing with much larger agencies to win brand business in strategy, negotiating, activating and measuring the impact of sponsorships. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.

Jim: Among the many reasons for inviting you to join the podcast is the fact that Tigris, which you founded about 20 years ago, is thriving as an independent, boutique firm working with brands involved in sponsorship and corporate partnerships. Conventional wisdom says that is a difficult space to occupy, competing with larger agencies, etc. So how have you managed to succeed there?

Matt: It’s a many-faceted issue about how to deal with being a smaller agency in this space. Candidly, we are competing against agencies that are 10, 20, 50 times our size, literally. It’s very common for us to be in pitches against agencies that are a lot larger and have much larger resources, and yet our client roster is pretty incredible. We joke around the office: “Can you believe the clients that we have!”

We have a lot of household names that you would think much larger agencies would be servicing. We’ve made a really good name for ourselves in the industry, but it’s not easy.

We’ve had overtures in the past to be bought and I have decided—and the staff is on board with this—that we would much rather be independent, small and have the attitude that we can make this happen without big coffers or deep pockets.

That’s a commitment to working harder than the other guy. I would also say our success is born out of having a commitment to having extremely good relationships with our clients and to doing really good work. You can’t have one or the other; it has to be both.

I can have a really great relationship with my client—we love each other, we get along, we go on trips together, etc.—but if our work sucks, they are still taking lunches with other agencies and know what’s out there. At the same time, we can’t just be about the work. There are a lot of mean people out there. I’ve been in meetings where agencies are yelling at their client or at a property and that’s a time bomb.

It’s a lot of hard work. We don’t have a business development team. That’s me; that’s my staff. We’re looking for organic opportunities for the agency.

But I have friends at the big agencies like Wasserman, Octagon and CAA. I applaud them for what they are doing. At the same time, they will say to me that they wish they were small, that they could go back to the days of 20 people rowing in the same direction because when you are so big it can be hard to get stuff done.

One side of this equation is winning business. The other big challenge is retaining talent. That is really hard. We are constantly interviewing people. When I look around at the industry, since Covid, the amount of time that a person will stay at a job has decreased significantly. If you look at resumes now, two-to-three years is the average. So we’re working really hard to keep people. The grass is greener is a reality. A bigger agency sounds sexier with opportunities to work on things like the Olympics or World Cup or activation programs for tier one sponsors, etc. As we grow people up and they get more talented, they are looking for the next opportunity. As a 15-to-20-person agency, there is a ceiling for us in being able to create those opportunities.

We have looked at developing those opportunities in part by growing through acquisition. That is really tough. I have tried twice now and when you are trying to acquire smaller agencies, there is a very clear thought about what that business might be worth and there is a base value of what a founder is willing to sell for, so that has been a tricky way to try to grow.

We are on the path again of looking for something to acquire, although so far we are 1 for 2 in that space—one was successful and two others we tried didn’t work.

Jim: Does geography play into staff retention for you? You are in Colorado, a beautiful part of the country, but some people want to be in a bigger city, on one of the coasts, etc. Even though geography is less important now thanks to technology that makes it easy to work remotely, is location still a factor?

Matt: I spend a fortune on United! Most of us at Tigris will get on a plane to have a cup of coffee with a client or a potential client to erase geographical barriers. But from a talent-acquisition perspective, Denver is great. People think Denver is amazing, so that’s really helpful.

It does create an issue on the new business front. I can get almost anywhere in the country within certainly two flights if not one, but it’s a barrier than I can’t just walk down the street to have a meeting.

Jim: You mentioned to me earlier that some of your business comes from saying yes to projects that larger agencies turn down. I’m curious as to how you discover those opportunities and in general how you develop new business. Are brands finding you? Are you doing a lot of outreach and prospecting? What’s the mix?

Matt: I went to the University of Illinois and I got into this business through our athletic director who introduced me to my first boss, Dean Bonham of the Bonham Group. After 10 years, I ended as the VP of sales and marketing there. I did client searches, business development and really liked it all.

That’s when I decided to start Tigris. I tell you that because I know the business really well, I know how to do the work, I know how to sell it and I really like people. I can easily engage in conversations around how I can help you solve some of the challenges you are having in your business. So I just work really hard at getting to meet people, whether that’s at events, through warm leads from other clients, etc.

A lot of our clients come from other clients. That’s a big reason to be nice to people and do good work! Number one, they go someplace else eventually and number two, they will introduce us to other people if they like us and we do a good job.

We make sure we are in front of clients a lot and that we are top of mind. We are really good at simple things such as holiday gifts. Our team does one of the best jobs with holiday gifts in terms of telling the story of why we are giving it and why it is personally meaningful to our company. We have 250 people on the gift list and every year 20 to 30 will share a photo of everything that is part of the gift with the comment that they have never seen anything like it.

I want every touch from Tigris to a client or a prospect or a friend of our business to be super intentional and really thoughtful. And I want our competitors to be frustrated by that because they can’t pull it off. We spend a fortune on that touch with clients because we know they know it’s special and that we are paying attention to them differently than others. I want them to feel like we care about them because we do. They are important to us personally and to our business.

Jim: Sponsorship measurement plays a key role among the services Tigris offers. What is your approach to evaluating sponsorship performance?

Matt: One of the things that makes us unique is we are an agency that is really good at strategy, negotiation and activation. We have clients on our roster such as Chick-fil-A, Western Union, Xcel Energy and Phillips 66 who we do great work for. But what makes us so good at that is that we are really good at measurement.

Rarely do I see an agency that is good at those first three parts and also has a strength in measurement. Or you have a firm that is strong in measurement but they are providing recommendations based on theoretical considerations. They are not doing all the other work. How do you apply this measurement if you are not in this other part of the business?

Our measurement offering is strong because it is based in reality. When we are evaluating a sponsorship or doing research around it, it is rooted in all the experience we have with all these other industries separate from measurement.

From our perspective, measurement today is still very linear. By that I mean it is very much about measuring one piece—brand awareness or brand loyalty, etc. That’s great but how do all of those things come together?

If you have a company’s C-level execs in a room and you ask them to define sponsorship success, I guarantee you they will each give a different answer. How can you make each of them happy if you are only measuring one particular thing?

We measure as much as we can get our hands on and create a model for clients that combines all of things into a system where now—if I have six, seven or eight components that are impacting what success is for this partnership—I can tell you what is going wrong the deal. I can point to something, bring the data in and say this is what we have to change next year to be successful. Ninety percent of the industry will say they have a feeling of what might be wrong, but they are not exactly sure. That’s the difference-maker and why we are sticky with a lot of clients.

Jim: Have you seen a change in brands’ interest in, and willingness to invest in, going beyond top-line metrics and really connecting the dots between sponsorship, activation and achieving business objectives? To me, it has always been a challenge to get brands to pay more than lip service and actually make a commitment to the idea of measuring holistically.

Matt: It’s not cheap! It’s a lot of work and it’s an expensive exercise to measure business analytics metrics, do research, pull in broadcast data, social data and all the other impressions data. There is a lot that goes into a full analytics model.

The difference-maker is having a client who says, “I care and I want to improve” versus a client who says, “Well nobody asked, so why would I do that?” That’s a dangerous question. Wait five minutes and your CEO—or a new CEO—is going to say, “Why did we do that deal?” or “What are we getting out of that deal?”

I have a financial institution client that we have been working with for a number of years that has now hired us to work on analytics because our direct client there is pretty sure the CEO is going to retire in a couple of years. He’s already building the case for why this works for the brand.

Jim: Are you finding more clients are taking the “I care and I want to improve” stance rather than wait to be asked?

Matt: Among our current clients, yes there are more. But I’m in a couple of discussions now where the brand is saying, “That’s cool, but I don’t know if I want to commit that much money to doing that.” I get it. But when it’s a $30 million deal, we are talking about spending a pretty small percentage of that to find out if it’s working.

It goes back to another thing about this business, which is other than the top tier of sponsors, activation is the first thing to get cut. That’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage but not buying gas so you can actually drive it. That’s baffling to me. There’s a similar analogy with not spending enough on measurement: We’re not going to put it in the shop even though it’s not working right. That makes no sense in the rest of the world, but for some reason in sponsorship it does.

Jim: I had the sense that with advances in technology that the costs for some of that analytics work were coming down, but am I wrong about that?

Matt: I don’t feel like costs are coming down. It’s all over the board. We work with a number of vendor partners who provide the broadcast and social data. We don’t own that technology. And I will hear that a vendor I’m working with is selling someone I know the same stuff for half of what I’m paying. There really is no standard. Everyone is cutting deals trying to make their businesses work.

Regardless, it is still an expensive exercise to track broadcast across an entire season of PGA Tour events or F1 races. What has gotten inexpensive to track is earned media, but in broadcast and social the technology that allows you to dial into a portal and not only see the numbers but also play the content or view the post costs a lot of money.

Jim: Tigris has a unique partnership with the Center for Sports Analytics at Samford University. I’m a big believer that we are missing a lot of opportunity to tap the resources that university programs such as Samford’s can provide, so I would love to hear more about that alliance.

Matt: About five or six years ago, we sat as a staff to do year-end planning and discuss what our focus as an organization is for the next year. We already felt very good about our measurement and analytics skills, but in brainstorming how to get better we struck on the idea of partnering with a university.

Samford and Dr. Darin White’s center came up in our research as a school we should reach out to. He and I really hit it off and connected in our first phone call. We don’t do all of our measurement work with them, but we are doing a lot, including paid work as well as student-led work, plus thought leadership like a study on women’s sports during Covid.

We support student projects free of charge because we want to bring up the next generation of analytics people. Samford is unique in that not only does it do the “Moneyball” side of it—player data, etc.—it is also focused on sports business analytics and measurement and has an entire undergraduate and graduate program for that.

We have interns from Samford. We just hired one of the students as a full-time employee. All this makes us better as an agency. One example: We were asked by a company that had a jersey patch sponsorship with an NBA team to help them determine if the partnership was doing anything for the brand and the company. This is a sophisticated marketer with a lot of business analytics folks on their team.

It’s a pretty complicated issue. We did a huge research study and collected all this BI data. We would have calls with six or seven of their BI folks and our team, and then Dr. White hired two other PhDs to help. I’m so proud of that work. The client was very happy with it and actually did another patch deal.

That’s what the Samford partnership is about: raising the level of thinking, trying to insert new ideas, helping our clients see new things they can learn through research and analytics that they have not seen before from us or anyone in the industry.

Jim: I know you can’t share the details, but I’m guessing since that company did a second patch deal, the research proved that the first one performed well.

Matt: Yes. The trick was proving that, because not everyone internally believed in it.

Jim: You are involved with a variety of clients working across a range of partnerships, which offers a great perspective to see the big picture. What’s your take on the state of sponsorship today? What’s working well and where do you see room for improvement?

Matt: The industry is super healthy. Sports and music are the places to be for marketers.

But the part we have to figure out is on one hand there are so many purists out there that are pushing back on what inventory should be for sale, while others are pushing forward. We have to figure out where are we comfortable pushing? What is sacred and not sacred? The NFL is holding out on its uniforms, but it is selling practice jerseys and practically everything else, and the statue of game jerseys will eventually fall.

One of the areas I personally struggle with is that everything is for sale. In some ways I agree with that because I’m in the business and that’s what drives the business. We have to find new opportunities to grow and of course it’s good for us. Patch deals result in measurement, negotiation and other work for us.

Without badmouthing NASCAR, it has long been the poster child for saturation of sponsor branding. Honestly, there is no corner of the industry now that doesn’t look like NASCAR. Go to an NBA game. Signage is everywhere.

For the question of where things could be improved, I’ll get on a soapbox and say I want properties to do a better job of reporting out on what clients get.

The Digideck products are great in terms of streamlining presentations and recaps. But everyone hates recaps! People like the discussion that happens in the room but they don’t like going through a 40-page deck documenting every sign, etc.

I get that there are executives who are disconnected and who want to see the signage because they don’t get to game or are in a different geography. But let’s get to how did it actually do and how do we do a better job next year and build a better partnership. That’s the part that is actually lacking. Focus on that rather than showing the pictures of what we’ve all seen at the stadium.

Teams are trying. But their in-house analytics and intelligence folks are overwhelmed with the research and analysis they have to do regarding fan experience, team marketing, etc. How can we shift some of that back to sponsorship research because that’s a big engine. Those chief revenue officers need support for what their clients are buying and we need to see more it.

Jim: I would put some of that back on the brands to make sure they are being clear about what performance data they need and transparent about what their goals and objectives are so that properties know what they should be including and prioritizing in those reports.

Matt: Clients definitely should push for what they want. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten out of one of those meetings and my client says, “Well that wasn’t very helpful.” They need to say that to the partner! I can go back and say it, but it’s better coming from the one who is signing the checks.

To effect change, brands have to be willing to say no and push for what they want, like when Anheuser-Busch started to put performance metrics in their deals. We have clients who have done similar things and we will get pushback from properties who still want their escalator at the end of the year even without providing any usable data. That’s counterintuitive to the way the rest of the world works. I respect a brand like A-B who says, “If you want our money, you will say yes.”