Injecting Innovation and Creativity into Partnership Assets and Development
Catherine Carlson is responsible for driving revenue for the NFL team primarily through new sponsorship, media and premium opportunities. She also oversees strategy, uncovering new sources of revenue and utilizing data to make key business decisions.
Catherine joined the Eagles in 2019 after working 11 seasons for the Orlando Magic. As Senior Vice President of Corporate Partnerships and Premium Activation, she was responsible for driving revenue for the NBA team, affiliated properties and events, while also leading efforts to grow the Magic’s corporate sponsor base. She led the negotiations with Disney to become the team’s first jersey patch sponsor.
Prior to joining the Magic, the native of Australia worked at Walt Disney World for 11 years, where she held various roles, including Manager of Alliance Development, developing corporate partnerships within the theme parks.
In her All Access Interview Series conversation with host Jim Andrews, Catherine discusses the importance of connecting partners with each other, getting creative to develop new sponsorship assets and helping activation professionals find their sales DNA.
Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: You just concluded a virtual sponsor summit for your partners. How did it go?
Catherine: I’ve hosted many summits during my career, but this was the first one that was 100 percent virtual. We had over 140 participants. Since it was on Zoom, we kept it to three hours. We had some incredible guests, starting with Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s executive vice president of club business and league events, who gave our partners some insight into the health and state of the NFL and events like the Draft and Super Bowl weekend.
We also had Duncan Wardle, the former head of innovation and creativity at Disney, who is an incredible speaker, as well as former player Chris Long, who talked about his entrepreneurial business endeavors and life after the NFL. One of the key aspects of a successful summit is breakout sessions where you can get into some meaty topics in smaller groups, and we used Zoom breakout rooms to achieve that.
Jim: The major pieces of the revenue “pie” for sports teams are media rights, tickets, licensed products and sponsorship. For an NFL team such as the Eagles, with a national TV deal through the league, sold-out games and a waiting list for tickets, etc., sponsorship has the biggest upside. But it’s not a matter of adding more signage, it’s about getting creative with new assets. How are the Eagles approaching that?
Catherine: We’re fortunate to be in the fourth largest market in the country with passionate and loyal fans. Our traditional assets—signage, TV, radio, digital—all drive tremendous value. But our partners are asking for more; they are seeking true ROI or ROO.
We have been challenged by our partners to jump into many other areas beyond traditional sponsor assets. Everything from sustainability platforms and digital fan engagement through our app, to community and social justice platforms, paid social, and segmentation of fans.
Of all the new elements, I would say there are three areas we are focusing on in terms of turning them into sponsorable opportunities. The first is a B2B platform, the Eagles Business League, which we launched during our summit. We want to leverage our 70-to-80 partners and our 200-plus suite holders. There are a lot of executives and business decision-makers among them who we can bring together.
The Eagles Business League has four pillars: Women Connect; Bird Talks, which will feature special guest speakers; Huddles, which will be lunch-and-learns focused on various sponsorship and sports business topics; and the final pillar is traditional B2B events to bring our clients together.
The second new sponsorable area is around our podcasts and related content. We have an interesting variety of podcasts that appeal to different audiences. Beyond the traditional Xs and Os podcast, we have others that appeal to the more casual fan. Since November 2019, we’ve had more than 300,000 local fans who have started listening to our podcasts and over 1.5 million listens.
The third new area is sponsorship opportunities through voice-enabled devices. We have implemented some new technology to provide one-to-two-minute Eagles updates through Amazon Alexa, and Google Home devices. I haven’t figured out how to monetize that yet, but it’s a growing piece of our industry that’s untapped for now.
Jim: This is an interesting time to be prospecting for new corporate partners, with so many external factors impacting industries differently. Are you and your team seeing any emerging sponsorship categories that may not be on a lot of radar screens?
Catherine: Our approach has been to focus on categories and industries that have weathered the COVID storm or have benefitted from the impacts of COVID. We have pursued any industry that can assist in getting our fans safely back into the stadium, or help our players, coaches and staff stay healthy and safe. Those would be categories such as cashless or touchless technology, cleaning products and health products.
A category that’s not new, but is re-emerging is alcohol. Spirits and wine have been interesting for us. With bars closed for so long, at-home consumption became more important to those brands. We signed a deal during this past season with a direct-to-consumer wine company to co-brand three varietals. That did exceptionally well.
We also signed an agreement prior to the season with Pernod-Ricard for Jameson Irish Whiskey. Of course we didn’t sell a drop of liquor at the stadium in 2020, but we created a co-branded holiday gift pack that sold out in the tri-state area.
Anything having to do with delivery has been an emerging category; brands such as Drizly, Gopuff, Postmates, Uber Eats, etc. In addition, legalized sports betting became a priority for us in the last year, especially with the acceleration of legalization across the U.S.
Finally, esports is an area we jumped into for the first time. It allows us to tap into a new generation of fans. When we started researching the space, we found that the number of new EA Madden players was growing exponentially in this market. We have partnered with an esports gaming platform that will help us run in-person and online tournaments.
Jim: You’ve had revenue-generating roles at Disney, the Orlando Magic and now the Eagles, but you have also spent time in partner activation roles. Those positions sometimes take a back seat in our industry to the business development roles, which is unfair. What is your opinion of that and what advice might you have for those in activation positions who aspire to achieve a position such as yours?
Catherine: In an ideal world, the activation team should have a little sales DNA built into their everyday dealings and leaders should nurture that DNA within the team members.
I like an activation team that takes on an agency approach as they work with a client—understanding their business from top to bottom, understanding their objectives—that allows them to uncover new opportunities.
There is an opportunity for activation team members to take on sales roles without having sales in their title. It’s consultative selling, and activation staff can sometimes be the best consultative sellers.
A strong activation team can not only execute a partner’s vision, but they can manage renewals, which allows the sales team to focus on new net business. A strong activation team essentially doubles your salesforce.
I have nurtured multiple activation staff who have that sales DNA and who have been able to “jump the fence” into business development successfully because they understood both sides. They were able to say, “If I sell this, how will it impact activation and execution of the contract?”