Leadership’s Role in Sports Marketers’ Success
Paragon Marketing Group’s roots as an agency and consultancy go back more than 25 years.
Tony leads strategic consulting at Paragon and is instrumental in negotiating and bringing partnerships to life for clients that have included United Airlines, Gatorade, PNC Bank, UCHealth, Zenni Optical, Dick’s Sporting Goods, U.S. Steel, Giant Eagle, Highmark and many more. Additionally, over the past dozen years, Tony has advised nearly two dozen start-ups.
Tony joined podcast host Jim Andrews to examine the role of leaders in creating cultures, advancing careers and achieving personal and business goals, in addition to tackling some of the top issues facing sponsors and properties today. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: Can we start with a brief update on Paragon today? Clients, key projects, new initiatives, etc.?
Tony: Honestly, that could take the entire session! We are in a really healthy phase of our business. We just moved into a new office in the Loop in Chicago and it’s a very exciting time to see our company evolve physically in a new environment. And as we are coming back from the pandemic, to see 100-plus people engage every day and share their energy, curiosity, experiences and challenges, it’s so healthy and important.
We split our business into two sides. In consulting we are working with big brands—you mentioned several of them. The other side is content and producing live events. Our longest standing and most significant partner in the content space is ESPN. We have been in partnership with them for 20-plus years, predominantly in the high school space.
If you watch any live high school broadcasts on any of the ESPN channels-football, basketball, baseball, lacrosse, softball, volleyball—with a few exceptions, that’s Paragon. That side of our business has exploded the last few years.
It started in 2001 or 2002 when we put LeBron on TV when he was in high school. That was an astronomical success beyond what anyone forecasted. The game took place at Cleveland State University and we were in a basement and one of the ESPN executives communicated kind of quietly and gingerly to my partner Rashid Ghazi, “Can we do more of these?”
We went from that to I believe more than 800 broadcasts at this point, both linear TV as well as streaming. It’s a tremendous area of growth. The interest and concentration on high school sports and athletes has seen massive growth the last few years. It’s been fun to be a part of that.
Jim: Let’s talk about the consulting side for a few minutes. What are the biggest challenges to consulting with brands today and how do you and your colleagues overcome those?
Tony: There isn’t one primary challenge, there are several. You’ve got the competition for attention—the CMO has so many people coming at him or her with so many opportunities, ideas, challenges and needs, how do you coalesce all of that with a strategic focus?
That’s something we see a lot. We have a great opportunity and we have buy-in, but our clients need to secure buy-in from the CMO and it may take days, weeks or months to get on the calendar. The velocity of what’s happening at any given time is wild.
What’s exciting—and a new evolution in our space—is that there used to be a sponsorship person and a person or two in marketing that understood the potential power and impact of sponsorship. Now people in sales, digital, social, PR, experiential, and community all understand the power of sponsorship. Consequently, they are all dabbling in sponsorship. Sometimes that is a tremendous accelerant to making things happen, but sometimes it can be a challenge, because people step out of their boxes and they may not have the purview or the resources or the understanding of what they are potentially unleashing!
There are a lot of people at many companies who want to be involved in sponsorship. That can be a great assist, but sometimes it can be a bit of a harness to getting things done.
Jim: You were quoted in Sports Business Journal back in 2011 as saying “too many (sponsorship) deals are done without a strategy.” Has that changed or is it still true today?
Tony: There has been an interesting evolution and growth of understanding relative to how to leverage a sponsorship. Certainly 10, 15 or 20-plus years ago, a lot of executives were content with having the big sign in left field, their name in lights, receiving some great tickets and a few jerseys to make people feel important.
The industry has become much more sophisticated as it has become much more expensive. When you take sophistication, experience, expertise, data analytics and multimillions of dollars and engage in a long-term partnership, strategy becomes essential. There are more eyes—more layers and levels—looking at what you are doing, what’s going to be the forecasted yield, how you are measuring it and needing to be shown the yield.
I still think buying a sponsorship without a strategy is basically like throwing your money out the window and we’re seeing less and less companies do that. Smart companies are defining their strategies before they engage in a partnership. They are engaging with and understanding the objectives of the business units we talked about, whether that’s sales, HR, community, marketing, digital, etc., helping them understand how the sponsorship can service their needs—and then applying all of that information as a platform moving forward to negotiate a partnership and buy the assets that are needed in service of those established objectives, rather than buying the assets the property wants to sell.
That is more likely to yield a successful partnership than engaging in negotiations and buying a sponsorship—even if you buy a “smart sponsorship.” If you don’t know what your strategy is going in, how can you be effective in buying the right assets at the right price.
Jim: Time permitting, we can come back to some sponsorship-related questions, but I know a big topic of personal interest to you is leadership and all that word encompasses in business, helping advance careers, creating positive cultures, developing soft skills, etc. The sports business, like any other, has great leaders, terrible leaders and everything in between, but do you think it is particularly challenging in our business to nurture people, allow them to be their authentic selves, etc.?
Tony: Nurturing people and helping people evolve to be the best person they can be in that moment is really hard. We are all challenged to do that as individuals. To be able to understand your own vulnerabilities, your own emotional variables, and arrive at a healthy place so that you can be a healthy leader is really challenging.
Add to that coming out of a pandemic where, as a society, there is more collective anxiety and more off-balance energy and people.
It’s important to make people feel comfortable. Which means allowing vulnerabilities, acknowledging them and, most importantly, letting people know they don’t have to be the smartest person in the room or the loudest voice in the room. They can screw up, today, tomorrow and the next day and we are going to continue to nourish, teach and educate.
Help people feel comfortable and confident that they are in a safe environment where they can show their true selves, ask questions, demonstrate vulnerability, say “I don’t know,” put out a wild idea or challenge, or go to someone and say, “I’m overwhelmed” or “I’ve got something going on at home.”
The more you can create a culture of understanding and collective support—and true teamwork and camaraderie—the more you are going to bring out the best in people and in teams.
This is a demanding industry, like most are, whether you are on the team side where it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to operate a team and there is a challenge to bring in revenue, or you are a brand and you are shepherding the spending of tens of millions of dollars and you need to show the return for what you are investing, or you’re an agency on either side of the equation and you need to help them be successful.
The cycles are quick; you need to demonstrate value within a short amount of time. To do that when you are not comfortable is not healthy and not sustainable. The more you can help people feel healthy, comfortable, confident and safe, the more you are going to see their best productivity and their best performance.
Jim: How do you know if you are striking the right balance between making sure you have people that are meeting their goals and enabling the organization to survive and thrive while also giving them the space they might need depending on what’s going on in their personal lives?
Tony: From day one, we have always been focused on defining objectives. What are we trying to achieve? That starts with the client: What are they trying to achieve with each investment? What are their objectives?
We do the same thing as an agency, with account teams and with individuals. Once you have that construct in place of understanding what you are trying to achieve, it’s very easy to look at performance. We’re also very big on timelines and responsibilities. We work collaboratively on every account. We may have three, four, or in some cases 30 people working on an account, but we all know collectively what we are doing.
Someone may have responsibilities A and B, while someone else has C and D, etc. We also know that A is going to be delivered by March 15 and B by June 15. All of that is crystal clear, open, communicated and defined. So we know as we are rolling up to March 15 that if that first person is not making good progress on A, we are going to address that. We are going to address that directly and candidly. We need to understand if the challenge is they don’t understand the project, if there is a third party that is not carrying their weight and that we need to nudge, if the client is not giving the information and data needed, etc.
We are rigid in performance, but we are very soft in culture.
Jim: The collaboration is so important and the communication is so important, so that people are raising their hand if it looks like a deadline isn’t going to be made so that steps can be taken to ensure it actually is made.
Tony: That’s part of our culture. There are tremendous levels of accountability. Part of accountability can be saying, “I’m overwhelmed.” “I don’t understand.” “Something’s in the way.” That’s being a great team player. If March 15 rolls around and that’s when you communicate, we all lose. That’s not acceptable.
We try to provide every element of a healthy culture to ensure we all are accountable to ourselves, to our teammates, to our agency, to our clients and to the marketplace. We are also great partners to the properties we work with. We are not adversarial. We look at it as we are in business with the New York Yankees or the Chicago Bears or whomever it may be. We are here to help them succeed as much as our clients are hoping to succeed. So accountability is a necessary element for everything we do. There are very challenging aspects of our culture and very developmental, soft, long-term healthy elements of our culture.
Jim: Any particular trends you are keeping an eye on that you think are especially important for people in our business?
Tony: Something really exciting, which has been going on for a few years but you are seeing it impact the industry more right now, is the development of personalities as brands. I intentionally didn’t say athletes because we are seeing it in music and entertainment as well.
Celebrities as their own platforms is becoming more meaningful. And more necessary as part of a portfolio because you can reach different audiences and do certain things with a celebrity’s brand that you couldn’t necessarily do with just a traditional property partnership.
Over the next few years, you are going to see more athletes, more celebrities creating extensions of their brand platform. You could see their own podcast, production, content, events, experientials, as well as broader teams supporting that individual’s platform.
Jim: I think you are right, and something I’m interested in in that context is the personality intersecting with ownership, whether it’s a Hollywood star or athletes getting involved in everything from European football clubs to pickleball teams. The potential to leverage the platform of their personal brands and put it to work for the partners of those properties opens up a lot of opportunities that didn’t exist before.
Tony: You are seeing some individuals, like LeBron, The Rock or Shaq, that have unbelievably dynamic enterprises where they are not only invested, but actively involved strategically and executionally in a myriad of brands. The impact of someone like The Rock is such an accelerant to a brand’s performance. People are seeing that.
That’s why you are seeing Tom Brady in pickleball and Tom Brady getting a piece of the Raiders. People are recognizing the power of these athletes and their platforms and their resources. It’s still very nascent. We are going to see so much more of that in the next decade plus.
Jim: Overall, are you optimistic or pessimistic about sponsorships and partnerships remaining an important marketing tool for brands and important revenue stream for properties?
Tony: That’s the easiest question you’ve posed! I’m very optimistic. The focus now is on relationship, experience and engagement, and sustaining all of that. While traditional media is an important component of that equation, it is not the driver.
Sponsorships, assets and the activation of those assets are the driver of experience, relationship and engagement. We are realizing as a marketing collective that we need to understand “you.” That is why there are so many mechanisms for one-to-one relationships between brand and consumer. We need to understand where your affinities are. Once we understand what predominantly our audience has an affinity for, whether that’s bowling, barbecue, basketball or ballet, it’s so much easier to give you what you want and develop a relationship with you.
We know you like barbecue? We can give you barbecue content and access. We can take you to barbecue experiences. And we can have our brand name all over barbecue festivals across the nation.
Sponsorship is going to become more and more part of the marketing mix. It’s becoming much more sophisticated relative to data analytics leading to the right properties, the right assets and the right activation.
Jim: I can’t let you go without asking a question you just hinted at with the reference to data and data analytics and we mentioned return on investment earlier. Would you give a passing grade to sponsors for how well they do at understanding how their partnerships are performing?
Tony: I’m glad you put it as pass/fail as opposed to a grade. I would give the industry—by which I mean properties, brands, agencies and the third-party measurement companies—a passing grade.
You and I have been doing this a long time and I have seen some measurement tools, methodologies and results that were just not in any way associated with reality. Just because so many eyeballs could have seen that courtside sign on TV and that would equate to $32 million of value does not mean that sign is worth $32 million. For someone to publish that, it’s just not realistic or meaningful.
Jim: Or helpful.
Tony: Or helpful. But there are a handful of new agencies in that space with new technologies and new methodologies, such as Block Six Analytics (Excel Sports Management) and Trajektory, that are doing some really cool things that are grounded in reality and with methodologies that are helpful for the teams, the brands and the agencies.
There is a collective understanding that we need data, that we need more data and that we need efficient, authentic data.