Meeting Next Gen Challenges Facing Sports
Meka joined the Twins in August 2021, shortly after being named to Sports Business Journal’s “Forty Under 40” list. Prior to the Twins, she was Chief Revenue Officer for Tappit, the global payment and data ecosystem for events, sports stadia and venues. She successfully led the company’s business expansion into North America, landing deals with the Kansas City Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars and San Antonio Spurs, to name a few, while striking a strategic partnership with Learfield.
Prior to her time with Tappit, Meka built an extensive track record of success working in sales-focused leadership roles for Learfield, Legends Hospitality, Live Nation Entertainment, the Charlotte Hornets, the Oakland Raiders and the Cleveland Cavaliers. A native of Boston, Massachusetts, she graduated from the University of Kansas, where she was a track and field athlete for the Jayhawks. Her late father, Boston Celtics legend Jo Jo White, had a stellar 12-year NBA career and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.
Meka joined podcast host Jim Andrews to explore how teams, leagues, venues and events can prepare for growth by updating their approach to fan engagement, hiring and diversity, equity and inclusion. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: Looking across all of the aspects of the business that a sports organization CRO such as yourself is responsible for, what are the top three big-picture challenges facing teams and venues?
Meka: Every market is different in what they experience and what their needs are, but there are some common threads that we all experience. One is attracting and retaining top talent. Coming out of Covid, that is continuing to be a challenge across the industry.
People have recognized the need for life/work balance. The sports industry in particular, puts a great deal of demand on people’s time, whether it’s in the office or serving events. People have circled the wagons and are seeking balance, potentially wanting to work from home more and are less likely to leave the comfort of places they know to relocate.
Number two is how do we come back from Covid. How do we reposition and invite people back to our properties and buildings and make sure that they feel safe, comfortable and protected?
Third is diversification of our fan bases. How do we get younger, more diverse fans into stands across sports? How do we create a scenario that is approachable regardless of socio-economic background, race, gender, creed, sexual orientation, etc.?
Jim: How critical is new technology to meeting those challenges, in particular the ability to access fan data and the insights that come from it?
Meka: The most important thing we can do as an industry is understand our consumer. That doesn’t mean you know Meka Morris has four season tickets to the Minnesota Twins. It means you know I am a Black woman, you know how old I am, you know where I live, you know I am married, you know I have kids, you know I give away half of my tickets to my neighbor and you know who she is and how she comes to games, you know I love chardonnay and I love popcorn, you know I always buy a hot dog in the first inning and a hamburger in the second.
That data is vital, not only to attracting more people to the ballpark and getting them to come more often, but also getting them to spend more while they are there. How can you encourage fans with special offers if you don’t know anything about their consumer behavior? If I drink chardonnay and you send me an offer for beer, that’s not going to encourage me.
The smarter we can get about our fan base, the more revenue we can drive. And that’s not aggregated data through surveys. It’s real-time data captured live in the moment that you can use to deliver customized consumer experiences while people are in the ballpark.
The closer we can get to that, the more we can attract new customers, retain existing customers and get them to do more while they are with us.
Jim: In general, what grade would you give to the sports business in terms of how well we are capturing those insights?
Meka: There are exceptions to every rule and there are teams and properties that are allowing for the aggregation of data in a meaningful way. I would say we are largely fifty-fifty. Sports properties are drowning in data but they are starving for insights. There are so many tools that can give you data, but what does that data mean and how do I manage my business against it? How can I use the data in the near-term and long-term to drive and maximize revenue? That’s what we are ultimately responsible for.
Those properties going touchless and cashless and forcing the use of mobile wallets are getting real-time data about your customers, but how you use that for the benefit of the property is where the gap is. The organizations doing it well are few and far between. Most have data and think they have checked the proverbial box, but they haven’t aggregated and maximized that data to drive incremental value to their business.
Jim: The other side of that are the sponsors who are seeking those insights so they can conduct better activations and ultimately sell more products and services. Are the Twins doing anything in that area to share some of those insights with your corporate partners?
Meka: We are down a path to do more. We do share as much as we can, but there is an opportunity for us to get better in terms of the data and how we aggregate it, and then on the back end how we share it with our partners. We have historically over-indexed on partner satisfaction and if we can crack the code on the ability to share that data with partners it will only increase that positive feeling that sponsors have about us today. We are well underway to creating a plan and a strategy to help do some of that.
Jim: In our recent conversation, you stated that the sports business has to change and we spoke about three areas in particular that I’d like to explore further. The first is external: meeting the changing needs of ticket buyers. What do we need to do there?
Meka: As much as we can create great experiences in the live events industry, the biggest difference between now and when I went to my first ball game with my family is that events today are consumed through the mobile device. Everyone is on their phone.
We live in a world of immediate gratification. People want to press a button and purchase. They crave immediacy. Sports by its nature—and in particular baseball—may not give you immediacy. You can have two or three innings where no one even gets on base. We have to find a way to create immediacy and engage people despite what’s happening on the field of play. The entertainment value of sport has to evolve. What’s happening on the field is no longer enough in some cases.
There has to be a balance between fans who are purists and an entirely new generation who may not have grown up as baseball, football, basketball or hockey fans. Just because you didn’t grow up a fan, doesn’t mean you can’t have an amazing time at a game if we build the game—and the experience around it—to entertain.
We have to think of ourselves more as entertainment companies and less as basketball teams or football teams. We are there to entertain people and allow them to take their minds off their pressures and other things going on around them. In order to do that, we have to ensure they stay engaged the entire time they are in our facilities.
Jim: The next two are internal. The first is rethinking some traditional ideas about sales staff and the second is about having a true commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. I’d love for you to share your thoughts on both of those.
Meka: When I started in this business, there was a certain way you had to present yourself as a business development or any other type of executive. You were in at 7 a.m. and didn’t leave until after the game, every game. That was the way you got into this business and how you grew in it.
If nothing else, Covid has proven that there is a way to work and be extremely successful in an environment that is not akin to what it was twentysomething years ago. That’s not saying that passion and commitment isn’t at the core of how we are successful. But we have to recognize there is a new way of working and we can never go back. We can only move forward.
The idea that the sports industry is going to return to normal is a misnomer. We are going to evolve to what the new normal is. In that vein, we have to be more thoughtful and flexible in how we recruit and retain talent. People have recognized the importance of home, family and community in a way they never have before. As someone looking to recruit sales and other executives, I have to think about am I willing to forego the best talent in the world because they are uncomfortable relocating to a new city?
As an industry we have to look past the rigid constraints we have put on the business and picture a world where, for example, you can sell sponsorship for a team and not necessarily live in that market. You need to know about the market; you need to be willing to travel, but we have to think about an alternative approach.
I’m not anticipating a hard swing to where no one lives in the city of the team they work for. The best-case scenario is to have your people in market, but as sports leaders we have to be willing to think outside of the box.
Jim: The idea of not going back and only moving forward also applies to DE&I. Can you speak to the importance of a commitment to DE&I for sports organizations?
Meka: It’s important because it’s been proven that a diverse workforce is more profitable, plain and simple. The world is becoming more diverse. If we don’t find a way to attract everybody into the facilities and properties we serve, your fan base will be superseded by a group of people you haven’t tapped into.
The only way to find out how to present a game experience that attracts a diverse fan base is to have members of that population within your organization. Historically, sports has not done a good job of that. People tend to hire and want to work alongside people they are most comfortable with. And those are people who are like you, who come from where you come from, think like you think, look like you, etc. That served its purpose for a time, but now we have to stretch ourselves.
If you aren’t uncomfortable at some point in your day because you are around or speaking to someone who isn’t like you—and is forcing you to stretch your thinking—you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem. We have to be willing to hear some uncomfortable things. We have to be willing to have someone in the room who might wholeheartedly disagree with the approach you are taking because they have a sensibility that’s different from yours.
That’s how we get better. That’s how we press an industry forward as it relates to DE&I. There are a lot of people who don’t want to be uncomfortable and frankly it is holding the industry back. ii
Diversity isn’t something you do; it’s something you are. You can’t just be diverse on the weekdays and then go home to a homogenous community, go to your homogenous golf club, go to your kids’ games with other parents who look like you. Until it’s part of your DNA and part of who you are, you are never going to be able to deliver in the workplace the way this industry needs and deserves.
Jim: I can remember when the rooms where decisions were made, particularly in sports, were filled with nothing but straight, white men. When I think back on the missed opportunities because there weren’t other voices at the table bringing those important perspectives, it’s a real shame for many different reasons.
Meka: I would love to see someone at a university do research on organizations that had, as you said, nothing but straight, white men in the room and how they have fallen subject to challenges today versus those that figured out sooner that adding in new thoughts and new perspectives would put them ahead of the curve.
The organizations doing well are the ones who figured out that chess piece before the others. They’ve got diverse leadership, diverse ownership groups, etc. Those that have been resistant to change are feeling the consequences today and are having to recalibrate and do so genuinely, which can be very difficult at this point.
There’s a lot of work for all of us in sports to do. No one is just knocking it out of the park. There are challenges and issues across sports in a multitude of areas. But it starts with recognizing that the challenge exists. Once you recognize it, you can solve it. Folks have woken up and seen what’s in front of them and are doing what they can to rectify the situation.
Jim: One of the programs you have been involved with at the Twins is the Accelerator by Techstars, helping to advance startups at the intersection of technology, sports and entertainment. Can you tell us what that is all about and specifically how it connects to revenue and growth for the team?
Meka: I will not take an ounce of credit, because this was in existence before I joined the Twins. I will give all credit to (Twins owners) the Pohlad family and their continued commitment to investing in the community they serve, to understanding how to bring forth creativity and new ideas within the ecosystem of sport, and also to seeing the Twins beyond the field. It is undeniable that we are a baseball team, but we are also a beacon for this community and have a responsibility to it beyond the sport itself.
In thinking about it from that perspective, they realized there are a lot of companies spinning up technologies and other products and services that could be relevant to the business of sport that haven’t had the platform to showcase their solutions.
So we partnered with Techstars to launch the accelerator. We are now investing in 10 startups to help them build out technology that has relevant utility in sports and beyond. It’s an opportunity to infuse our organization’s thought-processes and mission with creativity and ingenuity from people on the front lines of driving the business of sports and sports tech forward from an innovation standpoint. It’s been energizing for all of us in the organization.